{Nature’s Tragic Sublime} “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1823)

Mary Shelley’s alternate title for her classic novel Frankenstein was The Modern Prometheus and she incorporated many elements from the Greek myth of Prometheus into her book. Victor Frankenstein is a character very similar to Prometheus. Prometheus is said to have created mankind and bestowed upon us the gift of fire. Victor performs a similar feat in Frankenstein. Both characters are ultimately punished because of their actions. Shelley’s Frankenstein is more than a retelling of the Promethean myth, it is an adaptation of the Greek myth into a modern context. What is most important to Shelley is the underlying moral of the Greek myth.

Prometheus is a figure who had defied the laws of nature as dictated by Zeus. He represents humanity’s instinct to reach beyond the limits of the known world in defiance of the presiding authorities. This was a subject of great interest in the Romantic era, for reasons too numerous to summarize here. Another subject of surpassing interest to the era preceding the Romantic, was the idea of the sublime. Shelley pays tribute to the idea of the sublime in her novel, but in a startling and innovative fashion. The sublime in Shelley’s novel serves as a reminder of the supremacy of nature. There are no presiding gods in Frankenstein to punish Victor’s transgression; there is only natural law as represented by the numerous sublime landscapes in the story.

In A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams says “Gothic novels exploited the sublimity of delightful horror both in the natural and architectural settings of their narratives.” Besides being one of the chief Gothic novels in English literature, Frankenstein, like Aeschylus’ drama Prometheus Bound, is ostensibly a tragedy. While not strictly adhering to the classical conventions of tragedy as espoused by Aristotle in The Poetics, Shelley’s narrative is inherently tragic because it is based on the myth of Prometheus. Victor is not like Prometheus in many respects; his motivations are largely self-centered and his fall and ultimate demise is not tragic like Prometheus’ fate. But Victor may still be considered a heroic figure, especially in the Romantic context of the novel, and it is necessary for Victor to be at least quasi-heroic to qualify Frankenstein as a tragedy, which is why Shelley only slightly deviates from the myth of Prometheus in her characterization of Victor.

Victor is very much a modern hero, a Romantic rebel. He does not have the luxury of encountering an antagonist directly. His counterpart is an alienating landscape governed by an abstract law. The thematic source of tragedy in Frankenstein is nature as represented by the sublime vistas. Unmistakably, it is Victor’s creation, the “monster,” that brings about the tragic results in the narrative, but I would argue that the “monster” is only an instrument to a higher cause, which was set in motion long before it murdered members of Victor’s family. In the Greek myth, Prometheus is punished by Zeus for transgression. In Frankenstein, Victor is punished by his creation, the “monster.” It appears that Shelley is subverting the myth of Prometheus in this respect; however, if we consider that Victor only really encounters his creation among locations that may be defined as sublime, it leads us to believe that Shelley means to draw a direct parallel between the two.

The “monster” only comes into creation because of Victor’s desire to overcome the destructive force of time, to forever “banish disease from the human frame. And render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” Indeed, throughout the novel, fate seems to compel Victor, as he himself attests, toward destruction: “Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.” It is very comfortable for Victor, in hindsight, to say that destiny guided him. It would appear that way to a single-minded man who is driven by unbridled ambition, like Victor. It may even be that destiny directed Victor’s course in the narrative, but our purpose is not to debate the role of free will in Frankenstein.

The single act that sealed Victor’s fate was his creation of the “monster.” The creation scene is the defining moment of his life and the dramatic apex of the novel. Once Victor animates his creation, the narrative takes a turn that may only be termed a descent in light of the tragic framework of the novel. In The Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye attests that tragedy “seems to move up to an Augenblick or crucial moment from which point the road to what might have been and the road to what will be can be simultaneously seen.” Soon after animating the “monster,” Victor flees the scene hoping to escape the responsibility of what he has created; a single vision of the “demoniacal corpse” is enough for Victor. Afterwards, he only encounters the “monster” in sublime locales.

He meets his creation first in Geneva amid a violent thunderstorm on the ascent of Mont Saleve. Shelley renders the landscape in a sublime fashion, leaving the reader gaping in awe along with Victor at the “tempest, so beautiful yet terrific.” After the thunderstorm, Victor encounters the “monster” again along the “glittering peaks” of Montanvert where they hold a conversation. Shelley is hardly sparing in the detail she uses to evoke the majesty of the mountain scene; like a painter of the highest genius, she lays exquisite strokes to engender the sublimity of nature.

