Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1831. Dover Publications, Inc, 1994.
Summary of Work
This novel begins with a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Margaret; he is preparing for a journey to find a passage to the Pacific through the North Pole or discover something of equal importance, but he feels alone and cannot make friends with his shipmates because of their difference in social class. Still, he feels confident he’ll achieve his goals. When they reach the North Pole and his ship gets stuck in the ice, they see a monstrous creature traversing the ice. And the next day they see another person trying to make their way across the ice, but stranded on an ice floe with all but one dead dog to pull his sled: the man is almost dead. Walton helps him live, they become friends, and the man tells Walton his life story and what led him to the North Pole. Walton then gets permission to tell his friend’s story.
Born to a good family, Victor Frankenstein grows up with a kind mother and father and a ward who is later adopted, Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Victor were best friends, and he also has a good schoolfriend named Henry. As they all grew older, Victor became obsessed with the natural world and the occult sciences. He starts studying alchemy enthusiastically, but when lightening strikes a tree near his house and destroys it, he learns about electricity and then finds alchemy outdated.
Ending his teenage years, he goes to Geneva to college, but before he can leave, his mother catches scarlet fever and dies. Her one wish on her deathbed is that Elizabeth and Victor marry. He is still grieving when he leaves to college. He determines once he gets there that he will study the sciences, and he ignores his social life and devotes his life to studies, making great progress. He begins studying anatomy and death, and soon his professors have no more to teach him, so he decides he will teach himself and discover the secret to creating life. Using his knowledge, he builds a creature from body parts of dead criminals, imagining that he will be the god of a new race.
When he finishes his creation, he brings it to life, but when he sees it animate, it terrifies him, and he leaves the room to try and sleep, haunted by the ghost of his mother’s corpse and nightmares about Elizabeth. The monster is smiling at him over his bed when he awakes, scaring Victor even further, and he runs from the house, leaving the creature there, and he is unwilling to return to his apartment. While out, he runs into his childhood friend Henry, and they start talking and he takes him back to the apartment. The creature is gone, but it causes Victor a nervous break that lasts for months, and Henry helps nurse him back to health.
Elizabeth writes him while he is ill and begs him to come to Geneva, but he determines at first to stay and help Henry around the university. He introduces him to his professors, but soon finds that any small reminder of his past deeds, seen in every scientific instrument and every professor, worsens his illness. Seeing this, he decides to go to Geneva and writes his father to learn when he should go. He goes with Henry into the country to wait and enjoy nature. But when they return, Victor learns from his father’s letter that his youngest brother, William, has been murdered, which shocks Victor and makes him set out immediately for Geneva.
He gets there at such a late hour that he cannot enter his family’s property, so he walks around out in the woods and comes across his creation. This makes him certain that his monster killed his little brother. But upon entering the home, he learns that the woman Justine, who had lived with them as a ward earlier in life, has been accused of his murder. The evidence they have is a picture of Caroline Frankenstein that had been William’s, but was in Justine’s pocket after the murder. Victor claims she is innocent, but since he refuses to provide any evidence and the evidence they have cannot be denied, Justine confesses her crime to gain salvation, but tells Elizabeth and Victor that she is in fact innocent of the crime. Still, Justine is executed for the crime she didn’t commit. Victor is doubly guilty now, seeing that the monster has now taken two of his family members.
His father takes what remains of his family on vacation, hoping it will cheer everyone. Victor tries to put on a good show, but even the short bursts of happiness don’t last long. He goes again to nature to appease him and heal him, climbing Montanvert to the glacier, and just as he finds himself consoled, the monster appears. Victor threatens the monster, but he is far too quick for Victor. The monster tells him that he would like to speak to him, and persuades him to go back to his cave, where there is a fire waiting. The monster then discusses his life since his animation.
The monster speaks of his confusion upon waking, his flight from the apartment and his learning of basic life knowledge: hunger, cold, heat, etc. He comes upon his first human encounters outside of Victor, and the man who sees him is very afraid, and other people run away upon seeing him. After these experiences, he decides to hide from humans, but he does observe them and finds that they are often unhappy, but then learns that they are living in poverty and he has been making it worse by stealing food from them. He starts bringing wood to their house to compensate them for their losses, and when he does so he hears language for the first time. He listens to them in order to learn, and he comes to love them.
When a foreign woman comes to the cottage, the people teach her to speak English, and the creature jumps at the opportunity to listen in and learn better. As he continues to observe them and listen, he realizes that he is alone in the world and ugly. He learns that the family are also a group of outcasts, not unlike himself: they were caught trying to save a man from prison, and their wealth was stripped from them and they were exiled.
