What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?
In a letter home to his sister, explorer Robert Walton brims with enthusiasm about his dangerous scientific expedition to the North Pole, an area he calls “a country of eternal light,” as it was a common belief at the time that the sun was always visible there. While others see the North Pole as a wasteland of frost and desolation, Walton sees it as a place of beauty and as a source of endless scientific discovery. He wholeheartedly believes that by daring to venture to the furthest reaches of Earth, he will be awarded to “some great purpose.” Symbolically, light represents both Walton’s faith in science’s ability to uncover nature’s deepest and darkest secrets, and the rational mind’s ability to understand and unlock all of nature’s mysteries—two cornerstone beliefs of the Enlightenment.
I remembered the effect that the view of the tremendous and ever-moving glacier had produced upon my mind when I first saw it. It had then filled me with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy.
In the months after Justine’s execution, Victor Frankenstein finds himself increasingly in despair, and he even contemplates suicide. Looking for solace, he travels alone to the summit of Montanvert, a glacier in the Alps popular with European travelers. Here, Frankenstein explains how the glacier’s stark beauty revives his soul and lifts it from “the obscure world to light and joy.” Light, in this instance, is not the symbol of the pinnacle of the rational, scientific mind, which seeks to shed “light” on the secrets of nature, but rather light is nature itself and its restorative powers to the soul, an idea popular with the Romantic authors at the time
Abhorred monster! fiend that thou art! the tortures of hell are too mild a vengeance for thy crimes. Wretched devil! You reproach me with your creation; come on, then, that I may extinguish the spark which I so negligently bestowed.
Here, Frankenstein threatens to kill the Monster. Moments before this outburst, Victor had been standing on the peak of the glacier Montanvert, enjoying a momentary respite from his troubles as he gazed out at the landscape’s soothing, natural beauty. Frankenstein’s peace is disturbed, however, when he catches a glimpse of the Monster rushing toward him. The “spark” Frankenstein threatens to extinguish symbolizes the Monster’s life as well as fire, the gods’ secret that Prometheus gifted to humankind, an act he was later severely punished for.
Before, dark and opaque bodies had surrounded me, impervious to my touch or sight; but I now found that I could wander on at liberty, with no obstacles which I could not either surmount or avoid. The light became more and more oppressive to me; and, the heat wearying me as I walked, I sought a place where I could receive shade.
As the Monster recounts his story to Frankenstein, he describes the first sensations he had as he awakened alone in a forest. His first encounter with sunlight created an uncomfortable, overwhelming sensation that “pressed upon” his nerves and felt uncomfortably “oppressive.” Throughout the novel, light functions as a symbol for both nature and god and the powers of the rational mind, which play as two somewhat opposing aspects of the human experience in the novel. Here, the Monster’s first experience of coming out of darkness and into the light is like an uncomfortable birth into the realm of human experience.
One day, when I was oppressed by cold, I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!
The Monster recounts to Frankenstein his first experience with fire. The Monster is encouraged by the fire’s warmth but, thrusting his hand into the fire, learns that fire can bring comfort but also burn and cause pain. Thus, the Monster begins to understand the dangerous dual nature of fire, an element that can both give life or take it away. Fire symbolizes the gifts of the human rational mind and its ability to both create and, if not used wisely, destroy.
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