Setting plays a pivotal role throughout Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Nature is presented as possessing an immense curative power: the beauty of the natural world heals Victor when he is too miserable to find solace anywhere else. The Arve Ravine and the Valley of Chamounix exemplify the harmony and serenity of nature, which is sharply contrasted with the chaos of Victor’s troubled mind. This respite cannot last, however: Victor has violated both divine and natural law in attempting to appropriate the life principle which is the exclusive prerogative of God for himself. Therefore, even nature cannot save Victor from his inevitable punishment.
One of the most beautifully described settings in the novel is that of the Arve Ravine, which leads Victor to the Valley of Chamounix. The ravine is “picturesque” with its quaint cottages “peeping forth from among the trees” and castles “hanging on the precipices of piny mountains” (78). The landscape teems with detail: the reader is presented with a raging river, impressive mountains, and a gushing waterfall. The Valley of Chamounix is bounded by massive glaciers (including the magnificent Mont Blanc) and threatened by rumbling avalanches; Victor considers it the height of the “wonderful and the sublime” (78). Victor’s journey through the ravine and valley and arrival at the mountain show the reader the immense effect nature has on Victor’s health and sanity.
The idea of the sublime is taken from the work of Immanuel Kant (a German philosopher of the Enlightenment) Kant, in his book Critique of Judgment, said that one will often, when confronted with a truly immense natural landscape (his examples include the ocean and a mountain) have a feeling he called “sublime.” This sublime feeling occurs because the hugeness of the natural landscape implies the hand of God; that is, in regarding it, we realize that there is a force and an intelligence infinitely larger than our own behind the composition of the world. It is this intelligence that Victor has offended in his creation of the monster.
Throughout the novel, nature takes on the role as Victor’s physician. The setting of the ravine and valley are a perfect example of the nourishment nature provides for Victor. For example, when Victor lodges in the town of Chamounix, the sounds of the Arve River lull Victor to sleep, giving him a brief respite from the agony he endures in his waking hours. On Victor’s journey to the mountain, he remarks that certain natural phenomena along the way remind him of his boyhood days when he was “lighthearted,” careless, and full of joy. All of the beautiful scenes Victor sees on his journey even the sound of the wind in his ears are enough to soothe him, and to stop his tears. His current turmoil is made all the more poignant and agonizing when contrasted with a child’s innocence and delight in the natural world.
The River Arve and Chamounix Valley offer the reader insights into Victor’s changing character. By this point in the novel, it has become apparent that Victor prefers nature, which represents solitude, to human comfort. Victor feels he must forsake human society since he has visited such a terrible wrong upon it by creating the monster. Even Victor’s father and his beloved Elizabeth cannot rouse him from his misery such is the immensity of his guilt. Victor admits that he “shunned the face of man; all sound of joy or complacency was torture to me; solitude was my only consolation-indeed, dark, deathlike solitude” (74). Thus, uninhabited nature becomes the only place Victor can find solace; he says that “change of place” (78) provides him with a brief sense of relief.
While the valley “assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character,” (78) Victor, by contrast, is falling apart. This suggests that the healing properties of the natural landscape are ultimately limited: one cannot escape the evil of one?s deeds, nor the remorse in one?s own soul. The halcyon quality of this scene indicates that Victor, despite the almost heavenly beauty of his environment, is yet unable to elude the horror he has created.
Victor’s solitary journey shows the reader sees how he is isolating himself further and further from other people and society. Victor?s decision to travel alone in a place beloved to him in his boyhood may be regarded as an indication of his self-absorption. To take the journey, he is forced to leave his father and Elizabeth, who are still in deep mourning for the dead; they are also wracked with worry for him in his absence. Instead of remaining in Geneva and accepting responsibility for his actions, Victor abandons his family in a time of need.
His monomaniacal quest to overstep the bounds of nature, to play god, to flout the immutable rule of death, ends in Victor?s loss of everyone he has ever loved. This may be read as ironic, in that Victor?s desire to transcend death may be connected with the devastating loss of his mother. Her death occurred immediately before his departure to Ingolstadt, where he was first seized by his overwhelming obsession.
The beautiful scenery along the river and through the valley also adds to the Romantic quality of the novel. The English Romantics (who included Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley?s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley) placed great emphasis on the power of nature. The Romantic movement can be seen as a protest against the rapid industrialization that was occurring in England at the time of [Frankenstein’s] publication. The novel may be read as a manifestation of the fear that technology (and the human obsession with technology) would ultimately prove disastrous.