Chapter IV

FROM THIS DAY natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, became nearly my sole occupation. I read with ardour those works, so full of genius and discrimination, which modern inquirers have written on these subjects. I attended the lectures, and cultivated the acquaintance, of the men of science of the university; and I found even in M. Krempe a great deal of sound sense and real information, combined, it is true, with a repulsive physiognomy and manners, but not on that account the less valuable. In M. Waldman I found a true friend. His gentleness was never tinged by dogmatism; and his instructions were given with an air of frankness and good nature that banished every idea of pedantry. In a thousand ways he smoothed for me the path of knowledge, and made the most abstruse inquiries clear and facile to my apprehension. My application was at first fluctuating and uncertain; it gained strength as I proceeded, and soon became so ardent and eager that the stars often disappeared in the light of morning whilst I was yet engaged in my laboratory.

As I applied so closely, it may be easily conceived that my progress was rapid. My ardour was indeed the astonishment of the students, and my proficiency that of the masters. Professor Krempe often asked me, with a sly smile, how Cornelius Agrippa went on? whilst M. Waldman expressed the most heartfelt exultation in my progress. Two years passed in this manner, during which I paid no visit to Geneva, but was engaged, heart and soul, in the pursuit of some discoveries, which I hoped to make. None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder. A mind of moderate capacity, which closely pursues one study, must infallibly arrive at great proficiency in that study; and I, who continually sought the attainment of one object of pursuit, and was solely wrapt up in this, improved so rapidly that, at the end of two years, I made some discoveries in the improvement of some chemical instruments which procured me great esteem and admiration at the university. When I had arrived at this point, and had become as well acquainted with the theory and practice of natural philosophy as depended on the lessons of any of the professors at Ingolstadt, my residence there being no longer conducive to my improvement, I thought of returning to my friends and my native town, when an incident happened that protracted my stay.

One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries. I revolved these circumstances in my mind, and determined thenceforth to apply myself more particularly to those branches of natural philosophy which relate to physiology. Unless I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm, my application to this study would have been irksome, and almost intolerable. To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death. I became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body. In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm. Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings. I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain. I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiæ of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret.

Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens, than that which I now affirm is true. Some miracle might have produced it, yet the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable. After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.

The astonishment which I had at first experienced on this discovery soon gave place to delight and rapture. After so much time spent in painful labour, to arrive at once at the summit of my desires was the most gratifying consummation of my toils. But this discovery was so great and overwhelming that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the result. What had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world was now within my grasp. Not that, like a magic scene, it all opened upon me at once: the information I had obtained was of a nature rather to direct my endeavours so soon as I should point them towards the object of my search, than to exhibit that object already accomplished. I was like the Arabian who had been buried with the dead, and found a passage to life, aided only by one glimmering, and seemingly ineffectual, light.

I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery. 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.

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. Although I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation, yet to prepare a frame for the reception of it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins, still remained a work of inconceivable difficulty and labour. I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organisation; 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. The materials at present within my command hardly appeared adequate to so arduous an undertaking; but I doubted not that I should ultimately succeed. I prepared myself for a multitude of reverses; my operations might be incessantly baffled, and at last my work be imperfect: yet, when I considered the improvement which every day takes place in science and mechanics, I was encouraged to hope my present attempts would at least lay the foundations of future success. Nor could I consider the magnitude and complexity of my plan as any argument of its impracticability. It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being. As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large. After having formed this determination, and having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began.

No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.

These thoughts supported my spirits, while I pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardour. My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement. Sometimes, on the very brink of certainty, I failed; yet still I clung to the hope which the next day or the next hour might realise. One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I had dedicated myself; and the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? My limbs now tremble and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless, and almost frantic, impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit. It was indeed but a passing trance that only made me feel with renewed acuteness so soon as, the unnatural stimulus ceasing to operate, I had returned to my old habits. I collected bones from charnel-houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation: my eye-balls were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.

