Good fiction should, above all, be read as a story, before tackling the deeper implication of the author’s ideas. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is no exception. I was paging through the book, appropriately enough, in the week before Halloween. There are many passages in Shelley’s horror novel that are full of beauty and insight and which hold their own with the great prose of that era. Take for example the scenes depicting the austere beauty of the Swiss alps. It is easy to identify with the need for remote solitude. By contrast, when Victor Frankenstein is traveling down the Rhine on his journey to the British Isles, his close friend Henry Clervel remarks
The mountains of Switzerland are more majestic and strange, but there is a charm in the banks of this divine river that I never before saw equaled… Oh, surely the spirit that inhabits and guards this place has a soul more in harmony with man than those who pile the glacier or retire to the inaccessible peaks of the mountains of our own country.
This was the generation that fell in love with the power of nature, albeit an idealized and often pantheistic one. It is a book of romantic fantasizing and psychological sturm und drang. But there are moments of humble common sense.
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 tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.
During his studies in Ingolstadt the young Frankenstein encounters a wise professor who tells him not to dismiss the works of older philosophers, as so many later rationalist thinkers were inclined to do. It is a lesson that every generation, it seems, has to re-learn:
These were men [says Prof. Waldman] to whose indefatigable zeal modern philosophers were indebted for most of the foundations of their knowledge. They had left to us, as an easier task, to give new names and arrange in connected classifications the facts which they in a great degree had been the instruments of bringing to light. The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.
In my next post I will delve into the moral and spiritual implications of Mary Shelley’s famous work of imaginative fiction.
Related post: Dr. Moreau and the Art of Storytelling