Rime and Reason: References in Frankenstein

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley uses the concept of nature dynamically, personifying it and using it to describe people and things. The concepts of nature and human nature are intertwined, and almost become interchangeable in their definition and subsequent usage in the novel. The main character, Victor, has a characteristic relationship with nature. Mary Shelley’s initial conception of the tale was in 1816, during a volcanic winter. Shelley’s themes of nature and human nature directly stem from the circumstances in which she wrote Frankenstein, as well as the texts she referenced in the novel. 

When one studies Frankenstein closely, it is important to also understand the reference material. While Mary Shelley certainly puts her own gothic spin on it, there are themes and messages inspired by The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The basic premise of the poem is that this mariner is telling his story to a wedding guest outside of a wedding venue. The story reads that he went out to sea, and the trip was particularly perilous. The only time they had good weather was when an albatross perched itself on the ship. The mariner shot the albatross, and the weather soon turned even more dangerous. Eventually, the ship comes into contact with another ship, belonging to Death and Life-in-Death. They gamble for the sailors, and Death wins the crew, but Life-in-Death wins the mariner. The mariner suffers aboard the ship of corpses, the albatross hung around his neck, drifting about with no crew. Only when he begins to appreciate the natural beauty of the world around him does the albatross fall away, and the crew’s corpses come alive for long enough to sail him home, before the ship collapses into the water, and he is pulled from the wreckage. As penance, he is compelled to wander and repeatedly tell his story, and his audience is equally compelled to listen (Coleridge). 

While there are a lot of similarities between this story and Frankenstein, the focus here is that the mariner was damned by shooting the albatross, by being irreverent of nature. Victor’s damnation comes from playing god, and creating the monster. Appreciation of nature is another theme that Frankenstein shares in common with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The mariner is absolved by his reverence, and Victor, in turn, is constantly comforted by his surroundings, no matter how bleak his situation. After Victor has already lost everything, Walton observes him doing so: “Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth.” (Shelley 16).

The comparison to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner also includes the time period in which Victor creates the monster. Victor states that during the time he was working on his creation: “It was the most beautiful season; never did the fields bestow a more plentiful harvest, or the vines yield a more luxuriant vintage: but my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature.” (Shelley 42). He was also defiling graves, cadavers, slaughterhouses, and corpses, as well as ignoring his own health. It was as if, to defy God and nature, he had to defy his own nature as well. Like the mariner, when he ignores the beauty around him is when he commits his most egregious sin. For the mariner, this meant shooting down the albatross. For Victor, it was creating the monster. The monster itself has a similar revelation: “Some years ago, when the images which this world affords first opened upon me, when I felt the cheering warmth of summer and heard the rustling of the leaves and the warbling of the birds, and these were all to me, I should have wept to die; now it is my only consolation.” (Shelley 207). The monster seems to have the opposite progression, where once he had regarded the world with wonder and admiration, he is now jaded against it, and given all his crimes, only wishes for death. The summer he speaks of here is actually the same summer Victor had created him in, so long ago. The first time Victor had ignored and turned his back on nature was the first time the creature had been introduced to its wonders.

Shelley also directly references Paradise Lost by John Milton. After reading it, the monster states: “Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy arose within me.” (Shelley 117). To consider himself Satan, by extension, compares Victor to God. In utilizing Paradise Lost, we see the violation of nature more clearly. Victor is compared to God, and the monster, to Satan or Adam. But truthfully, Victor is not God. He harnessed the power to create life, something no one had ever done before, and Shelley compares him to God in order to reveal just how out of his depth he truly was. He was just a man, one who was unwise enough to believe that he could use this power he’d discovered and create life without consequences. Like Lucifer in Paradise Lost, the monster tries his best to get his revenge on his creator (Milton). But, unlike Lucifer, he wins. Whereas the ending of Paradise Lost involves Lucifer being revered amongst his comrades and placed in a position of power amongst them, the monster in Frankenstein sees Victor dead, and laments that he is now more alone than ever.

Frankenstein was originally published under the title Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Prometheus created man from clay, and defied Zeus by giving man fire, so was punished by having a bird come to eat his liver every day. Here, all of the texts can be seen as a reference to this punishment (More). In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the mariner was won by Life-in-Death, and had to continue living as punishment. In Paradise Lost, Lucifer is cast out of heaven, forced to live outside of paradise. And finally, in Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein is forced to live on as the monster serially murders everyone he loves.

It is important to note that nature is not always portrayed as tranquil and serene in Frankenstein. In the very beginning of Victor’s story, he sees a thunderstorm, and watches lightning strike a tree. He states: “It was not splintered by the shock, but utterly reduced to thin ribbons of wood. I never beheld something so utterly destroyed.” (Shelley 28). Understanding this thunderstorm consumes him, and he first learns of galvanism shortly after. Later on in the novel, after his younger brother’s murder, he feels angry and spiteful that nature should be so serene and picturesque while he suffers the consequences of his creation’s wrath. As a whole, nature does not respond to Victor’s plights, but rather, it instead is completely unchanged throughout the novel. It is also important that both Victor and the monster do not die by killing each other, but indirectly, from exposure.

Shelley’s own circumstances also led to the natural themes it portrays. The year it was written, 1816, was dubbed “The Year Without a Summer” in which the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora the year before had caused the temperature to drop by around one degree Fahrenheit worldwide (Andrew). During the summer time, her friend, Lord Byron, had suggested they come up with a ghost story. Mary Shelley’s story was the first draft of Frankenstein (Shelley). In a sense, the horrible conditions that they had to endure ensured that they stayed indoors, sharing their stories, and Frankenstein would not have existed otherwise. The gorgeous prose with which she appreciated nature through her characters is likely how she felt, given that she was denied such natural sights during that year. Frankenstein, like the monster, is an intelligent amalgamation of many different works. Though, quite unlike the monster, it is a beautiful work that regards the world with a fascination and wonder. Shelley, being the well read woman she was, references many texts, such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Paradise Lost, and Metamorphoses. In each reference, there are prevalent themes of defiance, guilt, and consequences. The reason nature is such a specific theme in Frankenstein is because it subtly lets the readers know how Victor violated the basic laws of the world around him.

Andrew P Schurer et al 2019 Environ. Res. Lett. 14 094019

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1921). Coleridge, E.H. (ed.). The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Oxford University Press. pp. 186–209.

Milton, John, 1608-1674. Paradise Lost. London ; New York :Penguin Books, 2000.

More, Brookes. Commentary by Wilmon Brewer. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Translation), pp. 

353–86, Marshall Jones Company, Francestown, NH, revised edition, 1978.

Shelley, Mary. Paragraphs 11–13, “Introduction” Frankenstein (1831 edition) Archived 2014-01-06 at the Wayback Machine Gutenberg

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