The summer months passed while I was thus engaged, heart and soul, in one pursuit. It was a most beautiful season; never did the fields bestow a more plentiful harvest, or the vines yield a more luxuriant vintage: but my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature. And the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me also to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time. I knew my silence disquieted them; and I well remembered the words of my father: “I know that while you are pleased with yourself, you will think of us with affection, and we shall hear regularly from you. You must pardon me if I regard any interruption in your correspondence as a proof that your other duties are equally neglected.”

I knew well, therefore, what would be my father's feelings; but I could not tear my thoughts from my employment, loathsome in itself, but which had taken an irresistible hold of my imagination. I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed.

I then thought that my father would be unjust if he ascribed my neglect to vice, or faultiness on my part; but I am now convinced that he was justified in conceiving that I should not be altogether free from blame. A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to 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. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Cæsar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.

But I forget that I am moralising in the most interesting part of my tale; and your looks remind me to proceed.

My father made no reproach in his letters, and only took notice of my silence by inquiring into my occupations more particularly than before. Winter, spring, and summer passed away during my labours; but I did not watch the blossom or the expanding leaves—sights which before always yielded me supreme delight—so deeply was I engrossed in my occupation. The leaves of that year had withered before my work drew near to a close; and now every day showed me more plainly how well I had succeeded. But my enthusiasm was checked by my anxiety, and I appeared rather like one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines, or any other unwholesome trade, than an artist occupied by his favourite employment. Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree; the fall of a leaf startled me, and I shunned my fellow-creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime. Sometimes I grew alarmed at the wreck I perceived that I had become; the energy of my purpose alone sustained me: my labours would soon end, and I believed that exercise and amusement would then drive away incipient disease; and I promised myself both of these when my creation should be complete.

