Summary of the Novel
Robert Walton, an explorer, describes his trip to the Arctic in letters to his sister, Margaret Saville, who lives in England. After discussing his preparations for the trip, one of Walton’s letters informs Margaret that his ship is stuck and surrounded by ice. Walton then relates a strange event: As they looked out on the enormous ice field, Walton and his crew saw a gigantic man being pulled by a dogsled. The following day they discovered another, smaller man, desperately ill, adrift on a sheet of ice. Walton writes that he brought the man onto his ship, allowed him to rest, and attempted to nurse him back to health. After a week the man was able to talk and told Walton an incredible story.
The man’s name is Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist born in Geneva, Switzerland. He is a member of a wealthy family concerned with humanitarian issues. Victor goes on to relate his story to Walton, who writes it down as Victor speaks, making a record of Victor’s story, to be sent as a letter to Margaret Saville, Walton’s sister.
Victor tells Walton that, as a boy, he was always fascinated by science and alchemy and he eventually attended the University of Ingolstadt to study natural science. At the university he focused all his attention on experiments designed to create life. After months of exhaustive study, Victor constructed a huge creature from parts of human cadavers. He then discovered a method of bringing it to life. However, when the creature opened its eyes, Victor was horrified by his monstrous-looking creation. He ran from his laboratory and became very ill and disoriented for almost two years. During this time, he believed that the creature must have perished.
After he recovered from his illness, as he prepared to return home to his family, Victor learned that William, his seven-year-old brother, had been murdered. Justine Moritz, a young woman the Frankenstein family had adopted, had been accused of the crime. But Victor refused to believe that Justine committed the murder. Instead, he suspected that his creature wasn’t really dead, and was responsible for the horrible crime. However, after Victor returned to Geneva, Justine was tried, found guilty, and hanged.
Victor explains to Walton that he felt responsible for William’s murder and Justine’s execution. Guilt-ridden and desperate to be alone, he climbed into the mountains, where he encountered the creature. The creature told Victor that he had survived for the past two years, hiding out in the woods and eating nuts and berries. Lonely and miserable, he realized that he was repulsive to other human beings. In the forest, though, the creature discovered a gentle peasant family living in a cottage; by secretly observing them, the creature learned to read and write. Then, in his jacket pocket, the creature found Victor’s journal and read of the experiments that led to his creation. Enraged, he concluded that it was Victor Frankenstein who was responsible for his misery.
After relating his story, the creature demanded that Victor re-create his experiment and construct another creature. The creature explained he was desperate for a companion who would not find him repulsive. If Victor does as he asks, he will go away with the new creature and never bother Victor again. Although wary of the proposal, Victor says he reluctantly agreed to the creature’s request.
Victor tells Walton that he set up a new laboratory in Scotland and began the work of creating a companion for the creature. But he was haunted by the thought that this new monster might be more evil than the original, and he was terrified at the idea of the two creatures creating a new, horrible race of beings. So instead of completing his task, Victor destroyed his work before giving life to the new creation. But the original creature was watching Victor in his laboratory. Furious, he swore revenge, vowing to torment Victor for the rest of his life. Later that night the creature strangled Victor’s best friend, Henry Clerval.
Several weeks later, Victor married Elizabeth Lavenza, a girl who was adopted by his family, and with whom Victor had always been in love. But after Victor and Elizabeth marry, the creature appeared on their wedding night and strangled Elizabeth to death. Grief-stricken over the death of Elizabeth, Alphonse Frankenstein, Victor’s father, died a few months later. In utter despair, Victor vowed to pursue the creature and destroy it. He chased the monster for months, finally arriving in the Arctic where he met Walton and his expedition.
Having finished his story, Victor Frankenstein dies on Walton’s ship. Walton ends the tale in additional letters to his sister, telling her that the night Victor died, the creature entered Victor’s room and lamented his death. He then told Walton he planned to build a huge fire and burn himself to death. Before Walton could respond, the creature jumped from the ship and landed on a floating slab of ice. Walton concludes his final letter, telling Margaret that the creature was carried out to sea, where he disappeared into the darkness.
Published in 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus added to the growing body of Romantic fiction published in the early 1800s. Shelley became one of the most influential writers of both Romantic and Gothic fiction, establishing, with Frankenstein, a new genre known today as science fiction.
Gothic romance often deals with mysterious and supernatural subjects. Gothic stories frequently take place in rugged, natural settings, near ancient castles or monasteries. The plots are suspenseful and usually deal with the forces of good and evil. One of the earliest works of Gothic fiction is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764).
