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The year 1818 witnessed a rebirth of British arctic exploration. Now that the Napoleonic Wars no longer drew naval and military support away from such projects, quests in search of the North Pole and the Northwest Passage recommenced with excitement. The imperial century had begun and Britain was set to become the most powerful nation in the world. Exploration of the Arctic was a form of imperial expansion that could be carried out during peacetime and it was an endeavor that was ostensibly peaceful. Expeditions to the Arctic provided Britain with a wealth of scientific information as well as new acquisitions of land and it sought lucrative trade links with Asia. The indigenous people explorers encountered were shy and unthreatening, usually more interested in trading their clothes, whale oil and unicorn tusks for knives and tin cans, than challenging Europeans.[1] Few lives would be lost and the expense was relatively small, at least in comparison with open warfare. However, this optimistic outlook was merely the one put forth by governmental and popular press proponents of arctic exploration, since it was in their interest to garner either public support or large circulations.[2] The reality was that arctic exploration was a contentious issue, and to take such an optimistic view of its goals and methods required that the public close its eyes to a whole range of unethical practices and disappointing results. Focus was drawn instead to inflated tales of achievement and celebrations of courageous explorers.

The panoramas exhibited in Henry Aston Barker’s Leicester Square Rotunda played an important role in determining this focus, and this was not simply because the venue had become a mouthpiece for the celebration of all major military and imperial events. [3] Rather, the panorama provided a mode of viewing that was particularly conducive to supporting imperial endeavor. This form of seeing prevented the viewer from dwelling too long on a single aspect of a canvas that was designed to overwhelm with size, distance and detail. Panorama canvases were scattered with spectacular effects and they were divided up into mini-scenes representing historical events, which occurred at different times, though they were anachronistically represented as simultaneous in the painting. The eye was encouraged to continually flit from scene to scene, ideally never allowing the viewer to focus long enough to formulate a critique of the imperial endeavor on display. Significantly, the Leicester Square Rotunda had a particular interest in representing arctic exploration, and the 1818 arctic panorama was the first of three to be exhibited.[4] While the panorama inherently supported British imperialism and exploration of the Arctic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was firmly situated at the other end of the scale of opinion.[5] Shelley’s arctic explorer, Captain Robert Walton, chronicles his adventures in letters to his sister in England, effectively carrying out the convention of keeping a journal intended for publication on return.[6] In this short narrative, Walton continually directs the reader’s view away from his own faulty planning, illogical decision-making and even the crew’s critique of these mistakes. He distracts the reader with descriptions of his illustrious goals, boastings of his lack of fear of death and tales of the seductive Frankenstein. Walton, in short, carries out in writing what the panorama does visually. Shelley’s critique of imperialism, then, depends on undermining the continual deflections and distractions Walton seeks to employ. She deliberately positions him as a poor navigator according to early nineteenth-century standards and as an intensely unreliable narrator.

Jessica Richard, the only critic to date to have substantially examined the relationship between Walton’s narrative and other voyage narratives, has argued that “far from simply appropriating a contemporary discussion uncritically, [Shelley] must be counted among these voices that censured the revival of British polar exploration” (307). Richard establishes that it is very likely that Mary Shelley would have read John Barrow's Quarterly Review articles and that she may have been aware of other materials on the subject as well (297).[7] These popular press representations of the Arctic nearly always devoted a substantial amount of text or illustration to the curious visual effects of the arctic landscape. Voyage narratives especially were interested in the aurora borealis and a number of other startling visual effects unique to the Arctic. Mock suns and moons would appear in geometrical patterns surrounding the genuine sun or moon and all were often connected with halos. In 1824, George Lyon describes the well known effect of “frost smoke” seen

when some space of water, by the sudden breaking or constant motion of the ice, is left exposed and unfrozen; a vapour then rises in clouds, which floats immediately over the open space, like the steam from a caldron. This freezes instantly, and being driven by the wind, deposes itself in a fine powder on the surrounding ice.


The frost smoke sometimes “entirely hides the horizon from view,” surely intensifying the disorienting aspects of this strange landscape (Lyon 58). “Enchanted coasts,” to use Scoresby and Brewster’s term, were also a common occurrence, as was the appearance of the “ice blink,” or inverted “spectre ships.” These ghostly effects, as Brewster explains in Letters on Natural Magic, were caused by light refraction due to extreme variations in the temperature of the air at different altitudes, a set of conditions that was common in the Arctic (140-2). [8] However, opinions about the beauty of the arctic landscape differed. In 1835, John Ross wrote that it was “a nature void of everything to which the face of a country owes its charms” (Narrative of a Second Voyage 241). Nonetheless, voyage narratives by John Ross, James Clark Ross, George Lyon, John Franklin, George Back and others were lushly illustrated first with drawings taken by the crew then with photographs when technology enabled the photographic process to withstand extreme temperatures. Even Barker’s 1818 arctic panorama represents the ice blink, identified by the program narrator as the “yellow tint over the horizon behind the Trent,” though this coloring is entirely obscured in the pictorial key to the canvas and thus the effect it may have had for the viewer is difficult to determine (Description of a View 10). These startling visual effects were probably one of the most important factors in making the Arctic a public obsession in the nineteenth century. In Frankenstein, Walton’s interest in the landscape and these visual effects functions as a distraction from the more pertinent issue of safely navigating his ship. Shelley therefore uses these visual curiosities in order to formulate a larger critique of imperialism where focus is continually turned away from the failings of particular navigators or expeditions.

