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Knowledge In Faust And Frankenstein English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5466 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The aim of this paper is to investigate how Goethe and Mary Shelley portray knowledge in Faust and Frankenstein. My choice of investigating this specific theme in these two works originates from the fascinating contrast in opinions that the authors express in their works, even though the two literary works were written during the same time period and both authors were significantly affected by Romanticism which had spread all over Europe. It is also very interesting that the two authors judge their protagonist’s strive for unattainable in opposite ways. The research was carried out by a careful analysis of both the works in English and later a vast reading of numerous literary criticisms relevant to the research question and the works in discussion. My conclusion is that Mary Shelley portrays education and academic knowledge as a continuous progress which never fails to improve man’s condition, even though her opinion on the including of outdated disproven malpractices as a foundation of modern knowledge is dubious. On the contrary, Goethe’s Faust clearly disapproves of Wagner’s humanitarian approach to learning and continuously reiterates the futility of education in reaching any significant knowledge. Such a discrepancy in opinions is mirrored also in the way that the two protagonist’s ambitious journeys towards the “truth” are judged: Goethe justifies and exalts Faust’s wager with Mephistopheles, redeeming Faust for his constant strive for knowledge, while Mary Shelley damn Frankenstein to a life of suffering, therefore condemning his attempt to create life.

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Abstract 2

An analysis of Goethe’s and Mary Shelley’s portrayal of Knowledge in Faust and Frankenstein 4

Bibliography 17

An analysis of Goethe’s and Mary Shelley’s portrayal of Knowledge in Faust and Frankenstein

This essay will investigate how Goethe and Shelley present knowledge in Faust and Frankenstein, respectively. My choice to investigate this particular theme in the two works stems from the very different views that the two authors express, even though their works were completed during the same time period and are both key works of Romantic literature in Europe. Both these works narrate of two men who strive for knowledge surpassing man’s limitations. The word “knowledge” can have two different connotations: it may indicate the academic knowledge that can be obtained through the study of works of scholars (which, to avoid confusion, I will reference to in this essay as “education” and “learning”) and the deeper personal knowledge of the significance of life and of the intricate mysteries of nature (which I will denote as “truth” or “essence of life”). In Faust and Frankenstein, Goethe denounces the futility of education, in contrast with Mary Shelley, who expresses the importance of science in improving mankind. In addition, Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles is exalted and his soul redeemed, while Victor’s dark experiment is condemned and he is destined to a life of misery and suffering.

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Goethe uses the protagonist’s soliloquy and dialogue as well as the contrast with his famulus Wagner’s outdated humanitarian learning approach [1] to portray Faust’s understanding of the futility of education. Indeed, Faust’s opening monologue clearly demonstrates his conscience of the limitations of his own study. Peter Salm calls the protagonist’s state of mind “intellectual bankruptcy” [2] , as the character has become aware that many years of exhaustive learning have not shed light on the essences of life and of the world. At the start of Night, in his soliloquy, Faust says:

“You’ve worked your way through every school

[…] and sweated it like a fool.

Why labour at it anymore?

You’re no wiser than you were before” (pg. 14, 354-359).

This quote introduces the cause of the protagonist’s despair: Faust understands that further education will not be successful in leading him to become any “wiser” than he was before his great education. In the simile in verse 355, he curses himself for not having seen this before. Indeed, Stuart Atkins writes that Faust “repudiates a tradition of formal learning symbolized by the Gothic environment” [3] .Shortly after, he echoes the impossibility of achieving wisdom through an industrious study of other scholar’s works and, more generally, the inability of man to gain any valuable knowledge:

“All this misery goes to show

There’s nothing we can ever know.” (pg 14, 370-371)

Once more, this quote from Faust’s soliloquy, proves the protagonist’s state of despair, underlined by the use of the word “misery” to refer to the human condition and life on Earth. Faust is aware that man will never know what he refers to as the “truth”, the central essence of life.

In Outside the City Gates, Faust is remembered of the inefficiency of academic knowledge as many peasants tell Faust of their gratitude towards him due to his effort in curing the plague, even though the protagonist is aware that his father’s medicines did “more mischief than the plague could ever do” (pg 33, 1052). Goethe uses the scholar’s statement,

“For what we need to know is quite beyond our scope,

And useless all the knowledge we have found.” (pg 34, 1066-1067)

to once again remember the reader of the impossibility of man to reach into the greater mysteries of life and the futility of all the knowledge humanity possesses at present.

