The Plague and Frankenstein The quest for knowledge is eternal and almost never-ending. People devote their lives to studying and advancing their knowledge, but their advancement is always held in check by society and the people who studied before them. Several novels have been written which explore the effect knowledge and its limitations can have on society. This paper will focus on Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.
Even though these two novels were written about 100 years apart, they still exemplify many aspects as to why knowledge has limitations. While Defoe’s Journal centers on how to prevent and cure the plague, with a heavy emphasis on religion, Shelley’s Frankenstein has little to no religious affiliation, and focuses on how science and knowledge can potentially lead to evil and misfortune. The plague was a severe and devastating disease which affected Europe multiple times throughout history; each time killing every person who came down with the disease.
People are fortunate enough today to have a cure for this disease, but during the 1700s, there was no cure and very little knowledge about proper medical practices. Defoe mentions how signs were posted throughout London, claiming of people who knew of a cure or treatment for the plague, however some of these treatments “prepared their bodies for the plague, instead of preserving them against it. ”1 Thieves and pick-pockets robbed and cheated poor people out of their money with scams, sometimes even poisoning their victims with tonics or “physicks” that could include such poisons as Mercury in them. These scammers were all throughout the city, appealing to the desires and abundance of the poor. There was no regulation of such business practices and advertisements made ridiculous claims of free help, only to deceive the poor once they got there, forcing them to pay for what may (or may not) help them. These practices were quite cruel and unjust, but people were so scared for their lives that they were willing to do anything which would allow them to live. Not every person in the city fell victim to these scams.
Many people once they heard news that the plague had reached London decided to flee and head to some far off town where they might be able to avoid catching the disease. This plight from the city was not only a rational decision, but a religious one as well. Much debate between people in London was sparked about the religious justification for staying in the city, and trusting in God to protect them where they were, or to leave London and “trust God with [their] safety and health”. 3 For the main character in this novel, H. F. struggles with this decision because he can leave London and live with his relatives, and risk losing all of his possessions, but he ultimately decides to stay, viewing his decision as remaining faithful to God. Upon informing his brother of this decision, he learns that the person, who he was going to entrust with his property during his leave, became ill with the plague, only enforcing H. F. ’s feelings that he made the correct decision to stay in God’s faith. 4 Once the plague hit London with full force, the city was forced to find a new way in which to contain this disease.
Instead of looking to the filth with which people lived in, and regarding that it could be carried by animals such as rats, the town determined that each house was to be inspected by doctors, and if the plague should be found within a home, the inhabitants would be locked inside the house, only to come out if they died or the disease had passed. Each home which the plague was found in had a red cross painted on the door, marking it for all to see, and a Watchman was assigned to make sure nobody went in or out of the house, and to run errands for the family if need be. This cruel idea caused many families to parish in their own homes, while others tried to escape by either sneaking out or attacking/threatening the watchmen. In the book Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley, the underlying theme is how knowledge and power can lead to misery and destruction. In the book, Victor Frankenstein goes off to college and becomes obsessed with several different types of philosophy and science. He becomes absorbed in “the secret of life” and he ultimately tries to recreate it. He is successful and brings life to a monster so hideous that even he cannot bear to be around. Frankenstein tries to desert the monster which he created, but he is never fully able to, as the monster follows and spies on Frankenstein and kills part of his family. Frankenstein is appalled that his creation could have begun to cause such horror and pain to people around him, but is worried that if he tells anyone about the monster which he has created, then he himself will look like a madman. The monster himself is eager for affection from humans, but everywhere he goes, he is shunned and forced away from the town due to people being in fear of him.
The monster spends much time watching the actions of a family of peasants, where from his hiding place he is able to learn how to speak French as well as read. After some time he ultimately decides that they are a very compassionate family and that he should reveal himself to them, upon doing this, they are disgusted and chase him away. The monster vows to get revenge on Frankenstein and first begins by killing his little brother whom he stumbles across in the forest in Geneva. He then plants the child’s necklace on a friend of Victor’s, to make her appear as the murderer.
She is tried for the crime and hung for it. The monster realizes that his only chance for happiness lies within Frankenstein creating him a female companion. He persuades Frankenstein to create him a female saying that he will leave mankind alone forever and go live in some distant land if he has a companion to go with him. 7 As Frankenstein has begun work on his second monster in Scotland, he is reminded of how crazy he became when creating his first monster, and upon catching a glimpse of his monster watching him through the window, Frankenstein freaks out, and destroys the second body which he is creating.
The monster upon seeing this is enraged and promises to kill the rest of Frankenstein’s friends and family. This promise holds true, for Frankenstein loses his best friend that night, his wife on his wedding night, and his father. Rather than heed to the monster’s wishes and create a wife for him, Frankenstein was overcome with the guilt of the deaths of his monsters first two victims. He worries that in creating another, he will be creating a duo of evil that will wreak havoc upon the human race.
For it was his fault in the first place which let his imagination get a hold of himself and he wanted to create life for himself. This intense lust for knowledge which Frankenstein has ultimately leads to his demise. He becomes mad in his quest and ends up destroying everyone dear to him as well as himself in the end. Both The Journal of the Plague Year and Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus have heavy themes about knowledge. Defoe’s Journal specifically focuses on how disease was treated and what the methods were to try to cure it.
The Journal also has a heavy religious force in it as well. The people in the story as well as the main characters, look towards Bible versus and quotes for guidance in their decision making. This is not the same as in Frankenstein where the main character becomes god-like himself with his creation of life. This major difference is most likely due to the fact that the novels were written about 100 years apart from each other and people’s views how religion affected their daily lives had greatly changed.
There is very little mentioned in Frankenstein about religion at all. In each novel, there is excess knowledge than what people have the capacity for; therefore in The Journal, London makes the harsh decision to lock people in their own homes in order to prevent the spread of the plague; while in Frankenstein, his ever persistent quest for knowledge winds up killing him and those dearest to him. The novels are almost a warning as to what effect knowledge can have on society and suggest, that as Socrates said, “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. ”
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