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Harry Reid appeared on the Senate floor in March bearing a poster declaring Donald Trump the Republican Party’s very own “Frankenstein monster," giving the most famous reanimated corpse in literary history yet one more star turn as a metaphor. He was taking a page from Hillary Clinton, whose campaign also invoked the hideous creation last summer in a video riffing on Frankenstein stills that lampooned climate deniers as “mad scientists.”
These contemporary uses of the monster are appropriate on a deeper level than they appear, for the original novel “Frankenstein” was written exactly 200 years ago during a frightening change in the weather that created widespread political anxiety.
The year 1816 was known worldwide as 'The Year Without a Summer' because of its dark skies, record snowfalls, frozen rivers and failed crops.
In the summer of 1816, a group of British tourists including Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her lover Percy visited Switzerland. Mary wrote that it was a “wet, ungenial summer” with “incessant rain” and endless thunderstorms confining them for days inside the house at Villa Diodati. In the evenings, as lightning flashed over the glassy surface of Lake Geneva and candles flickered inside, Lord Byron suggested that Shelley and her group of wanderers write ghost stories to pass the time. In the small hours of June 16, 1816, Shelley had the waking nightmare that would become “Frankenstein.” She wrote that she saw a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out” and come to life, a patchwork of dead flesh jolted back into life by an arrogant doctor. This creepy reanimation scene has since inspired countless writers, artists and filmmakers and hundreds of gothic, science fiction and post-human adaptations.
What's even more remarkable to a contemporary reader is that climate change was part of its inspiration. The year 1816 was known worldwide as “The Year Without a Summer” because of its dark skies, record snowfalls, frozen rivers and failed crops. New Englanders called it “Eighteen-Hundred-and-Froze-to-Death”: part of a three-year meteorological catastrophe spawned by Tambora, a volcano that erupted in Indonesia in 1815, spreading a blanket of ash all over the world.
Inhospitable weather is everywhere in “Frankenstein.” Thunder, lightning, rain and ice caps of the polar north paint the atmosphere not as scenery but as a foreground: as ecological index of social, political and economic conditions that entangle human and geological time scales. As the ship captain Robert Walton seeks a northwest passage across the polar seas to find the monster immured in ice, the novel describes the warming to the Arctic caused by volcanic sulfate aerosols. Yet sightings of the monstrous dark speck across the vast and irregular ice plains repeatedly interrupt the captain's enthusiasm for the new northern opportunity. The monster’s body becomes a historical repository for out-of-control forces, producing bizarre connections not yet named.
Reading the novel in 2016 in the wake of the Paris climate accord...'Frankenstein' can be seen as the first offspring of climate change.
Reading the novel in 2016 in the wake of the Paris climate accord, the monster takes on a different shape, as “Frankenstein” can be seen as the first offspring of climate change. The bicentenary of the original monster’s birthday reminds us of the early inception of the era that Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen named the Anthropocene, when human activity became the chief driver of climate change. The monster’s body could now be used as shorthand for any number of environmental atrocities: toxic sludge, coastal erosion, landmines, chemical runoff and extreme weather. We also might see humanity as the technology-mad Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who brought potentially lethal forces into the world and then tried to deny their malevolence.
Fictional monsters appear, notoriously, in times of crisis and social anxiety. Think of the zombies of 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” or the unfriendly aliens of the McCarthy-era’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Reflecting on what seemed to be the end of times in his baneful poem “Darkness,” composed in July 1816, Lord Byron laments:
The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay
Like “Frankenstein,” these stormy lines venture into the nightmares of a climate doomsday. There is much uncertainty in modern climate change, what the historian Gillen D’Arcy Wood describes as “hard to see and no less difficult to imagine.” The posture of many would-be leaders – including the famous denialist Donald Trump – is to pretend the tempest is just an illusion.
The realism of "Frankenstein" reawakens history under the spell of fiction. In the year of the popular hashtag #frankentrump, the original monster’s birthday should remind us of a time when an angry climate was the inspiration to the story—and not just the setting that fades into the background.
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