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Did Climate Inspire The Birth Of A Monster?

Dr. Frankenstein, played by Tony Silver (left), holds the hand of his monster, played by Brian Hill, during a performance for Halloween in in the U.K.
Dr. Frankenstein, played by Tony Silver (left), holds the hand of his monster, played by Brian Hill, during a performance for Halloween in in the U.K.

If you ask people about weather and Frankenstein, they usually think of one thing: the scenes from the classic horror films, which show Victor Frankenstein in a storm, using lightning bolts to jumpstart his creation as he cries "It's alive! It's alive!"

You won't find that dramatic scene in Mary Shelley's book, according to Bill Phillips, who teaches literature at the University of Barcelona in Spain.

Although Shelley wrote that the scientist infused the lifeless being with a spark of being," Phillips says that "there's no lightning or anything. It's not as spectacular as it is in the films."

Still, Phillips thinks that the movies do get the right idea in a larger sense.

Science in Fiction

He and other scholars think that extreme weather was involved in the birth of the creature — just not in the way we usually think. That's because Shelley wrote her book during a period of extremely freaky weather in Europe and North America.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797 - 1851).
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Getty Images
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797 - 1851).

Most people look at Frankenstein as a simple tale of arrogant science running amuck. But it can also be viewed as an example of how climate change can have a profound effect on artists.

Mary Shelley started writing the book in 1816, when she was just a teenager. It wasn't too long after she had run off with the married poet Percy Shelley. They went to Switzerland for a summer vacation.

"I think the plan had been to be tourists and go climbing mountains and things like that," Phillips says. "And they couldn't, because of the weather."

The weather was beyond bad. It was unbelievable.

"And we know why it was bad weather," Phillips says. "It was because of this volcano."

Mount Tambora's Influence

A volcano named Mount Tambora had erupted in what is now known as Indonesia, sending vast plumes of dust into the atmosphere. Starting in the spring of 1816, people in Europe and North America saw skies that were strange, even alarming. That year came to be known as "The Year Without a Summer," or "eighteen hundred and froze to death."

"It actually really was dark, for days if not weeks on end," Phillips says. "It was one of the coldest periods in modern history, so it was extremely serious."

He says that in many places, the harvests failed for three consecutive years. There were food riots, and many people were dying from starvation.

As all this chaos began, Mary Shelley was hanging out at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, reading ghost stories with her friends, including Lord Byron.

"And then I think it was Byron who came up with the idea that they should actually write a ghost story themselves," Phillips says.

A Monster Is Born

Shelley started work on Frankenstein; she eventually published it two years later. Weather seems to show up on almost every page.

In one passage, Victor Frankenstein describes how he walked through a storm at night: "Vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire; then for an instant everything seemed of a pitchy darkness, until the eye recovered itself from the preceding flash."

Scenes like this one seem to have come from letters Shelley wrote about the weather she was experiencing at the time.

Here's a letter to her sister: "One night we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld. The lake was lit up — the pines on Jura made visible and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness."

The creature in Frankenstein is strongly associated with these thunderstorms. And, Bill Phillips says, the creature is also linked to cold throughout the novel.

"He invariably meets his creator at the tops of mountains, in icy caves," he says. "Then at the end of the novel, they go into the Arctic Ocean and we're led to believe that they die as they drift off on an ice floe."

Just a Coincidence?

Now, maybe Mary Shelley would have sent her creature to the Arctic no matter what kind of weather was outside her window. But John Clubbe doesn't think so.

An emeritus professor of English at the University of Kentucky, he has written about Frankenstein's link to The Year Without a Summer. He points out that in 1816, it was snowing in July.

"Seeing this world of ice and snow at close hand, when you should be seeing green fields and trees in bloom, this is so unusual," Clubbe says. "It has to affect the way you feel and want to write."

Frankenstein suggests that, as our climate changes, our literature and poetry might change, too.

Plus, Clubbe says, at a time when many people are concerned about greenhouse gases, Frankenstein is a very appropriate cautionary tale about how to deal with unintended consequences.

"All the improvements that make life easier and better and so forth, they resulted in this oncoming crisis called global warming, which is a potentially monstrous scenario that looms ahead for all of us," Clubbe says.

He says that if we just ignore this problem, like Victor Frankenstein neglected his creation, the weather could someday start to seem as strange as it did in 1816.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.