The Disaster of Ambition in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
©2001 Reem Regina Tatar
“Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition.” – Frankenstein
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein explores the consequences of what happens when man tries to play God and chases ambition blindly. The main character, Victor Frankenstein, is a young man with an intense desire to achieve something that no scientist has ever done before: to give life to a being through science, not natural creation. He finds the ultimate secret to the creation of life – something no one in history has ever done before. However, it is with this knowledge and ambition, which he applies to his own selfish goals, that winds up destroying him and those closest to him. He does not appreciate the beauty of simply being alive or having the ability to create his own children and to share the love of his family. He rejects natural creation in hopes for bringing to life something scientifically engineered by his own mortal hand – to be successful in the creation of life that humanity has never seen before.
As an evolving scholar and scientist, Frankenstein had examined the works of great scientists from past to present. He decides that he wants to achieve something completely new, which will set him apart from the scientists he has followed. “I was surprised that among so many men of genius, who had directed their inquiries toward the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret” (932). In the process, Frankenstein does not know that he will create an actual monster, but he wants to give life to a being in his image. He collects different body parts and manages to put them together to form a figure of man. When he finally does animate the being, he goes into a wild frenzy. “The astonishment which I had 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” (932).
Frankenstein wants his name to go down in scientific history books for his accomplishment, but not without a cost: he ignores his family for two years during the process of his isolated lab work. Throughout the novel readers are presented with the disturbing consequence of Frankenstein’s decision to play the role of creator. In order to create life, Frankenstein halts his university studies and works diligently in his isolated quarters for two years. He completely disregards the importance of human feelings and companionship. He even deprives himself of sleep and his health. Frankenstein ignores nearly all society, especially that of his family, to achieve his concentrated goal. He takes for granted his family’s concerns and their longing for his company. Frankenstein gives little thought to his fiancée Elizabeth, who sadly and anxiously waits for his return. And afterward, he runs away from society in the attempt to rid himself of the monster. This shaky groundwork sets up traumatic loss to come, as Frankenstein does not realize that his family will not be there for him in the end, when he is lonely and in need of their company.
Although he is successful in creating life, one of Frankenstein’s greatest flaws in his attempt to create a being, is that he does not even nurture it as a parent would for his own child. Frankenstein decides that he doesn’t like the monster after he has finished it. He rejects the monster, and in turn the monster rejects him. In the end, the monster reflects upon his own state of affairs: “my heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and, when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture, such as you cannot even imagine” (1032). The monster has been treated as subhuman, as a “thing” that does not deserve love or affection. Frankenstein declares, in agony over his creation, “Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch” (935).
Frankenstein feels that he has created something completely revolting, and he rejects his own creation. He wants nothing to do with the monster, let alone receive honors for his creation. And after all Frankenstein does to achieve his goal, the monster becomes a curse to Frankenstein and his family. Out of Frankenstein’s originally “glorious” creation comes gruesome and disastrous results: the monster becomes so rebellious due to the fact that Frankenstein and all of society shuns him, that the he kills nearly all of Frankenstein’s family one by one. “I have murdered the lovely and the helpless; I have strangled the innocent as they slept and grasped to death his throat who never injured me or any other living thing. I have devoted my creator, the select specimen of all that is worthy of love and admiration among men, to misery” (1033).
Earlier in the novel, we are introduced to Walton, a sailor on a boat destined for the arctic seas. Walton has something in common with Victor Frankenstein: ambition to achieve something that no man has ever accomplished before. Walton wants to sail to the arctic because no sailor has ever reached it. However, the difference between Frankenstein and Walton is that Frankenstein achieves his goal, with terrible consequences. But unlike Frankenstein, Walton decides to turn back before reaching his desired destination. At the end of the novel the ship abandons the initial driving ambition to be the first to sail to the arctic. Walton decides to go with them, because that is the will of the entire ship and he decides to choose community instead of isolating himself for his own personal conquest. Walton realizes, from Frankenstein’s mistakes, that sometimes it is better to make choices based on the common good of all involved, instead of blindly chasing a dream that excludes other human beings and disregards thought to the ultimate welfare of society.
Ultimately even Frankenstein, on his deathbed, realizes the truth of the consequences of his actions. He says, “Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries” (1030). To be at peace with one’s own mortality is essential to living a full and rich human life. Franeknstein’s mistake was that he wanted to be the first man to achieve something which no man had ever done before his time; to rise above human achievement, to rob the sacred act of creation and bypass this natural gift given to humanity by using scientific means. These actions all caused others to suffer and to ultimately die for Frankenstein’s own prestige. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shows that dabbling with the work of God or nature is immoral and ethically corrupt. Trying to play God is not the responsibility of mortals. This novel also shows that a person who chases notoriety purely for his or her own personal gain may find the consequences of their actions to be truly devastating.