Frankenstein, Arctic Exploration and Mary Shelley’s Critique of Male Networks


People are almost invariably surprised to hear that Frankenstein is partly set in the Arctic. Frankenstein is one of the most famous novels ever written, largely thanks to its adaptation as the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff as a stumbling, nonverbal monster. That film makes no reference to the arctic frame narrative of Captain Walton’s expedition in search of an open polar sea, which is probably precisely why the arctic narrative has vanished from our popular conception of Frankenstein.

Frontispiece, Frankenstein, 1831

Frontispiece, Frankenstein, 1831

Plenty of people have seen the film and everyone can recognize Karloff, but few people have ever read the novel. In the popular imagination the creature looks like Karloff in costume, does not speak and does not travel around the world. In Frankenstein the novel, the creature is extremely intelligent and articulate as well as overwhelmingly physically superior to humans, hence his ability to withstand the arctic environment much more successfully than Victor Frankenstein during his pursuit of the creature.

When Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein, the arctic loomed large in the popular imagination thanks the newly idle Royal Navy’s resurgence in interest in arctic exploration following the Napoleonic wars. In fact, Frankenstein is arguably the first in a nineteenth-century canon of arctic literature that represented the region as a disorienting setting, perfectly suited for in depth soul searching and deep revelations about the self. Reading about the arctic inspires intense daydreams for Jane Eyre. John Franklin’s narrative of his overland arctic expedition in which he nearly starved to death was a runaway bestseller. Dickens acted in Collins’s play about the arctic, which also touches on the idea of homoeroticism amongst explorers.

Frankenstein is a text particularly plagued by popular representation, not just in terms of its association with the Boris Karloff inspired creature, but also in terms of widespread ideas at the time it was written. In her 1831 preface to the new edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley clearly and firmly deliniates the work she did on the novel as opposed to the work her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley did on it: he wrote the preface and only the preface to the 1818 edition.

She had hoped to set to rest the rumors that Percy Shelley was really the author of the novel. Mary Shelley was probably tired of living in Percy’s shadow by 1831, but unfortunately his shadow still looms over her today. Critics and biographers could do more to establish Mary Shelley’s place as an author and intellectual in her own right. After all, most of her literary career took place after Percy’s death. As far as I have established, it was Mary Shelley, not Percy Shelley, who was interested in and reading about arctic exploration at the time of the writing of Frankenstein.

The Peculiarities of the Arctic Setting

Evening Time on Svalbard by Kitty Terwolbeck

Evening Time on Svalbard by Kitty Terwolbeck

Early arctic explorers spent much time studying and writing about the disorienting visual effects of the arctic landscape. Twenty-four hour daylight and darkness as well as the Aurora Borealis are the most well known, but there were various other peculiarities about the setting as well. The whaler William Scoresby, a native of Whitby, published his observations on the causes of the ‘ice blink’, a phenomenon where moisture in the atmosphere would allow a reflection of an entire coast to be represented in the air above.

George Lyon describes an effect he terms ‘frost smoke’ in his journal of an 1821 voyage in search of the Northwest Passage. This occurred when movement of the ice left an area of water exposed, which would turn to vapour, rise, and when the wind picked up freeze into small particles and scatter. At any time during day or night, multiple false suns or moons could appear surrounding the actual sun or moon with curved connecting lines between them, producing a bizarre geometrical image in the sky.

These disorienting effects were not only limited to the visual: one of the major scientific goals of some of the early nineteenth-century voyages to the arctic was to determine if the Aurora Borealis produced sound. Today we know low frequency radio waves that can be translated into sound are emitted by the Aurora, but early explorers were often convinced that they clearly heard a crackling sound during a powerful Aurora.

Having spent some time in Svalbard during twenty-four hour darkness, I can say with confidence that there are some intense effects in this environment. Sounds seemed to travel very far very easily, giving the impression that sounds made inches away seemed to be coming from miles away. Add to that the tricks my eyes were constantly playing on me, like seeing things out of the corner of my eye such as imaginary polar bears, especially after having been warned that it was not safe to leave the settlement because of them. The Arctic is a fantastic setting for any novelist looking to depict psychological revelations.

Aurora Over Svalbard by Martyn Smith

Aurora Over Svalbard by Martyn Smith

The Arctic Frame Narrative in Frankenstein

Regardless of the Arctic’s suitability for inspiring psychological self-questioning, neither Frankenstein nor Walton waver in the slightest in their scientific beliefs. Rather the relationship between Frankenstein and Walton is more the source of the sense of revelation in this section of the novel. If we take Mary Shelley to have been an astute follower of press debates about arctic exploration, we can infer that she knew that the issue of launching an expedition was coloured by hubris. Some scientific information in support of an expedition was highlighted at the expense of a presenting a more realistic, rounded picture of the dangers and advantages of such an endeavour. This portrayal was engineered by John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, whose Quarterly Review articles on the subject were probably read by Mary Shelley.

