Consequences of Selfishness: Historical Allusions within Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

by Jessica P. Ramos, University of Florida

“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity… If this rule were always observed… Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.” (Shelley 53-54)

Despite centuries having passed since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), its handling of human nature has ensured its place within the literary canon. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is found under mysterious circumstances by the captain of a ship, Robert Walpole. He is nursed back to health and eventually entrusts Robert with the story of how he came to be where he is, revealing that it all started with a scientific experiment to give life to the nonliving. In the middle of his story, he breaks free from his narrative in order to directly address Robert, who is listening to him. The above quote is taken from this address; the placement and meaning of the chosen allusions emphasize a possible motive behind Victor’s sharing of the story with Robert, while also implying a grander message from Shelley to her readers.

Though it is emphasized throughout the novel that Victor is more of a scientific man than a cultural one, the chosen allusions in this excerpt refer exclusively to events in history that had negative effects on culture. Using words such as “enslaved,” “would have spared,” “discovered more gradually,” and “not been destroyed” suggests that Victor disagrees with how these historic events have played out: though not a literal form of “enslavement,” when the Greeks became a part of the Roman Empire, many of their original copper sculptures were destroyed; Julius Caesar’s assumption of a dictatorship stripped the people of their democracy; the desperation to obtain new land in the Americas led to the mass death of the native people; ancient empires were completely obliterated in the quest for power. All of these examples portray the loss of culture due to the ambition of another sovereignty. The decision to focus on the cultural advances of society rather than the scientific suggests that one holds greater importance over the other, even in the eyes of this genius scientist. By comparing his situation to these iconic events, Victor suggests that his desperation to fulfill his own curiosity led to consequences that are just as historically poignant as those he alludes to, implying that his mistake is just as damning to the course of human history. In the sentence following this quote, Victor admits to “moralizing” within his own story, meaning that he is giving Robert his present opinion on the topic of passion in relation to collective society. At the same time, these allusions help set the foundation for the ongoing juxtaposition of science and nature throughout the course of the novel; science brings about ambition, stress, and selfish consequence, while nature and the liberal arts (often in the form of Henry Clerval) bring about tranquility, comfort, and peace of mind.

By breaking out of his role as storyteller and addressing Robert directly, Victor interjects his present thoughts regarding his past actions. Before this narrative interruption, Victor is recounting how he became so devoted to his desire to create life that he began ignoring everything else—including his family. When he resumes his storytelling, he admits to being “checked by [his] anxiety,” “oppressed by a slow fever,” and “nervous to a most painful degree” (Shelley 54). This emphasizes the negative effects of the reckless passion Victor entertained in order to satiate his curiosity. Before Victor begins retelling his story, he tells Robert, “the strange incidents connected to [my tale] will afford a view of nature, which may enlarge your faculties and understanding” (Shelley 25). This preface to his story solidifies the idea that the breaches in narration serve as direct addresses to Robert himself, but this only leads to another question: why must a character who hardly has anything to do with the main events of the story be addressed in the first place?

Victor’s narrative is framed by Robert’s letters in order to further imply a particular reading of the text. Robert’s opening letter states that “[his] life might have been passed in ease and luxury; but [he] preferred glory to every enticement,” therefore sharing the same passionate drive as Victor (Shelley 10). When he later gets to converse with the man, he admits that he wants a companion who is “wiser and more experienced than [himself], to confirm and support [him]” (Shelley 24). This desire to fulfill a single, long-term goal, while receiving confirmation and support from peers is not uncommon and is in fact a common facet of human nature. Like Robert, the readers of the novel are listening to the tale of Frankenstein; when Victor breaks his narrative to “moralize” with Robert, he is also addressing the reader and warning them to be careful of what they allow to have control over their lives. During a time when the Romantic love for nature was being replaced by the rapid development of science, Mary Shelley used this novel as a medium through which she could express her thoughts on the changing world around her. In Frankenstein, human curiosity leads to the destruction of the innocent, just as human selfishness led to the deterioration of human culture in her chosen historical allusions. By comparing curiosity to selfishness within the debate of nature versus industrialism, Shelley raises moralistic questions about human nature itself that remain unanswered even to this day.

Source:

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. Simon & Schuster, 2004.