Wandering Spirits: Traveling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

The Final Letter

The following is the final part of S.J. Chambers’s column recalling her journey to various geographic locales featured in the novel Frankenstein. Although not totally necessary of this piece, we recommend reading the first installment, as well as the second, if you haven’t done so yet. The Editors

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Letter 3

Manotel Royal, Geneva, Switzerland

June 7, 20—

Dear R–,

I have been to Chamonix and Mont Blanc.  I don’t know if it is lack of oxygen from ascending the mountain, or the Bandol I imbibe while writing this, but I’m elated.  I feel like I finally found what I was seeking!  It would make sense that it would be at the Mer de Glace, since the Glace itself features so prominently in the book’s scenery.

Frankenstein has been popularly characterized as a parable against man playing God, presuming that there was a God who made man; however, the theological views of its author do not support such an interpretation. Mary Shelley came from a famously atheist family, and married an even more notorious skeptic.  But, even so, there is within Frankenstein a looming mysticism stemming from Romanticism’s concept of sublimity.

While the other romantic poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth regarded nature as the glorious evidence of a Christian God, Percy perceived a nourishing and destructive force reflective of man’s imagination.  His ode “Mont Blanc:  Lines Written in the Vale of Chamonix”[1] expresses this view and replaces religion with nature, establishing a moral code that Mary expands upon in Frankenstein’s later editions.

Creation is a monstrous act. Be it success or failure—it can be something suddenly in the world when a few seconds before it was not—it could be beautiful, it could be hideous, but most importantly it now exists—and the consequences of its existence can be quite substantial.  There are myriad ways to interpret Frankenstein, but this is its essence—its germ of suggestion, and its mass appeal anchor.  All too often, we callously create, and lack the foresight or understanding that once it is in the world it is out of our control.  This is true of art, of philosophy, of parenthood, and of government.  The creature you make may break you.

While it may seem like hyperbole, Frankenstein illustrates examples of all of these aspects and pulls into focus the question:  What is a monster?  It is that which we cannot control.  It is a sublime notion, and also somewhat archaically reliant upon a belief in fate.  This was not evident in the first edition of her Modern Prometheus, which was written under Percy Shelley’s supervision and politics, but by 1831, Mary had become confident in her own individual vision:

“Fate replaces individual choice in the 1831 edition, a revision which is heavily underscored by Mary’s enrollment of nature as a giant force, as implacable as the monster.  In the 1818 version, Victor saw the glacier at Chamonix only as a wonderful spectacle; in that of 1831, he is aware of ‘the blind working of immutable laws’….”[2]

It was these “immutable laws” that I sought. Raised, like most other readers, on the 1831 edition that was ultimately Mary’s final revision of a romantic manifesto, I could revel in the landscaped prose, but not really understand it from the sheltered quarters of my bedroom walls. But today, seeing the scenes for myself, I finally got it.

When Victor flees Belrive for Chamonix, he seeks the spiritualism unfounded within science: “The weight upon my spirit was sensibly lightened as I plunged…deeper in the ravine of Arve.  The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side, the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around spoke of a power mighty as  Omnipotence—and I ceased to fear or to bend before any being less almighty than that which had created and ruled the elements.”[3] Invigorated by the scenery, Victor feels himself part of this Omnipotence, since he has created life, but he is rudely awakened by the weather and by his creation.

I found the Alps moody.  When it is sunny, the snow is glaring and luminescent, making the peaks underneath radiate with an omnipotent quintessence. When it rains, they become dark, stark, and veiled with misty and solemn judgment. The rain approaches slowly, misting over the aiguilles, the condensation gradually taking on the mountains’ hues, until they blend together in sfumato ghostliness.

