Frankenstein, the Villa Diodati and John Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein while she and her partner Percy Shelley were staying with Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati (pictured above) near Geneva. This, of course, is the area where much of the action of the novel takes place. The villa did even more than provide Frankenstein with some of its geography, however, it provided it too with an important element in its literary heritage.

For a previous occupant of this villa had been the seventeenth-century English poet John Milton, whose epic poem Paradise Lost from 1667 was a major influence on all the British Romantics.

In fact, Milton’s masterpiece about the war in heaven between God and the rebel angels led by Satan, followed by the creation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden, is the work of literature to which Frankenstein refers more than any other. Paradise Lost is, for a start, one of the three major works that Frankenstein’s creation reads and refers to whenever he tries to understand himself and his place in the world (see especially pages 104-5). For instance, when he tells Walton at the end of the novel that, upon hearing Frankenstein intended to marry, “evil thenceforth became my good” (188), he is echoing Satan’s lines in Book 4 of Paradise Lost in which Satan undertakes to turn all of God’s and Mankind’s good works to evil: “All good to me is lost; / Evil, be thou my Good” (4.109-110).

The fundamental importance of Paradise Lost for this novel is signalled from the outset by the fact that it provides Mary Shelley’s novel with its epigraph, in which one of the central questions raised by the novel is framed by Adam when he asks God:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? (Paradise Lost X.743-5).

Several of the main characters in Frankenstein, meanwhile, – including its three narrators of Walton, Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s creation – are presented in terms derived from Milton’s poem. Victor Frankenstein, for instance, explicitly likens himself to Satan. “All my speculations and hopes are as nothing,” he declares towards the end of his narrative, “and, like the archangel [i.e. Satan] who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell” (180). Like Satan too, moreover, who states famously in Paradise Lost that “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven” 81.254-5), Victor Frankenstein experiences Hell primarily as a state of mind. “I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt,” he tells Walton after the execution of Justine, “which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe” (69).

Even the relatively innocent-seeming Walton appears to be in danger of being drawn into the world of Paradise Lost as a result of his journey of exploration. He expects, after all, to encounter a utopia, or paradise, when he enters the Arctic:

Inspirited by this wind of promise, my daydreams become more fervent and vivid. I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is forever visible, its broad disk just skirting the horizon and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There … snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe … What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? (5-6)

Walton here draws upon the language of the Enlightenment (“perpetual splendour,” “eternal light,” and so on) not only to describe what he expects to encounter in the Arctic, but also to gesture towards the utopian benefits he believes his discoveries will bring to humanity in general. What he encounters instead are Frankenstein and his creation, both of whom have by this point acquired visibly hellish qualities. What he learns, meanwhile, is the terrible story they both have to tell. It is significant, given the importance of Milton’s poem for the novel as a whole, that Walton’s experience in the Arctic, and in particular the transition it involves from a hoped-for heaven to an actual experience of something more akin to hell, has already been prefigured in Walton’s own earlier experiments with poetry:

I also became a poet and for one year lived in a paradise of my own creation; I imagined that I also might obtain a niche in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated. You are well acquainted with my failure and how heavily I bore the disappointment. (6-7)

The biblical story told in Paradise Lost of humankind’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden forms an intriguing point of comparison with what we see in Frankenstein. After all, Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise because they had eaten the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It is arguable that Frankenstein in particular, but Walton and perhaps Frankenstein’s creation too, find themselves in a hell of sorts for a similar reason. As Frankenstein says to Walton early in his narrative:

Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. (35)