The Paradox of Discovery in Frankenstein
In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the concept of "discovery" is paradoxical: initial discovery is joyful and innocent, but ends in misery and corruption. The ambitions of both Walton and Frankenstein (to explore new lands and to cast scientific light on the unknown, respectively) are formed with the noblest of intentions but a fatal disregard for the sanctity of natural boundaries. Though the idea of discovery remains idealized, human fallibility utterly corrupts all pursuit of that ideal. The corruption of discovery parallels the corruption inherent in every human life, in that a child begins as a pure and faultless creature, full of wonder, but hardens into a self-absorbed, grasping, overly ambitious adult. Only by novel's end does Walton recognize that he must abandon his own ambition (the mapping of previously uncharted land), out of concern for the precious lives of his crew.
The first two occurrences of the word "discovery" occur quite early in the novel, in Walton's first letter to his sister. He compares his feelings on the expedition to a child's joy (14). Walton reminds her of his uncle's large library of "discovery" literature (tales of seamen and adventurers), all of which he devoured as a child. He writes of his disappointment when his father forbade him, on his deathbed, to "embark in a seafaring life" (14). Walton later tells Frankenstein that his crew is on a "voyage of discovery"; it only at the mention of this word that Frankenstein agrees to board the ship (24).
Once on board, Frankenstein recounts his history. Frankenstein, too, was possessed by a youthful fixation: the desire to acquire scientific knowledge, and to create an indestructible man (40). He remarks that science is "a perpetual craving for discovery and wonder," and tells Walton that he solved the most impenetrable of scientific mysteries: the principle of life (49). Though the "stages of discovery" were diligently performed, his "astonishment" soon gave way to "delight and rapture"; the "overwhelming" nature of his achievement erased all the grim steps that had led to its fruition (51).
The catastrophic effects of "discovery" appear, in a slightly different form, in two other places in the novel. The creature's first victim is Frankenstein's brother William; a young girl, a friend of the Frankenstein family, is wrongfully accused of the murder. Ernest Frankenstein remarks, " Œ[T]o us the discovery we have made [of the girl's guilt] completes our misery'" (76). The monster describes his reading of Ruins of Empires, and weeps over the section detailing the "discovery of the American hemisphere... and the hapless fate of its original inhabitants" (116).
Walton's idea of discovery consists of pure adventure and the childish pursuit of glory. "I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of part of the world never before visited; my enticements induce me to commence this...