"the land of mist and snow," but I shall kill no albatross;

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Historical | Title: Frankenstein (in Context) | Author: Mary Shelley | Ch: Letter 2

The quotation is from Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." 

It and Frankenstein describe the most extreme forms of apartness and isolation. In both a vile act results in each becoming an isolate, the Mariner's killing the albatross and Frankenstein's giving life to dead matter. Both works draw on the myth of The Wandering Jew, who in one way or another (the story varies) refused Christ relief as He approached Calvary or ridiculed His ordeal and who is also associated with Judas. The Jew is sentenced or cursed (in either case not a Christian response and belying the generosity with which Christ acknowledged Judas's betrayal) with having to walk the face of the earth until the Second Coming.

Ultimately his origin may be traceable to the story of Cain, whose punishment for fratricide is to be a wanderer. God decrees, "When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth" (Genesis 4). Cain laments that he will then be killed, and God then marks Cain so that none who see him will kill him, lest they suffer "seven times over." The mark is curse and protection. 

The story of Cain appealed to some of the Romantics, such as Coleridge and Byron, and that of the Wandering Jew appears in Lewis's The Monk (1796) and in Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)As mentioned earlier, the Romantic sensibility, in some cases identified with being an outcast, or exile was a lived reality; yet their curse, if we call it that, was also part of their redemption as creators, a paradox resembling that of the knife blade cutting itself.

A second feature that links "The Rime" and Frankenstein is that both feature story-telling as confessional and admonitory. The Mariner's penance is to retell his story through all human time. The story describes his failure to sympathize with the Creation and its fundamental "moral" being, 

He prayeth well, who loveth well

Both man and bird and beast.

Both man and bird and beast.


He prayeth best, who loveth best

All things great and small.

He stops a wedding-guest hastening impatiently to the ceremony. The guest resents being stopped, but the Mariner has a hypnotic way. What the guest doesn't yet know is that the Mariner's story will enable him to advance on his real journey, the moral one. The "wedding" is symbolic of what should be celebrated as the primal union of man and nature, a wedding whose generative power is moral. A step on the way is for the guest to understand the bond between the teller and the recipient of a story, itself a sacred if brief union. The telling relieves the one and the tale remains for life with the other.

Frankenstein's form unfolds through the telling of stories—Walton's, Frankenstein's, and the monster's—perhaps because the telling of a story is the most intimate act we can perform and the listening to it the most promising.

return to text