However, Goethe goes further than just portraying education as an insufficient cause for knowledge. Indeed, through Faust’s monologue, the author portrays education as an obstacle to man’s achievement of the essence of life. Indeed, Faust says, addressing himself: “Your search for truth ends in confusion” (pg 14, 371). The author’s lexical choice of the word “confusion” is significant in this context since it reveals how Faust’s intensive learning in the search for knowledge has only resulted in perplexity, therefore the protagonist actually knows less than before of the mysteries of the world. Not much later, Faust laments:

“If only I could flee this den

[…] Released from learning’s musty cell,” (pg 15 392-396)


“You’re stuck inside this lair,

In this accursed dungeon” (pg 15 398-399).

Once more, the diction is carefully chosen; indeed, the words “den”, “musty cell”, “lair” and “dungeon”, with their strong obscure and negative connotations, describe Faust’s gothic study as a prison for his soul thirsty for knowledge of the real world. Indeed, Peter Salm states that Faust “now desires to purge himself of the [education] in order to have his dulled senses and his imagination restored.” [4] Therefore, it is clear that Goethe does not limit himself to reiterating the usefulness of education through the use of dialogue, but, using careful word choice in Faust’s soliloquy, he accuses academic knowledge of preventing man from reaching the truth he longs for.

Another way in which the author denounces the futility of education is through Faust’s contrast with his famulus Wagner. The latter is a typical Renaissance humanist, who believes that the most “sacred source” to learning is an old manuscript. His role in the play is to be a “graphic Renaissance counterpart to Faust”. [5] In Night, Faust expresses his own critique towards the Wagner’s humanitarian approach to learning:

“How is it that [Wagner’s] mind takes such pleasure

Forever dabbling in these shallow terms.

He digs so avidly for hidden treasure,

And then rejoices when he digs up worms.” (pg 21, 602-605)

Faust strongly mocks Wagner’s short-sightedness and limited view of learning. The use of the phrase “shallow terms” indicates the protagonist’s disgust for the human condition that his friend experiences. In addition, the juxtaposition of the words “treasure” and “worms” metaphorically indicates Wagner’s deception in searching for the “truth” but being satisfied when he discovers insignificant knowledge. Once more, Goethe’s accurate choice of diction emphasizes Faust’s low opinion of the knowledge that can be obtained through the study of other scholars’ works. In this contrast of different ideals, the author’s mocking of Wagner’s figure, urges the reader to sympathize with Faust’s view. This effect is achieved by introducing Wagner as a “plodding bore” (pg 19 521), which immediately creates in the reader’s mind a comical view of the famulus and therefore turns him into an unreliable character.

Outside the city gates, through Faust’s dialogue with Wagner, the protagonist states his disapproval of Wagner’s desire to seek knowledge in ancient manuscripts:

“You only know a single urge; far better so –

That other impulse you should never seek to know.” (pg. 35, 1110-1111)

Even though, Faust desires his friend’s simplicity and ignorance which lead him to believe that knowledge obtained from books will reveal him the “truth”, he is conscious of his friend’s limitations and blindness to the true essence of life. Through the use of diction and Faust’s dialogue with Wagner, Goethe juxtaposes Faust’s disillusionment towards education with Wagner’s outdated and close-minded view of learning, therefore reaffirming his own view of the inefficacy of learning from the works of other scholars.

Goethe uses metaphors, dialogue and plot development to justify and exalt Faust’s search for greater knowledge in his journey with Mephistopheles. Indeed, as Vazsonyi points out, “Faust’s ceaseless striving and his constant dissatisfaction with what appeared to be insufficient or incomplete knowledge had now become positive traits” [6] . Goethe’s intent is first achieved by negatively portraying the melancholic human condition through the choice of diction in Faust’s dialogue with Mephistopheles. Indeed, when Faust is asked to be joyous by the Devil, the scholar replies with an elaborate speech which clearly underlines the limitations of man on Earth. Faust says:

“You must forgo, renounce, abstain –

This is the tedious refrain

That echoes in our ears, that dismal song.

Hour after hour we hear its croaking voice,

It mocks and follows us our whole life long” (pg 48, 1549-1553)

The use of the synonyms “forgo”, “renounce” and “abstain”, makes these words successfully achieve a repetition effect on the reader, therefore emphasizing the static quality and inescapability of the human condition. This effect is confirmed by the word “echoes” and “refrain” and the phrases “hour after hour” and “follows us our whole life long”, which demonstrate the recurrent nature of the limitations that man has to succumb to. Furthermore, the words “dismal” and “croaking” reiterate the great effect the latter have on the emotions of man, while the word “mocks” may be a reference to men that, like the famulus Wagner, are beguiled into believing that man can actually obtain real knowledge. In addition, the use of the first person singular indentifies these limitations as common to the whole of humanity.

