Frankenstein

by: Mary Shelley

Setting

Much of Frankenstein’s story unfolds in Switzerland, the country in central Europe where Mary Shelley was staying when she began writing the novel. However, the novel ranges widely within Europe and across the globe. Frankenstein visits Germany, France, England and Scotland. Walton travels through Russia. Elizabeth is Italian and the DeLaceys are a French family living in Germany. Safie is Turkish. Clerval plans to move to India, and the Monster proposes relocating to South America. The novel’s frame story, narrated by Walton, is set in the Arctic Ocean, where Walton is trying to find a new route around the world. By encompassing the whole globe in this way, Frankenstein presents itself as a universal story. The global reach of the setting also suggests one way in which Frankenstein can be read allegorically. Shelley’s era saw a rapid expansion of European power across the globe, driven by the same advances in science that enable Frankenstein to create the Monster.

Frankenstein’s Swiss and Arctic settings support the novel’s argument that the natural world should be respected for its dangers as well as its beauty. The Swiss Alps are initially a place of wonderful beauty: as Frankenstein describes, “I suddenly left my home, and, bending my steps towards the near Alpine valleys, sought in the magnificence, the eternity of such scenes, to forget myself” However, as Frankenstein climbs, the “eternity” of the Alps becomes inhospitable and foreboding, a “sea of ice” and “bare perpendicular rock.” This physical journey from his comfortable home to the barren mountains reflects Frankenstein’s intellectual journey. He leaves the safety of home to seek out wonderful new knowledge, but he goes further than human beings should go, and he ends up somewhere dangerous when he creates the Monster. The barren landscapes of the high Alps and the Arctic help to make one of Frankenstein’s central arguments: not everything in nature is safe for humans to discover or experience.