Whether they agreed with her or not, Shelley’s contemporaries did to some extent see Frankenstein as a critique of government projects. Even if he scathingly criticized the novel, John William Croker, first secretary to the admiralty, saw Frankenstein as significant enough to write a review of it for the Quarterly, the very place where some of the most important debates about arctic exploration took place. Croker in fact used the review to make a dig at John Barrow, second secretary to the Admiralty and originator of most nineteenth-century searches for the Northwest Passage.[9] Croker writes:

the creature, finding himself hard pressed, resolves to fly to the most inaccessible point of the earth; and, as our Review had not yet enlightened mankind upon the real state of the North Pole, he directs his course thither as a sure place of solitude and security; but Frankenstein, who probably has read Mr. Daines Barrington and Colonel Beaufoy on the subject, was not discouraged, and follows him with redoubled vigour, the monster flying on a sledge drawn by dogs, according to the Colonel's proposition, and Prometheus following in another.


John Barrow had become famous for determinedly insisting on the existence of an open polar sea, regardless of much evidence to the contrary.[10] Barrow’s Quarterly Review articles were in fact a revised version of proposals first articulated by William Scoresby. Barrow, however, conveniently left out the qualifying clause that a passage through the polar ice cap would only be navigable once in every several years.[11] The phrase, “our Review had not yet enlightened mankind upon the real state of the North Pole” therefore is a sneer at Barrow’s uncomplicated acceptance of and enthusiasm for the theory.[12] That is, if Barrow had “enlightened” the creature, he would have known that he could not reach the North Pole via sledge since it was an open sea. The publication Croker then refers to is Beaufoy’s newly published edition of Barrington’s 1775 collection of tracts on the possibility of reaching the North Pole. Beaufoy’s addition to this body of work is a preface where he proposes “reaching the North Pole, from Spitzbergen, during winter, by travelling over the ice and snow in sledges drawn by rein deer” (v). Here Croker again sneers at the proposed method for reaching the North Pole, which he ironically has not exactly accurately represented. Nevertheless, Barrow would succeed in securing permission and funding for arctic voyages for decades to come. One of the reasons he was so successful was that he confidently promoted his own ideas, no matter how contentious or speculative they were in reality. This is the aspect of British arctic exploration that Shelley critiques more than any other: the deliberate distracting of the public eye away from theories and evidence that did not support its projects, a problem Croker also seems to recognize.

Rather uncannily, the voyage that departed a matter of weeks after Frankenstein was published was as unsuccessful as Walton’s. The expedition consisted of two branches: one, led by Captain John Ross, sailed for the Canadian arctic, hoping to discover a route to the Pacific; the second, led by Captain David Buchan, sought to locate the North Pole and settle a number of scientific debates. Both returned before the end of the year and both had been distinctly unsuccessful. Captain Ross’s voyage had been unable to overcome the navigational difficulties of the Arctic, leading them to continually overlook channels that were later proven to be navigable. Captain Buchan’s voyage was also rather abortive, being constantly beset by storms and only succeeding in reaching the north coast of Spitzbergen, an area already known by whalers and other explorers. The arctic frame narrative of Frankenstein also presents a voyage that departs in the direction of Spitzbergen. This voyage simultaneously intended to settle scientific questions related to the magnetic poles and to locate a passage to the Pacific Ocean. As in Buchan’s voyage, Walton’s ship is battered by storms and continually beset by the treacherous pack ice—until the crew convinces him to turn back. Frankenstein did not have a very large circulation initially, and therefore may not have been a particularly loud voice in the debate about arctic exploration at the time of its publication.[13] However, the dual failures of the 1818 expedition marked the beginning of a period when the Arctic seemed to continually thwart an ongoing stream of British imperial projects. Thus Shelley’s critique was proven to be more poignant than she perhaps ever expected.

In contrast, Barker’s panorama did have a large audience. The panorama of Buchan’s leg of the 1818 expedition opened in the Leicester Square Rotunda on Easter Monday 1819. The timing and the choice of subject were no accident. A new expedition lead by Captain William Parry would depart on May 11, 1819 and Barker helped develop and profited from intense public interest in this expedition. Barker judged rightly that a panorama of Ross’s leg of the 1818 expedition would have been a mistake. Even though Ross mapped miles of unexplored coastline, discovered Northern Greenlanders that he christened Arctic Highlanders and first documented the arctic curiosity of red snow, Barrow had led a negative press campaign against him, scathingly and anonymously criticizing him in the Quarterly Review.[14] Buchan, on the other hand, was celebrated as a hero, and the descriptive program sold at Barker’s panorama played a large role in making this reputation. By about 1810, the Leicester Square Rotunda had established a protocol for exhibiting panorama paintings, which included the sale of a narrative program, complete with pictorial key and numbered explanatory annotations to the canvas. As far as I can establish, this program, titled Description of a View of the North Coast of Spitzbergen, was the first published account of Buchan’s 1818 voyage.[15] The sympathetic narrator carefully explained all the difficulties and obstacles experienced by the crew and unreservedly celebrated “the ardour of every officer and seaman” (5). Significantly, the program did not draw attention to the fact that Buchan, like Ross, also did not reach his primary destination of the North Pole, nor did he even match the highest latitude previously reached by Captain Phipps on his 1773 voyage. Also significant is that Buchan’s trek toward the North Pole via Spitzbergen was never again repeated during this early nineteenth-century renaissance of British arctic exploration.

