In Mary Shelley's novel, how does Victor Frankenstein fail to act ethically?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Chapter III of Mary Shelley's classic of Gothic literature, Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus, the author presents a surprisingly eloquent and somewhat prescient argument with respect to the moral boundaries that should, perhaps, confine scientific experimentation the consequences of which could harbor ill for the whole of mankind. It is in this chapter that Shelley's protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, ponders, if only briefly, the ethics underlying his determined commitment to develop the means of reanimating dead tissue. As the physically and mentally exhausted figure of Frankenstein relates his tragic story to Robert Walton aboard the latter's ship in the frigid cold of the Arctic, he qualifies the tale that follows with a warning against the pursuit of knowledge in the absence of any sort of moral compass:

"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."

As Victor proceeds to tell Walton his story, he does note that he was initially hesitant to proceed:

"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 complete and wonderful as man."

So, Victor acknowledges that there are moral or ethical issues inherent in any effort at playing God, such as his efforts at bringing back to life that which was dead. That he is compelled by his fascination with his subject to ultimately reject the more sober considerations that should have curbed his enthusiasm, however, leads one to give this young, gifted scientist a failing grade in medical ethics. And, as Victor achieves his greatest scientific success, bringing to life the "wretch" that would prove the instrument of his doom, he realizes too late that he should have listened to that little voice telling him that just because he possesses the ability doesn't mean he should exercise it. Victor did not act ethically in his decision to blindly go forward with his experimentation, and he did not act ethically in summarily rejecting responsibility for the fruits of his efforts when he first gazes upon his creation -- a creation so horrific that he is terrorized by it despite being its "father."

One could argue that Victor failed again to act morally when he rejected the creature's plea for a female companion. The creature provides his creator a protracted history of his existence since being rejected at the university, and reveals he is a thinking, emotional being of considerable complexity. All this monster wanted was to be accepted into the company of men, but he is violently rejected solely on the basis of his appearance, just as had happened with Victor immediately following the latter's academic success. That Victor cannot allow himself to view his creation through the prism of a common humanity is not only unethical, but highly counterproductive, as the series of violent deaths that follow attest.

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