Footnotes

  1. Frankenstein returns to the present in order to beg Walton to embrace daily life instead of recklessly seeking fulfillment and satisfaction in discovery and science. Shelley again shows readers how the two men are similar, including their obsession with knowledge and glory. However, notice how words like “dangerous” and “allow” suggest that ambitious men, like Frankenstein, are ultimately doomed for their hubris.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. We now clearly see Frankenstein’s arrogance and ambition. While in retrospect he knows that life and death are too complicated to be manipulated by science, in this moment he lacks wisdom to see the truth behind his blind ambition. Light and dark appear again, representing knowledge and ignorance as well as good and evil. Frankenstein wishes to bring light (knowledge) into the world, but he cannot control it and, as we’ll see, he doesn’t know how to properly deal with his creation or the consequences of his actions.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. Frankenstein’s desire to bring “light into our dark world” reveals him to be like the Greek Titan Prometheus, who first gave fire to humanity and betrayed the will of the gods. For this, Prometheus was punished. We’ll soon see the consequences of Frankenstein’s actions. Furthermore, words like “break” and “torrent” reveal how Frankenstein’s violent impulses and lofty dreams are typical of romantic heroes. Since he has a heightened comprehension of the world, he must exist outside society, isolated in his pursuit.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. Frankenstein is referring to the First Industrial Revolution, which took place over the course of several decades from approximately 1760–1830. He brings this up as a means to inspire and push himself to take on the task of animating a dead human. With all the advancements in science and mechanics at the time, Frankenstein considers himself up to the challenge. Frankenstein’s pride is revealed by this desire to bring life to a deceased human, rather than an animal, and his belief that he can achieve this task alone.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Frankenstein tells Walton that he will not reveal the secret to creating life. Instead, he offers a warning, which extends as a caution to all readers, that all knowledge comes at a price. This theme continues to be explored throughout Frankenstein and has been popular in other tales throughout literary history, perhaps most famously in works which explore the Faust myth, such as Goethe’s Faust.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. This allusion refers to a story from the anthology of Arabian tales A Thousand and One Nights. In one particular tale, Sinbad escapes from his wife’s tomb, in which he had been interred by villains. This allusion to an Arabian tale, rather than a European one, serves as an important cross-cultural reference. Finding this “passage to life” serves as motivation for Frankenstein and, therefore, the plot of the novel. Romantics were often fascinated by Arabian stories and culture because they considered it exotic. That Shelley grounds the pivotal moments in this novel with allusions to Arabian tales supports the themes of romanticism throughout the tale.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Frankenstein simply tells Walton (and readers) that he discovered how to create life and leaves it at that. While he does tell Walton that such a secret will never be shared, this technique on Shelley’s part is intentional: the reasons behind how he came to understand this knowledge are not important; what is important, is that he does know this, which allows the plot to move forward.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. In order to study life, Frankenstein must also have knowledge of death. We learn how he was sheltered as a young boy from supernatural tales and horrors by his family. Notice how such things are associated with darkness, which reinforces the dichotomy between light and dark, good and evil.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. By “principle,” Frankenstein means the source from which something originates—that is, an origin, a root, a source, etc. Having made such strides in his studies, Frankenstein reveals to Walton how he now began to actively pursue his interest in and experimentation with the creation of life.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. The abbreviation “M.” stands for the French word monsieur and serves as a means of respectfully referring to someone. Since Frankenstein studied in Geneva, French was most likely the principal language of instruction, which is why he refers to his professors in this way.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. Night is often associated with suspicious or immoral actions. Victor’s conducting his work and experiments at midnight implies that he is doing wrong. Yet, he cannot hide. Nature, represented by the moon, is watching Victor’s actions. Regardless, Victor continues to chase Nature down to her “hiding-places,” which implies that she does not wish to be found. Moreover, Victor’s sense of “unrelaxed and breathless eagerness” shows that he is anxious and acknowledges his wrongful behavior but still wishes to commit it.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. This vivid description shows how Victor has isolated himself and neglected his physical and mental health for his study. At the same time, Victor is made an example of how obsession is harmful to the human body and mind.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. Victor’s ambition is constantly fueling his sense of pride. He not only wants to be notable for his studies and discoveries within humanity, but he also wishes to create a new species that would worship him. This desire is reflected in the language Shelley uses here, which bears strong resemblance to phrases from the Christian biblical tradition.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. Though Victor understands the natural intertwined relationship between life and death, he refuses to accept it; instead, he wishes to interfere with Nature’s law. To him, such interference is a noble and divine act, in which he sees himself as a godly figure, bringing light into the dark world.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. This simile, which compares Victor’s emotions with a hurricane, depicts the sentimental sublime, an overwhelming and often inexplicable amount or level of emotion and a major element in romanticism.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. It is important to note that the description here only pertains to men. During that time period, women did not have educational freedom like men; they were expected to remain in the sphere of domesticity, which limited them to household tasks and the role of being a mother and/or wife. The phrase “since the creation of the world” emphasizes the length of time that such gender inequality has lasted.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. Victor’s thought reflects his prideful character and how confident he feels about the progress he has made in his studies and discoveries; he believes that he has surpassed the wisest men long before him.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. This description reflects the intertwined relationship of life and death. Specifically, it highlights the fact that in the end, death overcomes life. At the same time, this description reveals Victor’s narrow view on life and death. To him, death is a form of corruption, which is bad and ugly, whereas life is like a blooming cheek that suggests youth, good health, and beauty. It is this perspective that motivates Victor to eventually disturb the natural relationship between life and death by creating life.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. Here, the churchyard, often considered a beautiful and religious place, is stripped of such associations and depicted as food for worms. This metaphor emphasizes not only the death and decay of human life, but also Nature’s power; the human body, once deprived of life, is fed on by worms, which are part of Nature’s work of art.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. While “engaged” implies that Victor is occupied with his scientific pursuits, it can also symbolize how his heart and soul are “married” to his pursuit of knowledge. He is so committed to it that he neglects his home, Geneva, along with his family.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  21. Now for some words of interpretation. I am the most interested in Victor’s depth into the world of obsession. This chapter is perfect in describing the process from Victor’s interest in chemistry to anatomy to life to death to corruption to animation of that very corruption. It goes in perfect and rapid succession and should be an interesting study for today’s psychiatrist in regards to Obsessive Disorder. From a Romantic perspective it’s important to note that Victor’s progression into obsession brings him from the natural world to the “unnatural world,” something always disgusting to Romantic writers of the period. The closer one’s connection with nature, the closer one is to happiness, truth, and normalcy. Victor departs from those areas in every conceivable way. There is danger in creating life, as God does. Victor becomes able to bestow “animation upon lifeless matter.” Becoming “like God” is at its very root “unnatural,” and such technology will be seen as negative when seen with Romantic eyes. In this way, Victor can be seen as an allusion to Goethe’s Faustus: someone whose noble pursuits of knowledge turn deadly and obsessive. In fact, Victor is so enraptured in his own idea that he convinces himself that he is a hero for creating a new species of human. The older and wiser Victor who is rescued on the ship and talking to Walton, tells his listener not to copy him, but to “learn from me … by my example” and furthers the Romantic concept that nothing good can happen to someone “who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” It is also an interesting idea to ponder how too much education or too much knowledge can actually harm an individual. The chapter ends with Victor’s feelings of “guilt” in that he actually feels he may have committed “a crime” in creating such a disgusting creature that will eventually (and somehow) be brought to life.