Even if this panorama was exhibited after Frankenstein was published, it was just this sort of scapegoating and deferral of an audience’s view away from certain significant circumstances that Mary Shelley sought to critique. The Leicester Square Rotunda, opened in 1794, had been exhibiting panoramas for fifteen years by the time the view of Spitzbergen opened. This venue, constructed from Robert Barker’s plans patented in 1787, was the first, longest-running and most successful of the many panorama venues that would come to be built in London and the provinces. It would have been likely for Shelley to have seen a panorama as a child in London and virtually impossible for her not to have been aware of it.[16] In addition, since the Arctic was well-known to be a setting where illusion was rife, it was an ideal platform for critiquing imperialism that deliberately sought to distort public views. Thus the frame narrative of Frankenstein is less committed to depicting the wonders of the arctic landscape and more committed to using the temptations and illusions of this landscape as an analogy for flaws in imperial and scientific reasoning. Walton expects to solve centuries-old questions about magnetism when he reaches the Arctic: “I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle; and may regulate a thousand celestial observations, that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent for ever” (6). But Walton, less successful than Buchan even, never reaches Spitzbergen, let alone the North Pole. The similarity between Frankenstein and the panorama, then, is that both are highly concerned with imperialism and both rely on a peculiar form of vision. The panorama makes the eye flit from scene to scene in order to cloak the government’s blundering failures in the Arctic while Walton directs his reader’s vision from the landscape to Frankenstein to the cowardice of his crew in order to conceal his own navigational failings. In both the panorama and Walton’s narrative, what one sees is continually changeable and one’s focus is constantly on the move.

Jonathan Crary’s groundbreaking Techniques of the Observer established that an influential form of vision took shape in the early nineteenth century, one that was subjective, changeable and that originated within the “empirical immediacy of the observer’s body” (24). This form of seeing was embodied in the stereoscope, a technology that isolated the viewer from the outside world and isolated the sense of vision. While using the device, the viewer was prevented from focusing on perceptions acquired through senses other than sight and it relied on the inequality of the eyes; the scene was brought into relief through manipulation of the slight differences in focus between the human eyes. The panorama operated in a distinctly different manner. Barker’s Leicester Square Rotunda was a patented form of technology but it did not isolate the sense of vision and it functioned more like an exhibition. The Leicester Square Rotunda was made up of two circular exhibition rooms, which usually presented two different paintings. As viewers entered either of these, they would walk through a hallway, kept dark in order to heighten the effect of the first sight of the canvas, to a set of stairs that led onto the viewing platform. This apparatus was raised and centered in order to avoid disrupting the continuity of the painting. The platform might also be designed as part of the scene; if the subject were an arctic voyage, viewers would stand on what appeared to be the deck of a ship. Dimmed lighting, partly intended to conceal any flaws in the canvas, was achieved through the use of a single source of light in the form of a circular window shielded with an umbrella-shaped shade at the top of the building. The intricate construction of the venue suggests that Barker was interested in emphasizing the ways in which technology enhanced the viewing of traditional art forms. Peter Otto has recently gone so far as to term the panorama an example of the “technological sublime” (par 49). Unlike the form of seeing employed in optical devices like the stereoscope, viewing the panorama had to take place in public and it could not be done alone. Critics have noted that the public and group nature of viewing the panorama exhibitions resulted in an audience of mixed age, gender and class.[17] The diversity of this audience has tempted these critics to conclude that there was something democratic about this mode of viewing.[18] But the most common critical judgment about the panorama is that, due to the simultaneously democratic and imperialist mode of viewing it offered, it is innately contradictory.

Most critical assessments of the panorama focus on this contradictoriness. For Otto, this takes the form of drawing attention to the constructedness of perception: “the extraordinary verisimilitude of the panorama paradoxically suggests that the actual is virtual, the contingent product of a cultural or perceptual apparatus” (par 51). The very realism of the panorama becomes a quality that exposes its lack of realism and, indeed, its deliberate attempt to construct a “virtual” reality. This virtual reality in turn “helps foster the modern interest in the observation of observation” (par 51). One does not simply look at the panorama; one becomes part of a public scene of looking at the panorama. Similarly, William Galperin foregrounds the contradictions of the panorama by arguing that it “worked to eliminate a distinction between a commanding viewer, on the one hand, and an object in apparent want of control, on the other” (42). Although the scenes exhibited were often of an imperial nature, the panorama could not establish its own hegemony in the viewing process because, as Galperin puts it, “the Panorama was no longer one thing to an increasingly homogeneous public;” it could not be a single scene that represented the same things to viewers of any class, gender, age or race (43). Rather, Galperin argues, “the Panorama was suddenly all things to all people” (43). The wealthy might recognize acquaintances in the scene and the lower class might recognize themselves in the labouring, battling masses. It was a view that everyone could be part of. But, for Galperin, these seemingly democratic tendencies were something of an illusion, since the narrative programs sold at the venue placed the viewing experience within “a more conventional cultural framework” (43).[19] In perhaps the most eloquent of accounts outlined here, Nigel Leask constructs all-encompassing views like the panorama in terms of absorption of the viewer. Again, attributing part of this effect to the guiding influence of the panorama program, Leask claims that “the absorptive pull of the exotic visual image or allusion. . .is constantly checked and qualified by a globalizing, descriptive discourse which draws the viewer/reader away from dangerous proximity to the image, in order to inscribe him/her in a position of epistemological power; nothing other than the commanding vision of imperialist objectivity” (168). Thus the panorama has continually been described as a medium that threatens to integrate the viewer into its scene but simultaneously provides a powerful imperial stance that appears to allow the viewer to command from a distance.

