The Usage of Landscape in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Heather Mah

When reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I was struck by how Mary makes use of the landscape to parallel Victor Frankenstein's shifting mental condition. In the story, Victor Frankenstein is an overly ambitious scientist whose curious tinkling with alchemy leads him to create a giant monster and ultimately compromised Frankenstein's own destruction. After Frankenstein created his monster and witnessed the horror that was his own making, he is traumatized in a "painful state of mind," which leads him to isolate himself from the outside world. Frankenstein's power to create life from dead body parts proves to be so extreme and so immoral that nothing in society seems to be able to encompass such an enormous feat, not even Frankenstein himself after he finished his creation. Thus, because of his inability to accept the fact that he has successfully brought something so grotesque to life, Frankenstein takes his dark secret and retreats within himself. Frankenstein's self-discovered power is so great that it successfully disassociates him from all the things he has once held dear in his life, such as family and the beautiful familiar landscapes. From here on, Frankenstein can only identify with big, immense, sublime landscapes because these are the only landscapes extreme enough to communicate what Victor is feeling inside.

From the time Frankenstein created his monster, he finds little comfort in the beauty of nature. One passage that I find particularly striking was when Victor exclaimed, "Dear mountains! My own beautiful lake! How do you welcome your wanderer? Your summits are clear; the sky and lake are blue and placid. Is this to prognosticate peace, or to mock at my unhappiness?" (106). It is as if Victor is offended by the beauty and calmness of the landscape simply because it conflicts with the inner turmoil he is feeling inside. He continues through the story to "pass through many beautiful and majestic scenes [with] eyes fixed and unobserving" and "shunn[ing] the face of man; all sounds of joy or complacency [being] torturous to [him]; solitude [being his] only consolation -- deep, dark, death-like solitude" (210). One probable reason why he finds beautiful, peaceful scenes offensive can be found in the passage where Victor laments, "Nothing is more painful to the human mind, than, after the feelings have been worked up by a quick succession of events, the dead calmness of inaction and certainty which follows, and deprives the soul both of hope and fear" (127). This passage seems to suggest to me that the reason why Victor cannot enjoy picturesque landscapes is because the unmoving calmness of the landscape does not speak to Victor's tormented soul nor does it give off any feelings of absolute hope or fear. To be more specific, the calmness of the scenery only gives off possible feelings for the observer, allowing the observer to freely feel and respond to the scenery however he or she feels at the time. This does not help Victor's trouble state because he is already drowning in his own misery. Thus what Victor needs is sublime, ever-changing landscapes that would forcefully guide his awareness away from his troubles in order to feel alive again.

Such sublime landscapes can be found in a thunderstorm that Victor encounters during his journey back to Geneva after learning about his brother, William's, murder. The thunder is described as "burst[ing] with a terrific crash over [Victor's] head. It [is] echoed from Saleve, the Juras, and the Alps of Savoy; vivid flashes of lightning dazzled [his] eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire; then for an instant every thing seemed of a pitchy darkness, until the eye recovered itself from the preceding flash" (107). Thus, Victor finds the dynamic, chaotic, ever-changing movements of the storm to be "so beautiful yet terrific" and credits this "noble war in the sky" for "elevat[ing] [his] spirits" (107). The same can be said for such sceneries as the Arveiron and Montavert, which also generate a positive response from Victor. During Victor's family trip to the Arveiron, the "sublime and magnificent scenes afforded [Victor with] the greatest consolation that [he is] capable of receiving. They elevated [him] from all littleness of feeling; and although they did not remove [his] grief, they subdued and tranquillized it" (132). Similarly, Victor remembers "the effect that the view of [Montanvert's] tremendous and ever-moving glacier had filled [him] with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy" (135). For Victor, "the sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing [his] mind, and causing [him] to forget the passing cares of life" (136). Therefore, only these sublime, extreme landscapes are powerful enough to offer Victor a moment of comfort, however brief the moment of comfort is before the reappearance of his creature has Victor submerged within his own misery once again.

In conclusion, Mary Shelley made use of the landscape to communicate Victor's fluctuating mentality. Because he has successfully cross over the boundary separating God from man to bring something inanimate to life, Victor has removed himself far from ordinary human-kind. He now possessed an unearthly power that sets him apart from his fellow human beings. Thus, unlike ordinary humans who find picturesque landscapes awe-inspiring, Victor finds such landscapes indifferent and incapable of curing his troubled mind. Rather he can only identify with enormous, sublime landscapes because these are the only landscapes great and powerful enough to take his mind away from his problems and to offer him some sort of comfort in his present unstable state.

Works Cited

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein 2nd edition. Ed. D.L. MacDonald & Kathleen Scherf. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2001.