Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Nature in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"

The natural imagery in "Frankenstein" is comparable to the best in the Romantic literature. Mary Shelley paints Nature and its divine grandeur with some rare strokes of a masterful hand. She deliberately juxtaposes the exalted vision of Mother Nature with the horrendous spectacle of a man-made monster and his ghastly deeds.

This steep contrast sets reader thinking about the wisdom of departing away from the set norms of Nature. Mary's message to mankind is loud and clear; do not mess with Nature for your own good. Humans should best live like humans. Any attempt to change the status quo can be very expensive and dangerous. If you will preserve Nature, Nature will preserve you.

The message is loud and clear; the untold secrets of Nature are best enjoyed when allowed to remain a secret. Any attempt to transgress or trespass the human limitation can be as disastrous as in the case of a young genius like Frankenstein. She reminds us that when it comes to Nature, one can neither look far nor deep. The question of life and death, creation or annihilation unequivocally falls in the purview of God almighty, not man.

Victor Frankenstein's irrepressible urge to explore the tightly guarded secrets of Nature marks the beginning of his end, "I have always described myself as always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature" (34). Frankenstein sits down to challenge the authority of God by giving, "life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man," but he is not alone.

The ever watchful eye of Nature keeps a tight vigil on him, "the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding places." Victor underestimates the power of Nature and commits the tragic error of placing excessive confidence on his own scientific knowledge. Natural landscapes in "Frankenstein" help the author to bring out the theme of sublime Nature, dangers of forbidden knowledge and monstrous results of wrong actions.

Nature is visible throughout "Frankenstein" in all its glory and contrasts. Natural surroundings have been shown to have therapeutic powers. The natural beauty of St. Petersburg beckons Robert Walton to keep heading towards the North Pole. The immortal beauty of the mountains and lakes is contrasted with the ephemeral nature of human existence and grief. Nature overwhelms mankind with its gigantic presence. The realization of one's smallness in front of Nature's vast stature and mammoth power exerts a truly humbling effect.

Human ego and pride give way to an understanding of the immeasurable powers of God. The realization brings an inner light that mitigates human grief and suffering. Victor Frankenstein's bruised soul partakes the might of the mountains and the purity of the lakes by allowing his imagination to linger on them. At the same time, the desolate arctic glacial sea with its fragile icy cover accentuates the inner desolation and fragility of Frankenstein's troubled mind. The bottomless abyss and the barrenness of icy sea forebode little hope of redemption for Frankenstein and others.

"Frankenstein" has all the ingredients of Nature that one gets to see in dark Romantic literature. Nightmarish landscapes are juxtaposed with the exotic and serene. Death, destruction and the resulting despair force the protagonist to undertake desperate journeys. During such meaningless wanderings, the only relief that comes the protagonist's way is from Nature. Henry's response to Mother Nature is far more spontaneous than others because of his inner innocence. His uncorrupted imagination allows him to enjoy Nature on a much higher plane.

The natural settings in "Frankenstein" are carefully chosen and woven into the very fabric of the story. Nature plays a vital role in enhancing the impact of the story and progression of the plot and characters. Victor experiences the power of Nature first hand, "As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump" (22).

Mary Shelley certainly gives a clarion call to go back to Nature, for man's own good. "Frankenstein" masterfully contrasts the beauty of Nature with the ugliness of the Frankenstein monster. The difference between the natural and artificial is stark and ghastly. While the monster is repugnant and abominable, Natures is idyllic and soothing. Wordsworth looked upon Nature as an ultimate source of peace, solace and a panacea to all problems of mankind. Coleridge, on the other hand, believed that Nature reflected man's own moods. Mary Shelley has depicted Nature both as a source of inspiration and also as an indifferent entity if the need be.

There are times when Frankenstein's troubled mind fails to any consolation from Nature. Troubled by the sight of his horrendous creation, Frankenstein rushes out 'drenched by the rain which poured from a black and comfortless sky," (36) and restlessly waits for the dawn. When Alphonse takes Victor on an excursion to relieve him of his grief, the result is temporary, "Victor wanders alone toward the valley of Chamounix.

The beautiful scenery cheers him somewhat, but his respite from grief is short-lived." (Chapter 9) Victor Frankenstein's initial enthusiasm to cross the "fortifications and impediments" (34) around the "citadel" (34) of Nature is soon replaced by horror. The monstrosity of his creation leaves him terrified and the realization that his monster has killed his youngest brother unhinges him. The scientific world has nothing to offer him in this hour of despair.

The murder of William and the execution of innocent Justine weigh heavily upon the psyche of Frankenstein. He turns to the mountains to find comfort. Had he not been, "insensible to the charms of nature" (39) to begin with, had his soul been alive to the delicate nuances of Nature to start with; Victor could have saved himself and his family from nemesis.

Critics point to the fact that Frankenstein's initial departure from Nature turns him into a bit of a monster himself. The way he allows Justine to die an unjust death without putting any real semblance of resistance and his burning desire for revenge make him no less inhuman. He forgot that every action has equal and opposite reaction. He messed with Nature and Nature messed with him. Had he not forgotten Nature, it would not have forgotten him.

Frankenstein's love for Nature kindles late when a lot is lost. William is dead and Justine is gone, when the realization dawns:

"The weight upon my spirit was sensibly lightened as I plunged yet deeper in the ravine of Arve. The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side, the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence—and I ceased to fear or to bend before any being less almighty than that which had created and ruled the elements" (Frankenstein).

Hence, Nature does acts as a restorative agent for Frankenstein but it is too late. His reunion with Nature spells confidence and fearlessness. Nature cements his faith in God and his omniscient powers. What to speak of man; Nature has the power to alleviate even the troubled spirits of a monster.

After being subjected to a terribly cold and harsh winter, the Frankenstein monster heaves a sigh of relief at the advent of spring season. When Victor dumps the monster, he feels awfully depressed and confused. He feels a new surge, a "sensation of pleasure" (71) when he sees the bright moon and its gentle light. Abandoned by his creator, the monster too finds refuge in the lap of Nature.

Temporary or transient, succor and peace come to Victor Frankenstein only in the lap of Nature. Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" does not guarantee emancipation through contact with Nature but it most certainly points to the danger of losing one's human identity by getting away from it.

Works Cited

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.

1 comment:

Francesca Romana ALEGI said...

Ok, I'm here again to try to comment in my bad english: I really enjoyed to read this book while I was in high school. My english teacher tried to transmit us the deep love she had for English and American literature This one of Shelley was marvellous and while reading your post I perfectly remind the big discussion we had, we students, on Mother Nature towards whom I have a big respect.I don't know why but I have some problems with my accademic memories... I've studied a lot, but the only things that remain on me are simple flashes.. The problem is that if you don't make brain excercise in reading you forget. In my life i was capable to read 10 books in a week and then for 4/5 months nothing. Can you understand me? I'm really incostant in things in my life, but when I like something ,as many people, just follow that thing almost obsessionally. Anyway of one think I'm sure: my passions are my passed travels, now I'm very busy with a job that I don't like and 2 children, unfortunately some economic troubles, but still have my energy. Don't have time to read a book or, to tell you the truth, don't feel the necessity! By the way my favourite book is Petit Prince (Litte Prince), everytime I read these few pages so full of meanings I start to cry for the plenty of emotions I feel while reading it. And as an indigenous fellow I love BAOBABS!
Glad to meet you, thanks for your post, take care!

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