One of the ways of uniting and explaining all these contradictory tendencies is to think about this contradictoriness itself as an apparatus of imperial power, one that is linked with a particular mode of viewing that exists inherently in the panorama—the very mode of viewing that Shelley seeks to critique in Frankenstein. I would argue that the panorama represents an important and widespread form of seeing that was in competition with the two other visual epistemologies that were prominent in the early nineteenth century: those based on the panopticon and on Crary’s notion of subjective vision.[20] Both of these forms of vision hold important legacies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the same is true of the form of vision embodied in the panorama. In fact, Zygmunt Bauman’s recent assessment of power in the post-Foucauldian era, a period that has become obsessed with global imperial structures, seems to better describe some of the effects of the panorama than any other recent critical work:

The end of Panopticon augurs the end of the era of mutual engagement: between the supervisors and the supervised, capital and labour, leaders and their followers, armies at war. The prime technique of power is now escape, slippage, elision and avoidance, the effective rejection of any territorial confinement with its cumbersome corollaries of order-building, order-maintenance and the responsibility for the consequences of it all as well as of the necessity to bear their costs.


When Bauman discusses “the end of the era of mutual engagement,” he is referring to contemporary strategies of waging war, for example, which are largely conducted from the air, rarely engaging in any sort of hand-to-hand combat. This is too technologically advanced to describe the era in which the panorama was conceived and popularized, but the artificial, stylized and seemingly democratic nature of the representations of war offered by the panorama holds something in common with contemporary media accounts of war in the Middle East, where violence is censored and journalists operate from sterile Green Zones. Both are distant from their subject, both pretend to be independent of the influence of imperial administration, and “mutual engagement” does not take place in either. For Crary, it is the individual viewer’s vision that is “instrumental, modifiable, and essentially abstract” (24). Subjective vision in general “never allowed a real world to acquire solidity or permanence” (24). But in Bauman’s view, power enacts this “escape, slippage, elision and avoidance”; it is power that is much more abstract than the “real world” (11). In the post-Foucaldian era, power is not simply internalized; it is often invisible because it is managed at such a distance. Thus diverse groups simultaneously viewing panoramas depicting members of all classes and nationalities, each playing their part in a celebrated imperial project, cloaks the violence against men, women and other races necessary in imperial conquest. The problem, described by Bauman, of avoidance of “order-maintenance and the responsibility for the consequences of it all” is a constant issue in Frankenstein, a text that presents a similar imperial vision to the panorama and that proceeds further, offering a scathing critique of this vision.

Another characteristic that sets the panorama apart from other optical devices is its loyalty to realism, something that stereoscopes and kaleidoscopes never sought to achieve.[21] All that remains of Barker’s 1818 arctic panorama is the souvenir program sold at the venue, which includes a miniature image of the canvas with scattered numbers corresponding to notes about each mini-scene. This program enforced the commitment to realism by announcing that everything represented in the canvas was in fact an event that took place, an individual on board or a discovery made during Buchan’s voyage to Spitzbergen. Using Roland Barthes to read the realism of the panorama, Gillen D’Arcy-Wood writes: “For Barthes, the deliberate accumulation of ‘useless details’ in a story by Flaubert poses the central question of modern art: ‘is everything in the narrative [or painting] meaningful, significant? And if not, if there exist insignificant stretches, what is, so to speak, the ultimate significance of this insignificance?’” (114). D’Arcy-Wood finds that this sort of response to realism is distinctly similar to William Wordsworth’s response to the panorama in The Prelude, since, for him, the panorama reduces London to “motley imagery,” “trivial objects, melted and reduced” (qtd. in D’arcy-Wood 114). But the utter confusion inspired by all this meticulously reproduced reality is potentially useful in developing imperial hegemony. What the panorama does is present a scene that is so large that one simply cannot view it in its entirety; instead, the eye flits from miniature scene to miniature scene and from “useless detail” to “useless detail,” never resting long enough to formulate critique. Leask argues that the programs “sought to translate the vertiginous 'shock' of the panorama into ethnological or historical information, often with an ideological (imperialist, pious or patriotic) bent, not always evident within the viewing experience itself” (174).[22] Such a strategy is at work in the program for the 1818 arctic panorama; the annotations to a numbered set of important points on the canvas add geographical and zoological commentary, complete with references to scholarly works on the subject. Those who look at the canvas with the aid of the program—and this would not have been every viewer since it was sold for sixpence in addition to the cost of admission—gazed with the confident, patronizing view of the scientific explorer. But the size of the painting and the program’s division of the canvas into miniature scenes also helped the panorama to achieve its effect of cloaking the ethical issues of imperial endeavors.[23] This cloaking tendency is exactly what Walton seeks to manipulate in his narrative of arctic exploration. Focus on an individual scene cannot last long enough for the viewer or reader to come to a conclusion before the eye is distracted to another mini-scene.