Shortly after, Faust says:

“I curse the power whose spell

Deludes our souls with its enticing wiles,

And with its false alluring tricks beguiles

Us in this dreary cavern where we dwell.” (pg 49, 1587-1590)

In this quote from Faust’s discourse to Mephistopheles, Faust’s transformation is evident: if before he envied Wagner’s ignorance and short-sightedness which kept him unaware of his limitations, he now curses this illusion of happiness that vanishes only to leave man to its own delusion. Indeed, Goethe underlines Faust’s full awareness of the unreality of this false impression through the words “false”, “tricks”, “wiles”, “spell” and “beguiles” which all have a negative connotation of deception. Goethe therefore reduces all the happiness in man’s life as only pure illusion. The metaphor “dreary cavern” to represent the world demonstrates that man’s limitations arise directly from its earthly nature and that an escape from Earth would free him from his melancholic human conditions, as we will see later on.

Faust’s negative view of the limitations of man reaches its apex when he declares:

“If I should ever choose a life of sloth or leisure,

Then let that moment be my end!

Or if you can beguile or flatter me

Into a state of self-contented ease,

Delude me with delight or luxury –

Then that day shall be my last.” (pg 52, 1695-1697)

As Tantillo writes, “Faust’s wager with the devil reflects his confidence in his own unhappiness in light of his divided nature”. Indeed, Faust is so confident that he will never achieve real happiness and valuable knowledge in his own existence that he agrees to die if he should ever be satisfied with his accomplishments. [7] Goethe’s drastic portrayal of human condition and man’s limitations through an accurate choice of diction and metaphors in Faust’s speech to Mephistopheles justifies the protagonist’s search for unattainable knowledge beyond human possibilities in order for him to reach gratification.

Goethe uses metaphors and visual imagery in Faust’s dialogue with Wagner to further justify the protagonist’s search for the essence of life by presenting his desire as natural. Indeed, in “Outside the City Gates”, Faust says:

“If only I had wings to lift me from the ground,

To soar and track it on its onward flight” (pg 34, 1074-1075)

Through this metaphor, Faust expresses his will to abandon miserable reality and fly towards the Sun, which represents for Faust ultimate knowledge. The phrase “lift me” signifies the relieving of the burden of human condition on Earth, while the word “track” symbolizes the scholar’s “titanic search for knowledge and experience” [8] , as if the protagonist is running after the knowledge of the essence of life.

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Later on, Faust that his nature is double: one part of him desires to experience earthly pleasures, while the other has “an inborn urge to spread its wings, / shake off the dust of Earth and soar to loftier heights” (pg 35, 1116-1117). The imagery of wings and flight recurs again in this metaphor, reiterating Faust’s desire to escape his role on Earth. Indeed, since flight represented one of the greatest aspirations of man, the connotation of the word “soar” suggest the overcoming of the same limitations of man which Faust lamented earlier in the novel. In addition, the phrase “shake off the dust of earth”, reminds the reader that man’s limitations are created by humans’ earthly nature and that to obtain true knowledge one must leave behind his non-spiritual self. It is clear that Goethe uses diction and metaphorical visual imagery to portray Faust’s “compelling drive towards fullness of life and understanding” [9] as a natural inborn desire deriving directly from his wretchedness caused by man’s limitations, therefore justifying his pact with Mephistopheles.

Not only does Goethe justify the protagonist’s wager with Mephistopheles, he exalts Faust’s striving during his journey for ultimate knowledge through Faust’s ascent to heaven at the end of Part II. Indeed, as Tantillo writes, in Faust “productive activity replaces moral rectitude as the goal of human striving”. [10] Indeed, in “Prologue in Heaven”, a passive God proclaims:

“For man’s activity can slacken all too fast,

He falls too soon into a slothful ease;

The Devil’s a companion who will tease

And spur him on, and work creatively at last” (pg 12, 340-343)

From this quote it is immediately clear that in the world created by Goethe to be the setting of his play reverts traditional Christian doctrine, as God is presented as an inactive observer, while the Devil is the catalyst that urges man to be productive. The Lord of the play believes that men are at their best while they strive, even though he acknowledges that man will err as long as he lives. [11] It is Faust’s own desperate endeavour for knowledge and failure to reach satisfaction that earn him his final redemption. Monica Montanaro suggests that Faust has achieved the apex of human fulfilment in his extensive knowledge and constant love of creation. [12] 

