- The literal Mont Blanc, the large mountain in the Graian Alps OR
- "Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni", the ode by Percy Bysshe Shelley
The subject of this article is the mountain, though the poem's connection to its subject and the resulting impact on works such as Frankenstein will be briefly discussed.
Mont Blanc (French, lit. "White Mountain") is a mountain in the Alps, which rests on the border between France and Italy, with its massif (surrounding range) extending into Switzerland. With an elevation of 4,808 meters (15,771 ft.), it is generally regarded to be the highest peak in the Alps, as well as the highest mountain in Western Europe. Additionally, while the term Mont Blanc is usually reserved for the famous summit, it can also refer to the Mont Blanc massif, which includes many of the peaks surrounding the tallest one. Mont Blanc is near the town of Chamonix in France, which remains a popular starting point for mountaineers to this day.
Mont. Blanc rises about 4,807 meters above sea level. Because of its high elevation, approximately 100 square kilometers of the mountain's surface are covered in ice and glaciers. The thickness of this ice varies, but at its thickest can be up to 23 meters (75 ft.) thick. The resulting coloration of the mountain is what lends Mont Blanc its name. Mont Blanc is also home to the Mer de Glace, located on its northern face, and is the second-largest glacier in the Alps. The mountain is climbed with relative frequency, with most climbers choosing the French side of the mountain to climb, as oppposed to the Italian side, which is much steeper.
Changes in Elevation
As with all mountains whose tops are made from a dome of rock, ice, and snow, Mont Blanc's elevation at its summit has not always been what it is today, and there's no reason to believe that its height will remain static now. For many years, the summit's height was officially estimated at 4,807 meters. This figure was confirmed in 2002, when with the help of GPS technology, Mont Blanc was measured at 4,807.40 meters at its summit. To determine the impact of the European heat wave of 2003, the elevation of the mountain was measured yet again in September 2003, and was found to be 4,808.45 meters. In addition, the summit was recorded as having moved about 75 centimeters from its location in 2002. Since this year, the elevation of Mont Blanc's summit is recorded biennially.
The fluctuations in Mont Blanc's altitude are sometimes attributed to changes in global temperature, as with the heatwave of 2003. However, this claim has been difficult to substantiate, specifically because heatwaves have not been known to significantly affect glaciers higher than 4000 meters, and in general because the elevation of Mont Blanc depends almost entirely on the level of snowfall at its summit, which in turn depends on factors such as wind and rainfall.
Serious attempts to climb Mont Blanc began in the 18th century, when scientists such as Horace Bénédicte de Saussure, the Swiss physicist credited with coining the term "geology", identified the peak as the highest in the Alps. The first recorded successful ascent of Mont Blanc was on August 8, 1786 by French physician Dr. Michel Gabriel Paccard and local mountaineer Jacques Balmat. The first ascent by a female mountaineer was by Marie Paradis in 1808.
Significance in Shelley's Frankenstein
Mont Blanc as Home
The characters in Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) seem to have a complicated relationship to Mont Blanc, and none more so than the eponymous Victor Frankenstein. The first mention of Mont Blanc occurs in Chapter 7, as Frankenstein returns to Geneva after the death of William Frankenstein. Immediately after Mont Blanc's introduction in the novel, the reader is confronted with Victor's extreme feelings about the mountain: "I discovered more distinctly the black sides of Jura, and the bright summit of Mont Blanc. I wept like a child" (Shelley 43). Mont Blanc is obviously capable of stirring intense emotion within Victor, but why?
In this case, it seems that Mont Blanc serves as a huge and unmistakable reminder of his home. It is logical, then, that the sight of the mountain, undeniably the largest land formation in the area, would bring about feelings associated with home for Victor. As he passes by and observes the mountain, Victor's feelings shift back and forth from the joy of familiarity and the "grief and fear" (43) associated with the home that will never be the same following the loss of his youngest brother.