Figure 1

Pictorial key from Description of a View of the North Coast of Spitzbergen, Painted from Drawings Taken by Lieut. Beechey, Who Accompanied the Polar Expedition in 1818; Which Is Now Exhibiting in the Large Rotunda of Henry Aston Barker's Panorama, Leicester Square. London: Adlard, 1819

-> See the list of figures

For example, within the numbered annotations, the program presents an irregular hierarchy of listing. Named officers and the two ships appear within the first ten of the twenty-seven items. The remaining seventeen annotations all correspond to elements of landscape and animal life. The first item on the list is the Dorothea; bearing perspective in mind, it appears to be the largest object in view even though one annotation measures a number of icebergs as over two hundred feet tall. Second and third in the list are Captain Buchan and Lieutenant Franklin, who are clearly important since they stand closest in perspective to the viewer. Fourth come “Mr Fisher, the astronomer, and another Officer.” Following the notes, the eye quickly examines Buchan and Franklin, then moves further away in perspective to examine Mr Fisher and the other officer. But a figure has been unaccounted for, since “the astronomer” refers to Mr Fisher rather than the third man. This third man is pointing a rifle into the sky and has successfully shot a bird, but the program makes no mention of this presumably enlisted and lower-class man. The program guides the viewer to gloss over the need for explanation of this man’s actions, since, as enlisted and lower-class, his actions would be insignificant. Many other seamen also appear in the panorama without any annotations about them or their actions. Similarly, Walton never names any of his men and never refers to them as anything other than a group, arguably a mass, or a component of “the masses.” This omission of attention to enlisted men is curious, given that their maintenance figured so largely in many other narratives of arctic exploration. In 1821, Parry outlines his plan for maintaining the health and morale of the crew by describing everything from amateur theatricals to the most minute details of personally administering lime juice to prevent scurvy (105-6).[24] In 1855, Belcher’s occupation of the crew included the editing of an amateur periodical, theatre productions, an evening school and the construction of a Crystal Palace made of ice (92, 170-71). Such fatherly care of the crew is entirely absent from the panorama, the program and Walton’s narrative. Instead, the canvas presents the crew only taking part in hardy, masculine pursuits. Hunting, laboring and surveying only have been deemed appropriate topics for these nameless men. The viewer is presented with an abundance of activities that prove the crew’s bravery and suggest that exploration of the Arctic is comparable to an extended hunting trip. Simultaneously, the viewer is led to overlook the more mundane, quotidian chores involved in surviving in such a dangerous region.

Even if a class-determined hierarchy appears in the annotations to the canvas, the combination of panorama and program did not necessarily encourage a straightforward, orderly perusal based on the numbered list of annotations. According to the key, the Dorothea may be the largest object in the painting, but a craggy formation of ice positioned very close to the viewer is a close second.[25] A viewer facing this portion of the panorama would find his or her eyes drawn first to the ship, then to the ice formation, suggesting that the much smaller figures of the named officers and other men would likely be at least temporarily passed over. In addition, the viewer could employ multiple methods of looking at the panorama. Peter Otto has also noted that there are many “paths that spectators can take through the spaces conjured by the anamorphic diagram or by the panorama” (par 30). One could use interest in different points in the canvas to guide the reading of the annotations or one could peruse the annotations and then identify points discussed on the canvas, and viewers presumably had an unlimited amount of time to do so. Further complicating the haphazardness of this form of viewing was an idiosyncrasy of the 1818 arctic panorama, which seems to suggest an oval rather than circular field of vision. In one half of the canvas, objects on view such as the Dorothea, the large ice formation, and Buchan and Franklin seem close to the viewer, but the other half of the canvas seems to stretch much further into the distance; little appears to interrupt this expansive view. Therefore one could not only look at the mini-scenes of the panorama in different orders; one could also be met with different visual effects when looking at different portions of the canvas. In addition, the narrative section of the program seems to intensify the haphazard and continual flitting of the eye:

[Spitzbergen’s] shores at first present a true picture of dreariness and desolation: the principal objects which attract the attention are craggy mountains, with their summits towering above the clouds; deep glens, filled with eternal snows; and stupendous icebergs. The eye, however, soon becomes familiarized with such a scene, and the mind is filled with admiration of the grandeur and magnificence of its objects.

Description of a View 4

Interestingly, the program encourages the viewer to allow the eye to flit from object to object by suggesting that this is what the explorer experiences in the Arctic. The eye only momentarily rests on “craggy mountains,” then “deep glens,” then “stupendous icebergs.” The “true picture of dreariness and desolation” is deferred as the eye becomes “familiarized” with this type of seeing and the mind turns to “admiration of grandeur and magnificence.” It is nowhere suggested that the “dreariness and desolation” is a fiction; rather this perception is simply deferred in favor of one that more effectively celebrates and supports exploration of the Arctic. Perhaps most significantly, this portion of the program directs the eye away from the ships, and the larger rationale of the canvas’s perspective does the same. Both encourage the eye to rest longer on the landscape than on the objects and apparatus of imperial endeavor.

