Surface: The Liquid Ontological Barriers in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Margaret Fisher

Resurfacing. Struggling to sit up, rise from beneath some transparent film, escape a dreamland of another understanding, break through into blinding reality. Caught in the gray, fuzzed realm between the human and non-human, Victor Frankenstein stumbles down Montanvert to the valley below. He returns to his family, to the human realm of existence, with a promise bearing down upon his head that threatens to drown him, submerge him once more in the liquid logic of non-human understanding. Through his encounter with his creation at the top of the mount, Frankenstein achieves enlightenment, establishing communion with nature itself, finally recognizing the creature’s basic needs as synonymous with his own. However, with each step down the mountain, the reality of his creature’s needs, or rather nature’s needs (for the creature can be viewed as a symbolic representation of nature), and what must be done to satisfy them, troubles Frankenstein. Fearing the implications of his newfound understanding, Frankenstein attempts to disengage from nature at the halfway point of the descent, violently asserting his separateness as “man” and returning to what Mary Shelley’s work suggests is the faux throne of human dominion over the natural world.

Frankenstein’s encounter with his creature, and simultaneously with nature itself, takes place over the course of an entire day, therefore his descent is one into both a literal and figurative darkness that frustrates the action of categorization. Alone with his creation, Frankenstein knows that he “ought to hasten” so as to avoid the onslaught of night, but his heart is “heavy” and his “steps slow.” He tries to place one foot before the other, “perplexed” by his own motion (Shelly 104). Frankenstein’s confusion and reluctance to leave the mountain suggests the extent to which he has become a part of nature in general. Leaving, returning to the human world, seems wrong and unnatural to him now, so much so that walking has become a difficult and bewildering action. As Frankenstein struggles to leave the natural world and resume his place in the human world he simultaneously struggles to differentiate himself from nature, specifically his creature, with whom he has just learned to identify. His difficulty to “redraw” the boundaries between “man” and “nature” after a single day illustrates the tense and overlapping relationship between the human and non-human, suggesting that the ideal condition of man is one interconnected with nature, not above it in hierarchical succession.

Frankenstein finally reasserts the ontological boundary between man and nature when he stops to rest midway down the mountain. Here, an equal distance from the heart of both human and non-human realms, he weeps, crying out to the stars, winds, and clouds to “crush sensation and memory” or else, “depart and leave me in darkness” (104). At first, he seems to be asking to be made one with nature, for his human memories and emotions to be obliterated so that he may join peacefully in the impersonal cycle of existence as exhibited by the living trees that stand impassive amongst the dead scattered “here and there,” broken on the ground (104). However, there is a second meaning to his outburst that is perhaps more significant. He lashes out at the stars, clouds, and winds, and accuses them of “mocking” him, commanding that they obliterate him or leave him “in darkness”; if they will not leave him, Frankenstein claims that they do not “really pity him” (105).

By speaking to the stars, wind, and clouds in this direct manner, Frankenstein, through language, endows them with a life of their own (much like he gives life to his creature earlier in the novel). This use of language causes two occurrences: first, the natural elements are now able (from Frankenstein’s perspective) to exhibit emotions, such as pity, offering greater insight into their relationship to Frankenstein, and second Frankenstein asserts his “separateness” as man with the unique ability to speak. The stars, winds, and clouds “pity” Frankenstein because through his enlightenment he assumes a certain intermediary role between nature and man. The knowledge he received on the mountain, the understanding established between him and his creation (and therefore with all nature), carries with it the responsibility to act. He can no longer live as all other men live; he has become, in a sense, an ambassador for the natural world to the human world, responsible for challenging the established dominion of man over nature. Frankenstein knows that his newfound knowledge will require him to relinquish his position of superiority as man and feels the burden of his responsibility in the “eternal twinkling of the stars” that “weigh” upon him. He sees their “shinning at intervals” as mockery, a kind of game in which the “light” of this new knowledge flashes upon him periodically, incessantly reminding him of the role he must play (105). In calling out, however, Frankenstein rejects this role and breaks communion with nature through speech. He asks the natural elements to take his memory and sensation, but since they cannot, he orders them to “depart.” As his voice breaks the silent perfection of the wild, as the air around him becomes saturated with human sound, Frankenstein finally distinguishes himself from nature. By ordering nature to “depart,” by commanding the stars, clouds, and winds in this way, he reclaims dominion over them and rejoins the human realm of existence.

The structural break in the passage at this point illustrates Frankenstein’s simultaneous break with nature. The remainder of Frankenstein’s descent is not mentioned or described, and the following paragraph of text begins with his arrival home the next morning. It would appear that his encounter with nature the previous night was little more than a dream. This disconnect illustrates the divide between the human and non-human realms of existence, but may also suggest that Frankenstein’s separation from nature was not absolute. He appears “strange” to his family, as though there is something foreign or not quite human about him, as though some element of the non-human still lingers about his person. Also, Frankenstein’s tortured dreams in which “a multitude of filthy animals” attack him reflect his feelings of guilt for abandoning his relationship with nature (105). He admits that the promise he made to the “daemon” (literally, “nature spirit”) weighs heavily upon him, referring not only to his literal agreement with the creature, but also his implied promise to the whole natural realm, the promise he broke when he abandoned his enlightened state.

Frankenstein assimilates “by degrees” back into the human realm completely, loosing the knowledge he received during his enlightened day on the mountain. He fails to accept the gray, unclear battle lines drawn clumsily between all things, living and non-living, and thus both creator and creation fall prey to isolation and misery. The fuzzy outlines settle once more into sharply defined borders. Like railroad tracks, they run over the conjoined arms of classifications with no absolute distinction between them. Ice forms over a once liquid and permeable divide. Understanding slips below the solidifying surface; much like the stars, slowly sinking beneath a rising sea of clouds.

Works Cited

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and J. Paul Hunter. Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. Print.