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Setting in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Setting in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
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  • 0:02 Setting in Frankenstein
  • 0:33 An Alpine Eden
  • 1:18 The Cramped and Chaotic City
  • 3:30 The Frozen Wasteland
  • 4:37 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 the use of setting in Mary Shelley's 1818 classic, 'Frankenstein'. Shelley strategically uses setting to explore the conflict between science and nature and to show that where we are in the world shapes who we are.

Setting in Frankenstein

Mary Shelley's 1818 Frankenstein is one of the world's most iconic novels. Shelley's strategic use of setting gives the novel much of its power, enabling her to explore the sometimes terrible conflict between science and nature.

As a leading figure in the Romantic Movement, or the philosophical and artistic movement celebrating nature, Shelley shows us how the world we live in both shapes and mirrors us in body, mind, and spirit. Victor and his monster are the perfect examples of this.

An Alpine Eden

Like her fellow Romantics, Shelley is often skeptical of modernization, of forces of progress that so frequently take us away from the natural world. Much of Frankenstein is set amid the glories of this natural world, particularly Victor's native Geneva, with its stunning Alpine peaks and crystalline lakes. When Victor is at his lowest, tormented by guilt and terrified at having unleashed his monster, it is nature that restores him. Nature alone can soothe Victor's troubled spirit.

Victor may be weak and foolish, he may have tampered with forces beyond his control and understanding, but nature is eternal and indomitable. It has seen and endured all. Nature provides the perspective the tormented genius so desperately needs.

The Cramped and Chaotic City

Victor's idyllic life ends when he enters the University of Ingoldstadt in Germany. He goes from being nestled and secure in his remote Alpine home to being jostled and harried by the chaos of the university town.

Here, all is rush and disorder. Victor learns to hustle his way through the streets, just as he learns to hustle his way to the top of his class. He is a scientific genius in an age of geniuses, the Enlightenment Era of the late 18th century. This period is characterized by a zeal for learning, an unquestioned faith in scientific knowledge and the onward march of civilization. All that matters is to know more and to be more, to innovate and change the world.

Romantics were the first to sound the alarm on the reckless scientific progressivism of Enlightenment, arguing that modernizing forces take us from the clean air and life-giving, soul-inspiring expanses of nature. They thrust us into the dirt, gloom, and frenzy of the cramped city streets, into the suffocating closeness of squat, ramshackle apartments and the cold sterility of offices, classrooms, and scientific laboratories.

The move from Geneva to Ingoldstadt changes Victor. This is where his ambition ignites. No longer is he simply some humble scholar, reading his father's books alone among the whispering winds and in the nourishing sunshine of Geneva's mountain slopes. Now he is what the Romantics feared, just another rat in modernity's race, jockeying for preeminence among a sea of other nameless professionals. To be known in the throngs of the modern city, such as Ingolstadt, you've got to do something bold.

Victor's reckless ambition to harness the spark of life, to do what no human had ever done before, was born in this university town. It emerged like so much modern innovation does, from seeing what the other guy is doing and trying to do him one better.

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