Images of Fire, Warmth and Light in Mary Shelley’s Novels

"A Soft But Penetrating Fire"

Master's Thesis, 2015
45 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Frankenstein
2.1 Light and Warmth as Positive Forces
2.2 The Monster and Images of Light and Warmth
2.3 Symbolisms of Coldness and Darkness
2.4 Frankenstein and the Monster: Clashes of Fire and Water
2.5 The Two Opposing Sides of Fire

3. The Last Man
3.1 Fire, Light, Warmth and Love
3.2 Cold, Darkness, Misery, and Isolation
3.3 The Sun Reversed: The Symbolism of Shelley’s “Black Orb”
3.4 Light and Darkness Combined: The Symbolism of Stars
3.5 Raymond, Fire, and Destruction
3.6 “The Checked Waters of Misery” (TLM 176): Perdita’s Suicide

4. Falkner
4.1 “A Soft, but Penetrating Fire” (F:215): The Symbolism of Warmth and Light
4.2 Warmth and Light as Female Attributes
4.3 Fire and Love in Falkner
4.4 Falkner, Fire, and Destruction
4.5 Darkness as a Means to Conceal the Truth

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

When Mary Shelley published her famous Frankenstein -novel in 1818, she hinted a theme in the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus” that would run like a thread through all of her later novels. While much has been written about the Promethean element in Frankenstein – Dougherty focuses on the moral issues (Dougherty 111), Franklin reads the novel as a critique of the concepts of democracy in Prometheus and Frankenstein (Franklin 42), and Cantor focuses on identifying the Promethean figure – very little has been written on the element of fire in the novel.

This lack of interest in the fire imagery in research is interesting, because fire plays a rather dominant role in both the Promethean Myth and the novel itself. After all, it is fire in the form of a “spark of being” that gives life to the monster. Although Watson rightly states that “‘the Modern Prometheus’ concerns two legends of Prometheus – that he stole fire from heaven, and that he made a man from clay and used fire to give it life” (Watson 247), only Franklin grants the issue of fire more than just a few words. She then also fails to go into more detail after declaring that the monster is not given fire, but finds it himself (Franklin 42). Interestingly, unlike research, the film industry has spotted the importance of the fire imagery. It plays a dominant role in many adaptations of the novel – recall James Whale’s 1931 film version, where the villagers try to burn the monster in the windmill, or Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 movie, where Frankenstein creates two monsters and the former Elizabeth commits suicide by setting herself on fire.

The impact of the fire imagery in Shelley’s work becomes even more apparent in looking at her other novels. The symbolic use of fire is not restricted to Frankenstein and the Promethean theme, but is a general stylistic feature distinct of Shelley’s writing. In addition to Frankenstein, two other of Shelley’s novels will be examined in order to prove this point. Dougherty argues that fire mainly serves the purpose of providing heat and light (Dougherty 18). The notion ‘fire’ will thus not be restricted to the literal sense, but will also comprise light and warmth. The symbolism of the opposite forces – darkness, cold, and water – will also be considered.

In the first part of this essay, the importance of fire in Frankenstein will be examined. Taking Shelley’s metaphor of the “spark of being” as a starting point, it will be identified what role fire, warmth, and light play for humans in the novel and whether those elements have the same impact on the monster. The elements of water, darkness and cold in opposition to fire, light and warmth will then be addressed and the impact of those factors on Frankenstein and on the monster will be compared. Finally, it will be examined how fire can have such a paradoxical effect as to make a heart both “glow with enthusiasm”[1] and “burn with hatred” (cf. FRA:219).

The second novel chosen to examine the role of fire in Shelley’s novel was published in 1826. The Last Man is suited for a comparison of the fire imagery because there are some very apparent similarities as regards content. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the main character in The Last Man, Lionel Verney, ends up alone and miserable, travelling through the world in a hopeless attempt to find another being like himself. As opposed to the creature, it is not an abstract being constructed by humans that is unique in the world, but man itself that is the outcast in The Last Man. In addition, Shelley was writing both Frankenstein and The Last Man in a similar set of mind. Both times, her writing was influenced by recent deaths of loved ones – her firstborn child, her later husband’s wife Harriet Shelley, and her half-sister Fanny Imlay died shortly before or during the writing of Frankenstein; Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and two other of her children passed away while writing The Last Man. Considering the parallels between the novels in respect to their content, it will be interesting to examine in how far the strong symbolism of water, fire, light, and darkness Shelley uses in Frankenstein is also present in The Last Man.