While I believe this a daily climate cycle, Victor reads this moodiness as a verdict on his actions, and finds Nature—especially within the deified Mont Blanc—apathetic: “… All of soul inspiriting fled…dark melancholy clouded every thought.  The rain was pouring in torrents, and thick mists hid the summits of the mountains, so that I even saw not the faces of those mighty friends.”[4]

Chamonix was also an escape for Mary and her family.  When Claire learned she was with Byron’s child, the family retreated to the Mountain village, where distance from Byron would allow them to plan around his growing disinterest. Traveling by foot and mule, it took the family three to four days to traverse the 82 kilometers between the Villa and the mountain village.  This trek largely informed Mary’s novel, including a night in Plainpalais, where the creature’s first murder occurs, and provided Victor’s route.[5]

There are many ways to follow Victor from Geneva to Chamonix, but perhaps the quickest and most efficient is with the Key Tours S.A. company[6], which offers routes comparable to that of Frankenstein’s journey through the countryside.  Via the bus’ panoramic windows, what little is left of the Plainpalais forest can be glimpsed, including the Mt. Saleve  cliffs the creature traversed in twenty minutes, and L’Arvre’s silty grey rapids rushing under roadways, railways, and bridges.

The view of the Alps on the bus from Geneva to Chamonix.

The view of the Alps on the bus from Geneva to Chamonix.

In the background, the Alps reign with rolling green hills that gradually fade into snow-dusted crags until the stark white of Mont Blanc bleaches the landscape of Chamonix, which Frankenstein describes as entering a different world:  “The high and snowy mountains were its immediate boundaries, but I saw no more ruined castles and fertile fields.  Immense glaciers approached the road; I heard the rumbling thunder of the falling avalanche and marked the smoke of its passage.  Mont Blanc, the supreme and magnificent Mont Blanc, raided itself from the surrounding aiguilles, and its tremendous dome overlooked the valley.” [7]

At 4,810 meters (15,781 feet above sea level),[8] Mont Blanc is Western Europe’s largest mountain, and its thick and endless sheets of snow and ice, punctuated by shadowy aiguilles, make it a living poem of beauty and terror.  No wonder Shelley chose it as the subject of his existentialism, and Mary chose it as her novel’s omnipotent patron saint.

Mont Blanc from the L’Aiguille de Midi viewing platform, where climbers scaling the mountain look like periods in an ever-winding ellipse through time.

Mont Blanc from the L’Aiguille de Midi viewing platform, where climbers scaling the mountain look like periods in an ever-winding ellipse through time.

Tourists can view Mont Blanc’s summit by taking a lift to L’Aiguille de Midi’s hiking station, then catching “The Rocket,” a sonic elevator that shoots jam-packed tourists up and out on a viewing platform at the White Mountain’s peak.  From here, the view is sublime, and—despite being riddled with tourists taking pictures and ooo-ing and ah-ing—it is a lonely experience.  Climbers scaling the mountain look like periods in an ever-winding ellipse through time, part of which we all punctuate, including the tourists here in 20– and the Shelleys in 1816.  It is in this eternal static that Victor finds comfort in:  “I had visited it frequently during my boyhood.  [Now]…:  I was a wreck, but naught had changed in those savage and enduring scenes.”[9]  However, Victor’s pilgrimage did not include a scaling of the mountain, but a descent to its moving glacier, Mer de Glace, where he is accosted with the horrible truth that everything has in fact changed, and he changed it.

The Shelleys and Frankenstein had to descend Montenvers to the Mer de Glace by mule, a trek so unsteady and precipitous that Shelley almost fell down the mountain. The glacier was well worth the peril, as he described in a letter: “On all sides precipitous mountains, the abodes of unrelenting frost, surround this vale:  their sides are banked up with ice and snow, broken, heaped high, and exhibiting terrific chasms…. The waves are elevated about 12 or 15 feet from the surface of the mass, which is intersected by long gaps of unfathomable depth, the ice of whose sides is more beautifully azure than the sky…. One would think that Mont Blanc, like the god of the Stoics, was a vast animal, and that the frozen blood for ever circulated through his stony veins.”[10]

The life taking tourists to the Mer de Glace. You can measure how much the glacier has moved by its drill holes.