In conclusion, it is evident that Goethe uses dialogue, diction, imagery, plot development and Faust’s contrast with Wagner to denounce Humanistic learning, which is seen as an obstacle to the achieving of the ultimate knowledge, and to exalt the protagonist’s constant striving in the search of the true essence of life, which leads to the character’s redemption. Indeed, as Stuart Atkins argues, in Faust”man is doomed to failure, error and frustration; only in struggling against his doom he does achieve tragic dignity”. [13] 

Before comparing Shelley’s own view on education portrayed in Frankenstein, one must first acknowledge one main difference in respect to Goethe’s Faust: if in the German masterpiece the ideas of the main character reflect the author’s view on knowledge, in the Gothic novel the protagonist is an anti-hero and therefore his own views are often accused and rejected by Shelley. Indeed, by linking Victor Frankenstein’s damnation to his alchemical studies and by juxtaposing Mr. Krempe’s and Mr. Waldman’s different opinions on ancient science, Shelley condemns Victor’s reliance on the outdated approach to learning and expresses contrasting opinions on the potential of science to always improve human condition.

A contrast between alchemy and modern science is created in Chapter 2, when Victor’s father despises his son’s readings on Cornelius Agrippa by calling them “sad trash” (II, 40). As Frankenstein later explains, “if [his] father had taken the pains to explain to [Victor] that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded, and that a modern system of science […] possesses much greater powers, […] because the powers […] of the former were real and practical” (II, 40) he would have certainly stopped reading Agrippa’s works and returned to his former scientific studies. Victor’s remark demonstrates the author’s personal admiration for modern science, whose powers are described as “real and practical”, and her disapproval of the natural philosophers like Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, which represent the outdated alchemical approach to the world. Indeed, similarly from Wagner’s humanistic approach to learning in Faust, the alchemical ideas in which Victor believes in are accused by the author, who blames Victor’s fate on his will to discover the chimerical elixir of life, of which he had learnt in those early scientists’ works. Victor is therefore the anti-hero of the novel, the character whose beliefs are directly condemned by Mary Shelley. Soon after, after a lightning destroys an old oak tree trunk, Frankenstein, in a state of despair, says, “It seemed to me as if nothing would or could ever be known . […] I […] set down natural history and all its progeny as a deformed and abortive creation; and entertained the greatest disdain for a would-be science, which could never even step within the threshold of knowledge” (II, 41). Here, just for a single instant in the novel, the protagonist refuses the work of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus which he describes as a “deformed and abortive creation”, foreshadowing the creation of the fiend, described later on through the same adjectives, which is the direct product of the protagonist’s faith in their works. In this instant of the novel Victor Frankenstein share Faust’s view on education and learning; Victor does indeed acknowledge the impossibility of science of obtaining any significant knowledge. The strong connection between his study of works of alchemy and the creation of the monster is underlined by the narrator intrusion at the end of this chapter: “When I look back, it seems to me as if this almost miraculous change of inclination and will was the immediate suggestion of the guardian angel of my life-the last effort made by the spirit of preservation to avert the storm that was even then hanging in the stars, and ready to envelope me.” (II, 41-42) Once more, the author foreshadows the Frankenstein’s damnation as a result of his attempt to create life and inevitably links it to his passion for the ancient searches for the elixir of life by alchemists and natural philosophers.

The author also juxtaposes Mr. Krempe and Mr. Waldman’s reaction to the great dedication with which Victor has studied the works of ancient natural philosophers to express contrasting opinions on science’s potential to improve human condition. Even though both the professor clearly have a strong faith in the power of modern science, they hold different beliefs regarding ancient malpractices of science such as alchemy. Indeed, Mr. Krempe clearly despises the protagonist’s older studies calling their work “nonsense” and accuses Victor of having “burdened [his] memory with exploded systems and useless names” and not knowing that those works were “a thousand years old, and as musty as they are ancient” (III, 46), demonstrating his belief in the futility of alchemy and other outdated sciences as well as their total rejection as foundation for modern science. Mr. Waldman, however, expresses quite a different opinion: he says, “[the ancient natural philosophers] were men to whose indefatigable zeal modern philosophers were indebted for most of the foundations of their knowledge” (III, 48) In this quote, the difference in views of the two professors is evident: indeed, Mr. Waldman believes that even though the work of these authors has been disproven by modern science, contemporary scientists must recognize their role in laying the foundation for scientific discovery, therefore presenting the acquisition of knowledge as a constructive linear process which occurs gradually and frequently includes the need to look back on the work of past scholars to learn their intuitions and their errors. Later on, Mr. Waldman remarks that “the labours of man of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind” (III, 48). This statement is much more powerful than the preceding in that it asserts the author’s belief of the efficiency of any scientific work improving the human condition, even though this work may be trying to prove a false hypothesis or going in the wrong direction. Indeed, Mr. Waldman refers to the ancient authors Victors has read as “man of genius” and through the words “ever” and “ultimately” suggests that the truth of his statement is applicable to all eras, even to those characterized by scientific malpractice such as magic and alchemy (“however erroneously directed”). This emphasizes a fundamental difference between the beliefs expressed through Faust and Frankenstein: Goethe clearly dismisses all the academic knowledge that Wagner is keen to study as futile and useless, while Mary Shelley demonstrates that not only does academic knowledge lead a man to become wiser, but even the knowledge of old scholars which have been disproven can be a foundation for modern knowledge. In conclusion, differently from Goethe, Mary Shelley is faithful in the ability of modern science and education to significantly improve humanity, but condemns Victor’s overwhelming passion for a scientific malpractice and is dubious on whether disproven science is accountable for laying the foundations for modern science.

