The Role of Nature in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein
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Early nineteenth century is an epoch of Romanticism in art and literature. One of the characteristic features of this movement is a focus on human interaction with the nature. Nature is considered to be a force that makes human beings closer to their real selves, to the sphere of feelings and emotions. Mary Shelly’s famous novel Frankenstein is no exception in its treatment of nature. In the book, the description of nature works in several ways. First of all, it serves to reflect the emotions and reactions of the characters, to reinforce both the feelings of joy and sorrow. At the same time, one can find contrast between the beautiful scenery and horrible events that this gothic novel contains. Finally, the nature’s role consists in revealing the idea that human society is cruel and intolerant, while the nature is merciful and kind.
The novel begins with the feeling of joy, which Robert Walton, the narrator, expresses in the letters to his sister. Robert is definitely a romantic figure, probably the most romantic compared to other characters of the novel. He is a traveler, so nature is not an empty word for his, which is clear from the style of his narration.When writing, he draws a parallel between his mood and the aspects of nature in the place he stays when writing:
I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves, and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling? This breeze, which has travelled from the regions towards which I am advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy climes. Inspirited by this wind of promise, my day dreams become more fervent and vivid. (Shelley 13)
In the above passage, the narrator uses metaphors related to nature in order to describe his mood. At the same time, the passage suggests the outstanding role, which nature plays in Walton’s life. In fact, discovering new lands is a sense of life for him.
It is remarkable that the starting point of the story where Robert meets Victor Frankenstein is far away from any civilization. Walton discovers the unfortunate man deep in the land of ice and snow, which underlines his despair and isolation. The dull and cold scenery reveals the spiritual devastation that Victor has undergone due to horrible events after he has created a monster. Besides, the man’s escape from civilization and society is ironic in the context of the story. Victor is the one who was an ardent proponent of science who aimed to challenge the laws of nature. He believed that Man is superior of Nature, so he dared to create a living being in contradiction with natural laws. There is a bitter irony about the fact that after his failure to be God he finds consolation in nature’s lap. So, the author of the novel conveys an idea that it can be dangerous to challenge nature and try to change it. Nature is perfect and harmonious, while humans are not flawless.
When Victor describes his childhood and youth, no romantic descriptions of scenery are included, he just dryly mentions the places he has been to. Further on, he explains that he was so deeply absorbed with science that the miracles of nature were not visible to him: "It was a most beautiful season; never did the fields bestow a more plentiful harvest, or the vines yield a more luxuriant vintage: but my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature." (Shelley 47) To describe the moment when he created a monster, the author resorts to some typically gothic inclusions of scenery. For instance, she mentions a dark night and bright yellow moonshine. This description serves to underline the idea that creation of a living being by Victor was far from being divine. On the contrary, she suggests that it was a kind of a deal with the devil, which proved by further events. Because Man is imperfect, he creates even more imperfect being; he is just unable to create a harmonious creature.
When Victor is still unaware about the consequence of his deeds, he sees bad omen when he returns home from a trip. The description of the tempest is used by the author to foreshadow the tragic events that are about to follow. Victor has this premonition too when watching the nature rage and rave. “I quitted my seat, and walked on, although the darkness and storm increased every minute, and the thunder burst with a terrific crash over my head…vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire; then for an instant everything seemed of a pitchy darkness, until the eye recovered itself from the preceding flash”. (Shelley 64) This typically gothic scenery precedes the first meeting of Victor with the monster whom he created. So, the darkness outside correlates with the darkest parts of the soul, that both the demon and Victor have.
When murders start after the monster is released, Victor finally turns his face to nature. To run away from remorse, fear and sorrow, he travels to the mountains where he is looking for peace to descend on him.
