Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley tells the story of gifted scientist Victor Frankenstein who succeeds in giving life to a being of his own creation.
However, this is not the perfect specimen he imagines that it will be, but rather a hideous creature who is rejected by Victor and mankind in general. The Monster seeks its revenge through murder and terror.
Frankenstein Plot Summary
The novel begins with a series of letters from Robert Walton, an English explorer, to his sister, Margaret Saville in England, telling about his voyage. Robert Walton is at sea with a group of sailors traveling to the North Pole in pursuit of glory. He is a passionate and aspiring man with high hopes for important geographical and scientific discoveries. But his voyage soon interrupts when they find themselves trapped in Arctic ice.
From across the frozen sea, Walton and his crew witness a strange sight: a gigantic figure rushing by the ice on a dog-sled. Soon after, they find a haggard and frozen man floating on a slice of ice who seems to be on the verge of death. Walton’s crew immediately takes the stranger aboard and rescues him. The stranger reveals himself to be Victor Frankenstein.
For several days, Walton nurses Frankenstein back to health. When he sees him recovering from weakness, Walton begins talking to him. Frankenstein’s wisdom and cultivation impress him and the two soon strike up a friendship. Later on, Frankenstein, after becoming more comfortable with Walton, starts telling him his long-concealed tragic story.
The story of Frankenstein
Victor Frankenstein’s story begins with the description of his perfect childhood in Geneva, Switzerland. He was born into a wealthy Swiss family. His father, Alphonse Frankenstein, is a wealthy descendant of Genovese nobility while his mother, Caroline, is the daughter of Alphonse’s friend, Beaufort, a merchant. His parents are kind and marvelous people.
Victor Frankenstein is the first child of his parents. Also, he has two younger brothers, Ernest and William Frankenstein. His kind parents also adopt Elizabeth Lavenza, an orphan child of Milanese nobility, and bring her up as a member of the family. During his childhood, Victor enjoys his close relationships with his adopted sister, Elizabeth Lavenza, and his best friend, Henry Clerval.
Whereas Henry Clerval is fond of studying the history of human struggle and endeavor, Victor Frankenstein develops a passion for natural philosophy and alchemy. He spends most of his adolescence studying the works of the medieval alchemists and dreaming of discovering the elixir of life.
Before Victor turns seventeen, his parents decide it is time for him to begin his university studies at Ingolstadt. But when he prepares to leave for his studies at the University of Ingolstadt, his mother and Elizabeth become ill with scarlet fever. Unfortunately, his mother dies from the disease while Elizabeth recovers. His mother’s last wish is that Frankenstein and Elizabeth may someday marry. After mourning his mother’s death, Victor Frankenstein goes up to the University of Ingolstadt and throws himself into his studies.
At university, he meets Mr. Krempe, a professor of biology, who after berating him for wasting his time on Agrippa and Paracelsus suggests a more modern course of reading. But Frankenstein has little interest in the mundane works of modern scientists as compared with the fantastic dreams of the alchemists.
The set up
Frankenstein also meets Mr. Waldman, a chemistry professor, at university. Mr Waldman excites his ambition and the desire to achieve fame and distinction in the field of natural philosophy. As a result, Frankenstein becomes more passionate in his study. He studies day and night, neglecting his family and friends.
Over time, Frankenstein becomes proficient in the principles of chemistry and modern scientific theories. Fascinated by the idea of discovering the principle of life, he ultimately succeeds and learns the cause of life. He then devises a plan to create a human being out of pieces of the dead.
Frankenstein locks himself up in his apartment and devotes himself to his work without telling anyone about it. Finally, after years of struggle, he ends up creating a creature so hideous and terrifying with his enormous size and a grotesque ugliness. When this Creature opens his dull yellow eyes for the first time and stares at Frankenstein, he is horror-stricken. Disgusted with his terrible creation, he flees his laboratory and seeks solace in the streets of Ingolstadt all night. But, when he returns to his apartment, the Creature has gone. Frankenstein gets agitated and falls into an intense state of fever and delirium. His friend, Clerval, comes and nurses him back to health.