Differently from Goethe, Mary Shelley condemns Victor’s ambitious project of creating life through diction, light and dark imagery and plot development. First of all, it is evident from the ending of the novel that Victor Frankenstein’s experiment which results in the creation of the monster is negative event which leads to Victor being “condemned by nature’s gods to limitless suffering” [14] . Indeed, Victor loses all his relatives and friends and dies on the pursuit of the being he himself has created.

Aside from using plot to condemn Frankenstein’s deed, Shelley also describes Victor during his work on the creation of life as isolated, unhealthy and mentally insane, therefore urging the reader to consider the effects of this project both on Victor and on humanity. Victor says “My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement” (IV, 55), which demonstrate the protagonist’s almost inhumane application to his project. His project soon becomes an obsession, as demonstrated by the words “a resistless, almost frantic, impulse, urged me forward: I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” and “I was thus engaged, heart and soul, in one pursuit. […] my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature” (IV, 55), foreshadowing the suffering that will derive from the creation of the monster. Most importantly, it is possible to see the change in Victor’s character deriving from his work, since, once a great lover of nature, he totally ignores the beauties of the outside world, showing his complete immersion in his task. The repetition in “my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose” (III, 47) clearly underlines Victor’s insanity due to an excessive fervour to reach his goal. Victor also postpones “all that related to [his] feeling of affection” (IV, 55), which once again underlines how greatly his undertaking has affected his person. Mary Shelley emphasizes the great changes that occur to Victor’s character while working on the creation of life to suggest a demonical possession of his soul, therefore denouncing his ambitious attempt and foreshadowing the disastrous outcome of his experiment. Indeed, in a narrator intervention at the end of the chapter, Victor himself later says, “I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for the simple pleasures […] then that study is certainly unlawful” (IV, 56).

Shelley also uses light and dark imagery throughout the play to condemn Victor’s creation of the monster. Indeed, in the period of time during which the novel was written, “light” had a connotation of “knowledge” and “reason”. [15] Victor constantly adopt light imagery in his narration when describing his will of reaching ultimate knowledge: “pour a torrent of light into our dark world” and “I was like the Arabian who had […] found a passage to life, aided only by one glimmering […] light” (IV, 54). However, Victor’s research is carried out in graveyards and slaughter-houses, which have a connotation of darkness, and the scene of the creation of life in the monster is described using the following words, “It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open” (V, 59). The absence of light in this scene, highlighted by the words “nearly burnt out”, “glimmer”, “half-extinguished” and “dull”, contrasts with the previous imagery of light, underlining that the creation of life is not the wonderful discovery of knowledge that Victor was imagining, but rather a dark act which will have profoundly negative consequences on his life. As Paul Sherwin points out, this is a “negative epiphany” for Victor, as he assists to the “dissolution of his hopes” and “witnesses the embarrassing fact of the creature”. The creature therefore becomes a “dark complement to Frankenstein’s light” [16] . Therefore, it is clear that in Frankenstein, differently from Goethe in Faust who justifies and exalts the protagonist’s wager with the Devil and journey to obtain knowledge, Mary Shelley condemns Victor’s ambitious project through plot development, diction and light imagery.

In conclusion, it is clear that Goethe and Mary Shelley express two contrasting viewpoints on knowledge. In Faust education is portrayed as ineffective and futile, whereas in Frankenstein is present the concept that science, even though erroneously directed, always improves the condition of man. Another discrepancy is in the way in which the two authors judge their protagonist’s strive for unattainable knowledge and truth: Goethe not only justifies Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles, but actually exalts his journey in search for the deeper essence of life, while Mary Shelley explicitly condemns Victor’s ambitious project by sentencing him to a life of inescapable suffering.

Alex Pagnotta


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