The setting of the novel ranges all over Europe, emphasizing places with which Shelley herself was familiar: Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, England, Scotland, Ireland, and even the Arctic. The tale begins and ends in the Arctic with the explorer Robert Walton seeking a northwest passage. On his journey he first meets Victor Frankenstein and then the monster himself. The Arctic atmosphere itself is a fitting symbol for the scientific enterprise on which Frankenstein has embarked and Walton is embarking. The landscape is barren and white: It is human beings who turn the landscape and scientific creation into colorful creation or black horror.
As Dr. Frankenstein lies dying, he recounts his history to Walton. When he speaks of his home in Geneva by a blue lake and snowy mountains, his description is filled with warmth, light, and love. At age seventeen Frankenstein became a student at the University of Ingolstadt, in upper Bavaria, where he later creates his monster Frankenstein recoils from his creation, and the monster flees. The rest of the novel follows the theme of pursuit and ranges over Europe. Frankenstein has a nervous breakdown and returns to the peacefulness of home. To cure his despair, he wanders on one occasion to the valley of Chamounix. Here, he meets the monster again. Shelley's descriptive powers heighten whenever she presents the monster against a background of sublime and terrifying nature. Frankenstein is mountain climbing across a...
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Victor Frankenstein, a native of Geneva who early evinces a talent in natural science. Having concluded his training at the university at Ingolstadt, he works until he discovers the secret of creating life. He makes a monster from human and animal organs found in dissecting rooms and butcher shops. The monster brings only anguish and death to Victor and his friends and relatives. Having told his story, he dies before his search for the monster is complete.
The Monster, an eight-foot-tall synthetic man endowed by its creator with human sensibilities. Rebuffed by man, it turns its hate against him. Its program of revenge accounts for the lives of Frankenstein’s bride, his brother, his good friend, and a family servant. Just after Victor dies, the monster appears and tells the explorer that Frankenstein’s was the great crime, for he had created a man devoid of friend, love, or soul.
Robert Walton, an English explorer who, on his ship frozen in a northland sea of ice, hears the dying Frankenstein’s story and also listens to the monster’s account of, and reason for, its actions.
Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s foster sister and later his bride, who is strangled by the monster on her wedding night.
William Frankenstein, Victor’s brother, who...
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Themes and Characters
Victor Frankenstein is a brilliant, rational, and self-centered man who comes to understand the importance of friendship, family, and love. His monster is brutal and destructive but also rational and eloquent and longs for affection and companionship. Although these two at times seem antithetical, their characters also complement one another.
Frankenstein's creation of the monster is a supreme rational and imaginative effort, as he himself explains: "My imagination was vivid, yet my powers of analysis and application were intense; by the union of these qualities I conceived the idea and executed the creation of a man." After the monster's creation, the union between Frankenstein's imagination and intellect disintegrates. Like Hamlet, he is plagued by doubt and inaction: he decides to destroy the monster yet pities him; he decides to make a female monster but destroys her; he knows the monster is plotting revenge, but mistakenly assumes he is the target.
The monster, too, is a strange combination of unbalanced intellect and emotion. As the product of Frankenstein's reason, he represents reason in isolation. Yet, he tells Walton, "my heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy." When first the De Laceys reject him in horror and then Frankenstein refuses him any kind of companionship, the monster's tender emotions turn to poisoned selfishness and envy. Even revenge brings him only frustration and misery, "wasting in impotent...
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Victor's closest friend and companion, who balances his emotional and rational pursuits. He studies Oriental languages but passionately loves nature and life. Victor acknowledges that "[H]is wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart." And unlike Victor, who wishes to learn "the secrets of heaven and earth," Clerval aspires "to become one among those whose names are recorded in story as the gallant and adventurous benefactors of our species."
After Victor runs from the creature when the creature comes to life, Clerval nurses Victor back to health, playing the role of protector and comforter—a role Victor fails to assume for his own "child," the creature. The creature eventually strangles and kills Clerval because Victor destroys his half-created mate. Victor then vows revenge upon the creature.
Like a newborn baby reaching out to his mother, the creature reaches out to Victor when he is transformed from an inanimate to an animate being. Victor labored for two years in order to give the creature life, but he is so appalled by the creature's hideous appearance that he flees, leaving the creature to fend for himself. Shelley initially leaves her readers in suspense as to the creature's whereabouts. We do not hear his story until after he finds Victor and requests a mate for himself. He describes his life to Victor after he "awoke,"...