The life taking tourists to the Mer de Glace. You can measure how much the glacier has moved by its drill holes.

Fortunately, that path has been made easier for tourists.  From Chamonix, a train takes visitors up 1,913 m (6,276 feet)[11] within a half-hour to the Montenvers train station, where a lift takes visitors down the vale to the moving glacier.

In the previous quote describing Victor’s arrival to Chamonix, he mentions seeing the icy-sea from his lodgings, but it has not been visible from the village since 1820, and has continuously shrank about 2 km (1.24 miles) every year since the 1850s.[12]    Even so, it is still massive enough, 200 meters (656 feet) thick on average, that a cave, known as the Ice Grotto, can be drilled out every summer to allow exploration of the ice’s inner beauty, with the bonus of a visual reference to the steady but imperceptible flowing of the glacier, which moves about 70 meters (0.04 miles) every year.[13]

Inside the Ice Grotto.

Inside the Ice Grotto.

The Grotto is dazzling despite being filled with tourist cheese like ice sculpted furnishings among carved-out bedrooms and kitchens, and even an overpriced photo opportunity with a St. Bernard.  But, kitsch aside, the main attraction is the preternatural coloring inside the glacier.  Outside, the glacier appears filmy—a pale blue emanating from underneath snow, dirt, rocks, and gravel—but inside the ice is the crystalline mixture of a sapphire robustness with aquamarine clarity.

Victor, of course, never experienced the ice’s interior, but rather relished its exterior isolation:  “…My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy; I exclaimed, ‘Wandering Sprits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life.’  As if in answer, Victor “… suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed.  He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution….”[14]

Victor’s reunion with his creature is one of Frankenstein’s more crucial scenes.  Right before the confrontation, he describes the area as a temple, with Mont Blanc looming supreme over Frankenstein and the vast sea of ice:  “…From the side where I now stood Montenvers was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty…. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependant mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recess….”  Although Victor retreats to Chamonix to clear his conscience, the mountain’s mysticisms seem to apathetically reflect his attempts to thwart nature back into his face, and damn him by reuniting him with his Creature.

Judgment rolls in.

Judgment rolls in.

While I’ve written above about the Alps’ moodiness, I didn’t witness this atmospheric judgment (as Victor saw it) until returning back to Chamonix on the Montenvers train. As the scenery became obscured by pouring rain, I thought about the conflict that transpired under the King of the Mountain’s court:  the Creature confides his sensible and intellectual experiences to his Father, and in true bad-dad fashion, Victor disavows him, declares him a disappointment, and declares him a monster.  That declaration not only damned the Creature into further crimes and mayhem, but into a reputation of infamy and further misunderstanding in our popular culture.

In the Universal films, you travel through the creatures eyes, watch his development toward monstrosity but with no clue to his inner workings—he remains practically deaf and mute to the audience. He is forever embryonic. In Branaugh’s adaptation, you get a sense of the inner travel; however, people seem to prefer a dumb brute.  Having seen Mary Shelley’s face flash on a TV screen at the train platform, I queried my tour guide about his knowledge of the Creature and Mont Blanc, and he thought I was referring to the Villa Diodati.

“No,” I said.  “Frankenstein was also set here—.”  He cut me off with a scoff, “Oh, yes, yes, the monster scales Mt. Salave in twenty minutes or something ridiculous like that.”  He then mused for a moment while helping an old woman onto the bus. “You know, the Universal monster films had the right idea. The public do not want a philosophical monster; the studios were right to mute him.”

Were they?  Was it because in the book the Creature was a lateral man with a story most people, even those who made him thus, wanted to ignore because it was uncomfortable to believe?  His world isn’t big—his society is filled with a few people, none who gel with him, and therefore leads to an existence frustrated and exacerbated by misunderstanding and irresponsibility.

