Nature in Frankenstein

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  • 0:03 A Great and Terrible Beauty
  • 1:22 Mother Earth and the Children
  • 2:58 Victor Frankenstein…
  • 3:48 The Monster
  • 6:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores nature themes in Mary Shelley's 1818 masterpiece, 'Frankenstein.' The lesson argues that, as an example of the Romantic movement, the novel emphasizes the power, beauty, and terror of nature.

A Great and Terrible Beauty

In her iconic 1818 novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, a leading figure in the Romantic movement, draws inspiration from the forces of nature. The Romantics view nature as both a source of bountiful creation and healing comfort, and as a force of frightening power and terrible cruelty. They also see conflict between the natural world and the forces of modernization and scientific progress which characterize the Age of Enlightenment of the late 1700s. This is also the era in which the Industrial Revolution begins in earnest, creating a technological age that transforms how we live, work, and experience the natural world (if, in the machine age, we experience nature at all).

In Frankenstein, Shelley presents an image of nature that is at once benevolent and diabolic, breathtaking in its beauty and shattering in its brutality. The natural world is life-giving and nurturing to humans, but she is also under threat by the forces of progress. When men like Victor Frankenstein presume to violate the laws of nature and seize its power for themselves, nature becomes an instrument of swift and pitiless revenge.

Mother Earth and the Children

There's no dispute that Victor Frankenstein is a brilliant man. Within just a few years of study at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, he discovers the key to life itself. He is able to tame the forces of mortality and harness the spark of life in order to create a new life.

Victor is a student of the Enlightenment-era new science. Influenced by the natural philosophers of previous generations, Enlightenment scientists believe that the answer to every mystery is locked away in the natural world. Through rigorous and systematic study of the natural world, humanity can understand everything - not only about the universe and how it works, but also about ourselves and God.

The universe, for Enlightenment scientists, is like a clock and God is the clockmaker. He set the clock into motion and then stepped back, allowing His clock to run on its own. By studying the clock, humans can learn about the clockmaker. We can discover God and His best and highest intentions for humanity and the world we are given.

So, the study of the natural world, whether that be the study of the earth or the cosmos, is the study of God. In the eyes of many Enlightenment scientists, His fingerprints are everywhere, and we need only to understand those fingerprints in order to understand everything. This knowledge includes what kind of government was best, how to overcome illness and injury, and, ultimately, how to conquer death itself.

Victor Frankenstein the Romantic

Even if Victor Frankenstein approaches the natural world with the detached, clinical gaze on which the new science depends, he is still only human. Time and again, nature's beauty moves Victor, particularly when he finds himself encircled by the Alps in his beloved Geneva home.

In this, Shelley echoes the Romantics' love of nature, and the splendid power of her beauty. Nature is Victor's only comfort when he is at his lowest, and most despairing, horrified by his creation and quaking at the thought of the monster's revenge.

Victor finds solace in the enduring stability of the mountains and the restful quiet of Lake Geneva. This puts his suffering into perspective, and reminds him that, while his suffering is temporary, the natural world is eternal.

The Monster

Victor Frankenstein is, at heart, a contradiction. He is a man of the Enlightenment science who flees to his beloved mountains for comfort, a man who relishes the tranquility of the lakes and forests. He doesn't think to coolly study the natural beauty around him, or search for secrets in order to unmask the face of God. He loves the natural world because he retains the capacity to be inspired and restored by it. He is at once an Enlightenment scientist and a Romantic.

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