Frankenstein: Knowledge and Nature
Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves.
- Werner Heisenberg
- Werner Heisenberg
Nature is extremely prevalent throughout Mary Shelly’s classic novel “Frankenstein.” When readers think of the book they often conjure up images of the frozen tundra of the arctic, the snowy Montanvert Glacier, or the pouring rain which always seems to be following Victor in Geneva. This was Shelly’s intention writing the book. As a product of the Romantic Period, Shelly’s novel puts a strong emphasis on the environment and nature in her novel. The Romantic Period was a time where nature was the focus of academia. It didn’t matter whether you were an artist, musician, chemist, or biologist, students and professors alike strived to incorporate and connect nature into their studies. It is clear to see that Shelly uses on nature to tell her story, but why is she doing this, and what is she trying to represent? I believe that in Frankenstein, Mary Shelly uses nature as a symbol for the pursuit of knowledge.
With this idea in mind, let’s start to look at what Shelly is trying to convey to us by using nature in her novel. First, we need to look at places where Shelly uses nature to represent knowledge so that we can gain a better idea of what she is trying to say through these passages.. The novel begins with four letters from scientist and explorer Robert Walton. These letters serve several purposes in the story. One is to introduce the outermost narrator, depicts a cold environment that we will become quite familiar with throughout the novel, and introduces us to the topic of scientific discovery. On the first page of the story, Walton describes the cold breeze and frost of London. Here, Shelly is using the nature of London to both show us the bleak isolation that Walton is feeling and more importantly, to describe where he is on his journey for his quest for knowledge and power. In London, Walton’s mind is stagnant. We know this when Walton makes a comment about the “calm sea.” (Shelly, 51) This is one of the few times in the novel where the character’s quest for knowledge and therefore the weather, are at a standstill. Walton feels that in order to continue on his quest for knowledge he must move away. Walton paints an optimistic portrait of the North Pole when he writes, “Its productions and features may be without example, as the phenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” (Shelly, 51) Why would Shelly choose to 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 both the North Pole and the relentless pursuit of knowledge.” This is only an introduction of one of the most prominent themes of the novel.
Throughout the novel, Shelly continues to use forces of nature to represent knowledge for several characters. She surely solidifies this symbol with the monster. The first sign of this symbol 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 her to signify the spark of the monster’s learning. The symbolism can also clearly be seen as the monster receives and reads books. The monster does the most learning by reading books. Shelly purposely makes the month in which this takes place August because August is the hottest month of the year. She uses heat to signify the intensity of learning taking place.
Finally, Shelly uses a great amount of symbolism to show Victor’s relationship with nature. The first example of Shelly explaining this comes on page eighty-one when Victor describes the creation of the monster. “Never did the field bestow a more plentiful harvest, or the vines yield a more luxuriant vintage,” (Shelly, 81) says Victor. 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 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 122. As this time in the story Victor has just failed to save Justine by not confessing to the creation of the monster. Victor tells Walton “Sometimes, with my sails set, I was just carried by the wind…I left the boat to pursue its own course.” (Shelly, 112) The purpose of this passage is to explain the internal conflict in Victor. Although Victor has a relentless need for discovery and knowledge the death of Justine has caused him to reconsider if his efforts are worth the price. The final example comes after Victor destroys the monster’s female counterpart. After the decimation of the monster, he takes the remains out to the water to sink them. This is the end of Victor’s pursuit. When Victor sinks the mangled body he tells Walton that he is “about the commission of a dreadful crime.” He is heartbroken, but probably not for the reasons one would think. Shelly then uses the passage where Victor becomes stranded on the water to show that Victor is essentially dead. Does he survive his situation on the raft? Yes, but there is nothing left of him. He has lost the only thing that really matters to him, which is his pursuit for knowledge and power.
