AQA · literature

Walking with Frankenstein

Some thoughts on walking in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

imagesFor many of us, the moment is seared into our cultural memory: a door opens in a darkened, stone-walled cell, its aperture filled with the frame of something huge that walks, unsteadily, and backwards, across its threshold towards us. Whilst its face is hidden, there is no doubting the enormity of this being: its huge shoulders the size of the wooden lintel that it just passed beneath; a head, square, strong, as if it has been hewn from the mines of the blackest pit. It turns towards us and its eyes are buried deep into its sockets, the shadows that form there like the chthonic darkness of some infernal pools; the forehead, steep, steep as the Alpine precipices to which it is inextricably bound. And what is it there, there, at its neck? A shining stub of metal that takes us away from the environs of the human, for this is no mortal being. And as it turns towards us, its face, chiselled from stone, the eyes half concealed by heavy lids, eyes that radiate both emptiness and sorrow, eyes that have seen death and look now upon life with the knowledge of that other world and stare back at us as if we are unfit to share its presence. And then it begins to walk, a stumbling, slow gait, its arms pinned to its sides, swaying to and fro held aloft only by the pinions of its huge feet. Now it drags one leg forward, then another; legs stiff, straight, moving at the hips as if on giant mechanical pivots. It drags itself forward and is greeted by its creator who invites it to sit, sit down. And it does, darkly, regally, a galvanised would-be-King upon a rudimentary throne.

This is, of course, Boris Karloff as the celebrated monster in James Whale’s (he was from Dudley, you know!) 1931 Hollywood version of Frankenstein. That walk. The walk of a man half-alive, a walk imitated by Karloff-impersonators across the years, arms outstretched, clunking along and crashing into furniture. As Michel de Certeau writes, “stories begin at ground level with footsteps”, and so the monster’s tale commences: brought back to life by a man who desires the secrets of nature in all its darkest recesses, it is a story of human folly, of hubris, but also one of our inability to understand the other, the outcast, the different. If only, as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird declares, we could walk in another’s shoes, then maybe we could understand them better. Poor old monster, not even deserving of a name, we could not walk in his shoes. Apart from being too big, we are never invited to do so.

download (1)In Mary Shelley’s novel, however, we are able to share the monster’s walking journeys. With no other form of transport, he walks everywhere: ascending the sublime precipices of the Alps, gaining the summits in super-human time; traversing the heavy woodlands and forests of France and Switzerland; even the Highlands of Scotland before attempting the vast emptiness of the Arctic to meet his doom. This got me thinking about the significance of walking journeys in the novel: this conscious, physical act, one that we take for granted, is often overlooked in stories. It joins parts of stories together, a sort of syndetic event that is more important for what happens during the walk rather than the walk itself. And yet, for the Romantics, walking was a vital act that provided moments of inspiration, whether those walks took place across the fells and peaks of the Lake District, the ravine of Arve and Alpine precipices, or the angel-filled streets of Peckham Rye.

In this short series of blogs, I’m going to look at a few of the walks in the novel (there are far too many examples to draw on for this format), beginning with a consideration of the different walks made by Victor and by his monstrous progeny, examining what Mary Shelley’s description of their walks reveals about the differences in their characters, and what they tell us about the novel’s themes, ideas, and therefore the historical, social and cultural context within which it occurs, and so I shall begin, as feels appropriate when discussing a seminal horror text, with those links between walking and death.

Part One: walking and death
From the opening pages of the novel, walking is a significant motif. Robert Walton, the explorer whose narrative opens the story, desires to “tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man” and to open up the secrets of the North Pole. His career as an explorer is prompted, however, by his failure as a poet: as he declares to his sister, “you are well acquainted with my failure, and how heavily I bore my disappointment”. Thus walking becomes an antidote to artistic/creative death and enables Walton to find his muse amongst the snowy wastes of the Arctic. This link between walking and death is repeated several times in the novel, and whilst this is to be expected in what is, after all, one of the most famous of horror tales, the connection between perambulation and death, decay, and danger is ubiquitous, and it is in the character of Elizabeth that Victor feels most terribly this connection.

Following his horror at first seeing his creation, Victor dreams of meeting Elizabeth as she walks through the streets of Ingolstadt, only for her beauty to turn to an image of his decaying mother.

“I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel.”

