At the heart of mankind, there are certain rules by which society runs. These timeless laws or ethics cross cultural bounds in order to preserve life?s order and maintain a righteous standard. For example, almost all societies agree that it is immoral to kill another human being outside of self-defense. Christine Menefree of the School Library Journal defines ethics as the ?? moral principles by which a person is guided? (1). Many people develop their moral beliefs from their religious premises, but when applied to other influential aspects of life, these rules can become problematic.
In the pursuit of knowledge in today?s scientific world, there are many encounters of moral dilemmas and ethical debates. Although this seems like common knowledge, there was a time when scientific ethics were undefined. Certainly the philosophers of Galileo?s time did not concern themselves with the way that moral principles affected their research of the stars and cosmos. But, during the early nineteenth century, as scientists began making discoveries in chemistry, physics, and biology, many people began to wonder just where the ethical line should be drawn.
Mary Shelley wrote during this time of social and scientific upheaval. Scientists like Erasmus Darwin and Humphrey Davy were making constant improvements in the field. Davy?s comment on the surge of this new discipline and the controversial development of Galvanism reveals that the surge of science has made way for the possible recreation of life: ?The dim and uncertain twilight of discovery, which gave to objects false or indefinite appearances, has been succeeded by the steady light of truth, which has shown the external world in its distinct forms, and in its true relations to human powers. The composition of the atmosphere, and the properties of the gases have been ascertained; the phenomena of electricity have been developed; the lightnings have been taken from the clouds; and lastly, a new influence has been discovered, which has enabled man to produce from combinations of dead matter effects which were formerly occasioned only by animal organs? (218). This leading scientist recognized the power that electricity had in creating and sustaining life. His findings, along with many other contributors, lead to the trend of electrifying matter to reanimate it, also known as Galvanism. These discoveries are obvious influences in Shelley?s novel through her main character, Victor Frankenstein, and his questionable work to build a being and risk bringing it to life via Galvanism.
When scientists first studied Galvanism with frogs and other animals, they were thought of as relatively benign. But, as they extended their range from frogs to humans, scientists began to be perceived as evil. Society sensed that there was something wrong with this experimentation. This disturbance marked the beginning of the ethics conflict in science. It is from this conflict that Mary Shelley?s Frankenstein originates and becomes a catalyst for her warning about the tremendous power of science in the feeble hands of mankind.
Beyond the obvious inquiries into the ethics of Galvanism, question arose from a religious standpoint. As mentioned earlier, religion has always been a source for morals and ethics, but before the nineteenth century, science and faith were of the same realm. The clergy performed most of the experimentation and all theories supposedly ??led one?s thoughts to the Great First Cause (Cannon 3).? But slowly, science grew further apart from religion and the church. As new theories rose and were proven, the line grew darker still and made the two branches enemies of one another, competing for the beliefs of the people. This is evident in Shelley?s novel when Frankenstein inherently knows that creating life is a questionable effort, yet because he is so driven by curiosity and his discoveries in Galvanism, he ignores the religious norms and continues to play God.
Frankenstein?s use of Galvanism was an excellent example of how the two areas diverged. While science wished to push on and discover how electricity and muscles worked together, morality struggled with the use of body parts of animals and humans. It seemed inhumane to use parts of a dead animal, let alone a living one, to toy with. It wasn?t natural and didn?t seem to contribute to the greater good. In fact, it appeared to be sacrilegious in that it disturbed the order in which God made things.
Shelley, living in this era, noticed the speed with which powerful scientific developments were being shaped. When confronted with the challenge of writing a horror story, Shelley took the opportunity to address many social issues, one being ethics in science. In Frankenstein, the scientist Victor aligns him self with the scientific world and is made a symbol of immorality by making a creature out of parts of corpses. He admits to the origins of the components of his project. ?The dissecting room and the slaughter house furnished many of my materials?(Shelley 59).? But beyond the disassembling of other creatures, Frankenstein delves much deeper into the unethical chasm, directly tackling religious beliefs. He creates life.