The abrupt sides of vast mountains were before me; the icy wall of the glacier overhung me; a few shattered pines were scattered around; and the solemn silence of this glorious presence-chamber of imperial Nature was broken only by the brawling waves…Thesesublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation that I was capable of receiving. (Shelley 81)
So, Victor recognizes that Nature can be healing for human mind and soul, though cannot remove his grief completely. Through the contact with Nature he starts understanding his own self better and realizing the mistakes he has made. He understands that his mistake was not only about making the creature but also about abandoning him. He was a god who has left his own creature, so he is equally to blame for the consequences of the monster’s deeds. However, even though Victor realizes this, he cannot help feeling disgust and anger when looking at the monster. “Victor’s reaction to nature and Mont Blanc, while probably alluding to Percy Shelley’s 1816 poem Mont Blanc, is used in Frankenstein to show how only nature can restore Victor’s health. As he approaches his family in Geneva, the curative effects begin to fade, and reunion with his family does little to help Victor’s mood”( On Nature in Frankenstein).
When Justice and William are killed by the monster, this comes as a shock to Victor. It seems that life is leaving him, he is spiritually empty. No one is able to help him including his close friend Henry. Victor suffers from deep grief mixed with remorse for his creation. At this point he does not realize that he is guilty not only because he created the monster but also because he did not make an attempt to take responsibility for his creation. Besides, he escaped without trying to understand and accept a living creature in who he has breathed life. No matter how deep his grief, nature comes up as therapy for him. He is on his way to Geneva to meet his family there, and this opportunity of peaceful solitude is healing for him. The author reveals that there are no such wounds which Nature is unable to sooth. Victor comes to the bank of the lake and stays there watching calm waters without any sign of disturbance, and the white snowy tops of mountains, which always attract him. He is calmed by this sight, and this calmness is stronger than his human tragedy. Victor notices that everything is unchangeable in the place he sees, and this is where the contrast between nature and human emotions is conveyed. The author reveal an idea that Nature is sublime and eternal, while human life is short, fussy and quickly passing. This vision might seem depressing unless it was for Romanticism that admired sadness and contemplations about death.
The road ran by the side of the lake, which became narrower as I approached my native town. I discovered more distinctly the black sides of Jura, and the bright summit of Mont Blanc. I wept like a child: "Dear mountains! My own beautiful lake! How do you welcome your wanderer? Your summits are clear; the sky and lake are blue and placid. Is this to prognosticate peace or to mock at my unhappiness? (Shelley 47)
So, the author demonstrates that the protagonist addresses Nature as a living being, he realizes that dialogue between Man and Nature is possible. He is talking to Nature because he no longer feels superior, his despair has destroyed his vanity. Further on in the episode, the author demonstrates that indeed nothing can help Victor in the same way. While he has contact with Nature, his pain soothes, when he moves away, his pain returns with the preceding intensity. So, the author points out that only staying in touch with Nature enables people keep peace and harmony. Breaking ties, which looks as freedom and novelty at first, leads to depression and degradation.
When Victor decides to get married and hopes that this will console his previous tortures and help him to start from scratch, it does not happen this way in fact. Victor’s father, on the contrary, does not shun from people. The question is that Victor’s reluctance to keep in touch with people and open his heart to there is in a way the denial of Nature too. Seeing that her companionship is not able to help Victor, his fiancé tries to help him by placing him in the realm of nature:
Observe how fast we move along, and how the clouds which sometimes obscure, and sometimes rise above the dome of Mont Blanc, render this scene of beauty still more interesting. Look also at the innumerable fish that are swimming in the clear waters, where we can distinguish every pebble that lies at the bottom. What a divine day! How happy and serene all nature appears! (Shelley 134)
The story of the monster is closely related to Nature. Born as an innocent and loving creature, he was deeply hurt by people’s rejection and aversion. His best feelings collapse under the weight of being of a social outcast, so Nature is his only resort. Nature has features of a loving mother: she accepts its children as they are, with their pain and imperfection. When the creature is born, he is very sensitive to Nature’s wonders. Like a child, he is able to overjoy and see the beauty in each day, in sunrise and every little flower. The beauty of nature is correlated with the innocence and curiosity of a newborn creature: “Spring advanced rapidly; the weather became fine, and the skies cloudless. It surprised me that what before was desert and gloomy should now bloom with the most beautiful flowers and verdure. MMy senses were gratified and refreshed by a thousand scents of delight, and a thousand sights of beauty”(Shelley 98) Spring is traditionally associated with youth and innocence, with joy of life. So, the scenes of spring nature is the author’s way to describe the period of life that the monster used to have before the actual monstrosity. Beautiful scenery reflects the feelings of trust and serenity perfectly, while the monster still believes that people he admires will accept him.
