Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Purpose of Place in Frankenstein

“And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.”[1]

            Every good story requires a few elements. There must of course be characters, both simple and complex, with issues, quirks, skills, interests and conflicts. A story with characters that have nothing to do though will be nothing but an endless character description – boring for the author, the audience and the characters themselves. To fix this, the story requires a strong plot, full of conflict and the inevitable resolutions. The best stories we have can give wonderful examples of both characterization and plot. But having a series of events, along with the people or characters that those events happen to, is still not enough for a story. It would be pointless to write an engaging story and set it in the nothingness of a dull setting – a literary purgatory. Instead, authors must make ample use of setting. Often, and this is not a bad thing, the setting is a passive participant in the story, there by necessity and given just the amount of detail needed to be believable and useful to the plot. Then there are stories that work so well almost exclusively because of the setting. In these stories, the settings serve to highlight the themes and characters that the author has so meticulously crafted. When this happens, as it does in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the setting can be used to further explore the ideas that the author has put down in prose or verse.
            Frankenstein, at its core, is a gothic novel. Full of dreadful science, murder, mental illness and desolation, the novel serves to showcase the transformation of a neutral being – the monster – into the villain he is presumed to be while simultaneously mirroring the transformation of his creator from a man with an obsessive fascination of death and life into the monster he presumes he created. This idea of mirroring is also seen in the setting. The story starts off at one of the most inhospitable areas of the planet – the Arctic Circle. Here we see Walton embarking on a quest to further science and gain personal fame. It is in this most unwelcoming place that he meets Frankenstein. Right away, we meet the main character, “his limbs were nearly frozen…I never saw a man in such wretched condition,”[2] in a totally inhuman place. This is fitting of course because we see the monster for the first time, running away from Frankenstein. This theme of desolate setting is continued throughout the book, with most of the actual action of the story occurring in and around Geneva Switzerland. Though not nearly as extreme as the Arctic Circle, Switzerland, especially in the winter, can closely resemble the initial setting of northern Russia.
            And though most of the action in the first half involves grotesque science and bloody violence, there is a moment of clarity. When the monster starts to tell his story, the setting quickly changes from the inhospitable Swizz mountains where “the surface is very uneven…interspersed with rifts that sink deep,” and a “…field of ice…almost a league in width”[3] to one of civilization, albeit one of poverty. It is in this serene place that the monster becomes essentially human. Before he finds his hovel, he is simply a creature that reacts to his environment – he is hungry so he eats, finds fire, learns how to cook and keep himself alive. He then finds a village and is chased out – humanity has rejected him, and with no means of communicating back with them, he runs away. Then he finds the cottage of a poor family. Watching them in secrecy, in a chapter revolving around his voyeurism, he picks up on their habits and starts to help them. Before this though, he starts to learn human language; the first step toward becoming human. He can begin to think like we can; this process cumulates in him seeing his reflection and rejecting himself. He knows he will never fit into the setting he lives in. he is doomed to be an outsider forever, and understanding this, he helps the people anyway.
            This is a good time to briefly touch on a separate issue. In helping the people, Shelley has given the monster a sense of empathy. This is almost ironic because it is this sense of empathy that is utterly lacking in Frankenstein. When he creates the monster, instead of nurturing his creation – instead of making it his Adam – he runs away from it and refuses to acknowledge its existence. He knows that it must be lonely, confused and utterly helpless in the world he is brought into, and yet he abandons it. He cannot take the emotions he knows the monster is feeling and apply them to him. There is strong evidence in this, along with the selfishness of his character, to suggest that Frankenstein is incredibly sociopathic.
            But to tie that back to the idea that the setting mirrors what is going on in the plot, it becomes apparent that the monster’s and, in a way, Frankenstein’s emotional state can be deduced from the setting in which Shelley places her characters. At the height of the climax of this half – blinded by mist on top of a glacier – the two figures confront each other and in a scene of incredible suspense, reject each other. In an environment utterly inhospitable to humankind, humanity and its creation reject each other. They cannot both exist in the world, just like humans cannot survive very easily in the majority of the book’s settings.

[1] Samuel Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
[2]Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, page 13
[3] Both quotes, Frankenstein, page 105


Adam said...

I don't think your introductory paragraph serves any purpose. If setting is important, we should be working with the importance of a particular setting (the one in Frankenstein) rather than with "setting" in the abstract.

In the second paragraph you point out that we start out in a desolate setting, and that we have more than one desolate setting (cold, in particular, is important here). You correctly (although without citation) point out that desolate settings are common in Gothic novels. But why is it important, for your own argument, to establish that Frankenstein is gothic? Or how does your own argument develop from pointing out that the novel is gothic? In other words, you are making a very general point, when you need to be making a specific one.

The contrast between settings is good. In that most archetypal gothic novel, *The Mysteries of Udolpho*, this contrast between settled lands and mountains is laid out literally in the first paragraph, which I now quote:

"On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St. Aubert. From its windows were seen the pastoral landscapes of Guienne and Gascony stretching along the river, gay with luxuriant woods and vine, and plantations of olives. To the south, the view was bounded by the majestic Pyrenees, whose summits, veiled in clouds, or exhibiting awful forms, seen, and lost again, as the partial vapours rolled along, were sometimes barren, and gleamed through the blue tinge of air, and sometimes frowned with forests of gloomy pine, that swept downward to their base. These tremendous precipices were contrasted by the soft green of the pastures and woods that hung upon their skirts; among whose flocks, and herds, and simple cottages, the eye, after having scaled the cliffs above, delighted to repose. To the north, and to the east, the plains of Guienne and Languedoc were lost in the mist of distance; on the west, Gascony was bounded by the waters of Biscay."

So you are picking up on something important in the novel, although I'd also like to point out that the monster strongly aspires to return to a different setting. In particular, I'd urge that you consider his desire to go "to the vast wilds of South America" (164) with his future mate, if you revise.

If the height of the mountains is so inhospitable to humanity, what is Victor Frankenstein doing there? One thing you're ignoring is the interest of humanity in general, and Victor in particular, in those very hostile environments.

Overall: your understanding is good, and your emphasis in particular on contrasts here is important, but you spend too much energy on generalities, and not enough on specifics. Focus more on details of the text, less on sweeping generalizations.

Pitt News Multimedia said...

I think your first paragraph is too long, and only the second part of it really relates to the subject of the prompt and your essay. You make some good connections with the inhabitable landscapes and the relationship it has with Frankenstein and the monster, but I think you lose track of answering the question in your last two paragraphs. You have a pretty good analysis of the monster's empathy and character overall, but, I don't think it ties in properly with the prompt. You seem to have good initial thoughts and ideas for the prompt, but I don't know if they were mapped out too well. Maybe you didn't give yourself enough time to answer the prompt, which would explain why the essay seems a little thrown together. But overall, it's not too bad, it's just needs some revision. Also, I do really like the quote that you included at the beginning of your response. It ties in to the prompt perfectly.

Nikki Moriello said...

Sorry, that last comment was me! I forgot to log out of my Pitt News gmail before posting

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