The Romantic Frankenstein

Term Paper 2006 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Nature
2.1 The soothing spirit of nature
2.2 The dark side of nature

3. Childhood

4. Knowledge
4.1 The pursuit of knowledge
4.2 The monster’s search for knowledge

5. Scientific Progress
5.1 The Industrial Revolution
5.2 The scientist as God
5.3 Responsibility
5.4 Relevance for the twentieth century

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley is one of the major representatives of the Romanticism movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In 1816, when Shelley wrote her first and most popular work Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, the Industrial Revolution had just begun. New inventions were made and the world as it was known changed rapidly. In her novel Shelley takes on the idea of the damage this quick and unfamiliar progress could do. Victor Frankenstein, the main character of the novel, attempts to triumph over nature in that he tries to bring something inanimate to life. He successfully creates a living being but the creature turns against his creator and destroys Frankenstein’s life. The creature has no name and it is unclear whether it should be seen as a monster or as a human being. In Frankenstein Mary Shelley contrasts the beauty and serenity of nature to the destroying powers that can be released when meddling with scientific progress. Her themes fit well into the ideas of the Romantic poets: she understands the importance of the state of childhood and also focuses on nature as a counterpart to the progress and destruction of Industrialism and progress. Like her contemporaries she tries to further the idea of going back to nature and a childlike state of imagination instead of destroying lives by opposing the course of nature. This paper discusses how nature, childhood, knowledge, and progress work together and how Shelley explores each of them in her novel.

2. Nature

2.1 The soothing spirit of nature

Almost every Romantic poet wrote at some point in his working career about the beauty of nature and it certainly was part of the majority of Romantic works. Poets such as William Wordsworth felt that the beauty in nature was marvellous and should be celebrated by the dedication of poems. It also was an often used device to protest against the social and industrial developments of the time that threatened nature and rural life and to promote the idea of a return to nature and to the basic joys of life. Mary Shelley frequently uses images of nature in her novel. The significance of nature for the themes of the novel will be investigated in the first part of this paper.

Nature, as it is presented to the reader in Frankenstein, has many different faces. On the one hand it has the ability to soothe the mind and to lift the spirits but on the other hand it is depicted as having a powerful and threatening side. Nature reveals secrets and foreshadows dreadful occurrences. Shelley explores all these facets of nature in different situations in order to stress each of the occurrences and to convey a certain mood, either happy or despondent, whatever the present characters’ state of mind. In Romantic fashion Shelley contrasts the admiration of nature’s beauty to the horror that the characters experience when the plot unravels.

Natural beauty has a soothing influence on all of the characters of the novel, particularly on Victor Frankenstein. Whenever he feels his deed press on his conscience and his mood darkens, nature has the power to lift his spirits again. When Walton meets Frankenstein he concludes in one of his letters to his sister, “Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth” (Wolfson 18). His deep love for nature is evident throughout the novel. After Frankenstein has created his monster and for the first time is exposed to grave feelings of dread and devastation he states, “When happy, inanimate nature had the power of bestowing on me the most delightful sensations” (52). A fact that catches the reader’s attention here is that Frankenstein uses the word inanimate when referring to nature though nature is obviously not inanimate. This might indicate the contrast in Frankenstein’s mind between the monster that he had bestowed with a soul and thus animated and nature that has not been animated but just follows a natural course of existence. For the first time he is able to appreciate nature’s power and understands that he should never have tried to interfere with it.

The monster experiences nature in a similar way. When he is brought into existence nature is the first thing that welcomes him and makes him happy. It plays a maternal role to the monster and substitutes the mother it never had. This argument can be based on the many instances throughout the novel where nature is personified as female (e.g. 32, 37, and 129). Alicia Renfroe argues that nature plays a female role in Frankenstein and states the following in relation to the monster, “Nature provides for the basic needs of the monster, and the monster enters into a cooperative interaction with Nature” (Renfroe 3). Nature teaches the monster in many ways and after a period of existence, nature for the first time reveals its own appearance to him. The monster relates this incident as follows: “I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers – their grace, beauty and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!” (Wolfson 89). Nature teaches the monster that his looks are what mainly distinguish him from a human being. To him nature is a source of knowledge but at the same time a source of consolation and happiness. “My spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope, and anticipations of joy” (91). Nature clearly has a similar effect upon the monster as upon Frankenstein.

