literature · Walking

Frankenstein: walking with mind and with body

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(Bibliothèque de Genève)

In the last blog, I wrote about the ‘walking continuum’ on which we can position the variety of perambulatory experiences described in literature. At the one end of this continuum is the purely observational walk: the walk that acts as a sort of mobile camera through which readers can see through the narrator’s eyes. At this end of the walking continuum, we receive very little of the narrator’s sensory, physical experience of walking: it is as if walking is a mere channel through which landscape, character and external experience can be presented. In other words, the walk itself is inconsequential; the character might as well be on a skateboard. However, at the other end of the walking continuum is the purely physical, affective experience of walking. This is walking as pure energy where the writer enables the reader to feel the walk, its sensory and sensual excess. It is the walk itself that is foregrounded and with this the sensory impact that it has upon character.

In this blog, I’d like to look at some examples of walking in Frankenstein and locate them on the walking continuum to discover what this might tell us about characters and ideas in the novel. We can do this by looking at the ways in which Shelley describes the walking journeys of Victor Frankenstein and the monster. Walking is closely aligned with the Romantic impulse. Henry Clerval, Victor’s closest friend, possesses a Wordsworthian appreciation of nature, “observ[ing] the scenery with an eye of feeling and delight”. However, whilst Clerval is Wordsworth’s equivalent, so Victor is Percy Shelley’s (right down to Percy’s interest in galvanism). His influence is felt through the description of the Alps where Victor first meets his creation:

as I ascended higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character. Ruined castles hanging on the precipices of piny mountains, the impetuous Arve, and cottages every here and there peeping forth from among the trees formed a scene of singular beauty. But it was 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.

bf_lux_109_-_massif_du_mont-blanc_-_chamonix_-_gare_du_montenvers_et_la_mer_de_glaceFor most of the walks described by Victor, Shelley focuses on the sublime imagery, the beauty of nature, its power and its grandeur. As readers, through many of the walking scenes, Victor’s narrative provides a cinematic screen through which we can observe and hear the world as it unfolds in front of him, and yet we are rarely invited to feel it. Walking is often aligned with adventure and the appreciation of natural beauty or historic and heroic edifices (castles hanging precipitously from the edges of mountain tops, for example). As he approaches Geneva following his rejection of his creation, he describes the Dante-esque vision of the Alps: “vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire”. When he roams the valleys he marvels at the “abrupt sides of the vast mountains … the icy wall of the glacier … a few shattered pines”. Equally, when he travels through England with Clerval, walking as observational mode continues: Victor talks of the “majestic oaks, the quantity of game, and the herds of stately deer”. When he gets to Oxford, he is filled with a transcendent awakening that rivals his appreciation of the Alps:

The spirit of elder days found a dwelling here, and we delighted to trace its footsteps. If these feelings had not found an imaginary gratification, the appearance of the city had yet in itself sufficient beauty to obtain our admiration. The colleges are ancient and picturesque; the streets are almost magnificent; and the lovely Isis, which flows beside it through meadows of exquisite verdure, is spread forth into a placid expanse of waters, which reflects its majestic assemblage of towers, and spires, and domes, embosomed among aged trees.

I suggested in the first blog in this series that Shelley describes Oxford in much the same was as she does the Alps, culminating in the celebration of “towers, and spires, and domes” which reveal Victor’s delight in vertiginous height; but in its “spirit of elder days” there is also something mystical and mythical about Oxford which reminds us of the references later to “the habitations of another race of beings” who conjure the sublime and terrible natural dramas that Victor experiences during his Alpine walks.

Walking journeys illuminate the destructive and sublime power of nature. As Victor walks to visit the site of William’s murder, Shelley’s description unleashes all the Romantic tropes of nature unbound: “the thunder burst”; “flashes of lightning dazzled [his] eyes”; the lake is “a vast sheet of fire”. Victor’s exclamation that there is a “noble war in the sky” is ironic in that it covers in a phrase the themes of good and evil, the casting out of Satan from the heavens, and Victor’s attempts to play God (and Satan in his blasphemy) but also it has structural significance in that it is immediately followed by the appearance of the monster. As he walks through the Alps, Victor observes its sublime beauty and terror, with repeated images of destruction:

The abrupt sides of vast mountains were before me; the icy wall of the glacier overhung me; a few shattered pines were scattered around; and the solemn silence of this glorious presence-chamber of imperial Nature was broken only by the brawling waves or the fall of some vast fragment, the thunder sound of the avalanche or the cracking, reverberated along the mountains, of the accumulated ice, which, through the silent working of immutable laws, was ever and anon rent and torn, as if it had been but a plaything in their hands.

