a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe.

Category: Science & Technology | Type: Historical | Title: Frankenstein (in Context) | Author: Mary Shelley | Ch: Letter 1

The hope is for discovery of a passage through the Arctic and arrival at some Arcadian paradise of the sort Captain Cook discovered when in 1769 Endeavour dropped anchor off Tahiti. 

Mary Shelley has chosen for the frame story that of an explorer, a subject of broad interest with the general public, who avidly read the botanical, zoological, astronomical, and anthropological narratives of voyage and discovery. Exploration was the most literal expression of what many saw as the age's motto, Sapere Aude (Dare to Know).

Walton's ambitions occur within a context of exploration that is radically reshaping knowledge of the earth, mankind, and the heavens. In his essay "What Is Enlightenment?" Kant had appropriated from Horace the phrase Sapere Aude as a defining feature of enlightenment. Walton's geographical explorations will find their mirror image in Frankenstein's anatomical ones. Walton is searching for true North, Frankenstein for the source of life.  

Voyages of discovery were much in the public consciousness, even a half-century after Captain Cook's success in 1769 with the Endeavour's scientific expedition to Tahiti, where the ship remained for three months, in part to observe the Transit of Venus during an eclipse of the sun. The astronomical observations were critical to future navigation, but what appealed to the popular mind were the descriptions by Joseph Banks and others of the Tahitians, whose natural beauty, unselfconsciousness, voluptuous lack of inhibition regarding their bodies and sexuality, and the relaxed simplicity of their lives vivified Rousseau's idea of "the noble savage." The place itself was paradisal, food was plentiful and easily obtainable, and the ocean a playground.

Two years before Cook, Bougainville, the first French circumnavigator, had landed in Tahiti (Otheite) and called it New Cythera, Cythera being the mythological name for the island in the Aegean reputed to be the home of Aphrodite/Venus. Cook named his astronomical encampment Fort Venus, which ostensibly referred to his mission but described as well his crew's delight in the form Tahitian hospitality took. The noble savage soon appeared in person. In 1774, Omai, a twenty-two year-old, regal and handsome Tahitian and man of intelligence and charm who chose to come to England aboard an English ship and stayed for three years, in the course of which he was presented to the king and court, whom he captivated.

The Romantics were hungry readers of travel literature. One of Jane Austen's favorite poets, William Cowper, describes in the The Task how his reading travel accounts such as Cook's A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World activated an intense imaginative life as his mind envisioned in detail the journeys and sights. Wordsworth and Coleridge read Bartram's Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws. Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions; Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians, made in the mid-1770s and published in 1791. Also of interest were Mungo Park's explorations in central Africa, written about earlier but summarized in 1816 in Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" itself owes much to Coleridge's reading, for at the time he wrote one of the greatest of marine poems he'd never been on a ship no less seen an iceberg.

return to text