Similarly, from the opening lines of Frankenstein, Walton’s narrative flits, like the mode of viewing evoked in the panorama, from subject to subject. On the 11th of December, Walton has arrived in St Petersburg—obviously to make the final preparations for his voyage—but his “first task” is to write to his sister (5). The following lines cover more distance even more quickly, presenting the reader with a string of mini-scenes in very close proximity to each other. In the space of two paragraphs we see Walton writing a letter to his sister, walking in St Petersburg, sailing through the arctic sea, reaching the North Pole and resolving centuries old scientific questions about magnetism. Not only are we presented with a large number of scenes at a very fast pace, the order in which they appear is disjointed and haphazard. Walton begins by describing the inspiration he feels at the hint of a “cold northern breeze,” then moves on to very superficially suggest his belief in the theory of the open polar sea: “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” (5). Significantly, this suggestion is vague, only hinting at Walton’s engagement in a very contentious argument. This brief, vague suggestion does not take a clear position and thus a critique or even a response is difficult to formulate, permitting Walton to sweep away the findings of many previous explorers for a more favorable view of his chances of success at the North Pole. From this brief nod at the theory of the open polar sea, Walton moves back to celebrating the beauty of the Arctic. He writes to his sister, “the sun is forever visible; its broad disk just skirting the horizon, and diffusing a perpetual splendor” (5). The risks of the disorientating landscape, such as the constant danger of snow blindness due to the intensity of light, have no place in Walton’s narrative, as the maintenance of unnamed crewmen had little to no place in the panorama and the program.

Continuing the haphazard pattern of thought here, in the next sentence, we return to the theory of the open polar sea. Walton tells his sister, “I will put some trust in preceding navigators”; he announces that “there snow and frost are banished” and that he will find himself “sailing over a calm sea” unhindered to the North Pole (5). In the next sentence, Walton shifts to more admiration of the Arctic, this time celebrating the aurora borealis: “Its productions and features may be without example, as the phenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes” (5). In fact, Walton goes so far as to transform the characteristic lack of darkness of the arctic summer into evidence that his scientific and imperial intentions will be rewarded: “What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” (5-6). The narrative then shifts again to resolving scientific questions—“I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle; and may regulate a thousand celestial observations”—repeatedly glossing over the drawbacks to twenty-four hour daylight (6). When we look past all of Walton’s cloaking and distracting techniques, it is clear that Shelley is placing Walton in agreement with Barrow’s notoriously uncomplicated plans for exploring the Arctic and in disagreement with the most well-informed expert on the subject, William Scoresby.[26] Walton never names the “preceding navigators” he chooses to trust and Shelley writes into his plans a number of flawed decisions. Indeed, regardless of whom he reads or what he sees, Walton determinedly revises and represents to his own advantage, as did the patriotic supporters of British arctic exploration. The departure in June, for example, is a mistake since the conventional date of departure for other voyages was with the earliest favorable weather in spring. As Jessica Richard notes, a voyage commencing in Archangel is also something of a mistake, since the waters north of this port were one of the best mapped areas of the Arctic (297). It is almost comical, therefore, when in the next paragraph Walton describes how thoroughly the prospect of his expedition has lifted his spirits: “nothing contributes so much to tranquillize the mind as a steady purpose,—a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye” (6). Not only is this hardly what Walton experiences, the logic behind this statement is also utterly confused since a mind/body dualism seems to be conflated with an intellectual/spiritual divide.

Walton’s fetishizing of the landscape acts as a distraction from unrealistic plans and flawed logic, but it is only one of a number of pleasurable distractions that the reader is alternately pointed toward. Almost by his own admission, Walton is abnormally obsessed with the idea of acquiring a close male companion.[27] Walton finds the ultimate partner in Frankenstein, who is disastrously similar to Walton.[28] A string of confessions about Walton's interest in Frankenstein’s physical appearance is interspersed throughout the narrative. Walton writes, “I never saw a more interesting creature” (14); he marvels at what “a noble creature” Frankenstein must have been, “being even now in wreck so attractive and amiable” (15). Walton describes Frankenstein’s look when crewmembers perform “acts of kindness towards him”: “his whole countenance is lighted up, as it were, with a beam of benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equaled” (14). Eric Daffron characterizes this homoerotic desire as a continuum that may move “in increasing degrees of sympathetic sameness from non-sexual to sexual male relations” (424). Daffron has read the interest in looks, including those exchanged between Frankenstein and Clerval as well as Frankenstein and the creature, as an example of “the slippage between liking men (Clerval) and fearing the desire of other men (creature)” (426).[29] For Daffron, this looking is a form of surveillance: the way in which one looks at another man can be read as an indication of exactly what he desires from that other man. But Walton also unwittingly points to some of his own flaws when he laments, “I greatly need a friend who would have sense enough not to despise me as romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavour to regulate my mind” (9). As Daffron suggests, the relationship between Walton and Frankenstein is based on sameness and looks. What Walton truly desires is a companion “whose eyes would reply to mine” (8). By selecting Frankenstein, who is so similar in class status, scientific judgment and desire for glory, Walton ensures that he will receive support rather than rigorous questioning. The looks Frankenstein directs toward Walton will be driven by the same goals, fears and prejudice as his own. Significantly, Walton momentarily considers his lieutenant as a possible favorite companion, outlining the man’s selflessness in giving up a lucrative engagement unwanted by his fiancée, but declines this choice since “he has passed all his life on board a vessel, and has scarcely an idea beyond the rope and the shroud” (10). The lieutenant is dangerously honest and selfless, hence Walton’s quick rejection of him and omission even of his name. Frankenstein seems to be the one thing Walton can gaze on for longer than a moment, often sustaining several paragraphs in succession about him. In addition, Walton’s quest for a friend more generally is a pleasurable distraction from the more practical goals of the expedition as well as the problems that soon develop. Like the narrative accompanying the panorama, Walton as a narrator continually presses his reader to look from detail to detail and issue to issue in a method calculated to prevent his exposure as an incompetent explorer.