Sublime-cropThe description of sounds adds to the apocalyptic tone: this is the place where Victor meets his creation. However, whilst the accumulation of sound adds to the sensory impact, it is still once again a cinematic experience. Yes, the Romantic experience of the sublime is one that dominates the prose, and this perhaps explains the lack of physical immediacy. Victor is a philosopher and a scientist, informed by the Romantic concern with reason and the imagination. As Wordsworth describes the act of literary creation as that which is borne from reflection, so much of Victor’s perambulatory observations are seen and heard but felt only in reflection; there is no immediate sense of the body as it participates in the scene. Perhaps the disconnect between Victor’s pedestrianism and the physicality of walking can be summed up by Walton who declares, in the final pages of his account, that Victor Frankenstein “trod heaven in [his] thoughts”. There is a vitality to pedestrianism that is contrary to the sedentary life of the writer, the philosopher, the artist. Walking is an ethereal, cerebral and Romantic experience, one which helps to unfold the beauty of the landscape for both character and reader alike, but nevertheless an experience that seems to eschew what it must feel like in the body itself.

However, that is not to say that Shelley’s novel ignores the physicality of walking, and it is interesting that it is during the monster’s narrative that we as readers are invited to feel walking as a sensory experience. This is from the opening moments of the monster’s recollection of his earliest days:

I walked and, I believe, descended, but I presently found a great alteration in my sensations. Before, dark and opaque bodies had surrounded me, impervious to my touch or sight; but I now found that I could wander on at liberty, with no obstacles which I could not either surmount or avoid. The light became more and more oppressive to me, and the heat wearying me as I walked, I sought a place where I could receive shade. This was the forest near Ingolstadt; and here I lay by the side of a brook resting from my fatigue, until I felt tormented by hunger and thirst. This roused me from my nearly dormant state, and I ate some berries which I found hanging on the trees or lying on the ground. I slaked my thirst at the brook, and then lying down, was overcome by sleep.

It was dark when I awoke; I felt cold also, and half frightened, as it were, instinctively, finding myself so desolate. Before I had quitted your apartment, on a sensation of cold, I had covered myself with some clothes, but these were insufficient to secure me from the dews of night. I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept.

For the monster, walking is a purely physical experience, one of sensual and sensory enlightenment. Many interpretations of Shelley’s novel explore the conflict between the physical and the rational, and the novel is a microcosm of the dawning of the Enlightenment, of the age of revolution, both industrial and social, and of the birth of scientific discovery. The monster is a tabula rasa, upon which society writes its flaws as well as its wonders. He is subject to his body’s demands, in much the same way as a new born child, and it is fear that overwhelms him. This isn’t the place to examine the monster as either a version of Rousseau’s noble savage, Locke’s tabula rasa or even an embodiment of Hobbes idea that without society, life is nasty, brutish and short! However, what is interesting is that in the absence of the reflective, philosophical mind, the descriptions of the monster’s walks are dominated by its physical impact upon the body.

The connection between the loss, or lack, of reason and the physicality of walking is evident when Victor experiences feelings of shock and panic following the birth of his creation – and goes for a walk. However, instead of admiring the beauty of nature, Victor exchanges the months of feverish scientific experimentation with a rush of adrenaline fuelled mobility:

Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bed-chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep. At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured, and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness.

Finally, upon waking and being confronted by the monsters, Victor goes for another walk:

I escaped and rushed downstairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited, where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.

Whilst the rest of Victor’s walks are imbued with observations of nature and the sublime, in these two moments we can almost hear the quickness of his heart with the multiple sub-clauses, the feverish sentence structures and proliferation of active verbs (traversing, threw, escaped, rushed, catching, fearing etc.). He has lost his reason, and interestingly he also seems to have lost his powers of visual observation. This is not the only time that Victor’s physical emotions are bound up with the physicality of his perambulations. During his final pursuit of the monster, Victor begins to feel the physicality of walking. He describes the “cold, want, and fatigue” of the journey across Russia in which he was “parched by thirst”. In becoming the pursuer (notwithstanding the impression that the monster is merely toying with him), Victor has in effect lost his reason, becoming hostage to his primal instincts and bent on revenge, and descriptions of the landscape and its beauty cedes to his physical needs and the effect of walking upon his body.

In the next blog, I will be looking at the depiction of urban walking in the novel. Whilst much is made of the natural beauty, there are a number of key scenes set in cities, towns or villages, and it is interesting to compare how walking journeys provide a means of examining Shelley’s attitudes to this very different form of landscape.

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