Revision 1- Nature and Environment in Frankenstein
Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves.
- Werner Heisenberg
Although the comparison between science and nature is a fairly obvious one today, at one time the two were thought to be completely separate. Before the romantic movement of the early eighteen-hundreds, the scientific revolution was in full effect. Many new discoveries were being made in the fields of mathematics, biology, chemistry, and many other subjects. However, it was thought that science had little in common with nature. This lasted until the Romantic Movement began. To summarize the Romantic Movement, it was a time that placed much emphasis on man’s relationship to science and nature. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein during this period and the effects of this movement are clearly shown in her writing of this piece. This idea is demonstrated when M. Waldman tells Victor that modern masters of science “Penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places.” (Shelly 75) Frankenstein is a perfect representation of the Romantic Period because Shelly uses nature to illustrate the character’s relationship to science and discovery.
The letters at the beginning of the novel serve several purposes to the story. It introduces the outermost narrator, sets the cold scene that is so prevalent throughout the novel, and introduces us to the topic of scientific discovery. On the first page of the story, Walton depicts the cold breeze and frost of London. Not only does this describe his emotional state of feeling isolated and alone, but also the state of his quest for knowledge. In London, his mind is stagnant. He describes this by citing the “calm sea.” (Shelly 51) Walton feels he needs to get away in order to continue his quest just as Victor does later in the story. In the first letter, Walton paints an optimistic portrait of the North Pole when he writes “It’s productions and features may be without example, as the phaenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” (Shelly, 51)This is the first time Shelly uses a force of nature to depict a relationship to science. Why would Shelly use the phrase eternal light? The North Pole also has “eternal” darkness and days where it receives both day and night time. The answer is that Shelly is subtly suggesting to the reader that Walton’s journey is for the purpose of discovery and science. Walton feels like he may discover something significant that will further his quest for knowledge. However, as the letters progress, we see that the pursuit of knowledge is often treacherous. As Walton and his crew continue to the North Pole, he writes that “Floating sheets of ice continually pass us, indicating the dangers of the region towards which we are advancing.” This is only an introduction of one of the most prominent themes of the novel.
At a glance, it appears that Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about the dangers of science. This definitely could be, but how did we come to this conclusion? Was it Victor’s Narrative about the monster to Walton? This is certainly a contributor to this idea, but if we take a close look at the novel we see that Victor doesn’t even heed his own warning at the end of the novel. Therefore, his story is not a concrete example of this theme. We see this motif introduced to us in an obvious way early in the story. Victor describes his experience of watching lighting strike a tree, and the tree splitting directly in half. The moment the lightning strikes the tree is analogous to the moment the spark of life ignites in the monster. Victor is the tree, as his life splits and goes down a terrible path. This theme is further exemplified by the conversation Victor has with M. Waldman. Waldman tells Victor that the modern masters of science 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.” (Shelly, 76) This quote is important because it mirrors the way Victor reaches god-like powers, which in-turn causes his downfall. Shelly describes the power of science in terms of nature to give a subtle hint about her opinion on the relationship between science and nature.
Often times in this novel, forces of nature are used as a symbol for a symbol of knowledge or the character’s pursuit for it. The first example which demonstrates this comes on page 81 when describes the summer of the monster’s creation. “Never did the field bestow a more plentiful harvest, or the vines yield a more luxuriant vintage,” (Shelly, 81) Victor says. What other purpose could Shelly have for including that passage than using it to establish nature as a symbol for the addition of knowledge? Shelly confirms this symbol usage when victor states “Rain patted down dismally on the panes, and my candle was burnt out,” after the completion of the monster. She is confirming to the reader that she is indeed using nature as a symbol so that the symbol is established for the remainder of the story. Another passage that describes Victor’s pursuit of knowledge comes on page 112. At this time in the story Victor has just failed to save Justine by not confessing the monster’s existence. Victor tells Walton “Sometimes, with my sails set, I was just carried by the wind…I left the boat to peruse its own course.” (Shelly, 112) This demonstrates to us that Victor has temporarily given up on his once fiery pursuit of knowledge. Finally, after Victor destroys the monster’s future partner, he takes the remains the remains out to the water to sink them. This represents the end of Victor’s pursuit. Since Victor is a selfish character, we can assume the reason he feels he is “about the commission of a dreadful crime” is because he is heartbroken to see his rise to knowledge and power end. After burying the remains, Shelly uses the passage where Victor becomes stranded on the water to show that Victor is now essentially dead. Obviously, the story couldn’t end there so the wind picks up out of nowhere and carries him to shore.
These symbols are also used for the monster. The first sign of these symbols in the monster’s tale is the mention of fire several times in the beginning of his narrative. Fire is often used to signify beginnings or a rebirth. Shelly uses it here to signify the spark of the monster’s learning. The symbolism can clearly be seen as the monster receives books. The monster does the most learning by reading books in this story. Shelly purposely makes the month in which this happens August because August is the hottest month of the year. She uses the heat to signify the intensity of learning.
Now that we see that Shelly is using Nature as a symbol for knowledge, we must ask ourselves why she is doing this. The answer has much to do with the times she was living in. The romantic era was a movement which just began to fuse the link between nature and science. (Smith, 1) Authors of this era were always looking for a new way to represent nature from a different angle. The writers of this era placed a focus on individuality for the first time. (Smith,1) With that being said, Shelly’s use of symbolism to display a link between science and nature is original, bold, and progressive.
In conclusion, Frankenstein may appear to be just a science fiction story on the surface, but it should be just as well known for the Romantic aspects of the story.
Smith, Nicole. "Elements of Romanticism in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley." Article Myriad. N.p., 6 Dec. 2011. Web. 08 Oct. 2013.
Shelly, Mary. Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. Peterborough, Ontario: Boardview, 2012. Print.