Study Guide

Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein Summary

Overview

Frankenstein

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.

Frankenstein Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 Ingolstadt. There, he learns the difference between modern science and mysticism. He embraces scientific method but holds onto one of the dreams of his former models—the creation of life. Ultimately, he completely embraces this goal, assembling a being of huge scale in order to simplify its construction. When his creature gains life, Frankenstein is instantly revolted. He exits the flat and wanders about, hoping that the spark of life in the creature will expire spontaneously. The following day, the creature has disappeared, and Victor is visited by his best friend, Henry Clerval, who, unaware of the creature’s existence, helps Victor to regain his composure over the next several months. In early May, Victor’s younger brother William is murdered outside Geneva. A servant is accused of the crime. Upon his return home, Victor catches a brief sight of the creature, whose existence has nearly slipped Victor’s mind. He senses that the creature is responsible for his brother’s murder, but he remains silent as the servant is convicted of the crime. After the trial, while vacationing in the Alps, Victor meets the creature on a glacier. There, he learns of the creature’s cruel rejection by humankind, its self-education (the creature is easily the most articulate character in the book), and its subsequent revenge on its creator. Though the creature did indeed murder William, Victor is torn between hatred and sympathy. Reluctantly, he agrees to animate a female companion for the creature.

After months of indecision, Victor retires to the Orkney Islands (north of Scotland) to begin the work that he has promised. Midway through, in sight of the creature himself, he becomes fearful of the havoc that might be caused by a race of such fiends. He destroys the lifeless torso over which he stands. The creature vows to be with Victor on Victor’s wedding night (he is engaged to a cousin) and departs. After murdering Victor’s friend Clerval, a crime of which Victor is briefly accused, the creature disappears. Victor is wed in Geneva and awaits his confrontation with the creature. Instead, the creature slips into his bedroom, murders his bride, and escapes. Finally, Victor goes to the authorities. Finding no hope there, he pursues the creature himself, winding up on Walton’s ship. There, he dies from the exhaustion of the hunt. The novel closes with a visit to Walton’s ship by the creature. The creature laments the death of his creator and departs, vowing to take his own life.

As is clear, Shelley’s novel is not quite the grave-robbing horror story associated with the original Hollywood version starring Boris Karloff. Instead, the book exemplifies all the characteristics of Shelley’s work noted previously. Stylistically, Shelley moves the narrative along at a rapid pace, avoiding weighty details or intricate plotting. The result is a book that is easily read and in which the geographic settings are striking, in part because they have so little with which to compete in the way of description. On the other hand, there is only one well-realized character, the creature himself, which, in this case, happens to be enough. In addition, Frankenstein is—to put it frankly—hopelessly contrived, with coincidence appearing as a law of nature. Indeed, one reason for the distortions of the film and dramatic versions of the story has been the need for a narrative that makes a little more sense than the novel does when held up to critical scrutiny.

Frankenstein is also autobiographical. For one thing, with the exception of the arctic wastelands, the book’s geographic settings come right out of the author’s various travels. For another, the creature’s reading list, including John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) and Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115 c.e.; Parallel Lives, 1579), closely mirror Shelley’s own reading fare at the time that she wrote the novel. On a more profound level, the novel reflects Shelley’s experience with the traumas of birth and rejection.

This discussion raises the issue of family. Victor Frankenstein turns his back on an idyllic family life in favor of an unsavory scientific quest. Yet the creature aches for the nurturing affection and guidance that can be provided by a loving family. Finally, the novel can be seen as a tale of what happens when women are omitted from the process of procreation. The result is a creature who is unnatural and unloved. This last omission is the direct cause of the creature’s hideous crimes.

Larger philosophical themes also abound in Frankenstein. One might begin with the reference to Prometheus in the subtitle and the references to Paradise Lost in the text. Prometheus is best known as the mythic figure who stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, an act for which he was severely punished. This association suggests that Victor is a victim of his own hubris in seeking the divine power of creation. Less well known is the myth in which Prometheus creates the human race, providing a clear parallel with Victor. Milton’s work poetically examines the fall from grace in Eden according to the Old Testament. Frankenstein’s creature expressly compares himself to Adam. In this case, paradise is not lost; it was never part of the bargain according to Victor’s foggy conception of his task.

Frankenstein also suggests the dangers of amoral science or unrestrained rationality, the imperfection of civil justice, and the superficiality of human judgment. It is perhaps most basically a book about the concurrent limits and limitlessness of human nature and human knowledge. It encourages one to remember that the power to create may produce consequences that cannot be foreseen or controlled.

Frankenstein Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

Victor is born into an aristocratic family in Geneva, Switzerland. As a playmate for their son, the parents adopt a lovely little girl, Elizabeth, of the same age. Victor and Elizabeth grow up as brother and sister. Much later another son, William, is born to the Frankensteins.