Moving away from the storm. This was taken through the train window and uses no filters.

Moving away from the storm. This was taken through the train window and uses no filters.

I chose to follow Victor rather than the Creature because the Creature’s journey is not locked into sites like his creator, but has a geography of emotions—a child’s map of his mental development that is very much Shelley’s conte philosophie for Rousseau’s thoughts on education, companionship, equality, and the noble savage. For a long time, he has no real sense of where he is and he is uninterested in the sublime. He is of nature, and he doesn’t have to admire it or be against it, he is it.

But even so, there is the Black Forest in-between Ingolstadt and Geneva that shaped the Creature and made him the philosophical monster we all ignore. If I ever get to repeat this tour, it’ll be the Creature’s maps I draft and follow.

Oh, how late it is getting! How long this letter has grown, and how low the Bandol! I will close this with my wandering spirit sated and return to you soon.

Exhaustedly,

S

Author Pic (2)



[1] “Mont Blanc:  Lines Written in the Vale of Chamonix” was first published in the travelogue A History of a Six Weeks Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland:  With Letters Descriptive of a Sail Around the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamonui. Published in 1817, it would be the only published collaboration of the couple, and collects letters and journals of their two Grand Tours together.   Many of the descriptions and sentiments here would be repeated in Frankenstein.

[2] Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. New York: Grove Press. 2000. Pp. 407

[3] Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:  With an Introduction by Stephen King. New York: Signet Classic. 1978. Pp. 90.

[4] Ibid. Pp. 92

[5] Accounts of this trek are depicted in the letters in of the Shelley’s History of a Six Weeks Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland:  With Letters Descriptive of a Sail Around the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamonui.  London:  T. Hookham, Jun and C. and J. Olliver.  1817.

[6] The tour group also arranges for all your ticketing and transportation needs, as well as a nice, Swiss lunch so your time is utilized more sightseeing than standing in lines.

[7] Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:  With an Introduction by Stephen King. New York: Signet Classic. 1978. Pp. 90

[8] Chamonix*net. “Mont Blanc Climb.” Chamonix Networks. http://www.chamonix.net/english/mountaineering/mt_blanc_climb.htm.  Accessed September 18, 2013.

[9] Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:  With an Introduction by Stephen King. New York: Signet Classic. 1978. Pp. 90

[10] Shelley, Percy and Mary.  History of a Six Weeks Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland:  With Letters Descriptive of a Sail Around the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamonui.  London:  T. Hookham, Jun and C. and J. Olliver.  1817, Pp. 166-167

[11] “Chemin de fer du Montenvers [sic].”  Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montenvers_Railway Accessed September  18, 2013.

[12] Nussbaumer, S. U., H. J. Zumbühl, and D. Steiner (2007): Fluctuations of the Mer de Glace (Mont Blanc area, France) AD 1500-2050. Part I: The history of the Mer de Glace AD 1570-2003 according to pictorial and written documents. Zeitschrift für Gletscherkunde und Glazialgeologie, 40(2005/2006), 5-140. http://www.geo.uzh.ch/~snus/publications/dipl_summary.pdf  Accessed August 18, 2010.

[13] Chamonix*net. “Mer de Glace.” Chamonix Networks. http://www.chamonix.net/english/sightseeing/mer_de_glace.htm.  Accessed September 18, 2013.

[14] Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:  With an Introduction by Stephen King.  New York: Signet Classic. 1978.  Pp. 94

S. J. Chambers has published fiction and non-fiction in a variety of venues including Mungbeing magazine, New Myths, Yankee Pot Roast, and in the World Fantasy-nominated Thackery T. Lambshead’s Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, 2011), the recently released Zombies: Shambling Through the Ages (Prime Books, 2013), and the forthcoming Starry Wisdom Library (PS Publishing, 2014). Ramblings and bookish sundries can be gleaned at www.selenachambers.com.