HMS Erebus by John Wilson Carmichael

The Arctic Edit

General Information Edit

The Arctic is the polar region at the top of the northern hemisphere. Its name comes from the Greek word “Arktos”, meaning bear, after the Ursa Major constellation. It is characterized as an icy wilderness, populated by polar bears, seals, and the odd explorer crossing a frozen tundra on a dog-sled. In reality, humans have lived in the arctic for roughly 20,000 years, on the edges of its 5.5 million square miles. The Arctic Ocean is covered in ice, and the average July temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The extreme environment hosts a teeming ecosystem, much of it as yet unstudied due to the harsh conditions (Polar Discovery). 

Exploration Edit

Pinkerton's Map of the Northern Hemisphere 1818

Exploration of the Arctic and the search for a Northwest Passage began in 1594, with Willem Barents. After him, the famous expeditions of Henry Hudson in 1607, Vitus Bering in 1732, and James Cook in 1776 were the three major attempts to find trade passages before 1817. In 1818, the same year Frankenstein was first published, the era of Arctic exploration began with a flurry of expeditions (Polar Discovery). The connection between Arctic exploration and the Romantic period is dramatically embodied in the epitaph written by Alfred Lord Tennyson on the monument to the explorer John Franklin: NOT HERE! THE WHITE NORTH HATH THY BONES, AND THOU, HEROIC SAILOR SOUL, ART PASSING ON THY HAPPIER VOYAGE NOW TOWARDS NO EARTHLY POLE (Brandt 7). It is no wonder that Mary Shelley incorporated the excitement of arctic exploration into a novel that deals with men’s hubris and unbridled curiosity, a popular subject of her contemporaries.

The Themes Addressed in the Arctic Frame Narrative Edit

By framing the novel in the Arctic, Shelley sets up several of the themes explored in throughout entire novel. Captain Robert Walton experiences the thrilling anticipation of embarking into uncharted territory, emphasized in his letter to his sister, Margaret Walton Saville, “I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man” (Shelley 7). For Walton, the Arctic holds the same lure of dangerous knowledge that creating the creature held for Frankenstein. Like Frankenstein, Walton begins to experience isolation brought on by his pursuit, which is reflected in the Arctic’s barren landscape, described by Walton as a “scene of desolation” (154). The Arctic as an embodiment of the sublime is more readily described by Frankenstein during his chase of the creature: “The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split, and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound” (Shelley 150).  

Dangerous Pursuit of Knowledge Edit

For Walton, the arctic presented itself as an undiscovered country, which had captivated his imagination since youth. Like the adolescent Victor reading Cornelius Agrippa and Albertus Magnus, the seeds for Walton’s expedition were planted by “the accounts of the various voyages which have been made in the prospect of arriving at the North Pacific Ocean through the seas which surround the pole” (8). Considering William Barents, Henry Hudson and James Cook, not to mention countless crewmen, lost their lives during expeditions (polar discovery), there was very good reason to view a venture to the arctic as a fool-hardy mission. And he would have very likely shared their fate, if his crew had not forced him to return home.

The Sublime Edit

A moving ocean of ice, with floating monoliths and a palette of whites, blues and greys as far as the eye can see, is a terrifyingly alien landscape that evokes the sublime. Edmund Burke says that “When any work seems to have required immense force and labour to effect it, the idea is grand” (Burke 41). Merely surviving in the Arctic takes an incredible amount of fortitude, not to mention non-perishable food and supplies. Burke also lists vastness, infinity and terror as elements of the sublime, which are qualities easily associated with the Arctic. The Creature, with Victor hot on his heels, leaves him a message saying "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 ever-lasting hatred" (148). Victor is undaunted and continues, describing his journey: "immense and rugged mountains of ice often barred up my passage, and I often heard the thunder of the ground sea, which threatened my destruction" (149). These emotionally charged statements, uttered against the unforgiving backdrop of a frozen wasteland, provide Victor and his Creature with a dramatic conclusion that is closer to the terror aspects of the sublime, rather than the beautiful.

Isolation Edit


The theme of isolation is embodied in the landscape of the Arctic. While Victor still lives amidst society while he is creating the creature, Walton has eliminated any risk of family or friends interfering with his goals. It takes the mutiny of his crew, who he has kept an emotional distance from due to their inferior class, to avert his suicidal mission. It is a pitiful irony that Walton complains to his sister that “I greatly need a friend” (10), when he has taken it upon himself to explore one of the least populated regions on the earth. The path through the Arctic Ocean literally cuts him off from the rest of the world. His language references the claustrophobia and sense of doom that the endless ice and snow creates when he says “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” (154). Besides Victor and Walton, the Creature has also sought out the uninhabited Arctic, and he tells Walton “I shall quit your vessel on the ice-raft which brought me hither, and shall seek the most northern extremity of the globe; I shall collect my funeral pile, and consume to ashes this miserable frame, that its remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch, who would create such another as I have been" (161). The Arctic is the one place he feels he can die without risk of another person finding his remains, and attempting to recreate Victor's work. 

Connections Edit

The Corona During the Eclipse of May 1883

While Arctic expeditions were popular as scientific, and economic pursuits in Mary Shelley’s England, the Arctic of Walton’s dreams is best described by Christopher Small as “no geographical Arctic but an Arctic of the mind” (Beck 24). Rudolph Beck writes that “however realistic the setting of Walton’s polar journey may be, it is hardly surprising that a character in a novel published in the second decade of the nineteenth century… should fantasize about the pole; despite all endeavors to the contrary, the area around the North Pole was still more or less unknown at the time” (25). Beck goes on to argue that Walton’s imaginings are more likely taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Walton envisions “a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. Its productions and features may be without example, as the phenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” (Shelley 7). Beck compares this description to Milton’s “Equal in days and nights, except to those/Beyond the polar circles; to them day/Had unbenighted shone, while the low sun…” (27). As well as Paradise Lost, Shelley also conjures up the imaginative Arctic from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Walton’s quote “I am going…to the land of mist and snow; but I shall kill no albatross…” (Shelley 12). And there is no doubt the correlation between Dante’s ninth circle of hell, an icy lake, and the realm of traitors, with the Arctic as the final resting place of Victor Frankenstein, arguably a traitor to his family, and his own Creation.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading Edit

Beck, Rudolf. “"the Region of Beauty and Delight": Walton's Polar Fantasies in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"”. Keats-Shelley Journal 49 (2000): 24–29. Web. 2 Mar. 2016

Brandt, Anthony. The Man Who Ate His Boots. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.

Polar Discovery. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 2006. Web. 2 Mar. 2016

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: the 1818 text, contexts, criticism. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: Norton, 1996. Print.

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