In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the creation—“monster”—of Victor Frankenstein takes shelter in a small hovel attached to a cottage.  The occupants of this house are De Lacy (an old blind man) and his daughter and son, Agatha and Felix.  By watching them, the creation begins to understand basic French (like the word for bread).  However, it is not until Felix’s Arabian lover, Safie, comes to the cottage that he begins to learn and understand not only the French language but also the ways of the world.  Safie does not speak any French, so Felix proceeds to teach her about the language and European culture by reading books to her.  The creature watches this and uses those moments as opportunities for him to learn as well.  It is through this indirect education that he becomes enlightened.

But, before I go any further in answering this week’s prompt, I believe it is necessary to review Immanuel Kant’s definition of enlightenment.  Kant says, “Enlightenment is the human being’s emancipation from its self-incurred immaturity.  Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s intellect without the direction of another.  This immaturity is self-incurred when its cause does not lie in a lack of intellect, but rather in a lack of … courage ….”

Frankenstein’s “monster” takes it upon himself to become educated.  He could have chosen to ignore the lessons Felix gives to Safie and remain in his ignorant state, but he doesn’t.  In fact, he does more than just listen and learn.  He then reflects on the things he hears, develops his own opinions of them, and compares them to his own life.  For instance, when he learns about the structure of the European family, he decides that familial relationships are something to be desired and begins to question his own life experiences.  He thinks on the facts that he never had a mother or a father and is, in fact, completely alone.  This leads him to question who/what he is and why he is all alone.  He does not ask another these questions.  He asks himself, relying on his own (as Kant put it) “direction.”

Although one could claim that the opinions he develops are based on what the books Felix reads, like Volney’s Ruins of Empires, are telling the creation to think and feel, upon closer reading of the text, one finds that this is not the case.  At one point, when discussing the book’s lesson, he says, “To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious … appeared the lowest degradation ….”  The word “appeared” is significant in the interpretation of this text because it shows the skepticism that the creation feels towards the book.  If he whole heatedly believed all that he was being told, he would have chosen a word like “is” to convey certainty.  When he says “appeared,” he is telling Frankenstein and the reader that Ruins of Empires paints men in that specific manner, but he is not able to instantly decide whether or not he believes it.

This thinking for himself, illustrated in both cases described above, is the very meaning of Kantian enlightenment.  Whether or not he believes the things he is learning is irrelevant in the argument of enlightenment; what is important is the fact that he thinks for himself and decides on his own what he will and will not believe.  Frankenstein’s creation is therefore enlightened.

About these ads