At the end of chapter two, Victor Frankenstein, who is narrating his story to Walton, left us with an ominous note of impending doom: “Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.” Having had his early fascination with the medieval alchemists shattered, Victor found that he was more at ease and better able to enjoy his days. But as he notes forebodingly, this was not to last.
In the first two chapters Victor recounted not only his fascination with the alchemists and their quest to unlock the secrets of nature and uncover the mysteries of life; he also recalled his idyllic childhood. In chapter three, he tells Walton of the first tragedy that befalls him and disturbs his earthly paradise, the death of his mother. He introduces this part of his story by framing it as “an omen, as it were, of my future misery.”
These instances of rather heavy-handed foreshadowing, and they are quite frequent, might come off as more than a little melodramatic and perhaps a fault of Shelley’s, but remembering that this is the voice of Frankenstein as he is relating his story to Walton suggests to me that these instances of ominous foreshadowing and invocations of dark fate operate instead as half-conscious justifications of his actions. It seems to me, in other words, that while he rues the desolation that has followed his actions, Victor is rather more resentful than repentant.
In any case, he tells of his mother’s untimely death from scarlet fever. She contracted the disease by attending, against the counsel of her loved ones, to Elizabeth, who had first fallen ill. Elizabeth recovers; Victor’s mother does not. Of course, she dies in the same saintly fashion that she lived, cheerfully resigned and thinking of others even in her last moments. Her parting words to Victor and Elizabeth reveal her long-held desire to see the two married. Soon thereafter she “died calmly.”
His mother’s death had postponed Victor’s departure for the university of Ingolstadt, but, after an appropriate time of mourning, Victor prepares once again to leave. He makes his goodbyes to Henry, Elizabeth, and his father. Henry, we are told, “deeply felt the misfortune of being debarred from a liberal education” by a merchant father who saw little to be gained from it; however, he remained resolved “not to be chained to the miserable details of commerce.”
Upon arriving at Ingolstadt, Victor introduces himself to a professor of natural philosophy named M. Krempe. Krempe informs Victor that the time he devoted to studying the old alchemists had been entirely wasted. Victor, of course, already suspected as much. Krempe tells Victor that he needs to start from scratch with his scientific education and gives him the name of a series of books with which to do so.
But Victor is disenchanted. He was contemptuous of the “uses of modern natural philosophy.” “It was very different,” he explains, “when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand: but now the scene was changed.” And, in his view, obviously not for the better. The earlier unattainable but grand ambitions of the alchemists fired his imagination; the viable but mundane workings of contemporary science were like a wet blanket. “I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur,” he complains, “for realities of little worth.”
This is an interesting passage in light of contemporary debates about the state of technological innovation. Frankenstein’s laments faintly echo the Techno Stagnation Angst of critics like Peter Thiel. Like Frankenstein, Thiel and others like him worry that we’ve lost our ability to imagine and actualize grand technological projects. And they’re disappointed with what we have accomplished, like the Internet, say.
But Victor is not disappointed for long. He meets another professor at Ingolstadt, one M. Waldman, who, while an accomplished practitioner of modern science, is not nearly so dismissive of the old alchemists as Krempe had been. Victor attends one of Waldman’s lectures and hears him praise the achievements of modern science in a way that manages to rekindle Victor’s imagination. He speaks, in a lingo we would readily recognize, of the “miracles” of modern science: “They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”
This is enough to reawaken Frankenstein’s ambitions: “So much has been done … more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” Frankenstein went on to meet with Waldman, who was happy to have “gained a disciple” and furnished Victor with all the books he required. Thus the day ended–a day that “decided my future destiny,” Victor proclaims.
In chapter four, we learn that over the course of the next two years, Frankenstein made astonishing progress in the sciences owing to his obsessive work ethic, easily eclipsing his fellow students and matching his professors in knowledge and skill. During this time, we also learn, Waldman became a “true friend” to Frankenstein. But it is the obsessive nature of Frankenstein’s work that is the focus of this chapter. He was eager and ardent in the pursuit of knowledge and frequently greeted the dawn still hard at work in his laboratory.
For a brief moment he considers returning home to visit his friends, but as he approaches a particular breakthrough, he changes his mind and remains at Ingolstadt. The breakthrough involved the origins of the “principle of life.” In order to explore this mystery, Frankenstein delves into the macabre: “To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.” He makes a study of human decomposition and of the forces of decay, and, in the midst of that darkness, “a sudden light” broke upon him, “a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple.”
Assuring Walton that these were not the recollections of a “madman,” he proclaims, “I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” But, of course, he will not reveal the nature of his discovery to Walton, even though, or especially because, he notices Walton’s eagerness, wonder, and hope. Instead, he reaffirms his call for Walton to take his experience as a cautionary tale: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
Frankenstein goes on to tell Walton about how he decided to create a human body so that he might animate it and become the father of a new species. “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through … A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” And, he adds, “I might, in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” Frankenstein sought the powers of creation and resurrection, and once again he set to his task obsessively.
With “breathless eagerness,” he “pursued nature to her hiding places.” He goes on to describe his dabbling among graves, torturing living animals, collecting bones, disturbing the “secrets of the human frame,” and all of this in isolation. Seasons came and went and he did not mark their beauty. The same urgency which made him unresponsive to the natural world led him to forget his friends and family. Only with preemptive defensiveness did he consider how his father might chide him for not writing.
Recalling this time, Frankenstein concludes,
“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. 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.”
Interestingly, Shelley has Frankenstein add to this advice the following consideration: “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.” A reminder perhaps, that Shelley is after something more here than simply a critique of technology (to put it anachronistically). Shelley, I think, is articulating a tragic vision of civilization’s unfolding. But, as I’m reading her at this juncture in the story, she is also suggesting that the root of this tragedy is a fragmentation of our knowledge of the world (and perhaps especially our “know-how”), our political or moral sense, and our aesthetic sense. Frankenstein’s descent, after all, coincides with an increasing isolation from both a community of friendship wherein the moral sense might be sustained and an increasing alienation from the beauty of the world around him.
In the next chapter, the Monster is born and things get interesting.