Sunday, 25 February 2007

The significance of travel, place and setting in Frankenstein.

In the introductory, framing letters of Robert Walton and the first chapter of Frankenstein, the reader is taken on a journey from London to St Petersburg; to Archangel on the White Sea and the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean, then south to Geneva and Lucerne in Switzerland, Milan and the Italian Lakes, as well as to Germany and France.

Travel, discovery, place and setting are pivotal to our understanding of the novel and its impact, both at the time it was published and subsequently. The idea of the alien environment and of man battling the elements and other forces of nature in order to bring the benefits of discovery to his fellow human beings, is one that has been central to western culture and civilisation. In his letter to his sister, Mrs Saville, the first narrator, Robert Walton, writes:

'What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle; ... I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and I may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death, ... But, supposing all these conjectures to be false, you cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole to those countries, to reach which at present so many months are requisite ...'
(Frankenstein p15-16)

To be the first - to discover 'a passage', rather like the Star Trek motto, 'to go where no man has ever gone before' - is a phrase that is open to multiple interpretations and has a wide range of connotations. Underlying the superficial statement, assumptions are being made about the nature of both the place and the act, suggesting, on one hand, bravery, enlightenment and benefit, while on the other, implying self-aggrandisement, violation, bigotry and possibly plunder.

The locations in Frankenstein provide the reader with a panoramic view of early-nineteenth-century Europe and beyond, while also linking closely to the novel's more profound concerns, such as:

  • questions of ethics and responsibility
  • permissible boundaries of scientific research
  • the disturbed, tormented psychology of Victor Frankenstein
  • the tortured existence of the creature he creates
  • the idea of the suffering of the innocent
  • education and its role in civilising
  • the significance and role of love


The novel was written while living in Switzerland with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Excursions in the mountainous area around Geneva and the lake, prompted Percy B. Shelley to record a visit to the glacier of Montanvert, or the Sea of Ice, as it is and was more commonly known:

'On all sides precipitous mountains, the abodes of unrelenting frost, surround this vale: their sides are banked up with ice and snow, broken, heaped high, and exhibiting terrific chasms. The summits are sharp and naked pinnacles, whose overhanging steepness will not even permit snow to rest on them. Lines of dazzling ice occupy here and there their perpendicular rifts, and shine through the driving vapours with inexpressible brilliance: they pierce the clouds like things not belonging to this earth. The vale itself is filled with a mass of undulating ice, and has an ascent sufficiently gradual even to the remotest abysses of these horrible desarts.'

(The Sea of Ice from 'History of a Six Weeks' Tour P.B. Shelley, 1817)

Mary Shelley, writing in her preface to the 1831 edition of the novel, describes the circumstances of the novel's conception in 1816; the summer was wet and 'ungenial', with 'incessant rain' which often confined them to the house for days. In June, she wrote to a friend:

'The thunder storms that visit us are grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before. We watch them as they approach from the opposite side of the lake, observing the lightning play among the clouds in various parts of the heavens, and dart in jagged figures upon the piny heights of Jura, dark with the shadow of the overhanging cloud ... One night we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld. The lake was lit up - the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness. '
(Letter to [?Fanny Imlay] 1 June 1816)

In 1815, the eruption of Mt. Tambora, Indonesia, resulted in an extremely cold spring and summer in 1816, which became known as the year without a summer. The Tambora eruption is believed to be the largest of the last ten thousand years. New England and Europe were hit exceptionally hard. Snowfalls and frost occurred in June, July and August and all but the hardiest grains were destroyed. Destruction of the corn crop forced farmers to slaughter their animals. Soup kitchens were opened to feed the hungry. Sea ice migrated across Atlantic shipping lanes, and alpine glaciers advanced down mountain slopes to exceptionally low elevations.

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Chazzicharli said...

I'm in!

Will tell the others how to connect to the blog. It's a little complicated.

paisley box said...

Me too! (Scarlett)

It's interesting that Percy Shelley visited, so Mary has access to accounts of the extremes first-hand.

Chazzicharli said...

The journey from Strasbourg to London takes place between pages 160 and 162. It lists hundreds of places en route, with lengthy description of how the physical environment changes:
"We had agreed to descend the Rhine in a boat from Strasburgh to Rotterdam (Netherlands), whence we might take shipping for London. During this voyage we passed many willowy islands and saw several beautiful towns. We stayed a day at Mannheim, and, on the fith day...arrive at Mayence(Mainz - in the German Rhineland). The course of the Rhine below Mayence becomes much more picturesque. The river descends rapidly, and winds between hills, not high, but steep, and of beautiful forms. We saw many ruined castles (GOTHIC!) standing on the edges of precipices, surrounded by black woods, high and inaccessible...a singularly variegated (pattern - in biological terms, striped - and so to a boat journey, constantly changing) landscape. In one spot you see rugged hills...and, on the sudden turn of a promontory (headland, flourishing vineyards with green sloping banks and a meandering river and populous towns occupy the scene."
Is the constant changing of the landscape reflecting Frankenstein's changing views, or does the contrast serve to highlight the contrast in moods between Frankenstein and Cleval?

Shilpa said...

I like the idea of the contrast between the moods of franmkenstein and cleval...I thought the same thing when I read it

Shilpa said...

I did also think that the contrast between the comfortable and loving environments that are displayed in the novel and the isolation heightened the extremeity of the the Gothic settings. Shelley emphasises the nurturing nature of Frankenstein's mother and his childhood, even walton has a sister to write letters to. The family that the monster views, despite having to move home, still at least have each other

MR MAN said...

I agree

MR MAN said...

SHILPA i think you should get passport

MR MAN said...

Ed Sheeran Thinking out loud

MR MAN said...


MR MAN said...

frankenstein was really macbeth

MR MAN said...