Disturbed nature and community in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is well known to literary audiences and beyond as the story of a brilliant, mad scientist who created a horrific monster that ultimately resulted in the destruction of its creator. There have been a number of movies based on Frankenstein and His Monster, not all of which adhere to the original script. But surely the most prominent theme has been the Promethean spirit of Romanticism which is explored through the two main narrators, namely, Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein. Yet this story is also about the danger involved in playing Prometheus, as Victor realizes after creating life from the abode of the dead. Like most romantics of her time, Mary Shelley had a deep reverence for nature, and her Frankenstein emphasizes the importance of maintaining a balance between nature and humanity. The novel explores the devastating aspects of nature when its limits are violated and unnatural rites are performed.
Most of the time, Frankenstein’s attitude towards nature resembles that of a master who would like to consider the world as his possession. He turned passionately to nature after the death of his youngest brother William, “Dear mountains! my beautiful lake to me! how do you welcome your wanderer?” Instead of enjoying nature as it is, before he dared to touch it, and now he moans plaintively against the natural world which is indifferent to his misery.
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The narration begins with Walton’s reference to the Coleridge albatross and the “land of mist and snow”, and hints at an unnatural act similar to the killing of the albatross. Coleridge’s Mariner killed an innocent bird for no apparent reason and in doing so challenged human compassion regarding the value of life. Victor, on the other hand, creates a fanciful life, and thus transgresses natural and community boundaries.
Despite his egocentric view of the world, Victor is not unaware of the healing power of nature. Whenever he refers to his childhood in Geneva, he remembers the beautiful mountains and green pastures surrounding his father’s house. But in his narration it becomes as clear that in his zeal to create life, for a time he had managed to forget nature. Hypnotized by the power of nature manifested through lightning, he wanted to possess it without understanding the responsibility involved in its manipulation.
As the mythical Prometheus taught mankind, his own creation, the use of fire, Victor uses the secret of electricity (another form of fire) to blow into his monster. However, unlike Prometheus, he lacks foresight and as a result, instead of being saved by his creation, he is pursued by it. At the end of his sad story, he becomes the same lightning-struck tree that inspired him in his scientific adventures: “But I’m a damn tree; the lock entered my soul; and then I felt that I had to survive to expose what I will soon cease to be – a wretched spectacle of destroyed humanity, pitiful to others and abhorrent to myself.”
Anne Mellor astutely observes: “Nature pursues Victor Frankenstein with the very electricity he stole. Lightning, thunder and rain rage around him. The November night when he steals the “spark of being” from nature is dull, gloomy and damp. .”
Despite his egocentric view of the world, Victor is not unaware of the healing power of nature. Whenever he refers to his childhood in Geneva, he remembers the beautiful mountains and green pastures surrounding his father’s house.
Most of the time, Frankenstein’s attitude towards nature resembles that of a master who would like to consider the world as his possession. He turned passionately to nature after the death of his youngest brother William, “Dear mountains! my beautiful lake to me! how do you welcome your wanderer?” Instead of enjoying nature as it is, before he dared to touch it, and now he moans plaintively against the natural world which is indifferent to his misery. Raised and spoiled by the attention of his family and friends, Victor is invariably the center of his own world. His selfish concern for himself shows its extreme when he is busy creating the female creature on a remote Scottish island. There, while he mocks the miserable living conditions of the islanders, his ego is stung as they don’t show him enough gratitude for making his home among them. Although he is hailed by Walton as a noble creature with the ability to “raise his soul from the earth” (16), he is actually an outcast in his monster’s image. Due to his unnatural birth, the monster is not welcome in human society, and likewise, due to his transgression and self-centered view of the world, Victor is a stranger to nature.
Thus, the creator and the creation conjure the two worlds whose doors are closed to them. Ironically enough, whenever Victor tries to embrace nature imploring her to support him, almost as a response he finds his monstrous creation in the surroundings reminding him of how usurping the powers of nature he had created a being. grotesque and unnatural. It seems that the creature itself becomes an agent of nature causing its retribution.
Although she focuses a lot on the devastating powers of nature, Mary Shelly strikes a balance by also revealing her nurturing and nurturing aspects. Through the characters of Henry Clerval, Elizabeth Lavenza and Ernest Frankenstein, she highlights this harmonious relationship between nature and human beings. Victor’s wife, Elizabeth, appreciates and loves the little things of nature, as does her best friend Henry, but their unfortunate and untimely death completes Victor’s dissociation from nature. Through the character of Ernest, Victor’s other brother, Mary Shelley further emphasizes the importance of the sustaining power of nature. Unsurprisingly, Ernest is the only member of the Frankenstein family to survive the tragedy that overwhelms the other members of his family.
Victor Frankenstein’s aspiration and failure thus focus on the futility of ambition devoid of human compassion. Its failure can then be seen as its lack of understanding in the unity of the elements of the universe, of which nature is an essential part. For Victor, creating his creature was a scientific process of anatomy that required little understanding of nature and life. He also forgot all about ethical and aesthetic considerations.
The most famous idea of Romanticism is considered an individual experience, as the six leading male Romantic poets prioritized the rise of the individual over the group. However, there are hundreds of other writers of the time, men and women, who tell other stories behind the “romantic sublime”, seeing it more as a shared story of mutual understanding and partnership not only between men and women, but between the solitary and the community, and keeping a balance between nature and humanity.
For many readers, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an utterly relevant tale for the 21st century wasteland. In our quest to achieve the unattainable, we too have destroyed lives, broken sacred relationships and upended the natural order of things. Would it be too pessimistic to say that the monstrosity of our actions will get us too? Or, perhaps, we are delusional enough to think about waking up and restoring the lost balance.
Sohana Manzoor is an associate professor in the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB. She is also the literary editor of the Daily Star.