In a first step, the role of fire, warmth and light as opposed to water, coldness and darkness will be examined . The use of those images will be compared to the imagery in Frankenstein. Shelley also uses a prominent image in The Last Man that constitutes a transition between the above categories. She has her protagonist describe the rise of a black sun, thus combining the images of light and darkness. After taking a brief look at the symbolism underlying this description, the examination will focus more explicitly on the fire imagery. The emphasis will be on looking at a link between fire as a destructive entity and the character Raymond and on the reasons underlying this connection. Finally, the symbolism underlying Perdita’s suicide will be considered.

The last novel that will be looked at has little in common with Shelley’s earlier ones as regards content. Falkner was published in 1837 and is Shelley’s last novel. The most striking difference to the earlier works is Falkner’s ending – Frankenstein and The Last Man end in desolation, destruction and loneliness, Falkner has a happy ending of domestic solidarity and love. Considering the relative closeness of the topics in Frankenstein and The Last Man, similarities in Shelley’s use of symbols of fire, light and warmth are likely. In having a look at Falkner, it will be interesting to examine in how far Shelley stays true to her approach throughout her novels and not merely within similar topics. Thus, the true significance of this symbolism in her works can be established.

2. Frankenstein

2.1 Light and Warmth as Positive Forces

When Mary Shelley talks about “a torrent of light” her protagonist wants to pour into the world and about Frankenstein’s hopes to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet” (FRA:58), she uses metaphors for “that recently discovered caloric fluid called electricity” that her contemporaries regarded as a possible means to restore life. Mary Shelley is known to have shown great interest in recent developments in the field of science, and natural electricity was amongst one of the topics her circle discussed. She was familiar with the experiments undertaken by Luigi Galvani and Andrew Ure, who conducted experiments with electricity and muscles, making dead body parts appear alive. Shelley even mentions Galvanism as a means to endue a creature with “vital warmth” in her introduction to the 1831 Frankenstein- novel (FRA:8). The similarities between a flash of lightening and her metaphors are apparent. Since electricity was mainly known to people in form of thunderbolts, Shelley’s use of a similar metaphor seems a rather obvious choice. What will be interesting to examine is what role fire – and, by extension, warmth and light – play in other instances in the novel.

At a first glance, fire only seems to fulfil a very natural, non-symbolic role in providing its users with warmth and light. On recounting the story of his life, the monster tells Frankenstein “I was oppressed by cold, I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it” (FRA:107). In a similar way, Frankenstein seats himself next to a fire to get warm before the monster starts recounting his story (cf. FRA:104). During the process of creation of the monster, a candle provides Frankenstein with light (cf. FRA:58) and the monster recounts the DeLaceys’ use of a candle in their hut too (cf. FRA:111).

However, in having a closer look at the appearance of fire in the novel, a pattern can be identified. Shelley links the presence of fire and warmth to the presence of human beings and to the pleasantness of civilized life. The DeLacey hut is such an example. “I was enchanted by the appearance of the hut: here the snow and rain could not penetrate, the ground was dry; and it presented to me then as exquisite and divine a retreat” (FRA:108), recounts the monster. He is drawn to those comforts and decides to stay close. Similarly, in the isolation of the arctic, Frankenstein is placed “near the chimney of the kitchen stove (FRA:27) when he encounters other humans. When the monster lights a fire for Frankenstein before telling his story, it is because he understands the importance of warmth for men. Fire is thus a symbol for hospitality and comfort.