The natural philosophy and alchemy that once ruled his life, now threaten him. Whenever he thinks of the monster he has created, he feels ill and ashamed. He also decides to travel home to Geneva once he recovers.
Before departing from Ingolstadt, however, Frankenstein receives a letter from Geneva stating that his younger brother, William, has been murdered. Seized by an unnamable fear, he rushes back home for the first time in six years.
One day, while walking through Plain Palais, the place of William’s murder, Victor sees the gigantic creature in the distance. He is now certain that the horrible creature he has created is responsible for William’s murder.
On the other hand, the Frankenstein family searches for William’s murderer and ends up suspecting their maidservant, Justine, of killing him. But Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth don’t think so and express their disbelief. Then their family tells them that Justine has been found with the locket that William was wearing the night of his death. The necklace was missing from William’s corpse and they’ve now found it in Justine’s clothes. Though guilt-ridden, Frankenstein remains quiet fearing he would be thought mad if he were to tell his story. So, the innocent Justine, framed by the monster, is executed and Frankenstein is heartbroken.
Both Justine’s and William’s deaths weigh heavily on Frankenstein and he blames himself as their true murderer. To get rid of his grief and find some solace, he turns towards the beauty of nature.
One day while Frankenstein was hiking alone on the mountains, the Creature suddenly appears and asks him to listen to his story. Though initially filled with fear, anger and hatred for his creation, Frankenstein finally agrees to listen to him. He accompanies the Creature to his hut and hears his tale. The frame story now goes a step further, as Frankenstein relates the story of his creature to Robert Walton. From here, the story is told through the first-person account of the Creature.
The Creature tells Frankenstein his wretched life, full of suffering and rejection merely because of his hideous appearance. After leaving Frankenstein’s laboratory, he goes to the village where the frightened villagers insult and attack him. Soon he realizes that all people are terrified of him because of his appearance.
After wandering great distances alone and suffering immense cold and hunger, he eventually goes to the country and finds refuge in a hovel next to a small house inhabited by an old, blind French man and his two children. By observing the family almost for a year, he learns how to speak and read. Moreover, by reading three books of literature that he recovers from a satchel in the snow, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Sorrows of Werter, and a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, he becomes able to display a human consciousness, facing the existential questions of who and what he is.
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The Creature also develops liking and compassion for the noble French family and anonymously starts doing chores for them. Then, longing for some kindness and protection, he finally decides to meet the family’s elderly patriarch, a blind man. The old man’s blindness renders him able to recognize the creature’s innocence and sincerity irrespective of his appearance. But before he is able to make his case, the blind man’s children return home unexpectedly. Frightened by the Creature’s appearance, they beat him and chase him out of the house. The family soon leaves their cottage and he, in a mad rage, burns it to the ground.
Feeling completely disillusioned, the monster decides to find his creator. He goes to Frankenstein’s laboratory in search of his whereabouts. Here he happens to discover his tragic origin in Frankenstein’s journal and finally resolves to travel to Geneva to meet his creator.
When he reaches Geneva, he meets William, Frankenstein’s younger brother, in the forest. The creature, attracted by William’s beauty, resolves to make him friend. But William Frankenstein calls him “Hideous monster!” and struggles to escape. As soon as he discovers that the boy “belongs to the enemy” he kills him and frames Justine for the murder.
Here, the Creature’s narrative breaks off. After completing his story, the creature tells Frankenstein his demand: he wants him to create a female companion, as ugly as himself, to share his loneliness. He also tells Frankenstein that if he refuses to do so, all his dear ones will be destroyed. Frankenstein agrees only after the creature promises to leave Europe forever with his mate and return to Geneva.
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When Victor Frankenstein reaches Geneva, his father suggests that now Frankenstein should marry Elizabeth in order to fulfill his mother’s dying wish. Though Frankenstein loves Elizabeth and wants to marry her, he realizes he should fulfill his promise first to the Creature before marrying Elizabeth. So he leaves for England, accompanied by his friend Henry Clerval, to finish his work. Before going to England, he also promises his father to marry Elizabeth on his return.