2.2 The dark side of nature

There are clear parallels between Frankenstein’s and the monster’s relationship to nature not only in the joy they take from nature but also in the fact that they both cease to take pleasure in the beauty of nature when they feel desolate and think that nothing can lift their spirits anymore. After more and more horrible events occur, Frankenstein is not able to draw consolation from nature anymore. He feels responsible for the deaths of William, Justine, and Henry and feels as if he was surrounded by darkness. “The cup of life was poisoned forever; and although the sun shone upon me, as upon the happy and gay of heart, I saw around me nothing but a dense and frightful darkness” (149). He despairs and cannot take joy in anything anymore. The monster experiences a similar despair when he sees that no human would ever want to interact with him. The humans have made the natural beauty of the world ugly to him. Nature also has the power of foresight and at some points foreshadows future horrors. Whenever something bad is about to happen or has happened, nature turns evil and accompanies the events with thunderstorms. Twice nature throws rays of light on the monster to reveal it after a misdeed. After the monster killed William, it is revealed by a lightning (57) and after it has killed Elizabeth, Victor sees it in the pale light of the moon (161). The fact that nature is not only tame, beautiful, and a source of spiritual renewal suggests that natural powers can be unleashed when interfering with nature. Nature itself seems to rebel against Frankenstein’s monstrous deed. When he pursues the monster around the globe, he complains that, “Immense and rugged mountains of ice often barred up my passage, and I often heard the thunder of the ground sea, which threatened my destruction” (170). In this instance nature plays the role of an obstacle and acts as a revenger that poses a threat to the offender’s health and life.

Shelley uses nature as a contrast to the monstrous machines and factories of her time, represented by the horrible monster that was created by the scientist Frankenstein. When young, Frankenstein witnessed the terrible power of a lightning bolt during a thunderstorm (26), which instantly awakened his curiosity. Since then it was Frankenstein’s greatest desire to reveal nature’s secrets. By creating a living being Frankenstein commits a primal sin against nature and is condemned to limitless suffering.

3. Childhood

Nature and Childhood are closely related in Romantic Poetry and often connected. In Frankenstein childhood plays a less important role than nature but it is still worth to look into the respective characters’ childhood and how their later lives were influenced by this early and important state of life. Walton shares his childhood experiences and how they have influenced his mind and given him a direction in life. He found his goal when he was young, and now, many years later, he sets out to achieve it. For Walton it is a childhood dream to “embark in a seafaring life” (8) and he starts his voyage to the North Pole with “the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river” (8). In this example Walton depicts his trip to the pole as a great adventure, and is clearly excited by the prospects of finding a beautiful place where the sun shines all day long. “I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight” (7). Walton has a dream, an imagination of something he has never seen before and wants to pursue it although the dangers are uncertain. In his language it becomes clear that he has not really matured and therefore is still in this state of easy excitement that only a child can feel.

Victor, similar to Walton, had the privilege of enjoying a sheltered and happy childhood with the prospect of a secure position in society. He was allowed to follow every path of knowledge he desired and had great liberty in his studies. “No youth could have passed more happily than mine. My parents were indulgent, and my companions amiable. Our studies were never forced” (23).

The monster, however, completely lacks a childhood. Born into the body of an adult though with the mind of a child, the monster has no one to teach him and is all on his own. His creator, who substitutes his missing parents, despises him and leaves him on his own. The monster learns everything in a comparatively short time without help from anyone. He did not have a period in which he could live an innocent life and have his mind shaped. The hardships he experiences substitute for his childhood and influence his mental development. He reacts strongly to everything and turns evil after a huge disappointment. The monster itself realizes what is missing from his life, “But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses” (96).



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University of Massachusetts - Amherst – English Department
Romantic Frankenstein Major British Writers Proseminar



Title: The Romantic Frankenstein