To Light a Fire: Symbolism of Light and Fire in Frankenstein | Teen Ink

To Light a Fire: Symbolism of Light and Fire in Frankenstein

March 15, 2019
By CatherineNeal BRONZE, Metairie, Louisiana
CatherineNeal BRONZE, Metairie, Louisiana
3 articles 0 photos 0 comments

The use of symbolism is a very powerful tool that allows the author to convey deeper meanings within his/her literary works. The story of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is one that brings out the deeper meaning of the simple elements of fire and light through her classic novel. The important actions and thoughts of the infamous Doctor Frankenstein and his Monster are represented by light and fire. These symbols are implemented in order to instill in the reader a deeper understanding of the plot of the story; they are made to appeal to the imagination of the reader and open a deeper world of meaning. The light seen in different scenes can set the tone or foreshadow what is to come, while fire can symbolize an inner change or simply the downfall of a character. In Frankenstein, the symbols of light and fire, whether represented in a positive or negative way, symbolize the duality of Doctor Frankenstein, the Monster, and the situations they are faced with.

The symbol of light is utilized in the scene involving Dr. Frankenstein and his journey to the North Pole to reveal thoughts of enlightenment, confidence, and hope. On his journey to the north, Victor Frankenstein is optimistic in his research, believing he is doing the right thing, and keeps trying to justify his reasoning for conducting the life-changing experiments. Frankenstein concludes that leaving the ethics of an experiment or a situation up to the researcher alone is wrong and that he, in fact, is doing the very opposite of this (Carlson 103). Frankenstein overflows with enthusiasm for his upcoming journey and scientific discoveries, speaking about the immense, explosive electricity and magic of creation through his descriptions of the weather (Englert 980). The imagery of this weather that “breathe[s] a degree of renovating warmth” in this scene allows the reader to picture the light and energy that comes with creation, which Dr. Frankenstein is anticipating (Englert 980). The light and warmth depicted in this scene gives the reader a more vivid sense of the ground-breaking awareness and keen realization that the scientist has as he nears a new discovery. Frankenstein is surrounded by sudden, eternal light on his journey that overwhelms him as he too has a revelation of the power of the possibilities of his experiment, “I may there discover the wondrous power . . . and may regulate a thousand celestial observations that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent forever” (Shelley 3). Dr. Frankenstein only seems to be focusing on the positive aspects of breaking scientific barriers and creating life, when in reality there were many darker consequences to come. This optimism and idealism are further reflected through the abundant light of the sun in the land of eternal life that he is headed to: the North Pole. Light gives Victor Frankenstein a much-needed optimism, focused realization, and persistent hope on his long journey up north.

The infamous creation scene in Frankenstein powerfully employs the symbol of light to draw attention to the drastic event that takes place: the creation of life in man. To begin his experiment, Dr. Frankenstein uses electricity, a “vital fluid animating all things,” to bring life to the Monster (Shelley 136). The use of electricity to create life is very reflective of the immense power that this luminous element has on the world and demonstrates again how light symbolizes life in every aspect of this book. For instance, the room is dimly lit only by the “glimmer of the half-extinguished light” coming from a “candle [that] was nearly burnt out” when Frankenstein gave life to the Monster, but the room is soon filled with the “spark of life” once the creation actually takes place (Shelley 58). The characters in the story are inspired by the presence of light that breathes life into them. In fact, the only way to breathe life into the creature is for Frankenstein to channel an immense amount of light, thereby “generating life by use of electrical current . . . animating the creature by infusing a spark of being into the lifeless thing” (Englert 980). In addition, Victor leaves his laboratory immediately after creating the Monster, letting the light flow in and cast itself onto the Monster: “By the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forces its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created” (Shelley 59). This sudden focus of light on the Monster, which terrifies Frankenstein, forces the reader to associate the Monster with light and new life. This suggests that Dr. Frankenstein is ultimately afraid of the power of his creation and life. When Frankenstein isolates himself directly after the creation of his monster, the lack of light slowly destroys his life. He explains this to the reader, saying that he is living in perpetual night: “No one can conceive the anguish I suffered during the remainder of the night” (Shelley 58). The absence of light symbolizes inspiration and hope that is absent in Victor Frankenstein’s life while he hides from his mistakes (Carlson 104). Light is a powerful device that can bring about a life but can also create fear due to its overwhelming potential for destruction and chaos.