The creature by this point has learned to forage for food, and he finds some books in a satchel on the ground one night, and he determines that he should read them. One of the books is Paradise Lost, which he reads as fact rather than fiction. He then finds some of Victor’s old papers in his clothing and discovers how he was made, which disgusts him further. He wants to talk to someone, and decides he should reveal himself to the cottagers. He approaches the blind man first when he believes all the others are away, but they are home unexpectedly and the creature is driven away. This causes him to determine that he will take revenge on all humans, but especially Victor. Still, he cannot fully follow through with the claim on his way to Geneva, where he rescues a drowning girl. But the man with her believes she is being attacked, and he shoots the monster.
Upset and enraged, he runs into William in the woods in Geneva, and upon hearing that the child is a Frankenstein, strangles him to death and then plants the photo on the sleeping Justine to frame her for the murder. And having finished his tale, he instructs Victor that he will be making a mate for him or he will continue to murder. Afraid and feeling trapped, Victor says he will create another creature, but he needs to go to England to get his notes on how to do it. Victor is filled with grief and doubts about the affair.
Victor’s father thinks his son’s grief is over his impending marriage to Elizabeth, but Victor ensures him that isn’t so, that Elizabeth is his only happiness. Still, he refuses to marry her until the task he has set out to do is done, and asks his father if he can travel to England first. Victor, his father, and Henry prepare a two year trip, and Henry is particularly excited because he wants to start his studies up. When they get to Scotland, Victor pawns off Henry to tour the country and he starts off to an island to complete his project. But unlike the first time he worked on the project, this time he finds it grotesque. He starts thinking about what will happen when he finishes his work, and with his concern, he destroys his work. The monster appears, enraged, and tells Victor that he will pay for it on his wedding night.
Henry is tired of Scotland and wants to leave, so Victor cleans up his space and disposes of the body parts in the ocean, only to get swept out to sea with the winds. The wind eventually dies down, but when he returns in the morning, he finds himself wanted for murder. The magistrate has him look upon the dead body, which is the body of Henry, and Victor becomes very ill immediately and remains so for months. When he recovers his wits, he is in prison. His father comes to visit him, and during the trial Victor is acquitted.
When they get home, Victor marries Elizabeth, and she tells him that she has a secret that she can only tell him once she is married to him. They go to spend the night at a family cottage, and they walk the grounds in the evening. What should be a beautiful night is sullied by Victor’s worries about the impending arrival of the monster. He thinks that he will be dying that evening, and sends Elizabeth to bed before he goes in. When he hears her scream, he realizes that the monster wants him to lose everyone. The tragedy of her death sends his father into a piteous state, and he dies a few days later. Deciding that it is time to tell someone of his misdeeds, Victor tries to convince a magistrate of the existence of the creature, but he does not believe Victor. After that, he determines that he will spend the rest of his life hunting the monster to destroy it. This led Victor to the North Pole.
At the end of the narrative, Walton says he believes Victor. Then his men start to entreat him to be able to go back home when they break free of the ice, and Victor states that they should not and gives a rousing speech, but that does not convince them, and Walton consents to head home if they break free of the ice. Just before they are going to be able to leave, Walton hears a noise and comes upon the monster weeping over his creator’s body. He tells Walton that he regrets having become a murderous creature, and that he would like to die now that his creator is dead. He leaves the ship and is never seen again.
Discussion of Work
This work’s main themes are of monstrosity, creation and science, and nature. Victor’s character may be said to be the real monstrous being, as his obsessions and passions lead him to performing unconscionable acts. He becomes an all-powerful necromancer, but without the same techniques and skills as God; he cannot create anything but horror. The dead body parts coming from criminals also speak to a belief that only wickedness can come from wickedness, a belief that Victor does not hold upon his initial entry into the work of creation. When the creature awakes, he is much like an infant, and Frankenstein cannot deal with what he has created, incapable of seeing the clean slate that he has created and instead only seeing his poor handiwork in creation of the body, which is several times the size of a normal human being. The creature’s initial forays into the world bring forward a discussion of nature vs. nurture.
Science is also a large portion of the book’s discussion, as alchemy, electricity, chemistry, and biology are all part of Victor’s development. The subjects themselves seem innocuous, but in the hands of the obsessed man, they become tools for a madman’s monstrosities. The science is seemingly pitted against God and his goodness, as what is created from the science that Victor utilizes turns into a great evil.
Nature plays the part of the healer, as it is the only space that any of the characters, particularly Victor and his creature, can find any solace or relief. This is particularly true of Victor, who regularly goes to the woods or to any space where natural growth lives in order to clear his mind and rid himself, either figuratively or literally, of the creature he’s created. It lies in stark contrast to the dead, reanimated flesh that is the creature himself.