Landing : Athabascau University

The electrified oak tree in Frankenstein

By Megan White August 7, 2021 - 6:17am Comments (1)

During the storm that young Victor witnesses in Belrive, an oak tree is stuck by lightning and subsequently mangled. “I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak” (47). This is an interesting scene for a few reasons, but the part of it that stands out most to me is the lightning.

The image of light appears repeatedly throughout the text and, I think, can be taken to represent a dangerous knowledge. Dangerous knowledge means, in this context, the ability to play God, as it were. That is, the ability to create life. This is evidenced on page 55, when Victor is collecting dead material for his project, analysing “all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me – a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple …” This inspiration for the creation of life comes to him in a zap during his musing about death. It comes to him in a blindly illuminating flash, almost like lightning.

Additionally, the ways in which Shelley employs the light image throughout the text serve to indicate its dualistic nature. For example, the decimation of the oak tree shows us that electricity (light, fire) can end a life, mangling it in the process. Victor later uses electricity to animate dead material. The image of the earthly oak tree, traditionally a symbol of stability and strength, deadened by heavenly electricity feels like a kind of warning against hubristic application of godly power to nature.  Later in the novel, Victor describes his search for the ability to create life as pursuing nature “to her hiding-places” (57), and I think the lightning in the oak tree passage also represents the sort of perverse reversal that is to come. Namely, Victor’s animating of dead nature with a “spark” is a reverse of destroying live nature (the oak tree) with the same.

Victor is hubristic in his application of this newfound ability to animate, and he ends up destroying a lot more than he creates, similarly to the lightning’s destruction of the oak tree. The wanton or mis-aimed application of what should perhaps be solely nature’s purview will lead to destruction rather than to creation.


  • Mark A. McCutcheon August 9, 2021 - 2:30pm

    Interesting post, especially in the context of the Enlightenment thinking in which Mary Shelley was schooled, formally and informally (her anarchist philosopher father's house serving sometimes as a salon for London's radical intellectuals). In the context of a Regency-period political culture already jittery about goings-on across the Channel (the continuing fallout of the French Revolution) and inclined to censorship and suppression of radical discourse, Mary Shelley's imagery is maybe even more charged (pardon the electrica pun) with significance and ambiguity. Enlightenment thinking did in several ways pose destabilizing danger to the status quo and powers-that-were of the age. Enlightenment philosophy, harbouring a new valuation of democracy, rights, and secular values (which also entailed a critical rethink of monarchy as absolute, meaning divinely conferred, power), had driven the French Revolution and the English ruling elite's fear was that it would mean anarchy in the UK too.

    So the fact that Shelley here investigates the positive, negative, and ambiguous charges and valences of the imagery of light evinces both a familiarity with Enlightenment thought -- and a suspicious wariness of it and its applications (when specifically wielded by overzealous men who also play fast and loose with research ethics...)