Polar Locations in Frankenstein

 

One of the most interesting questions that we posed for ourselves when examining the literary geography of Frankenstein was trying to determine where the first and final scenes of the novel took place. Unfortunately, Shelley's descriptions of Walton's voyages in the polar regions were relatively nonspecific. Nevertheless, we could be fairly certain that she was familiar with the various exploratory voyages in this region during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is suggested by Walton's first letter in which he writes

I have read with ardour the accounts of the various voyages which have been made in the prospect of arriving at the North Pacific Ocean through the seas which surround the pole. You may remember that a history of all the voyages made for purposes of discovery composed the whole of our good Uncle Thomas' library. 

The expeditions with which she might have had knowledge included the expeditions sponsored by the British Admiralty during the eighteenth century, such as John Phipps's voyage towards the North Pole in 1773 and James Cook's search for a northeast passage via the Bering Strait during his final voyage in 1776-1779. Shelley may have also been familiar with the multiple Russian voyages to discover a northeast passage, including those of Moroviof (1734), Malgyn and Skurakof (1738), Offzin and Koskelef (1738), Feodor Menin (1738), and Shalaurof (1761, 1764).[1] None of these voyages made it very far east before they were stopped by ice sheets and icebergs. In addition to these voyages of discovery, Shelley would have heard about the extent of whaling expeditions during this period, which were generally confined to the Barents Sea. Among the whalers that Shelley may have known about was William Scoresby, who actively explored the polar regions during this period and who had close associations with multiple natural philosophers including Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society. [2]

 Walton's travels in  Frankenstein  around the northern tip of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago .  Data from Divine, D. V. and C. Dick. 2007. March through August Ice Edge Positions in the Nordic Seas, 1750-2002, Version 1. ACSYS Historical Ice Chart Archive. Boulder, Colorado USA. NSIDC: National Snow and Ice Data Center. doi: https://doi.org/10.7265/N59884X1. 21 April 2018.

Walton's travels in Frankenstein around the northern tip of the Novaya Zemlya archipelagoData from Divine, D. V. and C. Dick. 2007. March through August Ice Edge Positions in the Nordic Seas, 1750-2002, Version 1. ACSYS Historical Ice Chart Archive. Boulder, Colorado USA. NSIDC: National Snow and Ice Data Center. doi: https://doi.org/10.7265/N59884X1. 21 April 2018.

We used the information from these voyages to get a sense of where Walton may have been traveling after his departure from Arkhangelsk. There were effectively two routes that he could have taken, considering the fact that his was a scientific expedition. The first would have been to travel northeast from Arkhangelsk with the intention of following the retreating ice sheets and round the northern tip of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. To ascertain whether this was a possibility, we used data sets collected between 1860 and 1920 (provided by the ACSYS Historical Ice Chart Archive) as proxy data sets for where sea ice may have been a century earlier. If Walton followed this route, the furthest that Walton's ship would have been likely to travel by August, when the final scene of the novel was set, was likely just north of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. If instead, Walton traveled through the Kara Strait it is possible that that he would have intercepted Victor Frankenstein in the ice flows of the Kara Sea, which remains frozen most of the year. The furthest east that he would have been able to travel with his crew would have been to Ob River in Western Siberia, which was the furthest that any voyages were able to travel in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. 

The map to the right provides potential locations for the furthest extent of Walton's travels in Frankenstein, but the purpose of our exercise was not to determine the specific location Shelley had in mind when she had Walton's crew find Victor. Rather, the exercise of mapping provided an intriguing way to learn about both the geography and the history of polar exploration and whaling during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It showed students the value of of interdisciplinary analysis. In this case, our analysis combined an early nineteenth-century literary text, multiple eighteenth and early nineteenth-century voyage narratives, as well as a scientific data set collected in the early twenty-first century. 

[1] Barrow, John. A Chronological History of Voyages Into the Arctic Regions. London: John Murray, 1818, pp. 349-56.

[2 ] Martin, Constance. “William Scoresby, Jr. (1789-1857) and the Open Polar Sea — Myth and Reality.” Arctic 41, no. 1 (1988): 39–47.