The Frankenstein Atlas

Today we’re taking a more in-depth look at one of Indiana Humanities’ university partnerships for One State/One Story: Frankenstein featured in “Classes with Frank.” At IUPUI, Dr. Jason Kelly structured…

Today we’re taking a more in-depth look at one of Indiana Humanities’ university partnerships for One State/One Story: Frankenstein featured in “Classes with Frank.” At IUPUI, Dr. Jason Kelly structured his course “Machines and the Age of Invention” around creating a deep map for Frankenstein. A deep map is more than a 2-D rendering of a place, its name and geographic features. Instead, a deep map includes the contexts of a place, deepening our understanding of a particular location with information from history, folklore, images, literature, memory, weather and much more. In the case of the Frankenstein Atlas, users are invited to explore the text from spatial and historical perspectives.

One of the essays included in the Atlas is “Polar Locations in Frankenstein.” In the midst of the summer heat, it is an opportune time to explore the narrative framing of the book, which takes place aboard an Arctic exploration vessel. Captain Robert Walton seeks to discover a path to the “North Pacific Ocean through the seas which surround the pole.” It is in this frozen polar landscape that Walton’s journey intersects with Victor Frankenstein and the Creature.

Dr. Kelly used both literary and historical data to narrow down the possible pathways for Walton’s expedition. Critically, students focused on how the historical and geographic sources could illuminate both their understanding of the text and the time period in which it was written. Let’s explore some of those sources—sources that Mary Shelley might well have been aware of when writing Frankenstein.

Phipps, John. A Voyage Towards the North Pole: Undertaken by His Majesty’s Command, 1773. London: W. Bowyer and J. Nichols, 1774. https://archive.org/details/voyagetowardsnor00mulg

Explorer John Phipps addresses this tome to King George III, as the Crown had financed the expedition. The purpose of the voyage was “to explore how far navigation was practicable towards the North Pole,” in hopes of finding a route to the East Indies (vi). Phipps provides a history of such attempts from 1527 to 1615, outlining the work previously done towards his goal and highlighting the need for a renewed effort. The journal begins with Phipps receiving his commission for the expedition on April 19, 1773. There are illustrations interspersed throughout.

Between pages 60 and 61 there is an inserted drawing illustrating the events from July 31. The crew “endeavored to force through the ice… but remained unable to proceed,” (60). Being stuck, “the ship’s company were playing on the ice all day,” (61). If you keep poking through the pages of Phipps’ journal, you’ll be rewarded with illustrations and descriptions of some of the plants and animals the crew encountered along the way (183-204).

Scoresby, William. An Account of the Arctic Regions with a History and Description of the Northern Whale-fishery. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Co., 1820. https://archive.org/details/accountofarcticr01scor

Between 1791 and 1822, William Scoresby the senior led thirty whaling voyages into the Arctic. Scoresby taught the trade to his son, William Scoresby, junior, who made his first Arctic voyage with his father at only ten years old. Junior grew up to command his own vessel, and during his expeditions Scoresby collected scientific data on the Arctic environment. This scientific dedication would eventually earn him entry into the Royal Society, a prestigious association of natural philosophers. Though this two-volume set was published in the years between the 1818 and 1830 editions of Frankenstein, Shelley would likely have heard of Scoresby’s Arctic adventures before he collected his account for publication.

The first chapter of this book is dedicated to the question of a sea passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via a northern Arctic route. Starting on page 12, Scoresby describes the attempts of Russian Lieutenant Moroviof to discover such a route heading north east from the port city of Archangel. Like Walton, Moroviof found the way completely blocked by ice.

Barrow, John. A Chronological History of Voyages Into the Arctic Regions. London: John Murray, 1818, pp. 349-56. https://archive.org/details/achronologicalh00rowogoog

Sir John Barrow was in 1804 appointed to a permanent position as head of the Admiralty Secretariat. In this post, Barrow was a staunch supporter of Arctic exploration voyages and instigated many British expeditions of discovery. Due to the excitement and public attention toward these voyages, Barrow wrote this book to inform the general public about the history, dangers, and difficulties of Arctic expeditions. Each chapter is dedicated to a different century of exploration. Chapter five, on the early nineteenth century, outlines the most recent voyages in search of a northern passage. Starting on page 366, Barrow describes the scientific instruments many of these vessels would be outfitted with.

Barrow favored Arctic expeditions because it was believed that should a route through the Arctic be found, it would be the shortest possible path between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. However, the issue of ice blocking the way dashed the hopes of many explorers, much like Walton.

These accounts make clear that the British public, and likely Shelley herself, would have conversational knowledge of the Arctic seas. From the daring and discovery-seeking explorers to the dangers of the ice sheets, Shelley incorporated into her novel the contemporary obsession with finding an Arctic passage to the Pacific Ocean. Like Victor Frankenstein, Walton sought the glory and fame of scientific discovery. It is through this Arctic frame that Shelley drives home the book’s central warning to be cautious of scientific ambition.

Be sure to read Dr. Kelly’s essay to find out how these historic expeditions and other data helped pinpoint the two most likely paths for Walton’s journey. Then, take some time to explore the Google map that students collaborated to create, mapping out every location mentioned in Frankenstein. You’ll want to keep the Atlas’ homepage bookmarked—more deep maps and essays are forthcoming.

One State / One Story: Frankenstein is an Indiana Humanities program and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and in partnership with the Indiana State Library and Indiana Center for the Book. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.