At an early age, Victor shows promise in the natural sciences. He devours the works of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus and thinks in his ignorance that they had been the real masters. When he grows older, his father decides to send him to the university at Ingolstadt. There, he soon learns all that his masters can teach him in the field of natural science. Engaged in brilliant and terrible research, he stumbles by chance on the secret of creating life. Once he has gained this knowledge, he cannot rest until he has employed it to create a living being. By haunting the butcher shops and dissecting rooms, he soon has the necessary raw materials. With great cunning, he fashions an eight-foot monster and endows him with life.

As soon as Victor creates his monster, however, he is subject to strange misgivings. During the night, the monster comes to his bed. At the sight of the horrible face, Victor shrieks and frightens the monster. Overcome by the horror of his act, he becomes ill with a brain fever. His best friend, Henry Clerval, arrives from Geneva and helps to nurse him through his illness. He cannot tell Clerval what he has done.

Terrible news then comes from Geneva. William, Victor’s young brother, had been killed at the hand of a murderer. He was found strangled in a park, and a faithful family servant, Justine, was charged with the crime. Victor hurries to Geneva. At the trial, Justine tells a convincing story. She had been looking for William in the countryside and, returning after the city gates had been closed, had spent the night in a deserted hut; she cannot, however, explain how a miniature from William’s neck came to be in her pocket. Victor and Elizabeth believe the girl’s story, but despite all of their efforts, Justine is convicted and condemned.

Depressed by these tragic events, Victor goes hiking over the mountainous countryside. Far ahead on the glacier, he sees a strange, agile figure that fills him with horrible suspicions. Unable to overtake the figure, he sits down to rest. Suddenly, the monster appears before him. The creature demands that Victor listen to his story. The monster begins to tell him that when he left Victor’s chambers in Ingolstadt, everyone he met screamed and ran from him. Wandering confusedly, the monster finally found shelter in an abandoned hovel adjoining a cottage. By great stealth, he remained there during daylight and at night sought berries for food. Through observation, he began to learn the ways of humankind. Feeling an urge to friendship, he brought wood to the cottage every day, but when he attempted to make friends with the cottagers, he was repulsed with such fear and fury that his heart became bitter toward all people. When he saw William playing in the park, he strangled the boy and took the miniature from his neck. Then during the night, he came upon Justine in the hut and put the picture in her pocket.

The monster now makes a horrible demand. He insists that Victor fashion a mate for him who will give him love and companionship. The monster threatens to ravage and kill at random if Victor refuses the request; but, if Victor agrees, the monster promises to take his mate to the wilds of South America, where they will never again be seen by humankind. It is a hard choice, but Victor feels that he must accept.

Victor leaves for England with his friend Clerval. After parting from his friend, he goes to the distant Orkney Islands and begins his task. He is almost ready to animate the gross mass of flesh when his conscience stops him. He cannot let the two monsters mate and spawn a race of monsters. He destroys his work. The monster is watching at a window. Angered to see his mate destroyed, he forces his way into the house and warns Victor that a terrible punishment will fall upon the young man on his wedding night. Then the monster escapes by sea. Later, to torment his maker, he fiendishly kills Clerval.

Victor is suspected of the crime. Released for lack of evidence, he returns to Geneva. He and Elizabeth are married there. Although Victor is armed and alert, the monster gets into the nuptial chamber and strangles the bride. Victor shoots at him, but he escapes again. Victor vows to follow the monster and kill him.

Weakened by exposure, Victor dies on Walton’s ship in the ice—Elizabeth, William, Justine, and Clerval remain unavenged. The monster comes to the dead man’s cabin, and Walton, stifling his fear, addresses the gigantic, hideous creature. Victor’s is the greater crime, the monster says. He had created a man, a man without love or friend or soul. He deserves his punishment. The monster then vanishes over the ice field.

Frankenstein Summary

Frankenstein Published by Gale Cengage

Few works of fiction have captured the public's imagination as Frankenstein has. Several plays, numerous movies, television shows, and...

(The entire section is 2164 words.)

Frankenstein Summary and Analysis

Volume 1: Letters 1-4 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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

Summary
Letter One
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

New Characters
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

Summary
Robert Walton records Victor’s story, writing his...

(The entire section is 1356 words.)

Volume 1: Chapters 3, 4, and 5 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Justine Moritz: a young woman living with the Frankenstein
family

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

New Characters
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

Summary
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

New Character
Safie’s father: a Turkish man Felix helps escape from prison

Summary
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

Summary
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

New Characters
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

Summary
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

New Characters
Magistrate: a criminal judge in Geneva who listens to Victor’s story about the creature

Summary
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

Summary
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.)