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Although the pursuit of knowledge can generally be seen as a good thing, the unrestricted pursuit of knowledge can often be dangerous and even immoral. For this reason, research pursued on human and even animal subjects in U. S. universities is now often closely monitored by (and must be preapproved by) review boards, and anyone hoping to conduct such research must take courses designed to familiarize them with ethical issues, federal guidelines, etc. Interestingly enough, many of these relatively new requirements may have been influenced by an awareness of ethical lapses and violations in the past, including (even) awareness of fictional lapses such as those depicted in Frankenstein.
This is of course an essential question to consider when studying this brilliant novel. I think that Shelley makes it clear that the search for knowledge, uninhibited by any boundaries and limits, is one that is fundamentally dangerous and can lead to moral and ethical consequences beyond our control and imaginings. This is still just as relevant today, as scientists threaten to "play God" and push back the boundaries of scientific discovery still further with seemingly little recognition or awareness of moral and ethical issues that are raised by such activity. I think we have been given brains and are expected to use them, but at the same time we need to apply common sense as to the natural limits of our human condition.
My opinion on scientific research like that done by Victor Frankenstein: Just because we can do something doesn't mean that we should do it. In recent years there have been all kinds of books, movies, and tv shows about genetic manipulation, inserting animal dna into human eggs, of creating super humans. Have you ever wondered whether somewhere in a hidden laboratory some "mad" scientist is already doing such research? What if these experiments fail to create super humans but instead produce creatures that are less than human, that are not quite human but not quite animal either? What moral issues would that raise? Would it be immoral to exterminate them? Too many what ifs!!
There have to be limits placed on everything we do. Generally, I believe most of us know those limitations. Whether we observe them or not is a different question. This is the case with Victor Frankenstein. He knows of the taboos and limits. He has been told by his professors. He knows enough to conduct his experiments in secret, as well as obtaining the materials he needs to build the creature. In some ways he is like a sleepwalker who does not realize (or does not want to realize...like a child) the implications—the extensive repercussions of his actions—until the deed is done. The old saying is, "Moderation in all things." This reminds us often not to overdo. It reminds us of limitations that are good for us. When moving in a direction that is new and the outcomes unknown, caution is the best stance to adopt. Without restrictions or guidelines, there is no guarantee that something dangerous might not come to light. In science, it might be a new strain of virus; with technology it could be the development of a new and powerful weapon. For Frankenstein, he plays God: he ignores the social, ethical and religious implications of his actions; only when it is too late, and the lives of the innocent are ultimately taken can the full extent of his actions be realized.
Almost anything without limits is potentially dangerous. The pursuit of knowledge is a lofty goal and practice; however, once it becomes the only goal, the all-consuming thing, the risks are great. Human emotions such as compassion and love are usurped by the quest for non-human things. Without these, there is little separating the knowledge-at-all-costs being from a machine. I'm thankful for those who pursue knowledge; however, those who make that their only goal pay a heavy price. Victor Frankenstein is a perfect example of that.
Victor Frankenstein's pursuit of knowledge without constraints is, of course, thematic to this novel and to others, as well. Frankenstein, like Fra Frollo of Victor Hugo's seminal novel, Notre Dame de Paris [The Hunchback of Notre Dame] who delves too far into alchemy, is likened by one of his associates to the fly who pursues the insect too far into the web and cannot escape, pursues science beyond the escape of his soul, as well.
Hugo, like Shelley, as a Romantic was concerned about the moral ramifications of the pursuit of science, feeling that there were areas of science in which man was not meant to enter, at least not without danger to his immortal soul. Like Fra Claude Frollo, Victor enters the spider web of science too far and is spiritually lost.
Our whole Western society is (one can argue) based on the pursuit of knowledge without limits. We have, in many ways, jettisoned our old ideas of religiously-based morality in favor of science. This has allowed us to pursue knowledge regardless of the moral consequences of that knowledge. We now know how to make nuclear weapons and nerve gas. We can determine the sex of an embryo and then abort it based on whether we want a boy or a girl. We have gone very far down this road of knowledge without taboos.
So, we cannot just say that this is bad. Our society has become what it is in part because we have rejected the old taboos. Having no taboos and limits is bad, but so is having too many taboos and limits. We have to find a happy medium.
Shelley and Frankenstein both make it clear that knowledge must not be persuaded without limits or bounds. Both Marlowe and Goethe made this same point clear in Doctor Faustus and Faust Parts I & II, respectively. Now exposed U.S. human experimentation during World War II and at other times graphically makes this point clear. Knowledge can not, must not, and may not be pursued in a manner or means that is free of ethical bounds and restraints.
In Shelley's Frankenstein, Victor's pursuit of knowledge (without any limits or taboos) is one embedded in the interest of science. One could justifiably argue that without obsessions such as Victor's, science would not be in the place where it is today.
Taking away the fact that he, a man, is able to give life, without being a woman, releases Victor from any taboos associated with religious thought. Another perspective regarding this is that Victor is able to do something that, to this point, only God has been able to do.
Taking away the taboo of one acting within the restraints of having a "God complex", one could look at the advantages of being able to re-animate life. Too many times doctors and emergency technicians have been a second to late in being able to restore life. Here, Victor is able to do just that.
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