The other members of the crew in both the 1818 panorama and in Frankenstein are also partly drawn into this homoerotic paradigm. Walton seeks a crew that will match his desire to “conquer all fear of danger or death,” selecting sailors, who are “certainly possessed of dauntless courage” (6, 8). Indeed, this is the intense form of masculinity represented in the panorama and celebrated in the program. The most violent portion of the painting, for example, depicts a boatful of crewmen attempting to defend themselves from two walruses attacking the boat from either side as well as one walrus, already dead, close to this scene. One of the numbered annotations further elaborates on this scene by describing methods of killing the animals. One may prey on the stupidity of these “hideous animals” by locating a sleeping group of them and waiting for the walrus standing guard to nod off as well, when “they may be easily approached and killed with a bayonet or lance” (Description of a View 12). The program here treats the reader as though he or she is an equal to the educated members of the crew—something different from the unnamed men battling with the walrus. According to the program, the events that lead up to this scene of the panorama are the successful lancing of one walrus, represented in the upside down corpse nearby, as well as the attack of the boat by one other walrus, the offspring of the one successfully lanced. The annotation explains that the “mothers invariably provide for the safety of their young in preference to their own,” but that these events represent “a striking instance of affection. . .by a young one towards its mother” (12). The young walrus “on seeing its parent killed by the crew, was so exasperated, that the little monster singly attacked the boat; and, though repeatedly wounded, would not desist, but crawled upon the ice after the men, until a lance, entering its heart, terminated its existence” (12). What appears in the panorama instead is a scene where two walruses attack the boat and where it is unclear whether this is a defensive reaction or an unprovoked attack. One crewman threatens a walrus with a lance and another threatens a walrus with a more gruesome blow from an axe. The information provided by the program here effectively whitewashes the more violent, less reasonably motivated attacks of the painting. Documented, if not scientific, understanding of the behavior of these animals draws the viewer’s attention away from the excessive violence the men engage with when confronting this landscape.[30] But the whitewashing of violence also serves another purpose: it foregrounds the cooperation and companionship generated by these forays with animal life in the Arctic. It is almost as though one needs to be reminded that such hunting was not the primary intention of this voyage; rather it provided this and other voyage narratives with drama, excitement and a narrative space where manliness could be celebrated.

The sense of terror and real threat to life that the landscape posed went a long way toward constructing the form of masculinity represented in the panorama. Some of the unnerving sights encountered by Ross’s leg of the 1818 expedition included the sale of skulls stolen from an Eskimo cemetery to an Englishman as well as a Danish whale factory burned to the ground by rival whalers (Fleming 40). But the panorama ignored all of these damaging encounters between explorers, indigenous people, and rival exploiters of the land; man confronting threatening nature was much more conducive to celebrating imperialism. Indeed, nearly a third of the narrative portion of the program is devoted to the description of the storm that nearly wrecked both ships and caused Buchan’s leg of the 1818 expedition to return to England. Curiously, this storm is not represented in the panorama, though the program makes so much of it. Indeed, the power of this storm seems to extend beyond all human experience: it presents “a scene of horror far beyond the power of language fully to describe” (Description of a View 6). As the storm gathers force, the program informs us, the ships are threatened with being forced into the breaking waves. The narrator describes this in terms that are virtually melodramatic:

From the violence of the waves, immense pieces of ice, many hundred thousand tons weight, were tossed about in all directions, or hurled one against the other. Floes, of several acres in extent, were rent asunder, or crumbled to atoms; the sea, at the same time, broke over them with such fury, that the whole was buried in foam. This action of the sea, with the collision of the ice, and violence of the wind, occasioned such a noise, that no human voice could possibly be heard.


The crew is rendered entirely helpless, entirely at the mercy of nature here. Interestingly, speaking is impossible at the storm’s height, holding the crew involuntarily spellbound by the overwhelming spectacle of the storm. Such a condition would seem to feminize even the boldest of arctic adventurers, but the panorama program interprets this as a measure of the bravery and determination of the crew. After surviving this storm, the ships must be harbored temporarily for repairs, which the program laments would “enable them to proceed to England, though not to prosecute the voyage” (8). However, on the way to England they hope to briefly penetrate another dangerous sea full of pack ice and to identify the coast of “lost Greenland” (8). Instead, “to the mortification of everyone,” a fog and a gale force the weakened ships to “relinquish every further attempt to penetrate the barrier with which they had so long contended” (8.) In the program’s patriotic rhetoric, all of the crew are united in their desire to accomplish their mission and are undeterred by the real possibility of loss of life. Such a sense of headlong determination effectively celebrates the manly explorer who, if not now, will surely in future succeed in accomplishing dangerous missions, but this celebration glosses over some of the conflicts and complications that must have had a bearing in decision-making on these voyages.