In his novel, Walpole challenged the realistic style of the time by writing about the past and the subconscious. His Gothic romance is one of the earliest examples of the emerging romantic movement. Novels such as Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1796), and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams are other examples of the Gothic romance. American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe also wrote in the Gothic style, which remained popular until the 1820s.
Romanticism was a separate intellectual and artistic movement that began in Europe in the middle of the eighteenth century. Romantics, who promoted the uniqueness of individual imagination and expression, believed in the interrelation of nature, spirituality, and humankind. The movement, which began in Germany, soon became popular in England as well. The lyrical ballads of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are generally considered to be the beginning of English romanticism. Many other writers, including Lord Byron William Blake John Keats and Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote in the romantic style. Other notable fiction writers of the time include Jane Austen whose Pride and Prejudice (1813) remains popular even today, and the poet Sir Walter Scott who wrote his first novel, Waverly, in 1814.
In addition to their philosophical and spiritual concerns, the Romantic writers were also affected by the political events of the time. Beginning in 1789, the French Revolution had created an upheaval in Europe. Social reorganization lasted for the next 10 years as the rebellion continued to change the social structure and government of France. While many of the Romanticists favored the original principles of the revolution, which effectively abolished the French monarchy in favor of a more democratic system controlled by the middle classes, they were opposed to the extreme violence that helped bring about the changes. At the same time, England was also experiencing a profound transformation. The Industrial Revolution had made England a leading economic force in the world as mechanical power helped boost the country’s production in every area of industry and manufacture.
After the French Revolution France which had aided the rebellious British colonies during the American Revolution soon found itself engaged in a war with England. In 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned emperor of a revolutionary France still in flux. Within seven years, Napoleon had conquered all of Europe, from Spain to the Russian border with Prussia. The British, however, with the help of their powerful navy, remained unconquered. Then, in 1812, after Napoleon invaded Russia, a severe Russian winter cost France most of its army. A new European alliance, nurtured by British money and diplomacy, sprang up and France was defeated in Germany and Spain. Finally, in 1814, Napoleon surrendered and Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia drafted a peace treaty in Vienna. The following year, Napoleon returned from exile and raised a new army, but allied forces commanded by the British Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon during a three-day battle at Waterloo in June 1815.
Mary Shelley, who was experiencing turmoil in her own family, was raised during this time of political unrest and violence. Her relationship with Percy Shelley was scandalous at the time, but she gained acceptance at an early age with the publication of Frankenstein. The book was as controversial as her affair with Shelley. Sir Walter Scott, writing in Blackwood’s magazine, praised the novel as an “extraordinary tale” and Shelley as an author with “uncommon powers of poetic imagination.” Edinburgh magazine said Shelley demonstrated a “mastery in harsh and savage delineations of passion,” adding, however, that “it is one of those works . . . which we do not well see why it should have been written.” The Quarterly Review praised the “highly terrific” language of the novel, but said “our taste and our judgment alike revolt at this kind of writing . . . it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manner, or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated.”
In spite of the mixed reviews it received, Frankenstein was a bestseller and would remain popular for generations. Mary Shelley became a respected author with numerous titles to her credit. It is the remarkable power of her first novel, though, that continues to inspire a host of horror stories and science fiction tales. Considering the book’s lasting influence, it is hardly surprising that film adaptations of Frankenstein are still being made today.
List of Characters
Robert Walton—An explorer who meets and cares for Victor Frankenstein while traveling in the Arctic; Walton writes to his sister, Margaret Saville, in England, relating Victor’s horrible tale.
The Creature—Victor Frankenstein’s “monster”.
Victor Frankenstein—A young man, born in Switzerland, whose study of science and natural philosophy leads to his tragic creation of the monster.
Alphonse Frankenstein—Victor’s father; a wealthy, influential man with humanitarian concerns.
Beaufort—Alphonse Frankenstein’s friend and Caroline’s father.
Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein—Victor’s mother and Alphonse’s wife; she dies shortly before Victor leaves for Ingolstadt.
Elizabeth Lavenza—A young woman who is adopted by the Frankenstein family; she marries Victor and is killed by the creature.
Henry Clerval—Victor’s best friend and closest confidant; he is also killed by the creature.
Ernest Frankenstein—Victor’s younger brother.
William Frankenstein—Victor’s youngest brother; William is murdered by Victor’s creature.
Justine Moritz—A young woman who lives with the Frankenstein family; Justine is falsely accused of killing William. She is tried and executed for the murder.
