The Paradox of Discovery in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

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The Paradox of Discovery in Frankenstein

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the concept of "discovery" is paradoxical: initial discovery is joyful and innocent, but ends in misery and corruption. The ambitions of both Walton and Frankenstein (to explore new lands and to cast scientific light on the unknown, respectively) are formed with the noblest of intentions but a fatal disregard for the sanctity of natural boundaries. Though the idea of discovery remains idealized, human fallibility utterly corrupts all pursuit of that ideal. The corruption of discovery parallels the corruption inherent in every human life, in that a child begins as a pure and faultless creature, full of wonder, but hardens into a self-absorbed, grasping, overly ambitious adult. Only by novel's end does Walton recognize that he must abandon his own ambition (the mapping of previously uncharted land), out of concern for the precious lives of his crew.

The first two occurrences of the word "discovery" occur quite early in the novel, in Walton's first letter to his sister. He compares his feelings on the expedition to a child's joy (14). Walton reminds her of his uncle's large library of "discovery" literature (tales of seamen and adventurers), all of which he devoured as a child. He writes of his disappointment when his father forbade him, on his deathbed, to "embark in a seafaring life" (14). Walton later tells Frankenstein that his crew is on a "voyage of discovery"; it only at the mention of this word that Frankenstein agrees to board the ship (24).

Once on board, Frankenstein recounts his history. Frankenstein, too, was possessed by a youthful fixation: the desire to acquire scientific knowledge, and to create an indestructible...

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...ich may be described as a desperate addiction to discovery is a fine concept but a dangerous practice. Man's natural flaws debase any professed altruistic goal; all attempts at discovery are ultimately revealed to be corrupt, selfish, and misbegotten.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Brooks, Peter. "'Godlike Science/ Unhallowed Arts': Language, Nature,and Monstrosity". The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. Candace Ward. New York, Dover, 1994.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1987.

Stevenson, Leslie. The Study of Human Nature: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Walling, William A. Mary Shelley. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Wolff, Robert P. About Philosophy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

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