In Edinburgh, Victor leaves Clerval and heads towards the remote Orkney islands to fulfill his promise to the monster. When he is nearly halfway through the work of creation, he is suddenly seized by fear and begins to question his promise to the creature. He is now extremely anxious over the prospect of his two creations mating and propagating “a race of devils” that may bring ultimate destruction to the world.
Frightened by this prospect, he destroys his half-finished female creation. Upon seeing this, the Creature, who has followed Frankenstein across Europe, vows vengeance: “I shall be with you on your wedding-night.”
Frankenstein sets out in the middle of the night in a small boat taking the remains of the female creature with him and finally dumps them in the ocean. But when he returns to shore, he is accused of a murder is taken into a dingy little room where he is shown the body of his beloved friend, Henry Clerval, actually murdered at the creature’s hands. He is imprisoned and becomes deathly ill for several months. His father comes to his rescue, and when the grand jury validates the proof that Frankenstein was on the Orkney Islands at the time of Henry Clerval’s murder, he is cleared of the criminal charge against him.
Frankenstein travels with his father back toward Geneva. One day, he receives a letter from Elizabeth and finally resolves to marry her at once in spite of the Creature’s threat. After their wedding, Frankenstein and Elizabeth travel to the town of Evian, where they stay at an inn. When Frankenstein, leaving Elizabeth waiting for him in a separate room, is pacing around the inn keeping watch for the creature, he hears Elizabeth’s scream. He rushes to Elizabeth’s room where he finds her lifeless body and the creature at the window. The tragic news of Elizabeth’s death causes Frankenstein’s father to pass away from grief.
Frankenstein then suffers a severe mental breakdown and spends several months in an asylum. After his release from asylum, he brings his case before a magistrate and demands for the Creature’s arrest. But when he finds the magistrate being skeptical of his story, he ultimately decides to leave Geneva and seeks vengeance on his own.
Walton’s Conclusion of the Narrative
Now having lost everyone he has ever loved, Frankenstein sets out on a mission to spend the rest of his life pursuing the creature and destroying him completely. He tells Walton that he has now lost every sensation except for revenge.
The Creature always leaves him clues including some food and notes written on tree barks and rocks. He chases the Creature everywhere and his pursuit has at last taken him to the Arctic region. Just as he is about to catch that Creature, the ice suddenly breaks, separating them, and Frankenstein is cast adrift on a floating sheet of ice. After several hours, he is taken aboard Walton’s ship and rescued by him. After telling Walton his story, Frankenstein asks him to kill the Creature if he dies before doing the task himself. Here Frankenstein’s narrative ends, and Robert Walton continues his letters to his sister in England.
Now Walton resumes his role as the narrator and we are back in the present. His ship is still trapped in the ice, resulting in the deaths of some of his crewmen. Meanwhile, Frankenstein delivers a rousing speech urging Walton and his crew to move forward with their journey and tells them that glory comes at the cost of sacrifice.
Finally, Walton’s ship has been freed from the ice. But being pressured by his crew, he abandons his trip and agrees to return to England. on the other hand, Frankenstein refuses to abandon his quest.
But unfortunately Frankenstein’s health deteriorates and he dies. Just after his death, Walton discovers the Creature crying over Frankenstein’s body. He speaks of his sufferings and because of all the murders he has committed, now hates himself. He tells Walton of his plan to immolate his own body at the North Pole, so that the whole ignoble affair can finally end. After stating that, he springs out the window onto the ice and disappears in the darkness and distance.
- Robert Walton, an explorer, tells how he has met Victor Frankenstein in the Arctic after earlier having seen a ‘gigantic figure’ crossing the ice.
- Victor tells of his childhood and his caring family, particularly of his love for his foster sister Elizabeth. His mother dies of fever just before he leaves to study at university.
- While at university, Victor’s interest in science becomes an obsession. Victor uses dead bodies to experiment on and creates a monster made of body parts. He is immediately disgusted by the thing he has created and abandons it.