It is autumn when he finally dares to show in front of the people whom he watched from a distance. He hopes to makes friends with them because they seem to be nice people. However, their reaction is not the one he expects. They are abhorred by his ugly looks and do not see his beautiful soul. The monster is desperate, this is the first time in his life when he faces injustice and rejection. He is like a wounded beast, vulnerable and helpless in his mighty body, unable to stand his sorrow. Because of this he escapes to the woods, where he lives for a long time. Nature is a consolation for him, it always accepts him, so he does not feel rejected when he is in the nature. It is remarkable that his hatred and revengefulness disappear when he faces nature, his overall monstrosity vanishes leaving place for suffering of a lonely creature.
When speaking about the theme of nature and the author’s style, it should be mentioned that Mary Shelly was highly influenced by Romanticism. Her friends, including her husband Percy Shelly were people who were involved in art and literature and belonged to Romantic movement. It is known that Nature plays an essential role in the art of Romanticism, so the author pays much attention to it in her novel. As the critic David Sander puts it, Mary Shelly treats nature as “the domesticated sublime” in her novel in contrast to male writers who are less down to earth when describing nature (116). As he puts it:
In Burke, fear was the source of the sublime, which he specifically located in a catalogue of Gothic landscapes, lonely mountaintops, wastes and thunder storms. Such sublime landscapes appear often in Frankenstein … with Gothic wastelands of snow and mountains, while the "creature himself embodies the human sublime" ( 132 ) due to his size and strength, as well as his horrible birth out of the dead matter of corpses. The monster, then, represents the failed Romantic sublime, or what might be called the Gothic or uncanny sublime of dissolution and blockage. (Sandner 116)
There are other aspects, too, which can be traced when dealing with the theme of nature in the novel. On the one hand, Victor’s desire to spend time in contact with nature is a way of therapy and consolation. On the other hand, however, it can be remembered that Victor is a scientist and innovator, so in a way this is his fate to be alone and misunderstood. So, there is no wonder that the author often places him climbing to the top of a mountain on his own. It is more than just a consolation, this is a fortune of a scholar and alchemist to sacrifice for the sake of a new discovery, which can be bitter. Thus, climbing and spending time on the top of a mountain, in snows, is symbolic to demonstrate a way of an innovator in society.
When reading a novel, it is easy to notice ever present contrast between nature and science, nature and civilization. Nature can be understood in a broader sense than just beautiful scenery. Nature also means the core of things, their main feature. In this respect, there is a contrast between the things created by nature and by people. The author tries to say that everything that is created by Man can be natural and artificial too, because it depends on the spiritual core of every effort and every deed. When a person lives in harmony with Nature, their art or any other creation is natural. In contrast, when a person challenges Nature and wants to restructure it by violent methods, this cannot be natural. What is not natural is not harmonious, what is not harmonious is destructive. This is the reason why the creature is destined to be a monster. Frankenstein’s idea was not based on love, it was based on curiosity and pride. He wanted to compete with God when creating his being. However, he was not ready to take responsibility in a natural way, which means also to love and care about one’s creation. As a result, the creature became ugly to reflect the ugliness of Frankenstein’s ideas. Victor is described as a positive person who is confused about his own role. He believes he is superior of the creature, and he treats him only as an outcome of his experiment. In this way, Shelly puts to the aspects of science which often make it far from the nature. In many cases it is based on play and manipulation and loses people out of sight.
Overall, there are several aspects of Nature’s role in the novel by Mary Shelly. First of all, its idea is to reveal Nature’s ability to disclose the hidden and the real in a person. Secondly, it is means of consolation for the characters of the book. In case of the monster, Nature is his only friend who accepts him as he is. On the one hand, the beautiful scenery is used as a contrast to the monster’s ugliness. On the other hand, there is no ugliness in nature at all, the way humans see it.