?When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it?. I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organization; but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man? (Shelley 57). Frankenstein successfully recreates life and
produces a monster. Horrified by what he has done, he abandons the creature and it, in turn, leads a doomed life. The unwanted creature doesn?t have a loving parent to teach and nurture him. In search of attention and affection, the monster kills multiple people close to his maker and threatens to murder more unless his creator provides him with a mate, a provider of love. Lastly, the beast kills Frankenstein, fulfilling the fate of his immoral beginning. Through this end, Shelley emphasizes her main point that only evil has come of Frankenstein?s tampering with nature and God?s work.
Shelley also employs the narrator?s point of view, in addition to Frankenstein?s quest for power, to exemplify the value of life over discovery. When R. Walton, the narrator and captain of the ship that finds Frankenstein, faces the decision of forging ahead in dangerous weather or turning back to avoid the risk of death Frankenstein shows that even after all that he has been through, he still ignores society?s ethics. He fervently lectures the sailors by saying that they cannot turn back now after the lengths they have reached regardless of the certain death they might face. ?Be steady to your purposes, and firm as a rock? (183). Shelley shows metaphorically that society most likely will ignore her warning of the drive of science over the value of human life through Frankenstein?s persistence in the voyage?s continuance. She does, although, contrast her main character?s idiocy and disregard with R. Walton?s safe and moral decision to save the lives of his crew and turn around. The distinction between the two exemplifies what is and is not ethical- Shelley?s intention in writing the novel.
While Shelley did not specifically make the parallel that creating life will lead to murder and chaos, she is, however, alluding to the fact that Frankenstein overstepped his bounds. She shows that one must be ethical when working in the sciences. Frankenstein was amoral when he decided to take over God?s role and create life. Shelley reveals that man cannot successfully manipulate nature or God. She accurately foreshadows science following this dangerous route and warned society of it.
The impact of her message was at once effective. In an immediate criticism of Shelley?s work, it is plainly seen that the message has been received. ?We are accustomed, happily, to look upon the creation of a happy and intelligent being as a work that is fitted only to inspire a religious emotion, and there is an impropriety, to say no worse, in placing it in any other light. It might, indeed, be the author?s view to shew that the powers of man have been wisely limited, and that misery would follow their extension, – but still the expression ?Creator, ? applied to a mere human being, gives us the same sort of shock with the phrase, ?The Man Almigty,? and others of the same kind? All these monstrous conceptions are the consequences of the wild and irregular theories of the age; though we do not at all mean to infer that the authors who give into such freedom have done so with any bad intentions? (Edinbeg 3). It is apparent that the literary community, first to read and comment on the work, saw the obvious negative light cast on Frankenstein?s degenerate act. They recognize the immorality of creating another being from their own religious beliefs. But, they also follow Shelley?s connection between boundless scientific experimentation and the possibility of chaos. However, the critics continue to analyze her text by excusing her for the fact that she may not have meant to give in to the scientific trend of the age. In reality, her use of science as a topic was purposeful. She intentionally took a relevant issue and intertwined it with a ghost story to convey her message to the public. Even today, Shelley?s example stands tall as a first warning.
The struggle between science and its elusive moral line exists more so in the world today than in Shelley?s era. ?Evidently, science is still struggling with Dr. Frankenstein?s failure, the inability to control nature, a characteristic only God seems to possess? (Smith 1). The human-genome project is a clear example of man once again tampering with the order of nature and humankind. Shelley?s admonition is constantly referred to more than one hundred years after it was written- a true measure of success. Hopefully, through Frankenstein, future readers will also heed Shelley?s counsel and will learn to respect the delicate relationship between man and science.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin?s, 2000.
Smith, John. ?Mary Shelley?s Frankenstein: A Formalist Perspective.? Online posting. October 23, 2000. .