The Monster goes through an internal change in the story and learns how to express and deal with his emotions, which are subliminally represented the story as a whole through the symbol of fire. In one particular scene, the Monster happens upon a small fire that he quickly grows to love and appreciate. The Monster happens upon a fire, “which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth [he] experienced from it” (Shelley 120). The fire is not only used as a tool but also as a stepping stone to elicit his hidden emotions: “For it is through fire that he feels the first stirrings of sympathy and solicitude for something outside himself” (Griffin 66). He takes a particular interest in the fire and feels, for the first time, a sense of attachment and the need to care for it. The Monster takes a strong liking to his fire and wants to physically feel the joy that it has brought him but he soon learns the dangers of the powerful heat source: “In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain” (Shelley 130). He becomes confused and goes on to say: “How strange . . . that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!” (Shelley 130). The heat burns him, but the Monster does not let this stop him from taking care of the fire (Griffin 66). He takes care of this fire and loves it as his own: “It was morning when I awoke, and my first care was to visit the fire” (Shelley 131). This parallels the absence of familial love that he experiences from Frankenstein. The Monster devotes all of his time and energy to caring for the fire and becomes remorseful and regretful the moment he is forced to put it out (Griffin 67). The Monster “exceedingly lamented the loss of the fire” and does not find a way to recreate it, which creates a bigger sense of longing in his heart (Shelley 131). He has lacked emotion up until this moment because Dr. Frankenstein has deprived him of the love and affection that a parent is supposed to provide. When the Monster grows attached to this feeling of longing, he wants as much of it as he can get, so he sticks his hand into the fire, not realizing its dangers. Not only does the fire in this scene reveal emotions he never knew he had, but it also teaches him a lesson about the potentially painful consequences of over-indulgence and power.

The physical fire in this story always originates from the internal fire of the Monster, which is ignited by Frankenstein. He uses extreme forms of aggression, like a raging fire, to show the world how he feels inside. Dr. Frankenstein neglects his Monster immediately after he comes to life, as Frankenstein realizes his mistake. This neglect leads the Monster to blame others for his isolation and loneliness. In the end, neglect brought upon him by Dr. Frankenstein leads to his internal fire and outbreak (Englert 979). The Monster looks for people to blame for his reputation and the loneliness he feels inside. He also has the urge to do good and to see the world as good; he cares for all people and appreciates nature as much as possible. Sadly, because of his demeanor, and because he is created out of fire, the Monster surrenders himself to his internal fire. He comes to the conclusion that these feelings he tries to suppress have all been placed in him by Doctor Frankenstein. When he has this revelation, the Monster burns with a fire in his heart to do anything possible to get revenge on humans; he states that his actions and feelings “were those of rage and revenge” (Shelley 162). The first violent act that the Monster commits is the “first chain of events seemingly designed to expose the limits of free will and individual responsibility” (Englert 979). The Monster abuses the power of fire to get revenge on the human race, “perverting the life-giving and life-sustaining element into an instrument of torture and destruction” (Griffin 68). Fire is unstoppable once released to its full potential; it ultimately devours itself in a whirlwind of unbridled passion and power. Frankenstein mistreats his monster, and the abuse leads to the Monster abusing and inflicting mass destruction on everything around him -- this newly kindled wildfire cannot be controlled and only starts a chain of destruction (Griffin 70). The fire that is started by the Monster shows no signs of stopping: “As the night advanced, a fierce wind arose from the woods and quickly dispersed the clouds that had loitered in the heavens” (Shelley 135). The fire that is instilled in the heart of the Monster through the isolation he experiences from Frankenstein is translated into the destructive force that is out of control and only does harm once unleashed. What was to be a source of life and love now has become a source of death and hate as an internal fire spread to a worldly fire of passion and hate.

Light and fire are simple material elements that express deeper emotions and contrasting themes in the story of Frankenstein. These symbols either portray and resurface underlying positive themes in the novel, or they represent downfall in the life of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Frankenstein finds inspiration in the midst of overflowing light and draws hope through his surroundings, but he also fears the uncontrollable life-creating spark of light that he uses to bring life to his monster. Likewise, the Monster takes delight in his personal fire as it allows him to feel emotion and love for the first time, but he eventually uses this fire in his destructive aggression and internal fire that leads to his downfall. Utilizing these symbols, Shelley demonstrates the paradoxical power of light and fire: too much or too little of these elements can be fatal and affect the lives and futures of the main characters of her novel. The symbols of light and fire in the classic novel Frankenstein represent the thoughts and mood of each character, symbolizing an increase of power or knowledge in both positive and destructive ways that change their lives forever.

The author's comments:

This piece focuses on the ways that light and fire are utilized in Frankenstein to convey a deeper meaning in the text through symbolism.

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