Essays in Romanticism

Patagonian Giants, Frankenstein's Creature, and Contact Zone Catastrophe

Essays in Romanticism (2014), 21, (1), 53–64.

Abstract

“Patagonian Giants, Frankenstein’s Creature, and Contact Zone Catastrophe” historicizes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an intervention in the discourse of exploration predicated upon the Creature’s affinities with the pseudo-scientific Patagonian giants of eighteenth-century debate. Famously associated with the circumnavigator John Byron, described by his grandson Lord Byron, and evidently known to Mary Shelley from her reading, the Patagonian Giants strikingly resemble Frankenstein’s eight feet tall, ice-dwelling Creature. I enlist Mary Louise Pratt’s investigation of representations of encounters in the “contact zones” to reconstruct the important context of three centuries of European reports of Patagonian giants, trace Mary Shelley’s evident exposure to the legend of the giants and their meeting with Commodore John Byron, and argue that by displacing, replacing, and surpassing Robert Walton in the role of explorer-protagonist, the Patagonian-like Creature reproduces the violent actions and rhetoric of generations of European explorers. I show that by thus shifting the site of narrative power, Mary Shelley challenges the nascent archetype of the benevolent British explorer-hero. She calculates exploration’s catastrophic costs in terms that her European reading audience could understand. Her story anticipates the near-extinction of a historical Patagonian culture, the Aonek’enk (‘people of the South’), more commonly known as the Tehuelche.

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Author details

Nesvet, Rebecca