1816 is famous for being the year that Mary Shelley began to write Frankenstein. But it’s also infamous for being “The Year Without A Summer”. One of the hugest volcanic eruptions in recorded history emitted a sun-obscuring ash cloud, and temperatures worldwide plummeted — destroying crops and ushering in several years of brutal famine.
It provoked massive social disorder. So while Shelley was writing her novel, she may have had her mind on the hordes of starving Europeans desperately migrating across the nearby countryside in search of food, and being utterly rejected by the elites well-off enough to feed themselves.
In a terrific essay, Gillen D’Arcy Wood argues that we could read Frankenstein as an allegory not just of technology run amok, but a climate spun out of control:
[Our] too-easy version of Frankenstein — oh, it’s all about technology and scientific hubris, or about industrialization — ignores completely the humanitarian climate disaster unfolding around Mary Shelley as she began drafting the novel. Starving, skeletal climate refugees in the tens of thousands roamed the highways of Europe, within a few miles of where she and her ego-charged friends were driving each other to literary distraction. Moreover, landlocked Alpine Switzerland was the worst hit region in all of Europe, producing scenes of social-ecological breakdown rarely witnessed since the hellscape of the Black Death.
Shelley’s miserable Creature, in the context of the 1816 worldwide climate shock, appears less like a symbol of technological overreach than a figure for the despised and desperate refugees crowding Switzerland’s market towns that year. Eyewitness accounts frequently refer to how hunger and persecution “turned men into beasts”, how fear of famine and disease-carrying refugees drove middle-class citizens to demonize these suffering masses as subhuman parasites, and turn them away in horror and disgust. Two hundred years on, in a summer of more record temperatures, and worldwide droughts, when refugees once again stream across the borders of German-speaking Europe, can we really afford to ignore this reading of Frankenstein as a climate change novel? The novel is a cultural treasure, but it doesn’t belong behind a glass case. It’s alive, like the monster itself. It’s on the loose in our world and our minds, stoking our darkest terrors. Shelley’s untameable tale of human pathos, suffering, and destruction is headline news: on the TV and internet, in a million images, filling well-fed, well-housed citizens with horror. [snip]
In Frankenstein’s Creature, Mary Shelley offers us the most powerful possible incarnation of the loathed and dehumanized refugee.
I’m a bit more doubtful that Mary Shelley really had the plight of the countryside in mind while she was writing; in her own account of how she came up with the story of Frankenstein (very fun to read, and free here), she notes only that it was “a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house”.
Nonetheless! This a very intriguing way to think about the novel. And the second half of D’Arcy Wood’s essay is devoted to Baroness de Krüdener, who wrote a searing account of the plight of the climate-refugee hordes; it’s intense, gripping stuff.
(Image via Wikipedia)