“No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience.” John Locke was an English philosopher from the 17th century to the early 18th century, he is regarded as one of the most influential people and thinkers from the enlightenment period for his theories. One of his more famous theories is the theory of knowledge. In this essay I will describe the similarities of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to John Locke’s theory.
John Locke was born in England in 1632, into an era beginning to enter the age of enlightenment. His theories proved to be some of the most influential during this period and most likely played a large role in the movement. Firstly, his theory of knowledge. In this theory he states that knowledge is empirical, meaning that knowledge is gained from observations or experience. This means that he believed that intelligence and intellect come from material substance rather than having innate ideas naturally in the human mind. Ideas are gathered through our own personal perceptions and reflections on things we’ve witnessed. He argues that at birth the brain starts as a “tabula rasa,” which is a Latin term for “blank slate.” Locke believes the brain is a “tabula rasa” to begin with and your life experiences are what paint the pictures in your head. The advanced and intelligent human brain is able to combine simple ideas to concoct more complex ideas, according to Locke’s theory.
Firstly, Locke’s theory is shown by Mary Shelley through the scene when the monster is discovering fire for the first time. He is very cold and when he discovers the fire he notices that it makes him feel nice and warm. “I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars… 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!” When he feels this nice sensation, he decides to get lots of this feeling at once by putting his hand into the embers, because he believes the closer he gets the better it will be. He is quite surprised that the fire doesn’t always give off positive effects because if you get too close to the flame it will burn you. The flame teaches the monster a valuable lesson about pain: by getting too close he will get hurt. I believe the monster puts this lesson into his journey further. When he comes across the De Lacey family he remains on the outside and stays hidden from them outside the house. He has put his experience with the fire into his predicament, he stays outside, because in the fire, the outside is where he gained the nice feeling of warmth, and if he goes inside he is likely to get hurt. He stays outside and hidden and he absorbs the family’s language, and he doesn’t want to go inside because he will probably scare them. He knows this only from his previous experience which he obviously learnt it from. “The only fence against the world is a thorough knowledge of it.” John Locke’s quote explains how the people of high class and social rank are getting through life and how they do it well in order to become successful. It explains what the monster has just learnt to do; he has learnt to overcome what he has done wrong in the past which is therefore improving his knowledge as a person or being because he knows what to do or not to do in the future. He is building himself up from the bottom and into a powerful creature and I believe this is what Locke sees as the way to gain class and rank in the world.
Secondly, Mary Shelley portrays John Locke’s theory of knowledge through experience in the scene when Victor Frankenstein decides to destroy his second monster creation. The monster demands Victor create another being just like the monster so he can have a wife or female companion. “You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This you alone can do, and I demand it of you as a right which you must not refuse to concede.” At first, Victor listens to the monster’s threats and begins to create a female version of his initial creation. But he then decides this is not a good idea and he destroys the female being and disobeys the monster’s threatening message. “She might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness…” This again, is a presentation of John Locke’s theory of knowledge. Victor, to begin with, thinks it will result in the monster leaving him to himself for the rest of his days, but then he remembers what the monster has already done to him, such as killing and causing the deaths of Victor’s close family and friends. Victor then decides to destroy this second monster as he now knows that delving into this further won’t end well because the first time it caused major grief and mayhem. Victor has now learnt that his experiments aren’t always going to turn out how he wants them to. The first time Victor thought his experiment would be a huge scientific discovery that helped people everywhere but it ended up creating an evil in the world. So this second time he realises that this experiment may not end in peace because he learnt this from his previous experience: to not expect everything to go right for him all the time. Victor realises his creations aren’t always going to cause the world to benefit from it, and this time most likely will turn out similarly again. John Locke’s quote: “Fortitude is the guard and support of the other virtues,” has a relation to Victor’s situation here again. This quote means that a man can show great courage through pain and grief to show great morals and responsibility. This relates to him because Victor is able to overcome his pain of losing family members and friends to show good morals of not creating another monster that will probably end as a mistake again. He makes the right decision even though he is putting himself at risk, which I believe takes great courage.
In conclusion, John Locke’s influence was definitely shown in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ novel. His theory of knowledge plays a big role in the story and Mary Shelley has used this to her advantage through the main protagonist and antagonist characters of Victor Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster, respectively. She shows that knowledge is indeed empirical just as John Locke theorised. Overall, through the work of Mary Shelley, it can be confirmed that John Locke and his philosophy were influential through this time period, especially the enlightenment era.