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There is a reason Shelley’s novel was named for its main character – Victor is the embodiment of the duality of human life, at least to Mary Shelley. A native of Geneva, Switzerland, he grows up reading ancient alchemy texts and, we can assume, fantasizing of a life of the magic of the old sciences. By the time he reaches the university at Ingolstadt, the ideas he grew up with are useless, even detrimental, to the practice of then-modern day science. Shelley uses Victor here as a symbol of the new replacing the old – there are times when the new “forgets” lessons taught by the old.
In his time at the university, Victor adapts to the ideas of modern science and learns all his professors have to teach him quickly. With old and new ideas combined, he becomes fascinated with the "secret of life," determined to discover it and create life to prove the old masters right using new methods. Victor stumbles upon a way, and even though it involves grave robbing he is willing to break the law for the sake of his version of science. Mary Shelley seems to show her skepticism through Victor as he digests the new ways while all the time concealing his love for the mystical, a love that finally leads to his greatest triumph and his worst nightmare.
Victor’s methods finally create life, but not the way he planned – his vision of a race of supermen shatters when he sees the ragtag, angry creature he has created, and he immediately disowns the creature. When the monster proceeds to kill Victor's youngest brother, his best friend, and even his wife, he refuses to admit that his experiments resulted in failure. The creature indirectly causes the deaths of two other innocent victims, including Victor's father, but still Victor struggles with himself. He is torn apart with guilt, responsibility, and fear of his own creation, but he can’t acknowledge the horror of what he has created, even as he loses one part of his life after another to the result of his “science” running wild.
Victor begins the novel as an innocent youth fascinated by the prospects of science; by the end he is bitter, disillusioned, and guilt-ridden. Finally seeing the monster for what it is, he is determined to destroy the twisted life he has created. Through Victor, Mary Shelley shows us man’s desire to be God, and perhaps a fear that the new...
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The monster is the secondary focus in Frankenstein; after all, he is the result of Victor’s perverse view of science, and of life. Literally sewn together from old body parts and animated by arcane chemicals and what must be lightning, he enters life and the novel a hulking, eight feet tall newborn baby. His “father’s” first act is to disown and abandon him – is it any wonder he goes on a rampage? Mary Shelley seems to be using the Monster as both a product of modern science’s refusal to accept the natural world and as Victor’s “dark side.” It is as if the emotion Victor doesn’t seem to have has been transferred into the Monster, who has no idea how to deal with it.
He tries to join regular society, only to be rejected. He looks in a mirror and realizes he is ugly, a parody of a human being. Despite his naturally gentle, even loving nature, the Monster’s separation from humanity drives his growing rage toward the man who created him then left him to fend for himself in a world that has no place for him. Seeking revenge on his creator, he kills Victor's brother and demands that Victor create a woman like him so he won’t be alone. Victor double-crosses the monster, destroying his work on the female monster, and the Monster kills Victor's best friend, then his new wife, in return.
Shelley wants us to feel sympathy for the Monster – she seems to be saying that Victor is the true monster of the novel – and she does so by giving him a gentle, eloquent nature. He assists a group of poor peasants and saves a girl from drowning, but because of his outward appearance, he is rewarded only with beatings and disgust. Torn between revenge and his natural impulses, the monster is destined to be lonely and guilty over the deaths he has caused.
Even Victor’s death is a hollow victory; although the source of the Monster’s suffering is gone, he was truly the creature’s only connection to real life. Without his “father” to guide him, the monster trudges off into the snow and ice, presumably never to be seen again.
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Frankenstein is a frame narrative – the story or stories told exist within a kind of “main story.” Robert Walton's letters to his sister are the frame around which the novel is based. Walton captains a North Pole-bound ship trapped in ice. While waiting for the ice to thaw, he and his crew pick up Victor, weak and withered from his journey of revenge. Victor recovers enough to tell Walton the story of his life, then dies when his story is finished. Walton had felt that he and Victor were beginning a genuine friendship, and he mourns the loss of this man he barely knew, whose life was such a mess.
Walton is more than just a convenient frame for the story of Victor Frankenstein; he is also a parallel to Victor in a way. Like Victor, Walton is an explorer, chasing after the unknown. Victor's influence on him causes him to at times cheer his newfound friend’s boldness and his journey, at other times to feel sorrow and fear at Victor’s abuse of both science and nature. In the end, he knows that Victor’s journey is not his, and wisely lets the monster go. Through Victor, Walton has learned his lesson.
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