Ireland (Irish: Éire) is an island located in the North Atlantic Ocean, separated by the United Kingdom by the Irish Sea. Ireland’s diverse topographical features include grassy plains, bogs, inlets, and several mountain ranges. The Irish climate is heavily dictated by the North Atlantic, which results in frequent rainfall and narrow yearly temperature ranges. Ireland was the birthplace of an ancient Celtic culture and language, in addition to being a land visited by many varieties of conquerors. Today, the island is politically divided into the independent Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the latter being part of the United Kingdom.
Plot Significance in Frankenstein
In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein seeks the seclusion of the Orkney Islands to finish creating a female mate for his creature. Consumed with anxiety over the idea of a second monster, Victor destroys this creation while his first creature watches. Victor packs away his scientific instruments, “determined to throw them into the sea that very night” (Shelley 133). Very early the next morning, he is rocked to sleep in his boat by the sound and motions of the sea’s waves.
Victor wakes to find that the boat has drifted far from the Orkney Islands’ shore. Disoriented, he first attempts to change the boat’s course before constructing a sail out of his own clothes and maneuvering the skill towards the nearest visible land. Victor enters the harbor of a small coastal town, and upon landing ashore he is confronted by a crowd of people. Noting that the villages speak English, Victor engages in a conversation with them and discovers he has been swept to the coast of Ireland. “Ready to sink from fatigue and hunger” (Shelley 136), Victor is brought to a magistrate named Mr. Kirwin and told that the circumstances surrounding his arrival in Ireland are suspicious. Several gathered villagers reveal that a strangled body was found prior to Victor’s appearance, and upon seeing the body Victor identifies it to be that of his friend Henry Clerval. After sinking into a state of raving delirium for two months, Victor wakes in an Irish prison and finds that an old woman has been tending to him. Victor’s father arrives and accompanies him to court, where he is proven innocent. The two travel to Dublin and sail to Holyhead port.
Currently, there are no adaptations of Frankenstein that travel to or are set in Ireland.
Relationship to 19th-Century Victorian England
The Village in Frankenstein
Victor Frankenstein does not specify the location of the village he sails to in Ireland. However, scholar Fred V. Randel posits that the most likely locations are Ulster or County Mayo on the eastern coast of the island (Randel 483), due to the northeast wind (Shelley 134) described in the novel.
Colonialization of Ireland
Ireland existed as an English colony for a span of 750 years, from King Henry II’s reign in 1172 until the establishment of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December of 1921. Before its subjugation to the British crown, Ireland was also the target of several ancient conquests. Dublin was first established as a Viking colony, and it was the Norsemen that gave it the name Dubhlinn, literally meaning “Blackpool” (Kenny 22). The Irish culture developed outside of this city, and the Gaelic speakers called it Baile Atha Cliath. Queen Elizabeth established Trinity College Dublin in 1592, in an effort to civilize the people through the production of books and to shape Ireland’s culture to fit the desires of the English government. It must be noted that in Frankenstein, Victor feels “as if [he were] relieves from a heavy weight” (Shelley 144) upon his arrival in Dublin. As the most Anglicized city in the country at that time, it is likely that Shelley is alluding to the contrast of England’s heavy-handed presence in Dublin when compared to the rural Irish countryside.
Political CartoonsDuring Mary Shelley’s time, Ireland was engaged in a struggle with England for sovereignty. Prominent Irish activists were rising to fight for their country’s right to govern itself, such as Henry Grattan, Edmund Burke, and Daniel O’Connell. The English opinion of their colony Ireland remained patronizing and demeaning: “’[i]t was a peculiar favour from heaven to send a civilized people’ that is, the English, among the Irish to govern them and thus save them from their ‘savage’, ‘ignorant and bigoted’ ways” (Randel 484). A form of political cartoon published during Shelley’s lifetime, entitled “The Irish Frankenstein”, was used so often to depict the Irish that it “became something of a cliché in mid-Victorian humorous magazines, and was used to comment on O’Connell in the 1840s (Punch), the Fenians in the 1860s…and the Phoenix Park murders in 1882” (Malchow 139). The image of an apelike, murderous, Frankenstein creature become a metaphor for the Irish, due to the belief the Ireland’s culture was England’s creation.
