“The corruption of the best things gives rise to the worst.”
Philosophers of the 18th Century looked for new ways to understand the acquisition of knowledge and human behaviour . Understanding their theories allows us an insight into Mary Shelley’s intentions in her gothic novel, Frankenstein. The overall intention that Mary Shelley had to do with these philosophers and her text, “Frankenstein” was to incorporate the philosophers ideas and theories into her text in a way that she either challenges, demonstrates, or reflects the theories. She does this with a number of different features in her texts, some of these being characters, settings, or symbols in the text.
One of these philosophers is the Scottish born David Hume. David Hume was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on the 26th April 1711 and lived until he was 65 years old, dying on the 25th August 1776. this time period the he lived was right in ‘The Enlightenment Period’ so Hume got to live through it all. Hume was known as what is called an “Enlightenment Thinker” and was known as a philosopher, but also a historian, economist, and rather importantly, an essayist, meaning that he presented his ideas and philosophies to the world in the way of books.
One of the ideas the Hume shared was that he conceived the idea of philosophy as an inductive, experimental science of human nature. One of the aspirations of David Hume, and one of the things that worked towards was that he tried to figure out and then describe how the mind works in acquiring what is called knowledge. The discovery that he made was very controversial as in those days, it was commonly believed that you were born with knowledge, rather than gained that knowledge by living you life and learning lessons. Hume challenged this with his most well known and most successful theory which was that he believed that we gained 100% of our knowledge is accumulated by our experiences. This means that all of the knowledge that we have, we have earned/gained it by living our lives, by learning from our mistakes and the mistakes of others, from things like trial and error, and from watching others take part / actually taking part in the flow of life and all of its boundless knowledge that is there for the taking. This is the theory that I am basing this assessment on.
I believe that Mary Shelley incorporates Hume’s theory of learning from experience in the way of demonstration. She demonstrates this theory repeatedly through the gothic antagonist of the monster. Some examples of this would be its start to life, and then throughout the miserable life that it has, for example getting abused in the town it visits. The monster learns negative emotions from the reactions of the other beings that see him and look away in horror and disgust, and then portrays these negative and destructive feelings/emotions itself as he has known nothing else his whole life, because he knows no better. Because of the complete lack of teaching that the monster has, it has had to learn from the things it has seen, tried, and done, meaning it is cruel and harsh like the climates it has lived in, hateful and despising like the people who’s reactions he has had to endure, as well as lonely and revengeful because of his lack of parental or leading figures in his life. The only ‘parent’ that the monster can claim is his so called ‘father’, Victor Frankenstein, also known as his horror-filled, repulsed, and detesting creator. The monster learns to despise Frankenstein because of the lack of care he was given when he was still new to his body and the world, as he was learning to live/survive in the world of that time.
“To hate, to love, to think, to feel, to see; all this is nothing but to perceive.”
The first instance that this theory shows up in the text, ‘Frankenstein’ is when the monster is first created, and is just learning to use its senses. As the monster begins to experience, realise and learn things about nature and the living world again, he experiments with the new sensations of sight, feel, hearing and others. “I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and darkness; innumerable sounds rang in my ears, and on all sides various scents saluted me; the only object that I could distinguish was the bright moon, and I fixed my eyes on that with pleasure.” This is one instance when the monster is learning to deal with his senses as he is assaulted by unfamiliar sights, sounds, and other feelings. As the creature learns to deal with this new deluge of information, he continues to experience new happenings and continues to learn from these events, ” My sensations had by this time become distinct, and my mind received every day additional ideas. My eyes became accustomed to the light and to perceive objects in their right forms; I distinguished the insect from the herb, and by degrees, one herb from another. I found that the sparrow uttered none but harsh notes, whilst those of the blackbird and thrush were sweet and enticing.” This point in time was when he started successfully completing Hume’s theory in the way that all of the knowledge that the monster gained, was from his experiences and from watching others and their endeavours/experiences.
