13 Days of Halloween: Frankenstein, the Alps, and the birth of the scientist-mountaineer.

Frankenstein is a mainstay of Halloween iconography in many, if not most, parts of the world. Mostly, it’s in that bastardized, blockhead version made famous by Boris Karloff in the 1931 Universal Pictures film, Frankenstein. (Honestly, I would have even preferred the 1910 Thomas Edison interpretation.) What’s more, because so much of pop culture’s frame of reference stretches back to the Karloff version, the film has essentially served as the source material for what our collective consciousness knows as the Frankenstein narrative. What can you do? That’s life. Thankfully, while the Karloff Frankenstein deviates significantly from Mary Shelley’s original, Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus, there’s still a lot in common.

One striking scene in the Frankenstein narrative is set high up in the Swiss Alps. Victor Frankenstein flees to the mountain range after the trial of Justine Moritz, his mind aswirl with guilt for her wrongful conviction and execution for the murder of Frankenstein’s younger brother, William. He seeks out the solitude of the icy, rugged terrain. Maybe he needs space to think, or maybe he actually needs space to shut his mind off for a while. Either way, he clearly craves distance from his troubles.

In typical Romantic style, Shelley goes out of her way to describe the majesty of the Alps as Victor Frankenstein treks through the mountainside.

We perceived that the valley through which we wound, and which was formed by the river Arve, whose course we followed, closed in upon us by degrees; and when the sun had set, we beheld immense mountains and precipices overhanging us on every side, and heard the sound of the river raging among rocks, and the dashing of water-falls around.

At various points, she cuts straight to the point and describes her surroundings as “sublime.”

She continues upping the aesthetic-ante the following day by drawing on gothic imagery that had been so culturally popular in England:

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.

Frankenstein’s party arrives in the village of Chamonix – a stone’s throw from Geneva – where they lodge in a hostel. Mont Blanc towers in the distance – “supreme and magnificent” – like the Eye of Sauron.

Interestingly, an 1831 description of the area by John Murray, gives you the idea things in real life weren’t as peaceful as Shelley portrays. 

The route from Geneva is so much frequented by strangers in this season, that it is beset by all sorts of vagabonds, who plant themselves in the way openly as beggars, or covertly as dealers in mineral specimens, guides to things which do not require their aid, dealers in echoes, by firing small cannon where its reverberation may be heard two or three times.

Sounds like a walk through Times Square if we’re honest. Clearly, Shelley took some license and deleted the steady stream of tourists flooding the area.

Mer de Glace in Chamonix. (CREDIT: Edwin11)

The following morning, Frankenstein decides to ascend Mer de Glace (Montanvert) alone. When he reaches the peak, he dwells on the scene before him,

It was nearly noon when I arrived at the top of the ascent. For some time I sat upon the rock that overlooks the sea of ice. A mist covered both that and the surrounding mountains… My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy…

His emotional respite was short lived. In the distance, he saw something approaching.

I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed. He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of man.

That Frankenstein did not immediately recognize his creation speaks volumes. Still they came face to face, prompting a visceral and hateful reaction from him. 

“Devil!” I exclaimed, “do you dare approach me? And do you not fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! Or rather stay, that I may trample you to dust!"

Somehow, despite the vitriol, the creature convinces his creator to accompany him to his nearby dwelling so that he can recount his experiences.

The Alps make for an interesting and fitting setting, one consistent with the theme of science and nature coming into conflict that runs throughout the book. The towering peaks and frigid valleys figured prominently in nascent geological discourse as Europe transitioned from a world dominated by superstition to the colder, rational realities of the Enlightenment, of which modern science is a product.

Prior to the onset of the Enlightenment, the Alps was viewed as a mysterious and wonderous, if not ominous, place populated by fabulous creatures and demons unknown to all but a handful of naturalists. Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, a Swiss physician and a fellow of the Royal Society, published a book detailing his survey of Switzerland in 1708. In its second edition, he included reports from his nine visits to the Alps between 1702 and 1711. The work was the most extensive and detailed scientific and topographical survey of the terrain. However, in a clear sign that society hadn’t quite shaken off the cobwebs of superstition, Scheuchzer included pictures and stories about strange creatures and, especially, dragons that lived in Swiss Alps caves. 

In one story, Scheuchzer recounts an monstrosity straight out of medieval romance stories. 

In the summer of the year 1717 Joseph Gackerer from Neftls... encountered an animal with the head of a cat, with eyes sticking out, it was long a foot, with a thick body, four limbs, and something like breasts pending from the belly, the tail was a foot long, the entire body was covered by scales and coloured. The man breached it with a stick; it was soft and full of poisoned blood, so that from some drops spilled his leg became swollen.

I requested to mister Tschudi, pastor at Schwanken, that he would find a honest person which would search for the bones of this person, so in April 1718 he send some to me, which I hold in collection as rare specimens.

Eventually, scientist-mountaineers conducted more rigorous geological studies of the mountain range, scaling the heights of numerous Alpine peaks. In September 1776, Horace-Benedict de Saussure and Marc-Theodore Bourrit reached the top of the Buet Glacier and sketched a panoramic view of the Alps. Saussure would write about a new breed of naturalist that he embodied, one who “seems to dominate above our Globe.” The sentiment behind his declaration echoes Frankenstein at his hubristic best, a mix of justifiable confidence, naive exuberance, and misplaced grandiosity.

In Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s excursion to Mer de Glace set the scene for the epic confrontation between himself and his creature, a meeting between creator and creation, in essence father and son. Still more, it is a tete-a-tete between Science and its bastardized reflection. It mirrored the growing pains Science was going through at the time as it shook free from old ways of thinking. In the book and in reality, the Alps came to represent a place where geology emerged from a monumental struggle for primacy.

WORDS: Marc Landas.

PRODUCT ALERT! Charles Darwin Signature T-shirt – “I think.” Two words that changed science and the world, scribbled tantalizingly in Darwin’s Transmutation Notebooks.

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