- Victor’s brother William is murdered and Justine Moritz, a family servant, is executed for it. However, Victor believes the Monster is to blame after witnessing it at the scene of the murder.
- The Monster and Victor meet on the Glacier of Montanvert in the Alps. The Monster tells the story of how it has survived and of the time it has spent becoming educated.
- The Monster asks Victor to admit responsibility for his actions and show some sympathy. He also pleads with Victor to build a female companion. Victor agrees.
- Victor finds a remote spot in the Orkneys where he begins to construct the female creature but suddenly, realizing the consequences of what he is doing, he tears it to pieces. The Monster, who has followed Victor, is enraged and in revenge kills Victor’s best friend, Henry Clerval.
- Victor and Elizabeth marry, but Victor finds his new wife dead at the hands of the Monster. He vows to hunt the creature down.
- In Walton’s last letters, back in the Arctic, Frankenstein dies and the Monster, still miserable, heads off, probably to its own death.
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Social and historical context
(August 30, February 1, 1791-1851)
The novel was first published in 1818. It was written originally by Mary Shelley as a short story when the poet Lord Byron suggested that each member of a group of friends write a ghostly tale to keep themselves entertained. Mary’s story was the undoubted winner.
Besides being a Gothic and classic Romantic novel, Frankenstein is also an autobiographical novel.
Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most well known 19th century classic Gothic stories of all time. The story of the novel revolves around various Gothic elements such as the nature of evil and the air of mystery and darkness, while both the monster and Victor Frankenstein face emotional turmoil. At the same time, Frankenstein is categorized as a classic Romantic novel. Just like the characters of Romantic novels, the characters in Frankenstein often find refuge in nature, idealize the people living a simple life, and question the power of science and technology.
The novel’s succession of tragic deaths and Victor’s and the Monster’s psychological sufferings fit Gothic conventions. Due to its dark subject matter and plot, Frankenstein also falls into the genres of tragedy and science fiction.
Most critics see Frankenstein as a cautionary tale of the dangers inherent in intellectual hubris: the Tower of Babel reworked as science fiction. They back this belief up with the novel’s subtitle—The Modern Prometheus. Is Frankenstein’s main theme: the aspiration of modern scientists to be technically creative divinities?
“I have no doubt of seeing the animal today,” Mary Wollstonecraft wrote hastily to her husband, William Godwin, on August 30, 1797, as she waited for the midwife who would help her deliver the couple’s first child.
Wollstonecraft’s scribbled note, in which she referred to her baby as “the animal”— the same word that the scientist in Frankenstein would use to describe his own notorious creation. Could the novel—commonly understood as a fable of masculine reproduction, in which a man creates life asexually—also be a story about pregnancy?
Mary Shelley was pregnant during much of the period that she was writing Frankenstein, but she had already suffered the birth and death of an infant. Unsurprisingly, she was tormented by the loss: A journal entry in 1815 reads, “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lives.”
The echoes of Frankenstein—in which the scientist, who hopes to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet,” at last sees it open its eyes and breathe—are unmistakable. And the birth of the “creature,” as he calls it at first, occurs only after “days and nights of incredible labor and fatigue”; later he refers again to the “painful labor.”
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley looks at what happens when one man decides to play God. His actions ultimately lead to his own downfall.
Literary Devices in Frankenstein
Frankenstein is an allegory, a work that conveys a hidden meaning—usually moral, spiritual, or political—through the use of symbolic characters and events. Victor Frankenstein’s creation of the Monster is an allegory for the creation story from the Book of Genesis, in which God creates Adam. In Chapter 10, the Monster alludes to this when he tells Victor:
Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good – misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.
The novel’s full title is Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus. “Prometheus” is an allusion to the mythical figure in Greek mythology who was responsible for creating man and giving the knowledge of fire to humanity.
