When you have finished reading Frankenstein, go back to the beginning. Read a page or two from captain Walton’s letters. How do you experience the language now compared to when you started reading the book?
Romantic art and literature is obsessed with the sublime. The sublime was a feeling experienced when looking at endless waters, the starry sky, thundering storms and deadly glaciers between jagged peaks. It was a mixed emotion of pain and joy and it is something we all feel when watching lightning during a stormy summer night: we love to look at it but the power of nature makes us feel small.
According to Umberto Eco’s On Beauty, the idea of the sublime goes back to the Romans, but was made popular by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). There he describes a dichotomy between beautiful things and the sublime. Beautiful things are small, smooth, elegant and with clear colors and small variations, for example a flower in a vase. Sublime things are linked to fear or power and are the opposite of the beautiful: large, coarse, powerful, for example a large waterfall. Perhaps the best explanation Eco gives is that you want to own or consume beautiful things, but not the sublime.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is filled with descriptions of sublime settings.
“It was nearly noon when I arrived at the top of the ascent. For some time I sat upon the rock that overlooks the sea of ice. A mist covered both that and the surrounding mountains. “
This is one of Victor Frankenstein’s many descriptions of Sublime settings. Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer on the Sea of Mist (1818) serves as a good illustration to the quote.
As a contrast to the sublime settings, the Creature describes the little hut with the happy family in beautiful terms:
“In the meanwhile also the black ground was covered with herbage, and the green banks interspersed with innumerable flowers, sweet to the scent and the eyes, stars of pale radiance among the moonlight woods; the sun became warmer, the nights clear and balmy […]”
The details differ from the text in Constable’s The Hay Wain, but the feeling is similar. What this means for an understanding of Frankenstein, and of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature remains to be answered. I do believe, however, that it is possible to show that there is a difference between what is typical in English culture compared to, let’s say, German culture. We see this if we compare Constable’s beautiful paintings to Friedrich’s sublime paintings or Elgar’s music to Wagner’s. England defines itself as being a green and pleasant land which is far from the sublime landscapes of Frankenstein. It seems that English writers use this image, from the Creature’s description of the hut to Tolkien’s description of the Shire. It is possible that the Creature’s longing for a family is also a longing for a home in the green and pleasant lands of England.
The structure of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is like the layers of an onion; step by step we come closer to the core of the story. The novel begins with captain Walton’s letters to his sister, then Victor Frankenstein tells his story to captain Walton. At the core is the Creature’s own narrative. After that we return to Victor Frankenstein’s story and finally we are back with captain Walton who began the story.
The beginning with captain Walton’s four letters to his sister, which precede volume I in the 1818 edition, is notoriously difficult to get through for a first time reader. On a re-reading they are an important part of the novel because they set the tone (perhaps in the same way that an intro to a song is important, even if it lacks melody and rhythm).
Captain Walton’s letters describe how he travels north via St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk (Archangel) and out into “the land of mist and snow“, looking for the Magnetic North Pole. This scientific exploration shows Enlightenment ideas. Captain Walton’s description of love and friendship, on the other hand, is very Romantic. He is impressed with the master of the ship who gives up farm and future to a young couple in love and his highest wish is to find a good and close friend.
Once you have read the novel, it is interesting to go back and read Walton’s letters again. Do they give us any hints about what is to come? Does Walton parallel any of the other characters in the novel? Is the theme presented in these letters?
What did you discover after a first reading of Walton’s letters?