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Frankenstein opens with a preface, signed by Mary Shelley but commonly supposed to have been written by her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. It states that the novel was begun during a summer vacation in the Swiss Alps, when unseasonably rainy weather and nights spent reading German ghost stories inspired the author and her literary companions to engage in a ghost story writing contest, of which this work is the only completed product.
Summary: Letter 1
The novel itself begins with a series of letters from the explorer Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville.
Walton, a well-to-do Englishman with a passion for seafaring, is the captain of a ship headed on a dangerous voyage to the North Pole. In the first letter, he tells his sister of the preparations leading up to his departure and of the desire burning in him to accomplish “some great purpose”—discovering a northern passage to the Pacific, revealing the source of the Earth’s magnetism, or simply setting foot on undiscovered territory.
Summary: Letters 2–3
In the second letter, Walton bemoans his lack of friends. He feels lonely and isolated, too sophisticated to find comfort in his shipmates and too uneducated to find a sensitive soul with whom to share his dreams. In the brief third letter, Walton tells his sister that his ship has set sail and that he has full confidence that he will achieve his aim.
Summary: Letter 4
In the fourth letter, the ship stalls between huge sheets of ice, and Walton and his men spot a sledge guided by a gigantic creature about half a mile away.
The next morning, they encounter another sledge stranded on an ice floe. All but one of the dogs drawing the sledge is dead, and the man on the sledge—not the man seen the night before—is emaciated, weak, and starving. Despite his condition, the man refuses to board the ship until Walton tells him that it is heading north. The stranger spends two days recovering, nursed by the crew, before he can speak. The crew is burning with curiosity, but Walton, aware of the man’s still-fragile state, prevents his men from burdening the stranger with questions. As time passes, Walton and the stranger become friends, and the stranger eventually consents to tell Walton his story. At the end of the fourth letter, Walton states that the visitor will commence his narrative the next day; Walton’s framing narrative ends and the stranger’s begins.
Summary: Chapter 1
The stranger, who the reader soon learns is Victor Frankenstein, begins his narration. He starts with his family background, birth, and early childhood, telling Walton about his father, Alphonse, and his mother, Caroline. Alphonse became Caroline’s protector when her father died in poverty. They married two years later, and Victor was born soon after. Frankenstein then describes how his childhood companion, Elizabeth Lavenza, entered his family. Elizabeth was discovered by his mother, Caroline, on a trip to Italy, when Victor is about five years old. While visiting a poor Italian family, Caroline notices a beautiful blonde girl among the dark-haired Italian children; upon discovering that Elizabeth is the orphaned daughter of a Milanese nobleman and a German woman and that the Italian family can barely afford to feed her, Caroline adopts Elizabeth and brings her back to Geneva. Victor’s mother decides at the moment of the adoption that Elizabeth and Victor should someday marry.
Summary: Chapter 2
Elizabeth and Victor grow up together as best friends. Victor’s friendship with Henry Clerval, a schoolmate and only child, flourishes as well, and he spends his childhood happily surrounded by this close domestic circle. As a teenager, Victor becomes increasingly fascinated by the mysteries of the natural world. He chances upon a book by Cornelius Agrippa, a sixteenth-century scholar of the occult sciences, and becomes interested in natural philosophy. He studies the outdated findings of the alchemists Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus with enthusiasm. He witnesses the destructive power of nature when, during a raging storm, lightning destroys a tree near his house. A modern natural philosopher accompanying the Frankenstein family explains to Victor the workings of electricity, making the ideas of the alchemists seem outdated and worthless.
Summary: Chapter 3
At the age of seventeen, Victor leaves his family in Geneva to attend the university at Ingolstadt. Just before Victor departs, his mother catches scarlet fever from Elizabeth, whom she has been nursing back to health, and dies. On her deathbed, she begs Elizabeth and Victor to marry. Several weeks later, still grieving, Victor goes off to Ingolstadt. Arriving at the university, he finds quarters in the town and sets up a meeting with a professor of natural philosophy, M. Krempe. Krempe tells Victor that all the time that Victor has spent studying the alchemists has been wasted, further souring Victor on the study of natural philosophy. He then attends a lecture in chemistry by a professor named Waldman. This lecture, along with a subsequent meeting with the professor, convinces Victor to pursue his studies in the sciences.
Analysis: Preface and Letters 1–4
The preface to Frankenstein sets up the novel as entertainment, but with a serious twist—a science fiction that nonetheless captures “the truth of the elementary principles of human nature.” The works of Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton are held up as shining examples of the kind of work Frankenstein aspires to be. Incidentally, the reference to “Dr. Darwin” in the first sentence is not to the famous evolutionist Charles Darwin, who was seven years old at the time the novel was written, but to his grandfather, the biologist Erasmus Darwin. In addition to setting the scene for the telling of the stranger’s narrative, Walton’s letters introduce an important character—Walton himself—whose story parallels Frankenstein’s. The second letter introduces the idea of loss and loneliness, as Walton complains that he has no friends with whom to share his triumphs and failures, no sensitive ear to listen to his dreams and ambitions.
