The Sundry Ways Victor Frankenstein is a Complete Dunderhead and How a Humanities Course Would Save Him
The trials and tribulations of Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s seminal work, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus are many and varied. Subsequently, nearly all of these troubles can be traced back to Victor’s complete lack of forethought and lack of well-roundedness when it comes to the world outside his laboratory. This prolonged haranguing of Victor Frankenstein will endeavor to connect the “Modern Prometheus” to the “Natural Philosophy” student of the twenty-first century in a way that portends the importance of courses outside one’s natural inclination, especially those in the humanities and social sciences.
“Why do I have to take a humanities course? I’m studying biomedical engineering not English!” is a common enough utterance in the halls of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, yet, this essay contends that these words, or the Bavarian equivalent, had they been uttered by one Victor Frankenstein in Ingolstadt all those years ago, would have ultimately saved his life. We start in the halls of Ingolstadt when Victor Frankenstein is 17. Victor’s father has sent him to Ingolstadt to “be made acquainted with other customs than those of my native country.” (pg. 45) Victor’s college years do not get off to a great start however, in part because as Victor puts it, “I believed myself totally unfitted for the company of strangers.” (pg. 48) These quotes ring with familiarity in 2018, a standoffish college students seeks not to make friends, but to acquire knowledge. Not two paragraphs later Victor meets M. Krempe, a professor of natural philosophy, and two come into conflict. How could Victor, a 17 year old fresh from sheltered Geneva, be expected to listen to M. Krempe’s suggestions for authors of modern natural philosophy? How could M. Krempe, a “little squat man, with a gruff voice and repulsive countenance,” know more than Victor Frankenstein? How indeed. In the year 2018 in the first few weeks of every introductory college course there is always an eager, well-meaning student whose hand shoots up and when called upon asks not a question but contends, “I think it should be this way.” The professor of this introductory class then takes 5 or 10 minutes of class time to explain all the ways in which this eager, well-meaning student is wrong. There is something to be said for having been working in a field longer than your students have been alive. These thoughts, Victor’s ego, all have their mirror in the modern day. Thus, it is easy to see how Victor Frankenstein would have disregarded a humanities course had one been required of him. And, because Victor Frankenstein has the wisdom of a single-celled organism, he does essentially that. After clashing with M. Krempe, Victor meets M. Waldman, who tells him, “A man would make but a very sorry chemist, if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science, and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics.” (pg. 52) which is a broad way of telling Victor that there is benefit to being well-rounded. Not two paragraphs later, Victor says, “From this day natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, … , became nearly my sole occupation.” (pg. 52) Victor’s father sent him to Ingolstadt to learn about other cultures, something Victor is not doing because he decided he was unfit for the company of strangers. The first professor Victor meets gives him recommendations of modern authors and Victor disregards the professor because he is ugly. Victor meets a professor he likes and completely disregards his suggestion to be a well-rounded person, opting to spend dawn ‘til dusk in the chemistry lab. Summarily, Victor, having disregarded suggestions from 3 different people trying to help him, all, in essence, a suggestion for being well-rounded, spends all his time in the chemistry lab which ultimately gets him into trouble. Compare this to the student of today, going to a remote college and leaving their comfort zone for the first time (like Victor did) and being “forced” to sit down in a humanities course (unlike Victor). A student can be blisteringly mad about being required to take Science, Technology, and Society STSS 1110, but if they learn a single thing about ethics they can take that forward into the workplace, their research, etc. Victor was not required to learn anything of the sort, so it’s not hard to see why when confronted with his creation Victor doesn’t know what to do.
We move on to the creature and its creation. The novel has no scene where Victor exults his victory, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” rather, as soon as the creature awakens, as soon as Victor sees what he has done, he flees. These disparate takes on the scene suggest the same thing, Victor is beholden to the technical sweetness described in Heather E. Douglas’ The Bitter Aftertaste of Technical Sweetness. Technical sweetness is a phrase used to mean “when a puzzle’s solution presents itself, when all the pieces fit beautifully and functionally together, when success at the particular endeavor presents itself in a neat package.” (pg. 266) I’ve felt this selfsame way in my studies of computer science, endeavoring to finish a project, disregarding everything else, skipping meals, and staying up ‘til the break of dawn. But, why do it? The achievement is still sweet after getting a full night’s rest, so why? As students, Victor and I, we don’t know any better. We immersive ourselves fully in the work, fail to see what’s right in front of us, that we’re destroying ourselves. Victor leads a hale and healthy life before arriving at Ingolstadt, where his obsession with the work causes him to become wretched and feverish. So too, do we see students of the twenty-first century burn out or develop mental health issues from the stress and harm that comes to the body from seeking nothing but that technical sweetness. Victor isn’t fully to blame for his mania when it comes to his project. It can be hard to analyze one’s own thoughts. Yet, if Victor Frankenstein had taken a course in psychology he might’ve realized the contrasts in his life. When Victor labors in his lab, he becomes sick, mentally and physically, when he is among nature he feels his old self. Distancing oneself from the allure of technical sweetness is difficult, it’s something Victor’s friends, had he any, could have helped with, but it can be learned. If Victor had taken that psychology course, or any such humanities course, he might’ve learned that there is more to life than that technical sweetness of discovery. The humanities courses of the modern day suggest this very thought, not literally, but in the broadening of the horizons of the students enrolled.
Another of Victor’s failures is his lack of forethought. As discussed earlier Victor does not have the background to debate the controversy of creating life, the ethics of the matter. Even still, had Victor taken a single step back from his fevered pursuit of technical sweetness and asked himself, “What am I doing?” Victor likely wouldn’t have abandoned the pursuit, but at least he could have given the creature a name. Victor’s lack of forethought is a theme throughout Frankenstein, he pays no thought to the controversy surrounding his work, he never thinks about what he might change that would save lives, he fails to realize his wife could be in danger, and as he lies dying in the frozen north fails to see the danger of the sailors pressing on. This too, connects to the broadening of horizons suggested by humanities courses. Victor is selfish, he is incapable of thinking that the creature, despite never having harmed him directly, would follow through on its threat to attend Victor’s wedding day by killing Elizabeth. Victor thinks only to protect himself. Earlier, when Victor is creating the second creature he thinks about all the ways it could be a bad for him, she could spurn the male creature or be the progenitor of a new race of creatures. But Victor lacks the forethought and hindsight to think, “What did I do wrong?” He only thinks about himself. Instead of trying to improve upon his past mistakes, Victor Frankenstein doubles down because he’s only thinking about how the creature could affect him. If Victor had taken a philosophy course, or again, any social sciences course, he could have concerned himself with nature versus nurture or any such developmental ideas and realized he had made a mistake. The broadening of horizons, the well-roundedness that comes from humanities and social sciences courses makes it simple to ask, “How does this affect more than just me, how does this affect the world?”
In summary, there is a clear line that connects modern students to Victor Frankenstein. Both chase after the technical sweetness that comes from completing a project. Both question the connection between their field and the outside world. The difference is that being required to take humanities courses broadens the minds of modern students in a way that Victor Frankenstein could never know. There are several direct ways in which Victor would have benefitted from being more worldly, but he wasn’t, which led to his downfall.
Author's Note: I wrote this essay in September 2018 for a class called Science Fiction Cinema and Social Criticism. Page numbers are from Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds ISBN 9780262340274