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