I will say more about the site and the significance of Elizabeth’s urban walking in a future post, but in this instance, his dream is a significant moment in many ways. There is, of course, much in the way of Freudian imagery here manifested in the return of repressed sexual desire which manifests itself in the dream through the explicit links between lover and mother, and the connection made between the images of mother and would-be lover which signify the link between the creation of life from death. It also represent the conflict between scientific creation and natural procreation with Elizabeth as both a potential mother and a sort of de facto stepmother to Victor’s own creation. Victor’s mother, Caroline, dies from the scarlet fever that she contracts from Elizabeth, and so the latter almost becomes the mother’s literal murderer, as well as her symbolic replacement – on her death bed, Caroline passes on her maternal responsibilities to Elizabeth: “Elizabeth, my love, you must supply my place to my younger children”.

The dream of walking also foreshadows Elizabeth’s death: in the dream prompted by Victor’s horror at the monster’s image, Elizabeth becomes the image of death: the appearance of the monster therefore heralds a figurative death before she is literally killed on her wedding night. On that night, Victor’s walking becomes more than an incidental act:

“She left me, and I continued some time walking up and down the passages of the house, and inspecting every corner that might afford a retreat to my adversary. But I discovered no trace of him, and was beginning to conjecture that some fortunate chance had intervened to prevent the execution of his menaces, when suddenly I heard a shrill and dreadful scream.”

Victor sees walking as an opportunity to banish horror, but instead it reinforces it, half-aware that the danger lurks in the safety of the home or the domestic environment, half feeling that Elizabeth is safe in that environment. This is a fantastic example of what we refer to as the uncanny, which is inextricably linked, through its etymology (deriving from the German word unheimlich which literally translates as ‘unhomely’) to the home. The uncanny also signifies a return of the repressed: that which was meant to be hidden, secret, has come out into the open. For Victor, the horror is literally in the home, or in the domestic setting: what should be a place of safety becomes ultimately the place of death.

To continue the dominant theme of ‘the uncanny’ in the novel, Victor’s peregrinations describe a narrative of repression and return. In fact, if we examine the topography of his travels, he really wants to get back to his mother and the safety of the womb, that first home of all human beings. He builds a monster so that he may divine the secrets of the womb, playing the role of both parents to discover the spark of procreation; he falls in love with Elizabeth, a woman whose role is essentially that of mother/sister. His journey across Europe is really a desire to return home: the mountains of his native Geneva give way to the barely described lowlands of Holland and Belgium before he encounters the beauty of Oxford with its “placid expanse of waters … its majestic assemblage of towers, and spires, and domes, embosomed amongst ancient trees”. The emphasis on the towers, spires and domes is really a recollection of his description of the mountains of the Alps

“as I ascended higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character. Ruined castles hanging on the precipices of piny mountains … augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitations of another race of beings.”

Victor desires height, and finds beauty and solace in it, just as much as he exults in the depths and recesses of the charnel house and the grave. These two oppositions reflect the conflict in his own self, a symbolic battle between Heaven and the infernal. With each city and village he encounters being compared to varying degrees of favour to his native Geneva. Matlock reminds him of the Swiss landscape, sans the mountains; only when they reach the peaks of Cumbria are they satisfied that “should scarcely regret Switzerland and the Rhine”.

In other parts of the novel, walking is often accompanied by discussion of grief and mortality: Victor and Clerval reflect on the death of William as they walk to Geneva; after destroying the monster’s mate, Victor walks through the unforgiving landscape of the Orkneys, “like a restless spectre”, his thoughts overwhelmed with his mistaken belief that the monster’s threat to “be with him on his wedding night” is a death sentence on him, and not, as it will turn out, on Elizabeth. Remembering William, Elizabeth “feels as if [she] were walking on the edge of a precipice towards which thousands are crowding and endeavouring to plunge [her] into the abyss” whilst she laments the fact that William’s murderer “walks about the world free”. Even poor old Daniel Nugent can’t walk the shores of Ireland without bumping into Clerval’s corpse!

Rebecca Solnit says in her book Wanderlust that for the Romantics, walking was “a cultural act” as well as an “aesthetic experience”. Whilst Mary Shelley’s novel foregrounds the folly of human scientific and creative endeavour, the power of imagination and fancy, and the Romantic obsession with nature and the sublime, these themes are bound by the motif of walking which, for the Romantics, served as the transport of imagination and of creativity. During passages of perambulatory excursion, social bonds are created and broken; secrets are exchanged and withheld; and throughout, the explicit connection between walking and death thickens. In the next blog, I’m going to look at the ways in which the monster and Victor experience walking: the intellectual and aesthetic effects versus the physicality of pedestrianism. I hope you’ll take the journey with me!

4 thoughts on “Walking with Frankenstein

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