In one of my academic publications, I argue that Mary Shelley was aware of this, deliberately creating a hubristic character in Captain Walton who highlights what he wants to believe, and what supports his beliefs, while ignoring evidence to the contrary. However, the arctic setting also allows Shelley to make additional—in my view almost comical—digs at the idea of the patriotic, courageous, paternalistic explorer, an issue I wasn’t able to fit into my previously published article. Walton rescues Frankenstein from impending death after he has pursued the creature into the arctic and been stranded on an iceberg when the ice has broken up. The intensity of Walton’s admiration for and developing friendship with Victor Frankenstein are pressed too far, crossing over into a homoerotic relationship.

When Walton brings Frankenstein into his own cabin to care for him, Walton writes:

I never saw a more interesting creature: his eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness; but there are moments when, if any one performs an act of kindness towards him, or does him any the most trifling service, his whole countenance is lighted up, as it were, with a beam of benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equalled.

Further, Walton refers to Frankenstein as a ‘noble creature’, he begins ‘to love him as a brother’ and he says his ‘affection for [his] guest increases every day’. All of Walton’s narrative is hyperbolic, but for me, the lavishing of affection onto Frankenstein is difficult not to interpret as a set of deliberate pointers to homoerotic desire.

One of Shelley’s narrative strategies in the novel, and one that has led many to read Frankenstein as a novel full of Gothic doubling, is to create parallel plotlines. Frankenstein decides to tell Walton his story because he recognizes a similar desire for knowledge to his own, which led him down the path of creating the creature. Walton and Frankenstein are doubles, each reflecting the other in terms of striving for unrealistic scientific glory (at any cost), devoting selective attention to scientific evidence (that supports rather than undermines their beliefs), and pursuing attraction to those that are the same as them—in belief, scientific endeavour and gender. Although it’s not much to her credit, Shelley uses homoeroticsm as a negative metaphor for overbearing male behaviour.

The Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich

The Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich

Mary Shelley, Male Circles and Popular Culture

At the moment, I am reading a lot about Mary Shelley, mainly biographical and autobiographical texts. In her 1831 preface to the new edition of Frankenstein, Shelley describes the dream that inspired the novel. She saw ‘successive images . . . with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie’ of the creation and animation of the creature as well as Frankenstein’s horror of and flight from the creature. Waking up terrified, she muses ‘if I could only contrive [a story] which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!’

This dream was supposedly inspired by listening (and not taking part in) a conversation about Galvanism amongst Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Dr Polidori. In a rather contradictory way, Shelley writes early on in the preface ‘I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print’ but then toward the end of the preface announces that Shelley’s only contribution to the novel was the writing of the preface. She simultaneously claims reluctance to be an author and affirms ownership of her text, a contradictoriness that is probably symptomatic of a conflicting needs to publicly be a shy, reluctant female writer and to claim ownership of creative work that was hers.

I have not yet found (though I admit I am early in my search) a biographer who has established the source of Mary Shelley’s knowledge of Galvanism beyond the conversation she listens to but does not take part in. Our only known source of her knowledge of arctic exploration would be the Quarterly Review articles by John Barrow that were probably in her possession, but we have no hard evidence that she read these. Her knowledge of arctic exploration is detailed enough that she succeeds in representing Walton as a failure of an explorer for very specific reasons. I think it likely therefore that she read other texts on the arctic. I’d also argue that it’s well worth expanding the search for the source of her knowledge of Galvanism, dreams, the Gothic and various other forms of popular science.

Furthermore, I can’t help but begin to mentally sketch a different reading of Mary Shelley’s relationship with the men around her during the famous Geneva stay when she wrote the first draft of Frankenstein. In this version of the story, I don’t see a submissive devotee of the gifted poet Shelley but a frustrated woman writer drawing a parallel between two dominant male networks—the literary in Geneva and the scientific in the Arctic. In each, male opinion supports (or loves) male opinion and female contribution is marginalized or completely eliminated (eg, giving birth without a woman). I’d need to do more biographical research to back this up but I think a case could be made here, one that would help establish Mary Shelley as the intensely feminist writer I believe her to be.

More on Shelley will be coming soon as I’m planning to tackle the Frankenstein trail on this blog this summer—the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s writing of the first draft of Frankenstein in Geneva.

Photo Credits

Evening Time on Svalbard by Kitty Terwolbeck. Reproduced without change under a CC Licence.

Aurora Over Svalbard by Martyn Smith. Reproduced without change under a CC Licence.