Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: Ch. 2

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Meanwhile Clerval occupied himself, so to speak, with the moral relations of things.h The busy stage of life, the virtues of heroes, and the actions of men were his theme; and his hope and his dream was to become one among those whose names are recorded in story as the gallant and adventurous benefactors of our species. The saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home. Her sympathy was ours; her smile, her soft voice, the sweet glance of her celestial eyes, were ever there to bless and animate us. She was the living spirit of love to soften and attract; I might have become sullen in my study, rought through the ardour of my nature, but that she was there to subdue me to a semblance of her own gentleness. And Clerval—could aught ill entrench on the noble spirit of Clerval? Yet he might not have been so perfectly humane, so thoughtful in his generosity, so full of kindness and tenderness amidst his passion for adventurous exploit, had she not unfolded to him the real loveliness of beneficence and made the doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition.

I feel exquisite pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of childhood,d before misfortune had tainted my mind and changed its bright visions of extensive usefulness into gloomy and narrow reflections upon self. Besides, in drawing the picture of my early days, I also record those events which led, by insensible steps, to my after tale of misery, for when I would account to myself for the birth of that passion which afterwards ruled my destiny I find it arise, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources; but, swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course, has swept away all my hopes and joys. Natural philosophy is the geniusw that has regulated my fate; I desire, therefore, in this narration, to state those facts which led to my predilection for that science. When I was thirteen years of age we all went on a party of pleasure to the baths near Thonon; the inclemency of the weather obliged us to remain a day confined to the inn. In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa.h I opened it with apathy; the theory which he attempts to demonstrate and the wonderful facts which he relates soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind, and bounding with joy, I communicated my discovery to my father. My father looked carelessly at the title page of my book and said, "Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash."

If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the painsd to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded and that a modern system of science had been introduced which possessed much greater powers than the ancient, because the powers of the latter were chimericalw, while those of the former were real and practical, under such circumstances I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside and have contented my imagination, warmed as it was, by returning with greater ardour to my former studies. It is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin. But the cursory glance my father had taken of my volume by no means assured me that he was acquainted with its contents, and I continued to read with the greatest avidity. When I returned home my first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me treasures known to few besides myself. I have described myself as always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature. In spite of the intense labour and wonderful discoveries of modern philosophers, I always came from my studies discontented and unsatisfied. Sir Isaac Newtonh is said to have avowed that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great and unexplored ocean of truth. Those of his successors in each branch of natural philosophy with whom I was acquainted appeared even to my boy's apprehensions as tyrosw engaged in the same pursuit.

The untaught peasant beheld the elements around him and was acquainted with their practical uses. The most learned philosopher knew little more. He had partially unveiled the face of Nature, but her immortal lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery. He might dissect, anatomize, and give names; but, not to speak of a final cause, causes in their secondary and tertiary gradesh were utterly unknown to him. I had gazed upon the fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature, and rashly and ignorantly I had repined.

X [h] the moral relations of things.


"Philosophy" included at this time the scientific study of nature (natural philosophy) and moral philosophy, which the OED describes as "the branch of philosophy that deals with right and wrong conduct and with duty and responsibility (formerly sometimes including psychology and metaphysics); ethics." Theology is separate.…

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X [d] pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of …

Writing & Reading

The phrase may remind us of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality upon Recollections of Early Childhood." Wordsworth as well as Coleridge, first-generation Romantics, occupied a large place at this time in Mary's mind as they did in Percy's, who was one of the relatively few of Blake's contemporaries to know Songs of Innocence (1789) Songs of Experience (1793-4).

X [w] genius

Here, specifically a guide. "With reference to classical pagan belief: The tutelary god or attendant spirit allotted to every person at his birth, to govern his fortunes and determine his character, and finally to conduct him out of the world" (OED).

X [h] Cornelius Agrippa.

Writing & Reading

In a fatal moment at the end of this paragraph Victor's father dismisses Agrippa as "sad trash." This is the hubris of a supposedly enlightened modern man upon an exceptionally learned man three centuries earlier. In not taking Agrippa seriously, he fails to take seriously his son's interest and educate him into an understanding of Agrippa's limitations. Had he....…

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X [d] my father had taken the pains

Writing & Reading

Caroline Beaufort's father jeopardized her future by his selfishly removing himself and her to a foreign place and communicating with no one because he is ashamed of his financial losses. 

X [w] chimerical

Imaginary, fantastical.

X [h] Sir Isaac Newton

Science & Technology

Following just a few sentences after the mention of Cornelius Agrippa, the reference to Newton affiliates perhaps the greatest scientist in history to that date (laws of motion, optics, calculus, refracting telescope) with the man Victor's father trashes. Yet Newton himself is connected with Agrippa by pursuing the ancient, secret knowledge: "the true knowledge of the universe had been earlier revealed by God to the ancients, the prisci theologi [the ancient theologians]" (K. Thomas, 226).…

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X [w] tyros

Beginners, novices.

X [h] final cause, causes in their secondary and te…


"[T]he end or purpose for which a thing is done, viewed as the cause of the act; esp. applied in Natural Theology to the design, purpose, or end of the arrangements of the universe" (OED).

The noteworthy qualification here is what the 18th c. called Natural Theology. This was a system of Christian belief derived from empirical observation rather than from revelation, personal or Bi…

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