Discussion Topic

The significance and function of nature in Frankenstein and its importance to the characters

Summary:

In Frankenstein, nature serves as a source of solace and inspiration for characters, reflecting their emotional states. Victor Frankenstein finds temporary peace and rejuvenation in nature, while the creature experiences a connection to humanity through the natural world. Nature's beauty contrasts with the horror of Victor's scientific endeavors, highlighting the novel's theme of the sublime versus the unnatural.

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What is the significance of nature's role in Frankenstein?

In Frankenstein, nature often reflects traits in the novel's characters. The Romantic lead figures are often depicted in extreme settings that represent their extraordinary qualities, while simpler characters are placed in gentle natural environments.

Romanticism exalts the individual genius who rises above the ordinary human being and possesses a unique and extraordinary vision. Characters like Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton express this hunger to excel regardless of the cost, and, at the same time, provide a critique of this kind of obsessive ambition. The Romantics also exalted and were fascinated by the suffering individual misfit who cannot fit into his society, and Victor's creature fills this role.

Not surprisingly, these three characters often find their voices in extraordinary natural settings. For example, Victor and his creature meet up at the top of Montanvert, an Alpine mountain peak, where an ice cave lit by a fire becomes the dramatic and appropriately isolated backdrop to their first real conversation. Shelley suggests that only such a heightened, melodramatic background, where extremes (fire and ice) meet, can adequately reflect the heightened passions of these bigger-than-life characters.

Likewise, Walton, Victor, and the creature meet up in the isolated, frozen wastelands of the Arctic, far beyond where most ordinary people have ever traveled. This extreme, icy setting, like the ice cave at Montanvert's peak, mirrors the cold isolation that too much ambition brings.

These extreme settings contrast with the kind of nature that Shelley, like a good Romantic, understands to bring peace and solace. Victor seeks out a calm nature as a balm to his heartsick soul, while the gentle and goodhearted De Laceys live in a simple forest setting, apart from civilization and close to a pure natural world that protects them from the excesses and corruptions of urban life.

In associating nature with traits in her characters, Shelley uses the pathetic fallacy, which is when nature (or weather) reflects the mood or personality of a character.

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What is the significance of nature's role in Frankenstein?

A useful resource in investigating Mary Shelley’s emphasis on the natural world is Anne Mellor’s essay, “Possessing Nature.” In her argument, she begins by noting that Dr. Frankenstein genders nature as feminine and subsequently illustrates his incomprehensible grasp on its powerful control over humanity. Mysterious to him because of its seemingly sacred influence on dictating human limitations, he consequently views nature as contradictory to what he envisions as the limitless potential of scientific experimentation.

Accordingly, as Frankenstein unfolds, Victor usurps the role of a motherly figure by defying the natural process of reproduction. Because Shelley distrusts the imagination, she uses Frankenstein’s fascination with science to portray its maddening grasp over his sanity and emotional reasoning. He becomes so deeply possessed by his temptations that he devalues—and in some aspects, attempts to obliterate—the natural world. Mellor even contends that Frankenstein “is engaged upon a rape of nature, a violent penetration and usurption of the female’s ‘hiding places’ of the womb” (Mellor 281). If nature is gendered feminine, with reproduction being the natural process of human creation, then Frankenstein therefore displays an intrinsically violent desire to destroy this feminine force. By emphasizing how his scientific ambitions contradict the rules of the natural world, Mary Shelley illustrates the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his humanoid creation as a demonstration of the supreme forces of nature over the lustful desires of those who attempt to defy its omnipotence.

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What is the significance of nature's role in Frankenstein?

In this novel, the emphasis on the natural world helps to show that Romantic values are far preferable to those associated with the Enlightenment. Victor actually falls ill as a result of his too-intense focus on scientific endeavors; he says that his human nature "turns with loathing" from his activities while he engages in his pursuit. He isolates himself and literally becomes so sick that it takes months, under the tender care of his best friend, Henry Clerval, for him to recover. Only when his fever subsides does he begin to appreciate the beauties of nature again, and just the sight of a scientific instrument makes him feel absolutely ill.

Victor is happiest when he is in nature and miserable when he must go back into the lab to create a companion for his first creature. Henry is always associated with Romantic values and pursuits, but he is eventually destroyed by Victor's Enlightenment creation. One of the only things that has the power to comfort people in the text is nature; knowledge, by contrast, seems dangerous, especially when wielded by someone whose ambition is unchecked. There is no such danger or destruction that results from the Romantic value placed on nature, companionship, and creativity.

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What is the significance of nature's role in Frankenstein?

Resonating with the credo of the Romantics, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein explores the conflict of science and its accompanying lure of ambition against what is natural.  Chapters 12 and 13 of the novel reveal that Victor's creature is innately the "noble savage" of Rousseau who is inspired by the beauty of nature; he is sensitive and altruistic, and he grows to love the Delaceys with whom he experiences vicariously some of the joys of family.  In short, he has been born to be good, but the evils of his artificial assemblage by Victor's electrical experiment cause his deformity which turns others against him as they perceive only an aberration from nature.  The creature then becomes torn between tenderness and vengefulness against his creator.

Mary Shelley's work became one of the triumphs of the Romantic movement because readers and philosophers alike identified with the themes of alienation from nature and its warning relevant to their Industrial Age against the destructive power of technology that is "unfettered by moral and social concerns." Throughout Frankenstein, those who are close to nature such as Henry Clerval, Victor's friend, balance their lives with study and the enjoyment of nature and personal relationships. 

With Henry, Victor is always at peace.  As they travel through Switzerland, Victor enjoys the beauty of Mt. Blanc and the Alps and the beautiful Lake Como, Italy.  In Bavaria, he travels on the beautiful Danube; in England he and Henry visit Oxford and other historic sights.  Nevertheless, while there is beauty in the Alps, the whiteness of this natural setting also symbolizes the spiritual absence in Victor's life. The barren island and the "appalling landscape" and cave in which Victor begins to fashion a second creature, symbolize the "detestable occupation" in which Victor is involved.  Clearly, throughout the narrative of Frankenstein, actions against nature are symbolized by "appalling" sights, indicating the corruption of the soul which results from scientific endeavors that exclude moral responsibility.

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What is the function of nature in Frankenstein, and its importance to the characters?

I'll answer your question concerning Shelley's Frankenstein by looking at a different element or side of nature.

Nature vs. Nurture is a central theme in the novel.  Left to himself, without nurturing from his creator/father, the creature turns into the monster.  Victor fails his responsibility to take care of, to nurture, that which he creates. 

The wild, natural man, then, does not turn out so well.  Victor rejects him largely due only to his appearance.  As a result of this rejection, the creature suffers from isolation, loneliness, emotional deprivation, and eventually becomes a monster. 

Unusually, and perhaps ironically, the creature, left to fend for himself in the world of nature so emphasized by other romantic writers, does not absorb its goodness or touch the transcendent or commune with it and experience transformation as in, for instance, Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey."  Nature does not lead the monster to acts of kindness.  His isolation leads to acts of horror.

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