An example of this that I believe really shows the position that the creature is in would be when he is cold and finds a fire that someone has left running. “‘One day, when I was oppressed by cold, I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects! I examined the materials of the fire, and to my joy found it to be composed of wood…” This passage of text is a perfect example of Hume’s theory in this text, the monster is “overcome with delight at the warmth” and so he thrusts his hand onto the embers of the fire and experiences pain at the heat and the burning of his hand because of the heat. He experiences this and then goes on to learn from his findings that fire is hot and is harmful to flesh, so he decides to have a closer look at the fire. When the monster observes the fire more closely, he finds out that the fire is kept going by consuming wood as fuel, on learning this, the monster goes and gathers lots of wood from the surrounding trees and brought it back to the fire; he then goes on to learn that you need dry wood to keep the fire going not wet wood, he learns through trial and error of adding bits of both wood. This is just one of many examples of learning from experiences and from trial and error, but I believe that it is one of the more advanced examples because it shows that the monster did not only learn from putting his hand in the fire, but he also learned what the fire consisted of and how to successfully sustain his new source of warmth.
A second example of this theory would be when Frankenstein’s monster had been walking for hours over the fields before he came upon a town. As he got to the town, he was astounded by the “beautiful” and “miraculous” huts and houses as well as their gardens and food, but as the villagers noticed him, they either ran away or gathered together and chased him out of the town injuring him with whatever weapons they could hastily find and use. “I proceeded across the fields for several hours, until at sunset I arrived at a village. How miraculous did this appear! the huts, the neater cottages, and stately houses engaged my admiration by turns. The vegetables in the gardens, the milk and cheese that I saw placed at the windows of some of the cottages, allured my appetite. One of the best of these I entered, but I had hardly placed my foot within the door before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted. The whole village was roused; some fled, some attacked me, until, grievously bruised by stones and many other kinds of missile weapons, I escaped to the open country and fearfully took refuge in a low hovel, quite bare, and making a wretched appearance after the palaces I had beheld in the village.” The monster went through this ordeal and learned that he would be spurned by normal humans wherever he went, but he also learned a response of anger and retaliation from this experience, hence where his hatred towards his creator came from, the despising nature of others is reflected in him towards others from then on. Frankenstein’s monster only had to go through this experience once before he learned the harsh lesson that it taught, but he did learn it well; the next time the monster went to a cottage it was the DeLacey’s cottage in the woods where he hid until it was safe for him to come out and consume food and warmth in peace, rather than being chased away from scared and angry humans. I believe that this example of Hume’s theory is a standout one because the monster had such a harsh way of learning the lesson provided, that he only had to endure it once rather than a trial and error basis as the monster never again confronted an open settlement in an oblivious state from then on.
Another example of Hume’s theory in this text would be learning to speak at the DeLacey’s cottage. The monster observes the family living in a cottage in the woods over a period of over three seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer) . Over this time spent observing the family, the monster learned many things but one of the more amazing and relevant and crucial to the rest of the text would be that of speech. Frankenstein’s monster learned the English language through observing and trial and error. “By degrees I made a discovery of still greater moment. I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. But I was baffled in every attempt I made for this purpose.” At the start of the monster’s attempt at learning the “method of communicating” that the DeLacey’s used, he was unsuccessful and was “baffled” about the quick mode of speech that the family used. As the monster continued his observing of the family though, he became more successful in the way that he could now understand a few of the words that the family spoke and was on his was to pronouncing them intelligibly. ” By great application, however, and after having remained during the space of several revolutions of the moon in my hovel, I discovered the names that were given to some of the most familiar objects of discourse; I learned and applied the words, ‘fire,’ ‘milk,’ ‘bread,’ and ‘wood.’ I learned also the names of the cottagers themselves.” The monster goes on to say, ” I cannot describe the delight I felt when I learned the ideas appropriated to each of these sounds and was able to pronounce them.” I believe that this third example of Hume’s theory is one of the most stand out ones in Mary Shelley’s text because the monster learned something as complex as a language, just from observing and using trial and error. This is an excellent example of Hume’s theory because the monster had no teacher except for the experience he had of listening to the DeLacey’s speak, meaning he completely gained his knowledge of the language from his experiences which is a pure example of Hume’s theory.
“A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” This is almost an explanation of the monsters ‘growing up’ in the way that the monster has to ‘proportions his belief’ to the evidence he has gained from his experiences, because those experiences are all the knowledge that it has. The monster knows no better. These three examples all follow this explanation and show Hume’s theory of ‘learning all of our acquired knowledge through the experiences that we have in our lives’ in different ways. Trial and error was shown, as was a one-time horror/shock learning, and also the ability to perceive how objects (like the fire) work and the effects that things have on them as well as the effect that they have on other objects (like the monster’s hand). I believe that Mary Shelley has done an excellent job in her text, “Frankenstein” of impersonating Hume’s theory into a character, that is basically starting from childhood again and growing and learning from its experiences as it turns into more of an adult.