Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Light and Fire
“What could not be expected in the country of eternal light?” asks Walton, displaying a faith in, and optimism about, science. In Frankenstein, light symbolizes knowledge, discovery, and enlightenment. The natural world is a place of dark secrets, hidden passages, and unknown mechanisms; the goal of the scientist is then to reach light. The dangerous and more powerful cousin of light is fire. The monster’s first experience with a still-smoldering flame reveals the dual nature of fire: he discovers excitedly that it creates light in the darkness of the night, but also that it harms him when he touches it. The presence of fire in the text also brings to mind the full title of Shelley’s novel,
Ice frames Frankenstein, representing isolation and alienation. Ice carries with it connotations of emotional coldness, or lacking the warmth of human companionship. Victor’s fate—to pursue the monster across the frozen north—represents how his dangerous experiments have led to his complete alienation from society. Victor’s pursuit of knowledge has taken him outside the boundaries of the scientific community, cost him his family, and murdered his wife. Notably, the monster states that he cannot feel the effects of the cold and snow because of his nature. According to the monster’s view of himself, an inherent part of his nature is his alienation, the fact that he is the only one of his kind, which is why he feels at home in the land of ice. Victor, however, has lost companionship, and the cold lack of humanity is an excruciating fate. This symbolic dimension of ice adds a chill meaning to Walton’s encounter with Victor. When Victor appears, Walton’s ship is trapped on a sheet of ice, isolated from civilization, as if Victor brings with him a physical manifestation of his fate. When the ice dissipates, Walton decides to listen to his crew and return home, choosing humanity over alienation.
Although a character in his own right, the monster also carries symbolic meaning as the consequences of careless science. In the process of creating the monster, Victor thinks little of the social and moral taboos he crosses, such as graverobbing, or of how his devotion to science has caused him to neglect his family. Only when he looks at the monster for the first time does he consider the weight and reality of what he has done. Once beholding the monster, the thought of making another terrifies him because he cannot stop thinking about the ramifications of the monster having a partner. Whereas he gladly sacrifices time with Elizabeth before the monster’s creation in the name of science, after creating the monster the possibility of the monster hurting her terrifies him. The shadow of the monster hangs over Victor’s entire life. Notably, the monster is not inherently violent, but he learns violence because of Victor’s rejection and lack of responsibility. The warning of the monster does not seem to be that science itself has dire consequences, but rather science done without forethought or a sense of responsibility has consequences.