Sometime in the 18th century, Englishman Robert Walton sets out to explore the Arctic, searching for the “secret of the magnet”, but really searching inside of himself. “There is something inside in my soul which I do not understand,” he writes to his sister Mary. He hires a boat and crew, and they travel into the ice. There, stuck in that white world, he sees a mysterious apparition, a giant man racing across the ice on a sled. Soon the ship picks up another man, “an expression of wildness, even madness,” in his eyes. It is of course the infamous Dr Victor Frankenstein, and he is pursuing the creature that he created to the ends of the earth. The doctor is grief-stricken – “I have lost everything and cannot begin life anew,” he says – and now he tells his tale. Eventually we also hear from the creature too, who has his own tragic account of spurned desire turned murderous. It’s fun watching Shelley tackle the 19th century problem of first-person narrative, first with letters, then stories within stories.
Frankenstein belongs to that hazy world just before those scientific discoveries that define our lives today. Imagine you know nothing of cells and DNA, and electricity and chemistry are still mysterious. What would be possible in such a world? Could you bring together a collection of decaying body parts and enervate them? In the way it asks these questions, Frankenstein belongs firmly with the most contemporary science and speculative fiction, taking what we know, and then going a little bit further.
I was intrigued by Shelley’s wrestling with scientific ethics. Frankenstein creates his monster in a fit of “enthusiastic madness” and it is only later that he realises his tragic mistake. Subtitled “the modern Prometheus”, Shelley could be writing of any innovator who didn’t fully intimate the forces they were playing with: nuclear weapons, or the unlocking of coal as an energy source, a connection made more poignant by the novel’s scenes set among Alpine glaciers and Arctic sea ice, now much reduced from their pre-industrial extent by climate change (and in one of those facts that seems too good to be true, the reason Shelley came to write Frankenstein during an unusually gloomy summer in Switzerland is likely partly due to the global cooling induced by the eruption of a volcano in the Philippines). These men are newly irreligious, but they are playing god. While Shelley seems to celebrate the flourishing of knowledge, it is also a cautionary tale.
If Walton’s and Frankenstein’s tales are about the drive to explore, the creature’s is about what it is to be human. His awakening to life is startlingly drawn:
A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of various senses. By degrees, I remember a stronger light pressed upon my nerves, so that I was obliged to shut my eyes. Darkness then came over me, and troubled me; but hardly had I felt this when, by opening my eyes, as I now suppose, the light poured in upon me again.
Innocent at first, he is drawn to beautiful things: spring, music, the love of others. But when he realises that his appearance will cause him to forever be rejected by people, he sets out for vengeance on his creator. All he wants is companionship, an “intimate sympathy with a fellow mind”, something he has in common with Frankenstein and Walton.
Frankenstein is a novel of restless, searching men. They are seeking the unknown, love, oblivion, they are seeking feeling itself. They go to extremes to do so: into the mountains, to the North Pole. These are people who celebrate despair and suffering, and revel in the contradiction. “Wherefore as it glorious?” Frankenstein addresses the ship’s crew that has found him, “Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror”. But there are those who advise against such excess. Frankenstein knows his father would disapprove of his ambitions. A perfect human, he imagines Frankenstein Senior saying, “ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion of a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility”. Those who give into the whims of their feelings, Frankenstein imagines, are responsible for the horrors of history, from the death of Caesar to the pillaging of the Americas.
You have to be in the right mood for this sort of stuff. There are a lot of feelings, pages and pages of them, and they are all felt at their most heightened. But when you need a break from the agony and the ecstasy, the depictions of the nature in all its transcendent beauty really are something to behold, whether mountains, the valley of the Rhein, or the English countryside. Here’s Frankenstein, finding solace in the Alps:
The abrupt sides of the mountains were before me; the icy wall of the glacier overhung me; a few shattered pines were scattered; and the solemn silence of this glorious presence-chamber of imperial Nature was broken only by the brawling waves or the fall of some vast fragment, the thunder sound of the avalanche or the cracking, reverberated along the mountains, of the accumulated ice, which through the silent working of immutable laws, was ever and anon rent and torn, as if it had been but a plaything in their hands. These sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest comfort that I was capable of receiving.
In such breathless sentences you can feel the rarified air.
Gay rating: not gay