Part of Shelley’s critique involves making these ethical problems visible. Walton’s letters of the month of September, a time dangerously close to the point at which the arctic sea will become impassible, reveal a disregard for the loss of his own life that is similar to that attributed to explorers by the panorama. On the 2nd of September, Walton conveys a rather inflated sympathy for his sister who will never hear conclusive news of his demise, a prospect, he writes, that is “more terrible to me than my own death” (181). In the next paragraph, he expresses wonder that Frankenstein still speaks as though “life were a possession which he valued” (181). Walton in fact fantasizes about a stoic death: “I will repeat the lessons of my Seneca, and die with a good heart” (181). However, the crew has other ideas. On September 2nd Walton describes them as overcome by fear, admitting, “I almost dread a mutiny caused by this despair” (182). Walton has collected this crew from the environs of Archangel, which indicates that these are experienced whalers. His lieutenant is in fact directly identified as such (9). The crew, therefore, are presumably aware that some of Walton’s faulty decisions, such as the departure in June or the desire to press on in September, are potentially fatal. This knowledge suggests that this mutiny would not be provoked by fear but rather represents a well-reasoned intervention. However, Walton makes no admission of this. Instead, he places his own desires and decisions within the inflated rhetoric of disregard for life and intense desire to further scientific and imperial interests. In Walton’s later letters, the men are left entirely outside this discourse. His early description of them as men who are “certainly possessed of dauntless courage” seems to have been forgotten (8). Rather than admit this or suggest that there has been a change in the crew’s attitude, Walton simply defers attention to what he seems to suggest is a newly found cowardice of the crew.

Frankenstein also serves as a distraction from questions of ethics in Walton’s decision-making; his unreserved support of Walton is portrayed as preventing a mutiny. On the 5th of September, Walton writes to his sister that his fears of the crew’s rebellion have come to fruition. But the events that Walton then relates hardly seem to warrant the term “mutiny.” The crew elects a representative to approach the captain and request—in Walton’s words— “that I should engage with a solemn promise, that if the vessel should be freed, I would instantly direct my course southward” (182). This calm and reasonable request does not suggest that this is a crew run rampant. Walton is hardly a threatened or imprisoned captain. In fact, the crew seems to be quite happy to listen to and consider a melodramatic speech from Frankenstein.[31] Even though the ships are in danger of being crushed by the ice at any minute, Frankenstein responds to the crew’s request as though it were absurd: “What do you mean? What do you demand of your captain? Are you then so easily turned from your design?” (183). He then attributes to the crew the same lofty ambitions as Walton: “You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species; your name adored, as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind” (183). This accusation interestingly echoes Frankenstein’s desire that the creature “bless” him “as its creator and source” (36). In addition, we are nowhere provided with evidence that these have been the goals of this crew. Frankenstein ends this speech with a command to “[r]eturn as heroes who have fought and conquered, and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe” (183). This command by far surpasses the desire of the crew of the Dorothea and the Trent, as represented by the panorama, to reenter the pack ice near Greenland. Walton’s expedition is in far more danger since it is nowhere near land to stop for repairs, nor had overwintering even been conceived of at this point.[32] Walton does not allow the crew a direct response in the text. Rather he claims that they were “unable to reply,” though placated enough to leave and consider the speech (183). A few lines later, the threat of mutiny seems to have abated, but Walton nevertheless decides to abandon the mission. Not surprisingly, he places responsibility for the decision with others than himself: “the men, unsupported by ideas of glory and honour, can never willingly endure their present hardships” (184). The men have not been unwilling to listen to Frankenstein’s encouragement, they have not mutinied, and yet, in his next dated entry in the same letter Walton refers to the failure of the voyage as an “injustice” (184). Shelley deliberately constructs Walton as an unreliable narrator; a general knowledge of recent arctic exploration allows the reader to see all of the faulty decisions he makes as well as his many attempts to distract attention away from them.

No matter what heights Walton would aspire to or what levels Barrow would stoop to, virtually all of these fictional and factual voyages were failures. Buchan would barely reach the north coast of Spitzbergen and Walton would not reach even that point. Ironically, in comparison the dual expedition of Frankenstein and the creature is equally, if not more, successful than Walton’s. For all of Walton’s research and self-promotion, Frankenstein reaches the same northernmost point in a sledge as Walton does in a ship. Still more successful is the monster, who makes “rapid progress” over the ice, miraculously, “many hundred miles from any land” (12), but the monster would “seek the northernmost extremity of the globe” only to carry out his suicide, not to collect valuable scientific data (190). If anyone was successful, it was Ross, who did significantly further geographical knowledge, but Ross found himself subject to a press campaign that was part of a larger endeavor to forward Barrow’s goals in the Arctic and in his career. It is no wonder that popular press representations of the Arctic gained the region a reputation for distorting one’s vision. Not only was the landscape notorious for hallucinatory visual effects, it was also the site of deliberate manipulation of public vision. Barker’s panorama was not the only arena for pressing the viewer’s eye to flit from scene to scene; Walton’s narrative, and to some extent Barrow’s press campaign, were also designed to prevent any one decision or event to come under focus long enough for a thorough critique to be formulated. Imperial logic was thus cleverly cloaked with the pleasurable distractions of the curious landscape and the heroic, manly explorers.