Sublime Nature in Frankenstein

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson, we will examine Mary Shelley's use of the sublime in ''Frankenstein''. We will begin with a short history of the sublime, and then we will explore the theme in the novel's settings and its characters.

Short History of the Sublime

The first modern approach to the sublime appeared in Edmund Burke's 1757 treatise Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke argued that feelings of the sublime occur when the subject experiences certain types of danger, pain, or terror. One may experience the sublime through many means, but it is usually explored through nature or through art. Imagine, for example, that you are standing at the edge of a vast cliff, nearly ready to fall off. That feeling, the terror of impending death at the hands of uncontrollable nature, speaks to the power of the sublime. A few decades later, German philosopher Immanuel Kant modified Burke's definition of the sublime in his 1790 Critique of Judgment. Kant considered the sublime and the beautiful as binaries, elements that possess opposite, yet complementary qualities. While the sublime is vast and obscure, the beautiful is small and definite.

The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog
Friedrich The Wanderer

The Sublime in the Gothic Novel

Because of its ability to evoke terror in its subjects, the sublime quickly became a recognizable theme in the Gothic genre, an artistic mode that celebrated the supernatural and the dark depths of the human experience. Ann Radcliffe, a late eighteenth-century writer, engaged the sublime routinely in her Gothic novels. Her characters seem constantly to be approaching vast cliffs and mountains that threaten death and briefly transport them away from reality. There is something otherworldly about encountering the sublime. In a sense, it's kind of like an out-of-body experience, in which your sensations become too dynamic for your body or mind to handle. This feeling is perhaps what Gothic novelists wanted their subjects to experience while reading. Mary Shelley borrowed from earlier Gothic writers by directly engaging with the sublime, though she used it in new and even more terrifying ways.

Sublime Settings in Frankenstein

Mary Shelley includes a few sublime settings in Frankenstein. But it is important to state that, compared to Radcliffe, her use of the geographical or natural sublime is limited. Much of the sublime in the novel is found in its frame narrative, the outermost story that surrounds Victor Frankenstein's central narration. The frame is composed of letters written by Robert Walton, who is on a treacherous sea voyage. The desolation of the icy landscape inspires awe and terror in Walton, as he contemplates his past and the foolishness of his own endeavors. Shelley's other use of the natural sublime comes during a scene in which Victor, the rash young scientist, meets the creature that he has created, high atop an icy, mountainous region. It is useful to imagine Victor, standing in much the same attitude as the subject of Caspar Friedrich's painting above, surveying the sublime scene.

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