Walton turns to the stranger as the friend he has always wanted; his search for companionship, and his attempt to find it in the stranger, parallels the monster’s desire for a friend and mate later in the novel. This parallel between man and monster, still hidden in these early letters but increasingly clear as the novel progresses, suggests that the two may not be as different as they seem. Another theme that Walton’s letters introduce is the danger of knowledge. The stranger tells Walton, “You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.” The theme of destructive knowledge is developed throughout the novel as the tragic consequences of the stranger’s obsessive search for understanding are revealed.
Walton, like the stranger, is entranced by the opportunity to know what no one else knows, to delve into nature’s secrets: “What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” he asks. Walton’s is only the first of many voices in Frankenstein. His letters set up a frame narrative that encloses the main narrative—the stranger’s—and provides the context in which it is told. Nested within the stranger’s narrative are even more voices. The use of multiple frame narratives calls attention to the telling of the story, adding new layers of complexity to the already intricate relationship between author and reader: as the reader listens to Victor’s story, so does Walton; as Walton listens, so does his sister.
By focusing the reader’s attention on narration, on the importance of the storyteller and his or her audience, Shelley may have been trying to link her novel to the oral tradition to which the ghost stories that inspired her tale belong. Within each framed narrative, the reader receives constant reminders of the presence of other authors and audiences, and of perspective shifts, as Victor breaks out of his narrative to address Walton directly and as Walton signs off each of his letters to his sister.
Analysis: Chapters 1–2
The picture that Victor draws of his childhood is an idyllic one. Though loss abounds—the poverty of Beaufort and the orphaning of Elizabeth, for instance—it is always quickly alleviated by the presence of a close, loving family. Nonetheless, the reader senses, even in these early passages, that the stability and comfort of family are about to be exploded. Shining through Victor’s narration of a joyful childhood and an eccentric adolescence is a glimmer of the great tragedy that will soon overtake him. Women in Frankenstein fit into few roles: the loving, sacrificial mother; the innocent, sensitive child; and the concerned, confused, abandoned lover. Throughout the novel, they are universally passive, rising only at the most extreme moments to demand action from the men around them. The language Victor uses to describe the relationship between his mother and father supports this image of women’s passivity: in reference to his mother, he says that his father “came as a protecting spirit to the poor girl, who committed herself to his care.”
Elizabeth, Justine Moritz, and Caroline Beaufort all fit into this mold of the passive woman.Various metanarrative comments (i.e., remarks that pertain not to the content of the narrative but rather to the telling of the narrative) remind the reader of the fact that Victor’s narrative is contained within Walton’s. Victor interrupts his story to relate how Elizabeth became a part of his family, prefacing the digression with the comment, “But before I continue my narrative, I must record an incident.” Such guiding statements structure Victor’s narrative and remind the reader that Victor is telling his story to a specific audience—Walton.
Foreshadowing is ubiquitous in these chapters and, in fact, throughout the novel. Even Walton’s letters prepare the way for the tragic events that Victor will recount. Victor constantly alludes to his imminent doom; for example, he calls his interest in natural philosophy “the genius that has regulated my fate” and “the fatal impulse that led to my ruin.” Victor’s narrative is rife with nostalgia for a happier time; he dwells on the fuzzy memories of his blissful childhood with Elizabeth, his father and mother, and Henry Clerval. But even in the midst of these tranquil childhood recollections, he cannot ignore the signs of the tragedy that lies in his imminent future; he sees that each event, such as the death of his mother, is nothing but “an omen, as it were, of [his] future misery.”
This heavy use of foreshadowing has a dual effect. On the one hand, it adds to the suspense of the novel, leaving the reader wondering about the nature of the awful tragedy that has caused Victor so much grief. On the other hand, it drains away some of the suspense—the reader knows far ahead of time that Victor has no hope, that all is doomed. Words like “fate,” “fatal,” and “omen” reinforce the inevitability of Victor’s tragedy, suggesting not only a sense of resignation but also, perhaps, an attempt by Victor to deny responsibility for his own misfortune. Describing his decision to study chemistry, he says, “Thus ended a day memorable to me; it decided my future destiny.”
Summary: Chapter 4
Victor attacks his studies with enthusiasm and, ignoring his social life and his family far away in Geneva, makes rapid progress. Fascinated by the mystery of the creation of life, he begins to study how the human body is built (anatomy) and how it falls apart (death and decay). After several years of tireless work, he masters all that his professors have to teach him, and he goes one step further: discovering the secret of life. Privately, hidden away in his apartment where no one can see him work, he decides to begin the construction of an animate creature, envisioning the creation of a new race of wonderful beings. Zealously devoting himself to this labor, he neglects everything else—family, friends, studies, and social life—and grows increasingly pale, lonely, and obsessed.