    — Noelle Thompson
  22. Due to Victor’s persistent study, he becomes an immediate success. First, he acquaints himself with chemistry. However, over the course of two years, Victor becomes enamored of the human form enough that he desires to explore anatomy. His study of anatomy flow from the normal to the abnormal in that he decides that in order to truly understand “life” he must also understand “death” and, in turn, the complete corruption of the human body after life has left it. Victor’s obsession with the human form continues as he frequents morgues and cemeteries and anywhere else he can find dead bodies. Victor ponders for a moment as to whether he should strive for such a highly evolved form to bring back from death, or whether he should stick with a lower form first (such as an animal). Victor, though, always embracing the ultimate obsession, desires to go for the ultimate goal. Victor admits that he eventually does succeed in bringing “the creature” to life, but refuses to reveal exactly how. In his grotesque pursuit which the reader now hears involves collecting dead body parts from wherever he can and bringing them back to his study in order to create his creature, he loses all touch with reality. The seasons go by. The family members try to contact him. Victor cannot be torn away from his work. In fact, Victor cuts himself off completely from the rest of his world in order to complete his creation.

    — Noelle Thompson
  23. Victor's studies begin innocently enough.  Interested with the anatomy of the human body, Victor begins.  However, by this time, the reader should realize Victor's tendency towards obsession.  His new trend towards anatomy will soon approach that venue.

    — Noelle Thompson
  24. Note how Victor's experience with "anatomy" becomes more and more morose, departing from the "natural" and approaching the "unnatural."

    — Noelle Thompson
  25. Note how Victor is always spurred on by the "biggest" idea of success.  Only for a slight moment does he dwell upon the possibility that he might animate an animal from death.  It isn't long before he sets his sights on something greater:  animating a dead human.

    — Noelle Thompson
  26. Here is a perfect example of the character of Victor delving into complete obsession both with science and the success of animating his own creation.  With such a truly "supernatural" and "unnatural" pursuit, according to the Romantic ideal (of the best of life being at one with nature, and not apart from it), one can assume the result will be nothing less than terrifying.

    — Noelle Thompson
  27. As we have returned a bit to the frame of the story, as readers we remember that this is Victor talking to Walton on the ship.  Victor spends paragraph after paragraph discussing the "wonder" and the "hope" and the "miracle" of his success, but here he refuses to reveal his secret (which the reader can ascertain has something to do with science and anatomy and electricity).  We also know how Victor has been rescued from an ice flow at sea, and is obviously not in a state of relaxation and happiness as a result of his discoveries.

    — Noelle Thompson