the death of empathy: a polished frankenstein critical

…the nature of motivations that direct an individual’s course of action.

Despite the strides made by modern and ancient science alike, no man has ever created a power as potent as ambition. Individuals who are driven by this unending desire to achieve sink into a single minded purpose, pursuing their goal with a fervor that could easily be mistaken for madness. Ambition’s very nature, the qualities inherent to its existence, make sacrifice and selfishness a requirement, not an option, to the individuals stricken with it. The success that ambitious individuals seek – the burning need to be the first, the best, or the most well known – require the individual to be placed above their peers, and thus encourage a lack of empathy in the individual’s course of action. The ambitious individual’s sole loyalty is to themselves and their calling, and any human obstacle that stands in the way must be removed. Their core motivation drains them of empathy, and directs their course of action toward the individual’s benefit alone. The powerful nature of ambition as a driving force is demonstrated through the character of Victor in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Early in the novel, Victor’s childhood desires, his priorities while at university, and his ultimate decision to create his monster all betray the follies of ambition, and its immense capacity to direct course of action away from empathy and towards opportunistic behavior. Victor’s priorities in the pursuit of his greatest ambition indicate how an individual, when driven by ambition, will pursue the course of action that benefits them the most, irrespective of the potential impact on others. Because the nature of ambition is inherently competitive, it requires the sacrifice of others for personal gain, and thus drives the individual to act selfishly and without empathy.

Though Victor’s motivations shift throughout the novel, his early years are undeniably dominated by ambition. It is this desire that underlies his actions and directs his behavior as the story progresses. Because first person narration is doomed to be biased, Victor’s account of his youth is slightly rose tinted, blurring the line between ambition and pure curiosity in his pursuits and calling his true motives into question. However, as he continues telling his tale, it becomes clear what his true desires were. During a passionate rumination on the genius of Cornelius Agrippa, an ancient philosopher who claimed to know the secrets of the universe beyond the conceptions of modern science, Victor describes his reasons for his strong affinity for Agrippa. Rather than valuing the philosopher’s knowledge and capabilities, Victor has eyes only for the “glory” that “would attend the discovery, if (he) could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” In this quote, and in his previous praises of Agrippa, Victor reveals his attraction towards glory and success, as opposed to the desire to attain knowledge. He states that he does not desire wealth, only to bask in the recognition that a discovery the likes of which Cornelius Agrippa promised would no doubt afford him. His expressed dislike for the limitations of modern science betray his motives in a similar fashion. Victor wishes that modern science would be bigger, more grand, and more capable of pushing the limits as his ambition drives him to do. Had he valued knowledge, he would have appreciated modern science for its truth, rather than abandoning it for the wild and false promises of Agrippa. With Victor’s true motivations behind his actions defined, his creation of the monster takes on an entirely new meaning. Rather than being a question of science going to far,  the question becomes how ambition directs an individual towards their course of action, blind to the implications on others. It is ambition, not knowledge, that becomes the villain, and its impact on the individual’s actions become clear. Ambition is clearly a powerful driving force for Victor, but its greatest power is shown through its natural ability to quell his empathy at every turn.

Few motivations have the ability to influence an individual’s actions the way that ambition does; as Victor demonstrates, ambition’s very nature demands the sacrifice of others for personal gain. Obviously, Victor’s creation of the monster becomes catastrophic for him and his fellow men, but the lack of empathy necessitated by a desire to succeed permeates all of Victor’s choices, not just the life-defining moments. For instance, in the process of creating his creature, Victor ceases contact with his concerned family and friends, wishing to “procrastinate all that related to…feelings of affection until the great object…should be completed.” He is explicitly prioritizing his work at Ingolstadt above his familial responsibilities, even considering his full awareness of how much value his father and sister place on his communication. The mechanical nature of Victor’s description of this decision indicates just how deeply his ambition controls him, as he views love and affection as something to be “procrastinated,” using diction that reduces love to a project rather than recognizing its importance to those he values. This quote communicates two essential components of ambition’s nature that empower it to be this consuming, to direct one’s actions so totally. On a simpler level, it demonstrates the requirement of sacrifice for the attainment of success. In order to go where no one has before, a sacrifice must be made – otherwise, there would be no reason why no one has achieved the same heights. Because ambition requires sacrifice, it is natural that the feelings of others – or, in the case of Victor, one’s humanity – will be lumped into that sacrifice. On a deeper level, however, this quote speaks to the fundamental competition that ambition creates. When one desires to be great, it requires a climb. To be the best, there must be, somewhere in existence, the worst, and the path to achieving the goal of success above others requires others to be less than. Ambition necessitates inequality, and in order to be on the upper end of that imbalance, an individual must place themselves above others. In any and all pursuits of ambition, an individual is competing with others, and this competition discourages cooperation, connection, and empathy. If one desires to be the best, being kind and helpful will only hinder that goal, and thus the individual will behave selfishly and without empathy. These are fundamental truths about ambition, and it is these components of its nature that give it the ability to direct one’s actions away from empathy and towards single-minded success, no matter the human cost.

The nature of ambition sets it apart from other potential motivators, as it is ambition alone that has the power to so completely rearrange one’s course of action for their own gain, and to blind the individual to something as vital to human experience as empathy. Victor’s feverish speech leading up to the creation of his monster exemplifies this, as his thoughts stray further from humanity and towards aspirational thinking that considers Victor and Victor alone. In the nights preceding Victor’s ultimate success, the creation of his monster, he begins to prophesize about what his being will be like, imagining a “new species” whose gratitude “no father could claim…so completely as I should deserve theirs.” This quote betrays Victor’s deep desire for glory and recognition again, and his focus on the gratitude he would deserve shows just how deeply his ambitious motives have altered his actions. It is clear from this quote that the creation of the monster was no scientific curiosity – it was a calculated attempt to achieve the success he desperately sought. Because these motives are so well defined, it is no mystery where Victor’s complete lack of empathy in his actions is stemming from. By creating this creature, he is disregarding the possible implications on humanity, minimizing a life to a tool for success, and ignoring the needs of his loving family, all of which demonstrate a lack of consideration for others where their needs conflict with Victor’s own. Because of the nature of ambition as a motivating force, an ambitious individual will be ignorant to empathy and dismissive of the needs of others, choosing instead the path that will afford them the greatest benefit. Their decisions become unethical and devoid of empathy, because ambition requires one to view others as tools or obstacles. The nature of ambition and its twisted view of others contaminates an individual’s course of action, lacing all their behavior with selfishness and a lack of consideration for others.

In order to have bearing on an individual’s course of action, a motivation’s nature must be particularly powerful. As Frankenstein‘s title character exemplifies, ambition possesses this power, and is able to direct and individual away from empathy and towards selfish action. From his childhood, Victor was driven by the subtle hum of ambition, and this ambition grew to direct him towards unethical and unkind choices due to the inherently competitive and selfish nature of ambition. Individuals who are burdened by this motivation are doomed to an unfulfilled life. No amount of success and achievement can stand in for human connection, and, as the saying goes, it is always lonely at the top. The ambitious individual’s pursuit dooms them to dissatisfaction, even when they achieve what they want.


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