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On Nature in Frankenstein


A Book Review

This is the most criticized novel ever . . . why? Because it has something for everyone!

Think you know the story already? Then you MUST buy this edition and read it. It's far more passionate and scary than you ever thought.

The Norton Edition is extremely accurate and contains essays, critiques and helpful notes.

Shelley uses nature as a restorative agent for Victor Frankenstein. While he seems to be overcome with grief by the murders of his friends and family, he repeatedly shuns humanity and seeks nature for health, relaxation and to strengthen his spirits.

Even in the early chapters of Frankenstein, Shelley uses natural metaphors to describe Victor’s childhood:

I feel pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of childhood, before misfortune had tainted my mind, and changed its bright visions of extensive usefulness into gloomy and narrow reflections upon self . . . I find it arise, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources; but swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course, has swept away all my hopes and joys. (Shelley, 21)

The use of a mountain river to describe Victor’s feelings is the beginning of a theme that is continued throughout the story. The introduction of an association of nature and human feeling, even in this early chapter, shows how Shelley prefers to use metaphor of a natural setting rather than other descriptions. Instead of relating Victor’s feelings and experience in rational discourse, intellectual description or by dialogue with other characters, she chooses the more "romantic" image of a swelling mountain stream.

As Frankenstein progresses, Victor takes sustenance from nature, and it becomes his personal therapy when he undergoes torment or stress. By chapter five of the first volume, Shelley creates a connection between Victor and nature. Instead of describing his moods with metaphor, as in earlier images, she describes his recovery from grave illness through his affinity with nature. Although nursed by his closest friends, it is the breathing of the air that finally gives him strength:

We passed a fortnight in these perambulations: my health and spirits had long been restored, and they gained additional strength from the salubrious air I breathed, the natural incidents of our progress . . . (Shelley, 43)

The air is not simply necessary for life; Victor is so taken with it that he actually gains strength from it that he had not had before. The use of the word salubrious, meaning "to bring health," reinforces an intention to promote air, and through corollary, nature, as a restorative agent. Throughout Frankenstein, it is nature, not other people which keep Victor healthy enough to continue living a relatively sane life.

The concept of nature as therapy was most likely not new to Shelley, having probably read the writings of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and of course, her husband, Percy. Wordsworth uses a device quite similar to Mary Shelley’s in Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, where he uses language that may have influenced her. In Tintern Abbey, nature is also used as a restorative agent for the speaker of the poem:

                                 These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. (Abrams, 136)

Where Wordsworth reflects on the effect of a particular natural setting on his life, Shelley uses nature in general as Victor’s personal physician. She may have been influenced by the theme in Tintern Abbey of nature as a restorative, or she may have been influenced by other romantic poetry that she had read, since nature itself was a major theme of the romantic period. It may also be a simple parallel feeling that she discovered for herself, but it is likely that she has some outside influence. The similarity in theme of Tintern Abbey is an example that Shelley was not unique in her use of nature for the purpose of restoring her character’s health and sanity, but she does over-use the device, since it is not the major theme of the story. What follow are only a few examples of nature’s role in Frankenstein, and by the end of the story, Victor’s obsession with nature seems inappropriate.

The best illustrations of Shelley’s use of nature are found after the deaths of the child/brother William and Justine, the family’s servant. Having been murdered by his wretched creation, his brother’s death deeply affects Victor, and he falls into a deep despair. His condition is so terrible that he cannot find solace in his friend Henry, and while he hurries off to his family in Geneva, it is nature which heals him and allows him to maintain his sanity:

I remained two days at Lausanne, in this painful state of mind. I contemplated the lake: the waters were placid; all around was calm, and the snowy mountains, "the palaces of nature," were not changed. By degrees the calm and heavenly scene restored me, and I continued my journey towards Geneva.

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)

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. His exclamations to the mountain are more passionate than nearly any other in the story, and so it seems that his relationship with nature goes beyond what he can have with his family or any human. Victor even rejects the notion without reservation that family can help. He asserts his hopelessness as his father bids him to hide his grief for the sake of the others:

This advice, although good was totally inapplicable to my case, I should have been the first to hide my grief, and console my friends, if remorse had not mingled its bitterness with my other sensations. Now I could only answer my father with a look of despair, and endeavor to hide myself from his view. (Shelley, 60)

He makes a reasoned argument to himself on why people cannot help him and he reasons why he cannot help others. What Victor does, of course, is to seek nature instead:

About this time we retired to our house at Belrive. This change was particularly agreeable to me. The shutting of the gates regularly at ten oíclock, and the impossibility of remaining on the lake after that hour, had rendered our residence within the walls of Geneva very irksome to me. I was now free. Often, after the rest of the family had retired for the night, I took the boat, and passed many hours upon the water. (Shelley, 60)

At this point, it is clear that Victor is shunning humanity and embracing nature for comfort and restoration. He is "particularly agreeable" in moving because he cannot escape his family in Geneva, who are "irksome". He would rather row a boat on a lake than be with people, and his use of the word "free" implies that he was not free without nature, rather he was imprisoned by being forced to be with his family. The only way he can find peace and restoration is by taking a boat onto the water so he can be alone with nature.

Victor’s father cannot understand Victor’s moods, yet feels compelled to help. Unlike Victor, he does not reject people for nature, he embraces people. The anguish and despair that Victor feels is so great by the third volume, that his father bids him to marry Elizabeth, his childhood playmate and cousin. His father believes that marriage and love will cure Victor of what is paining him, since he naturally assumes that it is human companionship that Victor needs. Victor agrees, and is hopeful too, which is a rare instance of pleasure that he takes from another person. He is in such a foul mood, though, after the wedding, that Elizabeth can only resort to nature in an attempt to cheer him:

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)

Her use of nature demonstrates recognition of his rejection of people for satisfaction and consolation. It is too late, though, as Victor has sunk too deep in despair to be cheered even by nature, or Mont Blanc, since he knows that his monster will, "Be with him on his wedding night." (Shelley, 132)

Even after the monster kills Elizabeth, Victor is drawn to nature, and he is attracted to the scene of fish and pebbles she had used to try to cheer him up. He then falls into madness, where he even dreams of nature:

What became of me? I know not; I lost sensation, and chains and darkness were the only objects that pressed upon me. Sometimes, indeed, I dreamt that I wandered in flowery meadows and pleasant vales with the friends of my youth . . . (Shelley, 138)

* * *

Nature is far more important to Victor’s health and sanity than any other agent in the story, and the depictions of natural settings become numerous and redundant as Frankenstein unfolds. While Victor claims to be destroyed by the monster’s murdering of his friends and family, he seems to be drawn repeatedly to nature for support, and not his friends or family. His obsession with nature seems more and more inane as he shuns humanity again and again, but perhaps it is simply part of Victor’s flaws or even a rejection of himself. Since he can be simultaneously brilliant and stupid, it may be natural for Victor to get caught up in another compulsive tendency. Whether overdone or not, Shelley makes extensive use of nature as the source of stability for Victor in a world that he has himself undone.

Works Cited

Wordsworth, William. Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. Vol. 2. M. H. Abrams Gen. ed. New York, London: Norton. 2 vols. 1993.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: Norton, 1996

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