“Prepare! your toils only begin: wrap yourself in furs and provide food; for we shall soon enter upon a journey where your sufferings will satisfy my everlasting hatred.” (Frankenstein)
There’s plenty of ice – and need for warm furs – in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But ever since Boris Kaldoff became the bolt-headed, ragged-necked monster in the 1931 film Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s story has largely circulated in popular imagination in a condensed form. We usually think of Frankenstein’s struggles to form (or is it build?) the creature, accompanied by the first deadly interactions between the creature and humans in the surrounding villages.
The Bride of Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974) camps up the story; Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 Frankenstein psychologizes the creature’s search for identity and parental love. Painters, poets, animators, all love the creature’s hybrid being: intelligent yet cursed by its maker.
With all this mind-candy available, I often forget that Mary Shelley stitched Victor Frankenstein’s story between a series of letters from a fictional Captain R. Walton to his sister Mrs. Margaret Saville. Capt. Walton and his crew, trapped in ice as they attempt an Arctic expedition, are shocked one morning to discover a sledge appear on an ice floe. Victor, half-dead, lies in Walton’s cabin for several weeks and tells the story of the creature, which Walton writes out to Margaret.
The polar setting vanishes from the novel during the creation and first-killing scenes that most Frankenstein-inspired films, stories and images embrace. But once the creature has murdered Victor’s Elizabeth on their wedding night, Victor swears revenge and the creature lures him northward, northward, northward:
“My reign is not yet over” (these words were legible in one of these inscriptions); “you live, and my power is complete. Follow me; I seek the everlasting ices of the north, where you will feel the misery of cold and frost to which I am impassive….”
From this point on, Shelley has latitude to create fervent descriptions of ice, snow and cold.
“We are still surrounded by mountains of ice, still in imminent danger of being crushed in their conflict. The cold is excessive, and many of my unfortunate comrades have already found a grave amidst this scene of desolation.”
The awe at the presence of such massive inhuman power is partly colonial – the nineteenth-century idea of a “blank” polar space just waiting for European explorers to inscribe their importance on it was strong enough to inform Shelley’s 1818 novel well before John Franklin’s doomed expedition left London in search of a Northwest Passage in 1845.
Shelley’s sense of awe still speaks to us, though, because no matter how technologically protected we become, there is something impressive about the smallness humans in comparison to a frozen sea, “mountains of ice which admit of no escape and threaten every moment to crush my vessel.”
For those in a reading mood, ice-encrusted intensity takes over Frankenstein in the novel’s last chapter, when the darkened, immobile polar world provides a final confrontation between Victor and the fiend he created. The text for the whole novel is available online at http://www.literature.org/authors/shelley-mary/frankenstein/index.html