Now that we see that Shelly is using nature as a symbol for knowledge, we must ask ourselves why she is doing this. Victor Frankenstein is a complicated character. He is all powerful in the way that he can create life, yet he cannot love the being he created that desperately wanted Victor to love him. Why is this? Victor feels grief many times in the novel, yet he cannot take responsibility for his actions. Shelly uses this symbol of nature to explain what Frankenstein’s true motive is in the story. Although one could say many things about
Victor, his character is solely driven by his quest for knowledge and power. Through this symbolism Shelly is showing us why Victor tends to do the awful things he does.
Shelly begins to explain Victor’s unrelenting quest to us in the first chapter of the story. Victor describes his experience of watching the lightning strike a tree, and the tree splitting directly in half. The moment the lightning strikes the tree, Victor’s life splits and starts barreling down a dangerous path. This single lightning bolt can tell us so much about why Victor turns out to be the person he became. The moment the lightning strikes the tree, the yearning for knowledge truly sparks in Victor. He becomes fascinated by the power of electricity and begins studying like never before. It turns out that this yearning for knowledge, inspired by the bolt of lightning splits causes the same damage to Victor as the bolt causes the tree. The tree is split in half, just as Victors life diverges from its original path and faces an unfortunate fate like the tree. This moment is also analogous to the moment where the Victor ignites the spark of life in the monster. Just a few fleeting seconds of inspiration and electricity essentially ruin Victor’s life. 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.” This quote is important because it mirrors the way Victor reaches god-like powers, which in-turn causes his eventual downfall. Why does Victor think he is a god? To understand this we must take a look at Victor’s childhood.
In only a few pages about Victor’s childhood, Shelly tells us everything we need to know about why Victor is the way he is. In the story, Victor tells Walton that “no creature could have more tender parents,” and that his “improvement and health was their constant care.” (Shelly, 64) Just from these two sentences alone we can see how Victor is a victim of only child syndrome. However, the fact that Victor is selfish is not his only problem. Victor goes on to explain that he was his parents “idol and plaything.” (Shelly, 25) This is one of the most important lines in the story for understanding Victor. How does a child treat his favorite toy? The child gives unrequited love to the toy during the time it plays with the toy. However, when the child is not playing with the toy, it sits in the corner and is ignored. Victor is essentially his parent’s toy. This background information is important to understanding Victor’s relationship with Elizabeth. Even with all the love Elizabeth shows him, and how much he enjoys Elizabeth, he never truly loves her. When Victor’s mother brings home Elizabeth for the first time, she tells him “I have a pretty present for my Victor- tomorrow he shall have it.” Victor tells Walton “I, with childish seriousness, chose to take her words literally and look upon Elizabeth as mine.” (Shelly, 25) Now, Victor has his own toy to play with. We see this in the way Victor acts about is marriage to Elizabeth. He desperately tries to avoid the marriage altogether, and after it happens, makes sure he will never have to live with marriage. This is just one of the many ways we see this “play-thing” mentality effect Victor’s decisions and passivity he displays throughout the novel. These roots also explain Victor’s relationship to the monster. The monster is Victor’s ultimate play thing. Since Victor’s parents tended to neglect Victor when they were not admiring him, Victor wanted to create a creature that would never ignore him. How could a creature ever love someone more than the person who crafted them with their own hands? Imagine how a child would treat a toy they despised. They would most likely throw a tantrum, and chose to ignore it. This is what happens when Victor creates his monster. Victor immediately hates the monster because of its hideous appearance. But is the true reason for Victor’s despair? Judging from the text I don’t believe it is. If it were truly companionship and love Victor was searching for, wouldn’t he learn to love the monster anyway? Victor creates the monster because ever since he was a child, he has the idea that he was a god. The monster was meant to worship Victor. Presumably Victor also figured that when he unveiled his beautiful creation to the world, that the world would also think of him as a god. This idea of Victor as a god all stems back to the “idol and plaything” mentality of his parents. This is why when Victor sees how hideous his monster is, he becomes angry and ignores it. Victor didn’t mind having Elizabeth as a “play-thing” because she was desirable. This monster is not at all what Victor had in mind to be the template for his disciples. How could Victor be viewed as a god by others if his creation was so hideous? This is the true reason Victor is upset. To represent this need to be power I believe Shelly uses mountains as a symbol. Victor loves to view nature, especially the mountains. Mountains are used to symbolize Victor’s yearning for the highest knowledge and power because they have a peak. Victor loves the mountains so much because he desires to be on top of the world someday as a god like figure.