Ireland's Major Themes in Frankenstein
The theme of isolation in Frankenstein stands as one of the many explanations of why Victor’s experiment goes awry. If Victor had consulted a second opinion on his endeavors to create the creature, or even confessed his activity with another character, the story’s plot would be much different. Ireland is a place of ultimate isolation in Victor’s mind, and yet is ironically where he most visible and involved in society.
As Randel writes, Ireland is “unique among the important settings in Frankenstein [because it] is not chosen by Victor” (Randel 482). Swept away from his laboratory on the Orkney Islands, Victor disappears from his family and friends’ sight until Mr. Kerwin notifies Victor’s father of his whereabouts. This moment is described by John Bugg as a foreshadowing of Victor's "entrance into exile" (664). The murder of Clerval rips Victor’s closest companion from him, and drives Victor into a mentally limited state in which he can only communicate in his native language. Confined to a prison cell with “barred windows” (Shelley 139), Victor feels that “no one was near [him]” (Shelley 140). In Ireland, Victor is more alone than ever, represented by the “sharply contrastive rhetoric” (Randel 428) between him and the Irish villagers; he has lost his way, lost his friend, lost his culture, and lost his freedom.
The "Other"Victor perceives the people of Ireland as “other”, similar to how Safie and the creature are portrayed in the story. In his initial interactions with the Irish villagers, Victor compares his treatment to the standard of English manners and is met with gruff reproach. His question, “Is not this a free country?” (Shelley 136) echoes a real-world question of Shelley’s times and demeans the Irish to a lower level of humanity, that of colonialized people. Randel recognizes that “Victor now resembles the European intellectuals who flirted with or actively promoted radical ideas at home, but were aghast when overseas colonies chose to apply Enlightenment notions of human rights to their own condition” (Randel 483). Even as the villagers' responses to the suspicious circumstances of Clerval's murder are logical, nonviolent, and ultimately human, the only Irishman that Victor respects is Mr. Kirwin, likely because Kirwin is fluent in French and holds a high political office.
Victor’s generalized, demeaning description of the Irish reflects that of Victorian England. Despite their efforts to help him, Victor sees his Irish doctor as working with “utter carelessness” (Shelley 140) and his nurse as having an “expression of brutality” (Shelley 140). The villagers he meets exhibit lower forms of communication, “whisper[ing] together with gestures that …might have produced in [him] a slight sensation of alarm” (Shelley 135). This particular observation alludes to the racist political cartoons of the time, which often depict the Irish as having exaggerated, apelike features.
Victor’s arrival and departure from Ireland are both commenced while he sleeps. Lulled to sleep by the waves near the Orkney Islands, Victor wakes to find himself in the middle of a nightmare. Without a compass and “little acquainted with the geography of this part of the world” (Shelley 134), the scientist finds himself lacking his regular means of perceiving the surroundings. Upon his arrival to Ireland’s shore, Victor is not received warmly by the famed Irish hospitality. Instead, he is met with hostility and hate. The old, “unfeeling” (Shelley 139) nurse that administers to Victor in prison can be read as the opposite of Victor’s young, emotional fiancé Elizabeth Lavenza. Just as Justine Moritz was wrongly jailed and punished for William Frankenstein’s murder, now Victor is imprisoned for a murder he did not commit. In Ireland Victor finds himself in a place of altered reality, where many aspects of his life are reversed.
The portion of Frankenstein’s plot set in Ireland is similar to episodes in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in which an established social hierarchy is flipped. Randel suggests “where Swift writes of a mob of Yahoos gathering around Gulliver, climbing a tree above him, and discharging their excrement on his head, Mary Shelley imagines a murder which recalls a widespread rebellion” (Randel 484). Victor takes the psychedelic drug laudanum on his way to Holyhead in order to sleep, thus framing Ireland as a nightmarish dreamscape in the story.
References/Suggestions for Further Reading
Bugg, John. "'Master of their language': Education and Exile in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Huntington Library Quarterly 68.4 (2005): 655-666. Web.
Malchow, H. L. "Frankenstein's Monster and Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain." Past & Present no.139 (1993): 90-130. Web.
Randel, Fred V. "The Political Geography of Horror in Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein'." ELH 70.2 (2003): 465- 491. Web.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. New York: Penguin Classics, 1999. Print.