This is what the monster is intrigued by when he decides to stay close to the hut of the DeLaceys. It is not the pleasantness of physical warmth he enjoys in his retreat. After all, he is not affected by the cold (cf. FRA:208) and he would be able to build his own fire if he wanted to. In a way, fire is once more linked to life, that is, to human companionship. In an attempt to reveal himself to the DeLacey family, the monster asks the old man “if you would allow me to remain a few minutes before the fire” (FRA:135). In allowing the monster to sit in front of his fire, the old man integrates him into the society of men. However, it is not a temporary hospitality the monster seeks. This is why he refuses food and insists, “it is warmth and rest only that I need” (FRA:135). While physical coldness does not affect him as severely as humans, the coldness he feels originates from another source and hurts him deeply. It is loneliness he hopes to overcome and in asking for a place by the fire he wishes to acquire the more abstract warmth of human companionship and love. “My attention, at this time, was solely directed towards my plan of introducing myself into the cottage of my protectors” (FRA:134). This then is the deeper meaning of his act of lighting a fire for Frankenstein. He shows his love towards his creator, although he is deeply disappointed in the lack of care Frankenstein showed towards him after his “birth”. The monster’s lighting a fire can be seen as an expression of appreciation and a peace-offering towards Frankenstein. It is obvious that he is interested in a peaceful solution to his issues and that he admires his creator: “I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king. […] Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” (FRA:102f). Warmth, by the means of fire, thus also symbolizes love.

When the monster investigates a fire for the first time in his life, he finds “that the fire gave light as well as heat” (FRA:107). Light is another striking image Shelley uses throughout the novel. “Night quickly shut in; but to my extreme wonder, I found that the cottagers had a means of prolonging light by the use of tapers” (FRA:111). In addition to this literal use of the notion “light”, light-metaphors are used in reference to emotions: Walton feels his “heart glow with enthusiasm (FRA:16) and at some point his “whole countenance is lighted up” (FRA:27). Victor Frankenstein describes his discovery of books on natural philosophy as “a new light [that] seemed to dawn upon my mind” and that makes him “bound […] with joy…” (FRA:40). With regard to his future bride, he tells Walton that “the saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home” (FRA:39). The monster uses a similar metaphor when talking about Safie. “I saw that her presence diffused gladness through the cottage, dispelling their sorrow as the sun dissipates the morning mists.” (FRA:120). While the presence of light is synonymous with the presence of joy, its absence has the converse effect. After the death of Justine and William, Frankenstein’s father remarks that “present events may cast a gloom over us” (FRA:156) and Frankenstein tells Walton “I feel exquisite pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of childhood, before misfortune had tainted my mind, and changed its bright visions of extensive usefulness into gloomy and narrow reflections upon self” (FRA:40) and “although the sun shone upon me, […] I saw around me nothing but a dense and frightful darkness” (FRA:186). Frankenstein talks about “dark melancholy [that] clouded every thought” (FRA:99). And about “deep, dark, deathlike solitude” (FRA:93) as well as a “dark cloud which brooded over me” (FRA:93). While Shelley uses images of light and warmth to refer to pleasurable experiences, she uses darkness to convey a sense of discomfort and fear.

2.2 The Monster and Images of Light and Warmth

Those symbolic uses of fire, light, and darkness shed an interesting light on the creation and ‘childhood’ of the monster. To begin with, he was created “on a dreary night of November” (FRA:58), a fact so important to Shelley that she started writing the novel with those exact words (FRA:10). Frankenstein’s candle “was nearly burnt out”, when, “by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light” the monster came to life (FRA:58). The moment of birth, which is supposed to be a happy moment for people surrounding the new-born child, is substituted by a dark and gloomy atmosphere and by the flight of the new-born’s ‘parent’ in disgust and horror. Like the monster does not experience a normal birth, he also does not ‘see the light of day’ as normal babies do. There is hardly any light when he is born, and, linked to this absence of light, there is also no one there to welcome him to the world. It is not an environment of joy and human companionship the monster originates from, but those are the qualities he longs for, feeling his own “soul glow […] with love and humanity” (FRA:103). It is this lack of human warmth around him that makes him feel cold after waking for the second time. “On a sensation of cold, I had covered myself with some clothes, but these were insufficient to secure me from the dews of night” (FRA:105). When the monster remembers “it was dark, when I awoke, I felt cold also” (FRA:105), it is not only the chilly night that makes him feel cold – after all he later explains that he is “impassive” to low temperatures (FRA:208). It is rather the lack of care he experiences that makes him feel this coldness, and no clothes can secure him from the “dews of night” that stem from neglect and rejection.

Throughout his early life, the monster continues to seek human companionship, and Shelley once more describes this quest by employing fire and light images. Interestingly, those images are always in a way restricted, or not entirely positive experiences for the monster. On talking about his first memories, the monster reveals,

a stronger light pressed upon my nerves, so that I was obliged to shut my eyes. Darkness then came upon me, and troubled me; but hardly had I felt this when, by opening my eyes, as I now suppose, the light poured in upon me again […] Before, dark and opaque bodies had surrounded me […] The light became more and more oppressive to me; and the heat wearying me as I walked, I sought a place where I could receive shade. (FRA:105).