Through Justine’s arrest, trial, and execution, the novel presents an instance of dramatic irony. This is exemplified in the following passage from Chapter 8, in which Victor describes witnessing Justine’s reaction before she succumbs to her tragic fate:
She was dressed in mourning, and her countenance, always engaging, was rendered, by the solemnity of her feelings, exquisitely beautiful. Yet she appeared confident in innocence and did not tremble, although gazed on and execrated by thousands, for all the kindness which her beauty might otherwise have excited was obliterated in the minds of the spectators by the imagination of the enormity she was supposed to have committed.
In Letter 4, Captain Robert Walton tells Victor he is on a quest for knowledge, a quest where
One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race.
In Chapter 10, the novel makes use of sweeping visual imagery as Victor describes climbing Montanvert, a glacier in the Alps:
I remembered the effect that the view of the tremendous and ever-moving glacier had produced upon my mind when I first saw it. It had then filled me with a sublime ecstasy, that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy. The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind and causing me to forget the passing cares of life. I determined to go without a guide, for I was well acquainted with the path, and the presence of another would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene.
Highly ambitious, Victor Frankenstein channels his extensive scientific knowledge in order to create a “new and improved” version of man. However, the exact opposite occurs, as he creates a degraded version of man instead. In a twist of fate, Victor ends up repelled by his creation. In Chapter 5, he states:
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?
Victor uses a simile and a metaphor and alludes to physicist Sir Isaac Newton when he describes his thirst for knowledge to Robert Walton in Chapter 2:
Sir Isaac Newton is said to have avowed that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great and unexplored ocean of truth
At the end of Chapter 8 Elizabeth weeps, unhappy at the news of Justine’s death sentence. Victor uses a simile to describe her demeanor, comparing her unhappiness to a cloud:
But hers was the misery of innocence, which, like a cloud that passes over the fair moon, for a while hides, but cannot tarnish its brightness.
In Chapter 13, when the Monster discovers its own ugliness and realizes people have been judging it based on its appearance rather than its nature, he describes the experience of gaining this knowledge through personification and simile:
Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind when it has once seized on it like a lichen on the rock. I wished sometimes to shake off all thought and feeling.
In Chapter 2, Victor uses a simile of a rushing torrent to describe how his extreme thirst for knowledge began:
For when I would account to myself for the birth of that passion, which afterwards ruled my destiny, I find it arise, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources; but, swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course, has swept away all my hopes and joys.
The plot of the novel is epistolary. The story is narrated through the first-person accounts of Captain Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster himself. Moreover, Frankenstein is also a frame story. It means a story framed or surrounded by another story or a series of stories.
The novel’s style, typical of Gothic literature, is characterized by elevated, formal, and emotional language. All throughout Frankenstein, characters express intense feelings of fear, love, and hatred. At times the novel’s style is poetic, for example in Letter 2, when Walton describes himself as lonely in a letter to his sister:
You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans.
The mood of Frankenstein is overall melodramatic and somber, and is expressed primarily through psychological imagery that reflects protagonist Victor Frankenstein’s mental and emotional state at the time. This is exemplified in the following passage from Chapter 5, after Victor creates the Monster and leaves his apartment, horrified:
Morning, dismal and wet, at length dawned, and discovered to my sleepless and aching eyes the church of Ingolstadt, its white steeple and clock, which indicated the sixth hour. The porter opened the gates of the court, which had that night been my asylum, and I issued into the streets, pacing them with quick steps, as if I sought to avoid the wretch whom I feared every turning of the street would present to my view. I did not dare return to the apartment which I inhabited, but felt impelled to hurry on, although drenched by the rain which poured from a black and comfortless sky.
The letters Robert Walton writes to his sister Margaret Saville, which follow his journey through the Arctic, frame the novel. This is an example of a frame story, a unifying tale in which other stories appear. Walton’s letters are an important narrative device that allow readers to gain a more complex perspective on the story’s events. They serve the very practical purpose of introducing Victor Frankenstein and giving Frankenstein an opportunity to tell his story—the heart of the novel.
Frankenstein was written during the Industrial Revolution, a period of scientific advancement and progress that completely transformed society. The novel reflects anxieties about the nature of scientific discovery and suggests scientific enlightenment has a chaotic side and doesn’t always transform society for the better.