Nature and environmentalism were very abundant in Romantic Period writing. With this in mind, it is entirely possible that Shelly had several motives for using so much nature in her writing. Another proposed theory of why Shelly uses nature in this book is to comment on the dangers of growing technology in the romantic period. Shelly wrote the first edition of Frankenstein during the heart of the first industrial revolution. During this time scientists were very driven to find links between science and nature. (Smith, 1) The first warning Shelly possibly gives comes when the lightning hits the tree at the beginning of the story. Electricity was a hot topic of discussion in the scientific community at the time, and also was thought to some as a key to sparking new life. (Hammond, 4)By splitting the tree, Shelly could be commenting on the fact that these new endeavors could be highly dangerous and approached with great caution. Shelly also hits at the danger of connecting science and nature during Victor’s conversation with M. Waldman. Waldman tells Victor that “[Natural Sciences] penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They 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 shadows.” Victor goes on to describe M. Waldman’s words as “The words of fate, enounced to destroy me.” (Shelly, 46) After this quote is when Frankenstein drops his bias against the natural sciences and pursues science with all his heart. Frankenstein does this because Waldman had described men who have mastered the natural sciences as gods. Which of course we know is what Victor is longing to be. (Hammond, 189) Shelly once again uses nature in this passage to convey this message. But is this message really about the dangers of science? Sure this is a theme which can be taken away from the story. However, this seems to be another case of Shelly incorporated nature so that we can understand Frankenstein’s intentions of gaining knowledge and becoming a god.
Although we see times where nature can represent several themes throughout the novel, it is clear that Shelly’s true purpose in using nature as a symbol is to allow us to understand Frankenstein’s questionable actions and understand him more fully as a character. Let’s revisit the scene where Victor goes to bury the remains of the female monster. Now that we understand Frankenstein through the symbolism Shelly gives us, we can infer why he is truly upset. Yes, he may be reflecting on the awful he has done to his family and friends by creating the monster, but he is far more concerned about himself. He is devastated because he knows that now he can no longer continue his quest for knowledge and become a god. We now can see that when the boat stands still in the water and the weather is as calm and still as in the entire book, this represents Victor’s death. He now has nothing to live for. This is until at the end of the story when Victor meets Walton. Although the entirety of Frankenstein seems to be a cautionary tale of how dangerous science can be, we see Frankenstein contradict himself. After the ship crew tells Walton that they must go home, Frankenstein gives a rousing and frankly untrue speech about how these men will be heroes if they continue to the North Pole. Deciding to head Frankenstein’s tale instead Walton says that he will turn the ship around if it is possible. Soon after this decision to head back, Victor dies. There is no longer any hope of discovery or power, so Victor has nothing left to live for.
By using nature as a symbol understanding Victor Frankenstein’s pursuit to gain knowledge and power, we can better understand the novel as a whole. We can now better understand how Victor’s childhood causes him to neglect the love around him in order to reach god like powers. We have a clearer understanding of why Victor despises his monster and why he refuses to confess that it exists. To Victor, the death of his pursuit of knowledge and quest to become all-powerful is worse than his physical death. Overall, Shelly does a brilliant job of using nature, a common theme of romantic writing, to subtly help us understand her novel more clearly.
Hammond, Kim. "Monsters of Modernity: Frankenstein and Modern Environmentalism." Cultural Geographies 11.2 (2004): 181-98. Print.
Smith, Nicole. "Elements of Romanticism in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley." Article Myriad. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
"Frankenstein and the Pursuit of Knowledge." Yahoo Contributor Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.