Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Purpose of Place

Victor Frankenstein calls his own creation and namesake “devil”, and in association with the devil one might think of hell. Thus it is interesting that Mary Shelley’s story about the monster Frankenstein focuses more on icy, extreme environments rather than fiery ones, which begs the question: what is the purpose of place in the novel? Frankenstein is first seen on a sledge drawn by dogs in the frigid terrain of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Later, the monster reveals the difficult and confusing years of his early existence to his creator as they sit in a hut in the savage landscape near the glacier Montanvert. These extreme environments are considered both beautiful and treacherous at times in the novel and reflect the complexity of the nature of Frankenstein. Although the use of extreme environments might at first invite the perspective of Frankenstein as a monster, as the story develops their bitterness comes to represent that the icy prejudice of people is the real monster in the novel.
The first illustration of an extreme environment appears on the very first page of the book and depicts the northern Atlantic Ocean in a positive light. Walton describes his anticipation of exploring the north, “…I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves, and fills me with delight…I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight” (Shelley 1). He imagines the undiscovered north to be a place of endless possibilities and light, setting up this space as an important land of knowledge. In this place resides Frankenstein. The undiscovered knowledge of his existence and the scientific miracle that he is are waiting to be found. A little while later, Victor reveals to Walton the story of his creation, and he begins by emphasizing the importance of their present location on the believability of his tale, “Were we among the tamer scenes of nature, I might fear to encounter your unbelief, perhaps your ridicule; but many things will appear possible in these wild and mysterious regions which would provoke the laughter of those unacquainted with the ever-varied powers of nature…” (Shelley 19). Again the extreme, icy environment of their northern setting is effective as a place of undiscovered knowledge. However, Victor’s depiction of it as an unpredictable place hints that this knowledge may be more of a burden than enlightenment. It further suggests a wild, harshness in the monster. It is only when Frankenstein tells his story to Victor, which is heard as Victor tells it to Walton, that the idea of Frankenstein as a monster begins to disintegrate. The difficulty and confusion that he experienced in the first few years of his life because he was alone and different make the reader able to sympathize with him. His joy at the warmth of fire and his affection for the small family, which he watched and learned from, reveal humanity in him. He only wants to be loved and accepted.
For yet unknown reasons, it can be supposed that Frankenstein exiled himself to the icy conditions of the northern world because that is where we see him in the present and where Victor spoke with him about his past. This is cause to wonder why he chose to live in such a desolate place. Although he is much like human beings, his appearance frightens people, and so he is unable to explain himself as a kind creature. In the north, no one bothers him and vice versa. It is the prejudices of the people he has come in contact with, and their aversion to him, that make Frankenstein take up the harsh climate as his home. Therefore, the nasty environments seen throughout the novel are not a reflection of Frankenstein as a monster but the monstrosity of some human misconceptions. Also, the desolate and cold places of the novel are a representation of the deep sadness and loneliness Frankenstein feels because he is an outcast and never had anyone to guide or teach him. The purpose of place in the novel is to show that discovery and knowledge can have consequences and that a monster is not always an icy beast.


Jessica Merrill said...


I very much like your idea about the purpose of place and how it represents how the monster is accepted by others. You're point gets a little lost somewhere in the middle, though. You only deeply talk about the setting of the arctic, while a lot of the novel takes place in Geneva or Ingolstadt. Is the arctic the only place that is representative?
You also discuss how the monster is actually warm but is perceived as cold. Is there an example of place representing this somewhere in the text? What comes to my mind is that it is the warmer months while he is observing the family and learning from them.
My suggestion is to either make your thesis clear that you are focusing on the arctic setting, or add examples from other parts of the novel about other places and their purposes. You're quality of writing was very good, just focus your topic a little more!


Adam said...

Your first paragraph is interesting, raising a good question about a good topic.

The rest of the essay doesn't have a clear enough focus. I think that the idea of the ice as related intrinsically to knowledge is a very good one, but requires elaboration (in particular, it needs more than just the fact that Walton makes that particular association - I'd like to understand why the ice relates to knowledge in a larger sense). I badly want to see you do something with the role of the glacier in the middle of the novel, to accompany the polar exploration at the beginning/end. That repetition emphasizes the importance of the ice but doesn't yet explain its meaning.

Does the ice relate most to the monster's emotion state, or to the emotional state of those around him? I think you're moving in a very good direction here, but that you're also only really starting out. Is he icy? Is the world icy to him? What does cold mean and what does heat mean in this novel, and what is the monster's relationship with both? Etc.

Overall: You have some insightful ideas, and you're trying to bring them together into a coherent whole. "The purpose of place in the novel is to show that discovery and knowledge can have consequences and that a monster is not always an icy beast." However, you don't really have a clear argument yet, and the fact that you don't discuss the glacier at all is a major omission that makes it hard for you to really get going.

Good advice from Jessica, neatly summarized in her 2nd paragraph.