M. Krempe—Victor’s philosophy professor at the University of Ingolstadt.
M. Waldman—Another professor who becomes Victor’s mentor at Ingolstadt.
Felix De Lacey—A young peasant the creature observes living in a small cottage in the forest.
Agatha De Lacey—Felix’s sister, who also lives in the cottage.
M. De Lacey—Felix’s and Agatha’s father; the creature tries to make friends with him.
Safie—A young Turkish woman who is Felix’s fiancée.
Safie’s father—A Turkish man Felix helps escape from prison.
Mr. Kirwin—A judicial magistrate who is in charge of Victor’s case in Ireland.
Daniel Nugent—A witness in the murder case in Ireland.
Nurse—A woman who cares for Victor in prison.
Magistrate—A criminal judge in Geneva who listens to Victor’s story about the creature.
Estimated Reading Time
The Pennyroyal edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is 237 pages long with illustrations. While the novel is of average length, some of the language is dated and the sentences and paragraphs are rather long. The plot is complicated, and the narrative is unusual—related as a series of stories within stories and letters. It may be difficult for some readers to fully comprehend the entire text during a first reading. The average reader might want to divide his or her reading time into four or five sessions of two to three hours each, completing three to five chapters in each sitting.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus is the work for which Shelley is remembered by the general public. The story unfolds in a series of letters from Robert Walton, an enterprising arctic explorer, to his sister in England. Walton reports the sighting of a giant manlike creature driving a dogsled in the icy distance. This scene is followed by the rescue of a man whose sled had become stranded in the ice floe. This man is Victor Frankenstein.
As he recovers his health, Frankenstein relates his story. He tells of his warm family life in Geneva and of his early enthusiasm for the speculative natural philosophy of alchemists such as Cornelius Agrippa. At the age of twenty-one, he leaves to study science at...
(The entire section is 1075 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
English explorer Robert Walton’s ship is held fast in polar ice. As his company looks out over the empty ice field, they are astonished to see a sledge drawn by dogs speeding northward. The sledge driver looks huge and misshapen. At night, an ice floe carries to the ship another sledge with one dog and a man in weakened condition. When the newcomer learns that his is the second sledge sighted from the ship, he becomes agitated.
Walton is greatly attracted to the newcomer during his convalescence, and as the ship remains stuck in the ice, the men have leisure time to get acquainted. At last, after he has recovered somewhat from exposure and hunger, the man, Victor Frankenstein, tells Walton his story.
(The entire section is 987 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Volume 1: Letters 1-4 Summary and Analysis
Robert Walton: an explorer who writes to his sister Margaret in England; he encounters Victor Frankenstein on the Arctic ice and later records his horrible story
The Creature: a huge figure Walton sees traveling in a dogsled on the ice; later we learn that this is the “monster” created by Victor Frankenstein
Victor Frankenstein: a young scientist, unidentified by Walton in these letters, who is hunting for the monster he created
The novel begins with a series of letters written by Robert Walton, a young English explorer, to his sister, Margaret Saville. Walton’s first letter, written from St....
(The entire section is 1194 words.)
Volume 1: Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis
Alphonse Frankenstein: Victor’s father
Beaufort: Alphonse’s close friend and Caroline’s father
Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein: Alphonse’s wife and Victor’s mother
Elizabeth Lavenza: Victor’s adopted sister
Henry Clerval: Victor’s closest friend
Ernest Frankenstein: Victor’s brother
William Frankenstein: Victor’s youngest brother
M. Krempe: an arrogant professor at the University of Ingolstadt who ridicules Victor
M. Waldman: a friendly professor who advises Victor to study modern science
Robert Walton records Victor’s story, writing his...
(The entire section is 1356 words.)
Volume 1: Chapters 3, 4, and 5 Summary and Analysis
Justine Moritz: a young woman living with the Frankenstein
Under the guidance of M. Waldman, Victor dedicates himself to the study of natural science. He remains at the university for two years, completely absorbed in his studies, and becomes fascinated with the “structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?” Victor realizes that this is a “bold question” but he is determined to find the answer. He wonders “how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries.” Victor...
(The entire section is 1247 words.)
Volume 1: Chapters 6 and 7 Summary and Analysis
Before he leaves Ingolstadt, Victor receives a letter from his father, Alphonse, relating the dreadful news that his youngest brother, William, was murdered while the family was on an outing in Plainpalais. During a hike, William wandered off and was discovered hours later, strangled, the killer’s handprints imbedded in his neck. Alphonse is terribly upset and he asks Victor to come home to the “house of mourning.” Victor is horrified by the news and returns to Geneva immediately.