From the beginning on, it seems he is not fit for hot temperatures and he views the light as “oppressive” rather than as a source of pleasure. It is only a less extreme form of light that he can enjoy: “a gentle light stole over the heavens and gave me a sensation of pleasure. I started up and beheld a radiant form rise from among the trees” (FRA:106). He refers to the moon here rather than the sun, which makes clear that he continues to live his life in darkness. On another occasion, the monster strikes “across the wood towards the setting sun” (FRA:108). This is a highly symbolic image again. While the monster is chasing after the light, it eludes him more and more. He is forever restricted to the dark world of misery, although, at this point, he is not yet aware of this, because he is content to settle for little. “All the light I enjoyed came through the sty, and that was sufficient for me”, the monster recounts (FRA:109). Similarly, the sun “denied [him] warmth” but “diffused cheerfulness” which again is enough for him (FRA:135). Taking up the thesis that fire (and, in extension, light) represents life, this means that the monster can never fully enter the world of the living. The sun denying the monster warmth seems like a parallel to his relationship with the DeLaceys. While he does not get their “warmth” in form of love, he derives “cheerfulness” in merely watching them. This restriction has serious consequences for his later life. Dougherty argues that the monster knows what it would take him to become like men: education, socialization, and love (Dougherty 112). The monster seeks those elements by staying close to the cottagers, but he ultimately fails to acquire them. While he can get educated by watching the family, love and socialization is nothing he can enforce. Those are the elements denied to him and they are once more linked to the restriction in the light and warmth symbolisms. Despite telling himself differently, the monster lives an entirely separate life from the cottagers. He is up at night, collecting firewood for the family and then sleeps during the day, only listening to their conversations in the evening (cf. FRA:114-117). Here again, it becomes clear how unlike humans the monster is. While the family lives its life during the day, the monster never fully manages to enter their world. The only times he shares with the cottagers are those times of semi-darkness when the family settles in in the evening, or when they leave the house early in the morning.

Shelley foreshadows the monster’s failure to find happiness. From the moment of his birth, the monster’s life is always linked to the night rather than the day. Although daylight brings pleasure to men and the monster experiences it as pleasurable in the beginning, it only brings misery to him. It is during the day that he is thrown out of the hut by Felix, and that he learns they will not return: “That hour passed, the sun mounted high in the heavens, but the cottagers did not appear” (FRA:139). Later, on the only occasion he decides not to travel during the night, he saves a child from drowning and is shot for his efforts (FRA:143). While daylight always promises a change in his fortune – first he reveals himself to the family, hoping to be accepted into their midst, then he saves the child, thinking people will celebrate him as a hero, the opposite always occurs.

2.3 Symbolisms of Coldness and Darkness

In what research identified as “an allegorical account of man’s evolutionary process” (Dougherty 113), the monster discovers fire and is delighted about the warmth it gives him. On the other hand, he immediately burns his hand, making him wonder “how strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effect!” (FRA:107). His discovery of fire does not merely stand for his evolutionary process. The monster’s remark on discovering the “opposite effects” of fire is to foreshadow his future life. He identifies fire as a source of pleasure to humans, but also realizes that he only derives pain from it. Like he is not able to fully enter the world of light, he can hardly make any positive use of fire. Thus, he uses its physically destructive force against men. His setting fire to the hut is the first step in the monster’s renunciation from humans, which is completed in him being shot after saving the little girl. At the same time as he gives up on his plan to make friends amongst humans, the monster stops chasing after light, warmth and fire (that is “the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed” (FRA:223)) and turns towards the opposites. He starts to despise the light that reveals his wretchedness. “The cold stars shone in mockery” (FRA:138). The light that reaches him is again only a “cold” light and symbolizes his loneliness.

Having tried and failed to find a shelter in the warmth of human presence, the monster withdraws to caves of ice. The ice environment seems a deliberate stylistic choice on Shelley’s part. “The caves of ice, which I only do not fear, are a dwelling to me, and the only one which man does not grudge” (FRA:103). Only here can men not follow him, and only here is he save from the pain of rejection. At the same time this hostile, cold environment emphasizes his loneliness in the world. When the monster argues, “I was better fitted by my conformation for the endurance of cold than heat” (FRA:134), it is obvious that he does not merely refer to physical cold, but also to the mental warmth of love which he cannot acquire.