Finally, it would seem that, for Victor, Mont Blanc is associated with home, safety, and health even more so than his beloved Elizabeth. As they make the journey to Victor's father's house in Chapter 23, Victor expresses his concern at Elizabeth's sorrowful demeanor. Elizabeth turns to Mont Blanc and the rest of the natural setting to put Victor's heart, as well as her own, at ease:
"'Observe how fast we move along and how the clouds, which sometimes obscure and sometimes rise above the dome of Mont Blanc, render this scene of beauty still more interesting. What a divine day! How happy and serene all nature appears!'" (Shelley 102)
Connection with the Creature
Victor encounters his terrible creation at least twice on or near Mont Blanc in the novel, and this is no coincidence. Instead, these meetings show that Mont Blanc represents a kind of inexorable connection between Frankenstein and his monster. Both of these characters are shown to have a love and reverance for nature and thus both are attracted to the beauty and sublimity of the mountain (both enjoy the sights and sounds of the birds, glaciers, rivers, and other natural wonders that are associated with the mountain. Mont Blanc is also a place of safety and sanctuary for both Victor and the creature, who both seem to crave isolation in times of difficulty. In Chapter 10, Victor speaks to this feeling: "[The mountain] elevated me from all littleness of feeling, and although they did not remove my grief, they subdued and tranquillized it" (Shelley 54).
Mont Blanc and the Sublime
With Frankenstein, Mary Shelley cements herself firmly within the Romantic tradition in several ways. One of the most obvious and most undeniably Romantic elements of Shelley's writing is her use of the sublime, a property of nature that inspires awe, astonishment, and even fear in the Romantics, who wrote with great passion about nature and its power. Each time Mont Blanc is mentioned in the novel, the reader is greeted with the magnanimous and powerful language that is intended to evoke the same feelings and passions that Victor associates with the mountain. Mont Blanc is described as "supreme and magnificent" (Shelley 53), with an "awful majesty" that makes for a "wonderful and stupendous scene" (55).
The sublimity of Mont Blanc and the natural world that surrounds it is exhibited not only through mere description, but most fully in Victor's reaction to the storm that is raging as he wanders to the location of his brother's murder. "I saw the lightning playing on the summit of Mont Blanc in the most beautiful figures.... While I watched the tempest, so beautiful yet terrific, I wandered on with a hasty step. This noble war in the sky elevated my spirits; I clasped my hands, and exclaimed aloud, 'William, dear angel! this is thy funeral, this thy dirge!'" (43-44) The elevated language that Victor uses, combined with the apparent emotional ambiguity that the mountain storm seems to stir up in him, make for a moment that is absolutely sublime. Victor is rocked by the sheer majesty of his surroundings, which are so sublime that he finds himself unable to describe his emotional state; he goes from sadness, to awe, to happiness, and eventually to fear.
Mary Shelley was undoubtedly heavily influenced by her literary contemporaries, including Lord Byron and her lover and eventual husband Percy. The use of the sublime is a technique that connects her very closely with Percy, and it must be acknowledged that the many instances of the sublimity of Mont Blanc found in Frankenstein are (at least in part) also allusions to Percy's poem Mont Blanc. The poem is heavily concerned with the connection between the universe that surrounds man, and man's ability to use his mind to comprehend it. The speaker in the poem listens to the mountain's "voice" to find the "truth" that should be used to guide humanity. This relationship to the mountain is not unlike that of Victor, who looks to the immutable Mont Blanc as a source of help and solace in his darkest hours. The chief difference between Victor and the speaker of Percy Shelley's poem is that the former does not truly understand nature (exemplified in his perversion of natural order by creating the Monster), while the latter is a poet devoted to nature, who allows the mountain to teach him:
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel. (Shelley 80-83)
"Mont Blanc". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2016 <http://www.britannica.com/place/Mont-Blanc-mountain-Europe>.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print. Longman Cultural.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni." Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni. Representative Poetry Online, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2016.