Situation of Hecla and Griper on September 20th 1819.

In the Extreme Arctic Wilderness: Polar Regions in Romanticism


It is peculiar that Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley starts from the North Pole. Its frame narrative takes the form of correspondence between Captain Walton and his sister. Before Walton and his crew encounter Victor Frankenstein and the Monster driving a dog sled, he narrates his own story as a failed poet who became an explorer seeking for a new sea lane through the North Pole. In other words, an unsuccessful attempt of travelling through nature’s last hidden corner and taking the Arctic Ocean to human control makes the subplot of the famous novel discussing the technological hubris of humankind. We read this novel in a different way than its nineteenth-century readers. Although commenting the consequences of industrialisation and the risks of technology in her novel, Shelley could not know that the extensive deployment of coal and other fossil fuels would contribute to the melting of the “eternal” ice of the North Pole. According to the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, the Anthropocene implies that human agency has had significant influence on nature, whereas the nineteenth-century understanding of history was based on the juxtaposition between free acts of humans and nature as immutable scenery of these actions. On the other hand, while the idea of Anthropocene implies a strong form of human agency, the Romantics emphasised the nonhuman agency of natural environment. The polar regions are present as sublime agents in many canonical Romantic works from Coleridge’s “The Rime of Ancient Mariner” (1798) to Caspar David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer (1824). My paper will reflect the problem of nonhuman agency and the prehistory of the Anthropocene in the Romantic artworks depicting the Polar Regions. The contemporary debates about the culture–nature divide indicate that our notion of agency has become problematic, demanding historical reflection.

Tromsø, Norway