Discuss the role of innocence in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, innocence is destroyed by all that Victor Frankenstein does when he plays God and creates life. Most of the educators at Victor's school believe that he is involving himself in the unethical pursuits of "science." Victor pays no attention to the cautionary advice he is offered: he only listens to Waldman, the professor who tells Victor what he wants to hear.
Victor discovers how to reanimate dead flesh—to give it life—forgetting everything else. Only when the creature wakes does Victor have regrets. He flees from the creature, which, like a newborn child, must try to survive in a world that abhors him because of how he looks. The monster is very lonely, and (unknowingly) meets Victor's younger brother, William. He believes a child would not have had the opportunity to hate that which looks unpleasant—for this is something learned from society. However, William is frightened and threatens him.
‘Hideous monster! let me go. My papa is a Syndic—he is M. Frankenstein— he will punish you. You dare not keep me.’
‘Frankenstein! you belong then to my enemy—to him towards whom I have sworn eternal revenge; you shall be my first victim.’
The creature plants a miniature portrait on Justine who is out searching for William, as she is sleeping in a barn. When she is found, the miniature is used (as the creature intended) to implicate Justine in the child's murder. Upon her execution, the creature has destroyed yet another innocent victim.
The creature convinces Victor to make a mate for him so that he will no longer be alone. He promises that he and his mate will abandon society and live in the wilderness where they will never see humans again. Victor agrees, feeling remorse: it is, after all, his responsibility for creating the monster and leaving him alone in the world. However, as Victor works, he becomes so disgusted by what he is doing, that he takes all the materials he has gathered and throws them away. Seeing this, the creature strikes again: the next innocent victim is Clerval. After a storm, Victor is found close to an unidentified corpse. Brought in front of the judge, it is seeing the identity of the victim that causes Victor to collapse, senseless:
The examination, the presence of the magistrate and witnesses, passed like a dream from my memory, when I saw the lifeless form of Henry Clerval stretched before me. I gasped for breath; and, throwing myself on the body, I exclaimed, “Have my murderous machinations deprived you also, my dearest Henry, of life?"
Finally, though the monster warns Victor that he will be with him on his wedding night, Victor marries Elizabeth anyway. And as promised, on that night the creature kills Victor's bride. Victor begins his quest to kill the monster at that moment.
Victor loved all of these people. They knew nothing of the creature—they were innocents. However, at one time Victor was an innocent young man also, but pursued forbidden and dangerous knowledge, that robbed him of his innocence. Victor leaves his innocence behind. The others are innocent victims of Victor's work.
It may be noted that Walton, who listens to Victor tell his story, is ready to take innocent lives in his quest to discover new arctic territories. However, Victor's experiences stop Walton: he does not sacrifice the innocent for his personal gain. And he lives.
Representative of Romanticism, the innocent personages of the unselfish and trusting Elizabeth Lavenza and Henry Clerval, who love people, beauty and nature, stand in marked contrast to the representative of Science, the proud, arrogant, and self-serving Victor Frankenstein.
As he recounts his history to Robert Walton, Victor admits early in tale that he has always been "deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge" and was "indifferent to his schoolfellows"(Ch.II) When he enters school in Ingolstadt, Victor is angered by the professors who criticize the old natural philosophers that he has read, and despite his further enlightenment, he clings to his belief in Agrippa and holds a "contempt for the uses of modern philosophy" (Ch.III). He admits, "My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement";obdurately and arrogantly, then, he pursues the secrets of life,
So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—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. (III)
However, after seeing the horror of his creation, Victor becomes ill with the realization of what he has created and his fear of exposure. It is only love and "the unbounded and unremitting attentions" of his friend Henry, who symbolizes the Romanticist, that restore him to health. Nevertheless, Victor hides his terrible secret from Henry, a concealment that causes Henry's tragic death. Likewise, Victor is responsible for the death of beauty as he further sacrifices his beloved Elizabeth to the wrath of his created aberration, the living form of Victor's scientific overreaching. For, he has been warned by the creature of the consequences of his failure to provide a mate for his creation.
Clearly, Victor Frankenstein's scientific ambitions take precedence over his human sympathies for innocent loved ones, thus exemplifying the damaging effects of allowing science to supersede human emotions and love for Nature, ideas espoused by the Romantics. Thus, the role of Innocence is that of Romanticism, the belief and pursuit of which is more wholesome, natural, and fulfilling than that of the dangerous and unnatural Science.