Through the Looking Glass: Self-Knowledge Through Reading in “Frankenstein” (Part 2 of 2)

Reading, whether done in groups or alone, effects each person uniquely. (Photo by pgcummings via Flickr)

Reading, whether done in groups or alone, effects each person uniquely. (Photo by pgcummings via Flickr)

In Frankenstein, Habermas’ thoughts and theories are clearly taken as fact, and are enacted throughout many of the characters’ stories. The three characters that demonstrate and confirm Habermas’ theories the most blatantly are Walton, the explorer on an expedition to the Arctic, Victor Frankenstein, and the Creature himself. Each of their personal narratives recount a time in their childhood (or, for the Creature, the early time of his existence), when their ideas of self were altered, effected, or in fact determined by reading books. Walton, the explorer who chronicles the tragic story of Frankenstein and his Creature, remarks in letters to his sister that, “This expedition has been the favourite dream of my early years. I have read (emphasis mine) with ardour the accounts of the various voyages which have been made in the prospect of arriving at the North Pacific Ocean…” (Frankenstein 16). It is from this reading that Walton’s desire to explore has been kindled, and with it, an idea about how he is going to live his life, what path it shall take and what kind of man he wants to be. Later on in these letters, Walton notes that “…I was passionately fond of reading. These volumes were my study…and my familiarity with them increased that regret which I had felt, as a child, on learning that my father’s dying injunction had forbidden me…to embark in a seafaring life” (Frankenstein 16). So it is explained to the audience that by reading books about sea explorations and adventure, Walton developed a sense of what he truly was on the inside – a pioneer of the sea.

Victor Frankenstein relates a similar experience as he begins to detail the story of his life. He marks the pivotal moment in his development as the time he “…chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy…and the wonderful facts which he relates soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind…” (Frankenstein 40). With the reading of this text, Victor feels his inner-self illuminated; he feels that a path has been set before his feet. It seems as if he has found a place in the world and purpose in life. This only increases as he reads more and more of these types of books. Victor clearly sees this as the single event in his life which forever determined who he was and what he was going to do, saying that “…when I would account to myself for the birth of that passion, which afterwards ruled my destiny, I find it arise, like a mountain river…which, in its course, has swept away all my hopes and joys” (40). By reading these books, and through them developing his inner self, Victor feels he was doomed to the existence he now endures.

Portrait by Jean-Baptiste Greuze of a young student. The works we read as children have the power to fundamentally shape our destinies.

Portrait by Jean-Baptiste Greuze of a young student. The works we read as children have the power to fundamentally shape our destinies.

It is Frankenstein’s Creature, however, that is perhaps the starkest example of Habermas’ theories. Left completely alone, devoid of any kind of human contact, the Creature was left to develop himself solely from the reading of books he found by chance. “[The books] consisted of Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter. The possession of these treasures gave me extreme delight; I continually studied and exercised my mind upon these histories…” (Frankenstein 130). These books are treasures to him because they are his only connection with the greater world around him, the world of humanity. It is through his study of these books that he hopes to learn and develop this humanity within himself. He does this with considerable success by exercising almost exactly the model put forth by Habermas. The Creature explains that “As I read…I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition. I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read…I sympathized with and partly understood them, but I was unformed in mind…” (Frankenstein 131). Exactly as Habermas theorizes, the Creature identifies with the characters and situations presented in the books he reads, and through that identification, tests out his own reactions, thoughts, and feelings, developing his own sense of individualism.

The author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, understood the importance of reading to the identity of the individual.

The author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, understood the importance of reading to the identity of the individual. (Painting by Rothwell)

The author Alexander Pope once said, “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man” (Pope, Essay on Man). Jürgen Habermas seems to agree with Pope, taking his words one step farther and putting forward a theory of how mankind studies itself through the reading of print text. Habermas makes the argument that during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, when print culture was at its peak, it was through the reading of books that the modern idea of ‘self’ was developed and the idea of individualism was born. Contemporary to this time period, the novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, contains many instances of this phenomenon, at least fictionally. However, the scenes in Frankenstein which support Habermas’ theory are more than just fictional examples of this theory’s validity. The passages in Frankenstein highlight a certain amount of public awareness that the reading of books were vital to the healthy development of a person’s inner self. If the public was not aware of this link, these scenes would probably not have appeared at all, or if they did, they would not be anywhere near as pivotal to the plot. Frankenstein, then, does more than just offer fictional support to Habermas – it is proof that his theory of self-development has merit and can be proven to have existed during the era in which it is said to have occurred.

Works Cited

Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Man. Ottawa: Xinware Corporation, 2007. Print.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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About rsjeffrey

A thinly published author who is widely read. No type of fiction is off limits, and I even enjoy plunging into the odd, well-written nonfiction tome as well. I am driven by a need to continuously move forward, so expect to see a lot of activity from me!
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One Response to Through the Looking Glass: Self-Knowledge Through Reading in “Frankenstein” (Part 2 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Through the Looking Glass: Self-Knowledge Through Reading in “Frankenstein” (Part 1 of 2) | Simple Complexities

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