Summary: Chapter 5
One stormy night, after months of labor, Victor completes his creation. But when he brings it to life, its awful appearance horrifies him. He rushes to the next room and tries to sleep, but he is troubled by nightmares about Elizabeth and his mother’s corpse. He wakes to discover the monster looming over his bed with a grotesque smile and rushes out of the house. He spends the night pacing in his courtyard. The next morning, he goes walking in the town of Ingolstadt, frantically avoiding a return to his now-haunted apartment. As he walks by the town inn, Victor comes across his friend Henry Clerval, who has just arrived to begin studying at the university.
Delighted to see Henry—a breath of fresh air and a reminder of his family after so many months of isolation and ill health—he brings him back to his apartment. Victor enters first and is relieved to find no sign of the monster. But, weakened by months of work and shock at the horrific being he has created, he immediately falls ill with a nervous fever that lasts several months. Henry nurses him back to health and, when Victor has recovered, gives him a letter from Elizabeth that had arrived during his illness.
Analysis: Chapters 3–5
Whereas the first two chapters give the reader a mere sense of impending doom, these chapters depict Victor irrevocably on the way to tragedy. The creation of the monster is a grotesque act, far removed from the triumph of scientific knowledge for which Victor had hoped. His nightmares reflect his horror at what he has done and also serve to foreshadow future events in the novel. The images of Elizabeth “livid with the hue of death” prepare the reader for Elizabeth’s eventual death and connect it, however indirectly, to the creation of the monster. Victor’s pursuit of scientific knowledge reveals a great deal about his perceptions of science in general. He views science as the only true route to new knowledge: “In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.” Walton’s journey to the North Pole is likewise a search for “food for discovery and wonder,” a step into the tantalizing, dark unknown.
The symbol of light, introduced in Walton’s first letter (“What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?”), appears again in Victor’s narrative, this time in a scientific context. “From the midst of this darkness,” Victor says when describing his discovery of the secret of life, “a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous.” Light reveals, illuminates, clarifies; it is essential for seeing, and seeing is the way to knowledge. Just as light can illuminate, however, so can it blind; pleasantly warm at moderate levels, it ignites dangerous flames at higher ones. Immediately after his first metaphorical use of light as a symbol of knowledge, Victor retreats into secrecy and warns Walton of “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.”
Thus, light is balanced always by fire, the promise of new discovery by the danger of unpredictable—and perhaps tragic—consequences. The theme of secrecy manifests itself in these chapters, as Victor’s studies draw him farther and farther away from those who love and advise him. He conducts his experiments alone, following the example of the ancient alchemists, who jealously guarded their secrets, and rejecting the openness of the new sciences. Victor displays an unhealthy obsession with all of his endeavors, and the labor of creating the monster takes its toll on him. It drags him into charnel houses in search of old body parts and, even more important, isolates him from the world of open social institutions. Though Henry’s presence makes Victor become conscious of his gradual loss of touch with humanity, Victor is nonetheless unwilling to tell Henry anything about the monster. The theme of secrecy transforms itself, now linked to Victor’s shame and regret for having ever hoped to create a new life.
Victor’s reaction to his creation initiates a haunting theme that persists throughout the novel—the sense that the monster is inescapable, ever present, liable to appear at any moment and wreak havoc. When Victor arrives at his apartment with Henry, he opens the door “as children are accustomed to do when they expect a specter to stand in waiting for them on the other side,” a seeming echo of the tension-filled German ghost stories read by Mary Shelley and her vacationing companions. As in the first three chapters, Victor repeatedly addresses Walton, his immediate audience, reminding the reader of the frame narrative and of the multiple layers of storytellers and listeners.
Structuring comments such as “I fear, my friend, that I shall render myself tedious by dwelling on these preliminary circumstances” both remind the reader of the target audience (Walton) and help indicate the relative importance of each passage. Shelley employs other literary devices from time to time, including apostrophe, in which the speaker addresses an inanimate object, absent person, or abstract idea. Victor occasionally addresses some of the figures from his past as if they were with him on board Walton’s ship. “Excellent friend!” he exclaims, referring to Henry. “How sincerely did you love me, and endeavor to elevate my mind, until it was on a level with your own.” Apostrophe was a favorite of Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who used it often in his poetry; its occurrence here might reflect some degree of Percy’s influence on Mary’s writing.
|Title||Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus|
|Written by||Mary Shelley|
|Type of Writing||Novel|
|Genre||Horror Fiction Novel|
|Main Topic||Creation of an artificial creature by a scientist and its consequences|
|Setting||England and some European countries in the end of 18th century|
|Main Characters||Victor Frankenstein, the Monster, Elizabeth Lavenza, Henry Clerval|
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