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.
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.