In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley confronts the sublimity of nature through the narratives of Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein. According to Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, “Whatever is in any sort terrible…is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” The painting “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich that is placed on the cover of many copies of Frankenstein provides a visual representation of sublime nature that induces both awe and terror. The sublime, much like the fire the monster discovers in Chapter XI, can elicit both extreme pain and extreme comfort. The fire is warm, beautiful, and comforting, but it is also painful and dangerous, as are many aspects of nature depicted in the novel.
Some of the novel’s clearest examples of the sublime occur within the frame narrative, which consists of a series of letters from Walton to his sister Margaret. Amid a treacherous journey across icy seas, he finds himself admiring his sublime surroundings in a way that grips at his soul. He writes to Margaret, “There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand…. There is a love for the marvelous, a belief in the marvelous” (6). He observes this quality in Victor as well, stating that even in his broken spirit, “no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature” (12). The deep feeling in the soul describes the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling as suggested by Burke. Victor’s appreciation for nature, and specifically sublime nature, becomes evident as young Victor witnesses a thunderstorm with “curiosity and delight” (22). While Victor admires nature, he goes to unnatural attempts to manipulate the natural order.
To Victor, a violent storm is a beautiful yet terrific “noble war in the sky” (50) while his own creation is a “filthy daemon” (50). Perhaps upon witnessing the horrors of his artificial creation, his appreciation of nature deepened. Victor’s response to his creation also shares characteristics with his response to sublime nature. “His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!… But these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast” (35). He sees both beauty and horror in his creature as well as nature. However, in the instance of his own creation, the horror seems to outweigh the beauty. Victor comes to realize that nature, however vast or unknown, is seldom more dangerous than the destructive ability of man.
Another distinctive example of Shelley’s portrayal of the sublime occurs at the peak of Montanvert: “From the side where I now stood Montanvert was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty. I remained in a recess of the rock, gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scene” (67). The description of Victor at Montanvert is reminiscent of Friedrich’s painting, with a troubled sea and field of ice. The term “awful majesty” is meant to mean full of awe, or awe-inspiring. Victor witnesses a sight that he describes as majestic, wonderful, and stupendous. However, the sight is also vast and dangerous in a way that would be considered counter-hegemonic to classical ideals of beauty.