Ice and Fire: Frankenstein and the Arctic

Frankenreads - online exhibition

Introducing Ice and Fire: Frankenstein and the Arctic

The beginning and the end of Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein (1818), centre on the Arctic explorer, Robert Walton. Fuelled by a desire to navigate the Northwest Passage and to locate Magnetic North – desires that are recounted in epistolary form in the novel – Walton leads an ultimately failed expedition to the Arctic. On the polar ice during this journey, he meets Victor Frankenstein and finds him close to death. The events of the novel are framed as the story Frankenstein writes and recounts to Walton during his convalescence; it is a story that includes the fact that the doctor travelled to the Arctic in pursuit of his infamous creation with the intention of snuffing out what he once had brought to life. This exhibition looks at how Shelley's novel draws on and contributes to contemporary fascination with Arctic expeditions, surveying both the aesthetic inspiration polar exploration afforded artists and writers and the scientific interests attached to it.

Curated by Dr. Jamie Callison and Dr. Andrew McKendry.

Part One: Strange Sights



The Shape of a ManWard’s woodcut illustration of this scene blurs the boundary between “shape of a man” and “gigantic stature”, between figure and landscape. Shape of a Man
Hopes and FearsThe transformation of hubris into horror, the danger of being immured in ice, and the abominations that might emerge from such a situation—had been imagined before. and Fears
A Luminous PhenomenonAn explorer so excited by the possibility of luminescent phenomena could have found no better guide than Bernard O'Reilly's Greenland, and the Adjacent Seas, and the North-West Passage to the Pacific Ocean, published the same year as Frankenstein. Luminous Phenomenon

Part Two: Exploring Frankenstein



Whaling as TrainingBy 1818, whaling had long been one of the objects of inquiry that had driven explorers north. as Training
Mapping the ArcticJohn Barrow published his first Arctic manifesto in February 1817, and Frankenstein’s narrative frame both drew on and contributed to this revival of interest in Arctic exploration. the Arctic
Mary ShelleyFrankenstein was the product of a game Mary played with her husband, Lord Byron and some other friends while they spent the summer of 1816 together in a house on Lake Geneva. Shelley
Navigating the Northwest PassageRoald Amundsen successfully navigated the Northwest passage in August 1905, nearly one hundred years after the failed attempt of Mary Shelley's fictional narrator, Walton. the Northwest Passage

Part Three: Polar Science



Natural historyAlongside the records of seamanship and suffering, books recounting Arctic expeditions often included detailed surveys of the Arctic flora and fauna and animal and fish life. history
Christopher Hansteen and Magnetic AxesAt the end of the eighteenth and into the early nineteenth century, the number and location of magnetic poles was up for debate. Hansteen and Magnetic Axes
Discovering Magnetic NorthDiscovery of magnetic north features significantly in Walton's narrative. Magnetic North
Electromagnetism​To contemporary readers of Frankenstein, there appears to be a clear link between Walton’s fascination with magnetism and Frankenstein’s experiments with electricity.

Part Four: Arctic Sublime



Panoramic viewsPanoramic illustrations of the Arctic landscape were a feature of many accounts. views
Poets and the Arctic LandscapeThe Arctic landscape inspired poets with a landscape that is at once dramatic and barren. and the Arctic Landscape
Scale and AweThe engraved plates incorporated into published accounts of Arctic exploration were important for developing the spiritual significance of the landscape for Romantic writers like Mary Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. and Awe
Beautiful DisasterThe ice is no mere passive obstacle, but a malevolent force that surrounds Frankenstein’s pitched battle with his creature. Disaster
Calculated TerrorThe commercial, scientific, and terrifying were often intermixed in accounts of Arctic exploration. Terror
Crushed like an Egg-ShellThe story of a ship immured in ice, the crew potentially doomed to starvation or hypothermia, appeared in a variety of forms in the decades surrounding Frankenstein. like an Egg-Shell