John Weisenreider

Plato's Theory and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

“And the excellence and beauty and rightness of every structure, animate or inanimate, and of every action of man, is relative solely to the use for which nature or the artist has intended them.”
Plato’s Republic, Book X.

“How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?”
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., pg. 58.

All of what we have of Plato’s teachings rest in his “dialogues”, fictional accounts of debates held between two or more individuals that help to convey Plato’s philosophical ideas. Plato’s dialogues, the Republic and Ion in particular, are primarily concerned with the idea of mimicry and divine inspiration. Plato considers poetry a form of mimicry, and thus far removed from truth. In the Republic, Plato likens an artist to a person holding a mirror up to nature; he has created nothing but the appearance of truth and reality.

“They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows”(Shelley, pg. 49).

These are interesting words for Shelley to use, ascribing to science, and indeed Frankenstein himself, the powers of God. And yet the word “mimic” is slipped into the passage, suggesting, as Plato would see, that what Frankenstein has done is not a perfect truth, but rather an inferior copy made by a person second hand. Plato says that the artist is not the creator of truth because he has made nothing in actuality, and has no experience in that which he has created. In his example, an artist who paints the reins of a horse may very well have no knowledge as to how to make those reins or how to use them properly.

Frankenstein as well exhibits these characteristics. “...I appeared rather like one doomed by slavery...or any other unwholesome trade than an artist occupied by his favorite employment”(Shelley, pg. 57). In the two years that he works to reanimate flesh and create a human being, he remains isolated from humanity. This goes even so far as not returning his family’s letters, who symbolically live five hundred miles away in Geneva, accentuating his isolation all the more. Without human contact there is no possible way that Frankenstein can create an actual living being, as he himself is inadequate in this area.

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