When Walton hopes to find a “region of beauty and delight” in the Arctic where “the sun is forever visible” (FRA:15), this seems inconsistent with the negative connotation of ice and water in the rest of the novel. His hopes can be explained by the predominant scientific beliefs around the time the novel is set. In the middle of the eighteenth century, people believed in the existence of the two classical semi-legendary landmasses, Hyperborea and Thule (Duffy 124-125). Those lands were thought to be at the North Pole. According to legends, Hyperborea was inhabited by “god-like creatures enjoying perpetual sunshine” (Duffy 124-125). A common belief amongst natural philosophers in Mary Shelley’s time was that the actual Pole was completely free of ice and that it had a warm climate. It is this image Walton refers to when he talks about “a country of eternal light” (FRA:15). It becomes clear very early on that the ice does not bring any comfort to Walton and that nothing good comes from it. He feels miserable and lonely, longing for a friend in the ice (cf. FRA:19). Shortly after he finds a friend in Frankenstein, Frankenstein dies. Hence, it is not a land of light that Walton finds. Ultimately, the North Pole is not “a locus of triumphant possession, but a […] theatre of heroic failure” (Duffy 134). This is consistent with Shelley’s link between ice and loneliness in the rest of the novel.

2.4 Frankenstein and the Monster: Clashes of Fire and Water

Interestingly, the connection of the monster to the element of water is present from the beginning on. On the night of the monster’s creation, Frankenstein gets “drenched by the rain which poured from a black and comfortless sky” (FRA:60). There is some “pure water which flowed by [the monster’s] retreat” as well as “a clear pool of water” and “a great fall of snow had taken place the night before” (FRA:108f). In addition, on most instances when Frankenstein meets the monster, it is either raining or he gets soaked in rain shortly afterwards (cf. FRA:60; 78; 201). He also thinks of the monster’s eyes as “watery, clouded” as opposed to the “expressive eyes of Henry” (FRA:186).

The monster’s link with water becomes most apparent in his encounters with Frankenstein. Their next meeting is during a thunderstorm, which links Frankenstein and the monster to the images of thunderbolts (and thus, fire, light and electricity), rain and night.

I soon felt the rain coming slowly in large drops, but its violence quickly increased. […] Vivid flashes of lightening dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire. […] A flash of lightening illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature and the deformity of its aspect (FRA:77).

The second meeting is set high in the mountains, while “their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight” (FRA:101). The next encounter is on the island, surrounded by water, and in “the light of the moon” when Frankenstein destroys his attempt to create a female monster (FRA:171). Frankenstein seems to connect this combination of water and semi-darkness to the presence of the monster. “The sun sunk beneath the horizon as we landed; and as I touched the shore, I felt those cares and fears revive, which soon were to clasp me, and cling to me forever.” (FRA:197) and again: “I had been calm during the day; but so soon as night obscured the shapes of objects, a thousand fears arose in my mind” (FRA:198). There are further instances when the monster’s appearance is linked to a clash of water and fire. After the monster has killed Elizabeth on her wedding night, the monster “leaped from his station, and, running with the swiftness of lightning, plunged into the lake” (FRA:200). Moreover, the final meetings between Frankenstein and the monster are set in the icy landscapes of the North Pole, where Frankenstein is found by Walton and has to be restored to life by the warmth of blankets, fire, and alcohol (cf. FRA:26-27). It is thus not merely “a sublime landscape [that] is linked to the monster’s appearance” (Vine 41), but a clash of the elements of fire, water, light, and darkness.


[1] Shelley, Frankenstein: 16. (In the following abbreviated “FRA” and quoted within the text by giving the page numbers. Shelley’s novels Falkner and The Last Man will be abbreviated “F” and “TLM” respectively.)

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Images of Fire, Warmth and Light in Mary Shelley’s Novels
"A Soft But Penetrating Fire"
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ISBN (Book)
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Mary Shelley, Fire, Light, Symbolism, Falkner, Frankenstein, The Last Man
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Franziska Müller (Author), 2015, Images of Fire, Warmth and Light in Mary Shelley’s Novels, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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