In A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams says that “During the eighteenth century, tourists and landscape painters traveled…to the Alps in search of sublime scenery that was thrillingly vast, dark, wild, stormy, and ominous.” People flocked to settings that produced a sense of awe and “seeming helplessness before the overwhelming power of nature, provided that the terror is rendered pleasurable by the safe situation of the observer.” Tragedy may be defined in a similar way, in terms of the author’s desired effect for the production to have on the observer. The sublime landscapes in Frankenstein reflect the tragic nature of the novel in at least two definable ways. The majestic settings in the novel are superficially meant to create a mixture of fear and awe in the reader, and also llustrate the omnipotence of nature and the operation of natural law.

In the Greek myth, Prometheus is punished by Zeus for his insubordination; but even Zeus could not undo what Prometheus had done. The same could be said about Victor in Frankenstein; nothing can make the “monster” cease his deadly course of action. Not that there is not opportunities for Victor to effect a change, only that he is incapable of delivering them. The role of the “monster” is to personify nature and natural law. The gods held a similar post in Greek mythology. There are no gods in Shelley’s Frankenstein. The closest thing to a divine presence in the novel is nature.

Victor is portrayed as a transgressor in the novel because he attempts to break the primary laws of nature. That is not to say that Shelley’s novel is meant to be read as a cautionary tale against all the scientific discoveries being made in her era, but it does reveal that Shelley adapted the Greeks vision of nature accurately. After all, the tragic form is based on such a vision. In The Anatomy of Criticism, Frye states that “tragedy seems to lead up to an epiphany of law.” The “epiphany of law” in Frankenstein resides in the image of nature as sublime: “I looked on the valley beneath…while rain poured from the dark sky, and added to the melancholy impression I received from the objects around me. Alas! Why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute [nature].” The law of nature is more specifically revealed through the “monster.” It brings into application a vision of law as revenge.

Frye says that the tragic hero is commonly depicted as “disturbing a balance in nature…a balance which sooner or later must right itself.” Victor certainly is guilty of disturbing such a balance in the novel: “Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree; the fall of a leaf startled me, and I shunned my fellow creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime.” Not only does Victor disturb nature with his experiments, but he disturbs his own physical condition: “If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.”

Victor is aware of what he is doing the entire time he is experimenting with the properties of nature. He behaves like a criminal while he pursues his “midnight labors”. He even detests himself for the acts he is committing: “Often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation.” Victor is transgressing not only the laws of nature, but his own humanity as well: “How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” Victor is driven by pride and by ambition. His goal is not only to challenge himself and his own bounds, but also the very fabric of nature: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.” Victor’s intent is to disrupt the very balance of nature. It is ironic that his creation must set the balance right.

Frye says that “it is true that the great majority of tragic heroes do possess hybris, a proud, passionate, obsessed or soaring mind which brings about a morally intelligible downfall…[and] is the normal precipitating agent of catastrophe.” The tragic hero, as Frye attests, “sets the tragic process going” by violating a “morallaw, whether human or divine.” Victor achieves this by attempting  to “bestow animation upon lifeless matter”, but also contemplating a project where he might “renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” He crosses human and divine bounds, and in doing this Victor equals Prometheus, and then surpasses him in ambition. What is most ironic and subversive about Shelley’s Frankenstein is that the revenge or righting of balance in the narrative does not come impersonally. Frye states that the “righting of balance is what the Greeks called nemesis” and “the essential thing is that nemesis happens…impersonally, unaffected…by the moral quality of human motivation involved.”

Shelley certainly challenges this conception with Frankenstein. The “monster,” if anything, is affected by what has occurred; its quest for revenge is set in motion because it is neglected. It hardly even seems fit to call the creature an “it,” because on several occasions the “monster” shows more humanity than most of the other characters in the novel. Victor’s creation is not a man, it is nature animated. When Victor climbs Montanvert in the novel,  he reflects that the “sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind, and causing me to forget the passing cares of life.” Victor identifies with nature to a certain extent, even after transgressing its laws; however, he remains in a submissive position toward it. It is a behavior he appears to be at odds with several times in the novel. Victor is conflicted about his submissive position toward nature, which is why he challenges its boundaries in the first place.

The “monster” in the narrative in analogous to the sublime landscapes; the “monster” is nature. It is purely speculative to consider what may have occurred in the novel had Victor been able to embrace his creation. The one clear fact in the novel is that Victor is unable to accept nature as he animates it or the omnipotence of nature outside of him. This is an essential condition of the tragic form and the vision of life as tragic, where “every new birth provokes the return of an avenging death.” Nature is beyond man for reasons unknown to Victor or ourselves; man cannot come to embrace the “horror of that countenance” anymore than Victor is able to. And the results are inevitably tragic.