She was born in 1797, toward the end of the Little Ice Age. Wolves had been extirpated from the country, but not so long ago that one could forget. Now man’s only predator in the British Isles was a mental throwback. Does the shadow of extinction fall on the children of perpetrators? What strange gap is left in the mind of men suddenly raised from the humble status of prey?
In the winter of her sixteenth year, the river Thames froze in London for the last time. The final “Frost Fair,” a tradition dating back centuries, was held February 1814 on the river’s hard surface.
The following year, a volcano in present-day Indonesia erupted. It was the most powerful and destructive event of its kind in recorded history. Fallout caused a “volcanic winter” across the Northern Hemisphere. In 1816 – “the year without a summer” – she was in Switzerland, where she began writing her first novel, Frankenstein, published 200 years ago today — on January 1st, 1818.
During her adult years the global climate gradually warmed. Glaciers stopped advancing. But it wasn’t until the year of her death, 1851, that they began their retreat.
Frankenstein is a work deeply embedded not only in history but in the climate and geology of its era. The novel’s dramatic opening and conclusion, and, notably, the entire personal account of the “monster” himself, take place in frozen locales. These settings of ice and snow are more than themes and symbols; they constitute the scientific matter of the novel, as much, if not more than, the story’s overt topics of chemistry, biology and physical reanimation. And as with those topics, Shelley’s fantastic imaginings of the Earth’s frozen latitudes are proving remarkable prescient.
The novel’s opening pages relate Captain Walton’s passionate wish to be the first explorer to reach the North Pole. In the Captain’s first letter to his sister, his excitement leads him to describe the Arctic’s frozen wastes as a place of sunshine, beauty and delight. He goes so far as to say that in the North Pole of his imagination, “snow and frost are banished” – as if the curiosity he calls “fervent” and “ardent” were literally a heat-producing force of transformation.*
One measure of a classic text is that it discloses new meanings to different eras. Walton’s aim of “discovering a passage near the pole” may sound strangely familiar to a reader today. In the summer of 2016, the first luxury cruise liner traversed the fabled Northwest Passage, a sea route that had long been impassible, and, as recently as a decade ago, navigable only by icebreakers. Likewise for Russia’s northern sea route; last summer, a tanker made the first transit from Europe to Asia via the Arctic Ocean.
Climate change, in other words, is turning Walton’s fervid dreams of an overheated Arctic into reality. Ironically, global warming is occurring fastest in the polar regions; scientists now expect the North Pole to be ice-free within a few decades. Shelley could hardly have anticipated these outcomes, though the connection she makes is far from coincidental. Captain Walton’s adventurous spirit is no doubt symbolic of a Goethian Romantic ziel, but the man also embodies the period’s abrupt leap forward in science and the technologies of transportation. As such, Walton and his scientific ambitions personify a force whose environmental costs are now coming due. That earth-altering force is the European Industrial Revolution, whose opening act, variously dated from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, overlapped with the end of the most recent ice age.
Shelley clearly dramatizes the destructive force of Frankenstein’s scientific work in the young doctor’s blind ambition, his reckless experimentation, his familial neglect, and his heedless irresponsibility to the creature of his making. What was merely allegorical in Shelley’s time has now become our sorry reality, however. Examples of Frankensteinian science abound; to cite only one recent instance, an investigative article by Reuters exposes the “horror movie” character of the commercial trade in body parts. But the everyday banalization of Shelley’s horror theme should not obscure the contemporary relevance of her cautionary tale, whose moral implications can be seen most clearly in the man-made predicament of climate change: a crime against nature that may warrant the name of “sin”; the unleashing of an unstoppable destructive agency in inhuman form; and, in what the World Economic Forum blithely calls the “upside” of catastrophe, a melted North Pole that will yield new profits for commercial transport.
Captain Walton sees in Victor Frankenstein a kindred spirit, and Shelley reinforces the symmetry of their burning passions when, at the end of the novel, Victor relates the “fervour” of his pursuit as the “monster” leads him northward and into the Arctic.
I resolved not to fail in my purpose,” says Victor, “and calling on heaven to support me, I continued with unabated fervour to traverse immense deserts, until the ocean appeared at a distance.… Covered with ice, it was only to be distinguished from land by its superior wildness and ruggedness.
As Victor considers the rigors of an arctic journey, he becomes a man entirely consumed by destructive rage. “At the idea that the fiend should live and be triumphant,” Victor says, “my rage and vengeance returned, and like a mighty tide, overwhelmed every other feeling.” As with Walton, Shelley insists on the burning force that drives Victor on.
I have endured misery which nothing but the eternal sentiment of a just retribution burning within my heart could have enabled me to support. Immense and rugged mountains of ice often barred up my passage, and I often heard the thunder of the ground sea, which threatened my destruction. But again the frost came and made the paths of the sea secure.
Frankenstein’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, links Victor to the Greek deity who created man and stole fire to give it to humanity. In light of this fiery theme, it is significant that Victor’s voyage ends with the break-up of the sea ice, as if, like Walton, his burning passion can melt the frozen landscape. Accordingly, Victor’s last vision of the Arctic is not one of frozen desolation but of water and melting ice. The doctor ends his journey north on a drifting ice floe, like a stranded polar bear — a ubiquitous metonym in the press and social media for the polar environmental crisis. If, then, the last words of Victor’s narrative might seem overwrought today in their romantic excess, one might instead imagine them as capturing the desperate anguish of an apex predator threatened with extinction. Shelley’s “fervid” rhetoric points ahead to dangers beyond man, beyond language, and thus beyond all hyperbole:
A ground sea was heard; the thunder of its progress, as the waters rolled and swelled beneath me, became every moment more ominous and terrific. I pressed on, but in vain. The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound. The work was soon finished; in a few minutes a tumultuous sea rolled between me and my enemy, and I was left drifting on a scattered piece of ice that was continually lessening and thus preparing for me a hideous death.
*Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818).