Free Essays: Frankenstein and the Enlightenment

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Many people say that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein postdates the Enlightenment; that it is a looking-back on the cultural phenomenon after its completion, and a first uncertain reaction to the movement. I must disagree. There is no "after the Enlightenment." A civilization does not simply stop learning. Where is the point at which someone stands up and says, "Okay, that's enough Enlightening for now, I think we're good for another few centuries"?

For better or for worse, the Enlightenment is still going on today. As the Information Age advances, we continue to invent and build. Exploration now reaches to the depths of the oceans and the nearer regions of space. We peer beyond the atom, beyond the sub-atomic particle, delving ever deeper into the secrets of science to find that ultimate point at which it converges with philosophy.

The question is: do we want to?

The picture on the cover of our edition of Frankenstein is Joseph Wright of Derby's An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump -- an appropriate scene, not only for how it recalls Shelley's mental state, but also for how well it illustrates precisely that doubt about the Enlightenment the novel was written to express. All around a table, at which a scientific experiment that harms a living creature is being conducted, are seated various people of differing social positions, and similarly differing reactions to the event at hand. A pair of inquisitive young men look on eagerly, a frightened woman turns her head away in abject horror, a young girl stares apprehensively, unsure of what to think. That young girl is us. And based on what we see in the air pump, we must decide whether we will become the frightened woman or the interested men.

I find little room to doubt that Shelley is trying to instill some sense of fear in her reader. For not only does Victor Frankenstein loathe his own creation -- and let us not be mistaken, the work of the doctor is without question a symbol for the larger body of work of all Enlightenment scientists, seeking knowledge they do not understand in order to perform tasks previously thought impossible -- but the creation curses himself as well, speaking of the grotesqueness of his appearance and admitting freely to having willfully done evil.

Perhaps in Shelley's mind this is indeed unspeakable. For my part, rather than view Frankenstein's monster as a symptom of the potential terror resulting from the advances of Enlightenment science, I look on it as a symptom as one of the advances made by Enlightenment philosophy.

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