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In Mary Shelley’s classic horror story Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein is an ambitious scientist who is fascinated by the creation of life. In his studies, he discovers “the secret of life.” Dr. Frankenstein makes a scientific breakthrough in his creation of the monster, but at what cost? He conducts this gruesome experiment in secrecy without consulting others, and with no consideration of the possible consequences. Frankenstein creates the monster to feed his insatiable desire to make a new life. Consequently, his creation goes on a vengeful murder spree over the course of the next few years. Though Frankenstein is a work of fiction, it brings up very real, crucial questions about ethical responsibility in scientific study. Harmful scientific experiments can not be justified for the sake of new knowledge and discovery; ethics and morality must be paramount in the decisions made by scientists.
Although Frankenstein is infused with the exhilaration of seemingly unbounded human creativity, it also prompts serious reflection about our individual and collective responsibility for taking responsibility for the products of our creativity and imposing constraints on our capacities to alter the natural world around us. The primary example of an unethical action is seen in Victor Frankenstein. His constant refusal to take responsibility plague both his life and the lives of those around him after he constructs and then animates his creature. Victor is in a never-ending flux of negative emotions. He turns his creation into a monster both physically and mentally. It is only after his constant rejection of the monster that the creation begins and continues to wreak havoc and destruction around Victor’s close circle of loved ones. The initial moment of life is the pivotal time where Victor has the power to turn his creation into either angel or a daemon. Victor allows the “horror and disgust” which filled his heart to control his actions. Rather than taking responsibility for the life he had just given, Victor spurns the monster and it is this unscrupulous act that sets forth the dire actions of the monster.
Science is, by its very nature, an exploration of new frontiers, a means to discover and test new ideas, and an impetus for paradigm shifts. Science is equated with progress and with advances in knowledge and understanding of our world and ourselves. Although a basic tenet of science is to question, there is an underlying belief, embedded in words like “advances” and “progress,” that science will better our lives. Safeguards, protocols, and institution approvals by committees educated in the horrible and numerous examples of unethical experiments done in the name of science are used to prevent a lone wolf-like Victor Frankenstein from undertaking his garret experiments. It is impossible to predict all of the consequences of our current and future scientific and technological advances. Frankenstein is not only the first creation story to use scientific experimentation as its method, but it also presents a framework for narratively examining the morality and ethics of the experiment and experimenter.
The creature cannot fix his deformity, and thus clearly shows the wrath from others. Shelley expresses the monster’s mindset by revealing his inner thoughts, for instance, when he says “Finding myself unsympathetic with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction…I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me, and sent me forth to this insupportable misery”. In declaring the “everlasting war against the species” Shelley confirms that the creature does not correlate with humans because of the feared rejection of the differences between him and other species. Shelley’s interpretation of human nature is one of the complexities of social and personal interaction, and the look of impenetrable crime and awareness of a monstrosity viewed by its transgressors. Perhaps the differences of morality and science could be defined in parallel stories within the novel, one attempting to discover the secret of life and death, and the other attempting to reveal the secrets of abnormalities. It is noticed that Victor Frankenstein is enthralled by science in the physical world, so he embarks on an experiment that forever changes his life. In a way, it can be noticed that Victor Frankenstein is trying to play God. He wants to discover the unknown, and clarify the mysteries of creation; the mysteries behind life and death.
Shelley gives the monster a personality that has many dimensions and he carries adverse and favorable qualities. His negative qualities only appear after he is repeatedly abandoned and neglected. This raises the assumption that it is not Victor’s animation of the patchwork body that is necessarily the cause of such evil, but rather it is Victor’s neglectful and cruel behavior towards his creation that causes the damage. Shelley diverts focus away from the common arguments of morality and the issue of “not playing God” and chooses to divert the focus on the ethical problems of the individual. Victor becomes “the wretch – the miserable monster whom he created”; he is referring to the monster, however, he could be speaking of himself as well.
Not only does Victor shirk from his responsibilities, but he also allows others to assume the responsibilities for his dangerous choices. This paucity of ethics results in the deaths of his loved ones, deaths he could have presumably prevented if he had followed through with his accountability. One of the most blatant examples of the wrongs of embodying passive ethics is seen during the accusation, trial, and execution of Justine Moritz. It is Victor’s refusal to own up to his unethical behavior that allows the innocent Justine to be killed for a horrendous crime, a crime that Victor is more rightly accountable for. Victor fancies himself “wretched” and he becomes so lost in his self-pity that he distances himself from all ethical propriety.
It could be argued that Victor is at the pinnacle of his ethical progress when he abandons everything to adopt the widely unethical action of revenge. It is only after he finally reveals his secret to someone that he confesses that his “rage is unspeakable when I reflect that the murderer, whom I have turned loose upon society, still exists”. Victor now puts the safety and well-being of others before himself. He vows to “devote himself, either in his life or death, to the monster’s destruction”. Victor has at length learned from his arrogance, pride, obsession, and blindness. Victor imitates his father when he gives sound advice to Walton. He tells him to “learn from my miseries, and do not seek to increase your own”. Yet Victor still has not learned from his mistakes. When the ship’s situation becomes increasingly dire and the crew wants to return to England should a break in the ice occur, Victor blasts them for cowardice and shames them not possessing “strong enough to endure cold and peril”. Yet Walton with his stronger set of ethics realizes that he must put a stop to his incessant desire for discovery that endangers the lives of his crew. He writes to his sister “could I, injustice or even possibility, refuse this demand?”. Walton puts the lives of those in his trust above his obsession, thereby making a clear distinction between himself and Victor. Shelley shows how a person triumphs when he or she acts in a just manner.
Shelley closes the novel by illustrating the principal distinction between the ethical Walton and all others for Walton is the only person to show the monster compassion. After seeing the “appalling hideousness” of the monster Walton still calls him back as the monster is about to escape. The monster points out the hypocrisy of humanity’s ethics. He says “Am I to be thought the only criminal when all humankind sinned against me? Why do you not hate Felix, who drove his friend from his door with contumely? Why do you not execrate the rustic who sought to destroy the savior of his child?”. When the Monster says this makes his “blood boil” Shelley may be also speaking for herself as she gives readers these instances of wild injustice that they must strive to never enact themselves.
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