On his journey home, Victor is sad and fearful. As he is crossing the Alps near Mont Blanc, a vicious storm suddenly appears “at once in various parts of the heavens.” Victor looks at the sky and cries...
(The entire section is 795 words.)
Volume 2: Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis
Following the deaths of William and Justine, Victor experiences a feeling of profound despair. He created the monster and now he blames himself for the deaths of two innocent people. Alphonse tries to console his son to no avail. Victor’s grief is compounded by remorse and his father doesn’t understand all of the awful reasons for his son’s depression.
The family moves to their house in Belrive, a country estate outside Geneva. At night, Victor often sails alone in the nearby lake, reflecting on his misery. He is so unhappy that he contemplates suicide and “often” considers drowning himself in the lake, but he realizes that this act would only cause his family, and especially...
(The entire section is 1080 words.)
Volume 2: Chapters 3, 4, and 5 Summary and Analysis
Felix De Lacey: a young peasant the creature observes living in a small cottage in the forest
Agatha De Lacey: Felix’s sister who also lives in the cottage
M. De Lacey: Felix’s and Agatha’s father; the creature tries to make friends with him
Safie: a young Turkish woman who is Felix’s fiancée
Sitting in the hut by the fire, the creature relates his experiences during the two years since Victor created him. The creature tells Victor about the difficulties he had trying to cope with the strange feelings of his senses. Having never had the opportunity to mature in a normal way, the creature was overwhelmed by...
(The entire section is 1254 words.)
Volume 2: Chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9 Summary and Analysis
Safie’s father: a Turkish man Felix helps escape from prison
The creature continues his story. After spending months observing the peasant family, he was able to learn their language and their family history. The family, known as the De Laceys, were of noble birth and had lived in France for many years. Safie’s father, a Turkish merchant, was on trial for an unknown reason, although political motives were suspected. At the conclusion of the trial, Safie’s father was sentenced to death, an obvious injustice, and all Paris was indignant. It was generally considered that the man’s religion and wealth, and not the alleged crime, had been the cause...
(The entire section is 2093 words.)
Volume 3: Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis
After his return to Geneva, Victor finds that he is unable to “collect the courage” to begin work on the creature’s companion. He cannot overcome his repugnance to the work he must do, and he knows he will have to devote several months to the project. Victor tells us that he “clung to every pretense of delay, and could not resolve to interrupt my returning tranquility.” But he realizes that, eventually, he will have to begin the dreaded task and fulfill his promise to the creature.
Alphonse is worried about Victor because he seems so depressed. He suggests that Victor and Elizabeth marry, hoping they will find happiness together. Although he loves Elizabeth, Victor cannot imagine...
(The entire section is 1011 words.)
Volume 3: Chapters 3 and 4 Summary and Analysis
Mr. Kirwin: a judicial magistrate who is in charge of Victor’s case in Ireland
Daniel Nugent: a witness in the murder case in Ireland
Nurse: a woman who cares for Victor in prison
As he labors to bring life to the new creature, Victor recalls his earlier efforts, three years ago in Ingolstadt. He was full of hope then, excited about his experiment, but the result had been a disaster, filling his heart with “the bitterest remorse.” Now, as he works in his makeshift laboratory, Victor begins to worry about what will happen when he brings the new creature to life. What if this creature, a female, refuses to abide by the terms...
(The entire section is 1725 words.)
Volume 3: Chapters 5 and 6 Summary and Analysis
Magistrate: a criminal judge in Geneva who listens to Victor’s story about the creature
Victor continues to blame himself for the deaths of William, Justine, and Henry. He says, “I am the assassin of those most innocent victims; they died by my machinations.” Because he created the creature and unleashed it on the world, he feels that he is really their killer and, therefore, is unfit to live among other human beings. During his imprisonment, Alphonse had often heard Victor make the assertion that he was responsible for the deaths, but he can’t understand why Victor feels this way. He wonders if his son is mad.
Victor and Alphonse...
(The entire section is 964 words.)
Volume 3: Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis
Victor begins his search for the monster. Before he leaves Geneva, he visits the graves of Elizabeth, Alphonse, and William. In the cemetery, he swears that he will find and destroy the creature. As he stands by their graves, he hears a “fiendish laugh”; the monster has followed him to the graveyard. The monster tells Victor he is satisfied that Victor has decided to go on living. He understands that Victor’s suffering will continue. Victor chases after the creature, but all he sees is its shape, running with great speed, away from the cemetery.
Since that night, Victor says he has been in constant pursuit of the creature, traveling around the world and enduring terrible hardships....
(The entire section is 1943 words.)