Beyond Archangel - The Archangel Theme in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Seminar Paper 2005 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


“I shall certainly find no friend on the wide ocean, nor even

here in Archangel, among merchants and seamen!”

Thus writes a lonely Robert Walton to his sister (Shelley 10). He is accurate in his prediction so far as merchants and seamen are concerned, but also generally incorrect. He will find a friend who will save his life. This friend is not a seaman, but a manmade creature that shows more humanity than his human creator.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the three main characters (Victor, Walton and the Creature) meet on board Walton’s vessel in the Arctic Ocean. The northernmost point human civilization can tolerate is a Russian seaport called Archangel. Victor, Walton and the Creature pursue their destiny and travel beyond Archangel, finding themselves lodged in ice and at a critical crossroad. That Mary Shelley chose Archangel to be the last port Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein and the Creature see alive is significant. Archangel takes on a double meaning; it refers to a physical place, and also religious doctrine. All three characters are not only physically beyond Archangel, but they have traveled beyond their bounds on a spiritual level and are representative of archangels themselves. Shelley’s conception of Archangel involves not only destiny but a choice, in that her characters represent three different modes of response to destiny. They are defined as follows: Victor is the choice made poorly, the Creature is the choice made correctly, and Walton represents the hope for humankind that humans will learn to adhere to logic, reason and understanding, thus making the right decision for themselves.

Archangel and Archangels

Archangel is an actual development. It lies in the Artic close to the North Pole. The development was built on the shores of the Northern Dvina River, which is near the White Sea (“Port”). Its geographic location is 64*34’ North (“Walton”). It was founded in 1584 and initially served as a temporary settlement for the merchants and seamen to whom Walton refers in the novel. The town was founded near the monastery of the Archangel Michael, hence the name Archangel. The purpose of the settlement was to help with trade, transfer and shipping to Western Europe. When Archangel was first founded its populace was almost entirely seasonal. In the winter the population would shrink to very little. It would get so cold that ships could not reach the harbor because of the ice, and trade was at a standstill. The development was literally frozen in. Not many survived the harsh winters. Throughout the summer months, after the ice broke and the temperatures became milder, Archangel’s population grew tremendously with sailors, workers, traders, bargemen and public servants.

During the seventeenth century Archangel “became the home of Russian bureaucrats, merchants, shopkeepers, craftsmen, farmers (laborers), soldiers and clerics” (Veluwenkamp). The tradesmen mainly came from the Netherlands (Amsterdam), Hamburg, England, and Norway. With this development the buildings in the town became more permanent and wooden buildings, like the “gostinnyi dvor”, the merchant’s court, were replaced by brick buildings. The Russians were in control and took tolls from the foreign merchants. Around 1700, shipyards were built in a new part of town (Solombala), which lay across the river (Veluwenkamp). In the eighteenth century it remained Russia’s principal port, despite its remote location and the fact that Archangel is icebound for half the year. It was Russia’s only port until the time of Peter the Great (“The Port”).

As of eighteenth century, no vessel had managed to cross the North Pole. When Victor meets Walton in Frankenstein, Victor comments that he did not know any vessel could go as far north as Walton’s ship had (Shelley 145). The development Archangel was as far North as mankind had managed to venture thus far, but plenty of unsuccessful attempts had been made to find the “Northwest Passage”. The British government had offered £20,000 for the discovery of the Northwest Passage and £5,000 to any ship that would come within one latitudinal degree of the pole. Walton’s voyage takes place after four major polar explorations had failed (Richard, 300). The common belief among Romantics at the time was that there was a wide open sea in the center of the North Pole, where the climate was mild. The city Archangel had been conquered. For Walton to be a successful and famous explorer, he needed to travel further towards the paradise of the north (Richard, 295).

In addition to the practical significance of the Archangel port being a ‘point of no return’, Shelley relies on the word’s theological meaning to explore and explain the plight of the primary characters in Frankenstein. Religious dogma defines ‘archangel’ as being a superior or higher-ranking angel. The word is derived from the Greek arche, which means “ruler or source”, and angelos, which means “messenger”. The idea of an archangel is found in most the major religions, including Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Although all these theological traditions include the concept of archangels, the identities of these archangels vary.

In Judaism there are no explicit references to archangels in the canonical texts; the first references are found in the later works of Daniel. Within the rabbinic traditions and the Kabbalah the number of Archangels is seven, and the name Michael is mentioned. Islam also has seven Archangels. Michael or Mikael is the Archangel of the weather. “Iblis” is the fallen archangel who fell after he disobeyed God’s command to bow to Adam and accept him as a superior being.

In Christianity there are fewer archangels. The New Testament makes reference to an archangel only twice, in Jude 1.9[1] and I Thessalonians 4:16[2]. In those passages Michael is mentioned. In earlier Christian texts Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are recognized as archangels, and the name Lucifer is mentioned as a fallen archangel in Ezekiel 28:12-17[3]. Many Protestants recognize only Michael and Lucifer as archangels because they are the archangels mentioned in The Bible that are relevant to dominant Protestant theology (“Archangel”). The Archangel concept in Frankenstein centers on these two figures. Shelley’s particular conception of their legend in shaping her Frankenstein legend displays a good deal of Romantic theological belief, along with canonical Protestant doctrine.


[1] “Yet Michael the archangel, in contending with the devil, when he disputed the body of Moses, dared not bring against him a reviling accusation, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!””

[2] “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first”.

[3] “Son of Man, take up a lamentation for the King of Tyre, and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering: The sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, turquoise, and emerald with gold. The workmanship of your trimbrels and pipes was prepared for you on the day you were created. You were the anointed cherup who covers; I establish you; you were the holy mountain of God; you walked back and forth in the midst of fiery stones. You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you. By the abundance of your trading you became filled with violence within, and you sinned; therefore I cast you as a profane thing out of the mountain of God; and I destroyed you, o covering cherup, from the midst of the fiery stones. Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor; I cast you to the ground, I laid you before kings, that they might gaze at you”.


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Beyond Archangel Theme Mary Shelley Frankenstein Research Bibliography



Title: Beyond Archangel - The Archangel Theme in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein