The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus is framed as a series of letters written by polar explorer Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville, who is home in England. He relates to her his adventures, including a story told to him by a young man, Victor Frankenstein, whom his ship has rescued from the polar ice.
As a young university student at Ingolstadt, in Bavaria, Frankenstein is determined to find the secret of life. He studies constantly, ignoring his family back in Geneva, Switzerland. He steals body parts from charnel houses and medical laboratories, then uses the power of electricity to create a living being. He immediately knows he has erred: His creature is ghastly. It leaves Frankensteins quarters, but not his life.
Frankenstein next sees the creature back in Geneva, where he has returned following the death of his young brother William. Although a servant girl, Justine, is accused of causing Williams death, Frankenstein sees the creature lurking near the place of the murder and knows he is the killer. Frankensteins anguish is intensified when innocent Justine is executed for the murder. In his agony, Frankenstein leaves home to wander in the mountains. The creature confronts him and tells him his own story.
After leaving Ingolstadt, the creature wandered throughout the countryside. He discovered quickly that he was frightening and repugnant to humans and took to traveling at night and hiding during the day....
(The entire section is 535 words.)
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
The structure of Frankenstein is epistolary, a popular novel framework in the nineteenth century that might be unfamiliar to contemporary readers. The story consists of letters from Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville. At first, they contain incidents of his own Arctic exploration and reveal him as a man obsessed with a “love for the marvellous” that lures him from mundane pursuits that would anchor him to humanity. When he encounters Victor Frankenstein, the epistolary framework dissolves, and Victor tells his tale in the first person.
Growing up in a wealthy Geneva household, Victor passes a happy childhood in the company of Elizabeth Lavenza and Henry Clerval. At seventeen, he enters the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, where he is determined to discover the origin of life. He succeeds in animating a piecework human body, but he is horrified and flees from the creature that he has fashioned. Two years later, after he receives news that his brother William has been murdered, Victor sees the monster and intuitively knows him to be the murderer. Victor remains silent even though Justine Moritz is convicted of the crime and executed. Later, he meets the monster on Mt. Montanvert and listens to his story.
Having found shelter in a hovel attached to a cottage inhabited by the DeLacey family, the monster learned to speak. When the DeLaceys took in Safie, an Arab woman whom they had known in wealthier and happier days in...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Arctic Circle. Frankenstein is told at a great distance, both physically and psychologically. The epistolary novel opens with letters from Robert Walton to his sister in England. Walton is on an exploring expedition to the far north, and his letters are dated from locations farther and farther north, starting with St. Petersburg, Russia, then Archangel, then unspecified locations, as Walton passes into unexplored territory. When his ship is surrounded by fog and ice floes, his crew sees Victor Frankenstein crossing the ice with a dog sled. They rescue him; Frankenstein tells his story. Before he does so, however, Frankenstein indicates that the desire to find the North Pole is as dangerous as his inquiry into unknown scientific regions, asking Walton, “Unhappy man! Do you share my madness?” When Frankenstein’s story is complete, he dies. His monstrous creation, after finally forgiving him, flees across the polar sea and out of human knowledge.
*Geneva. City in western Switzerland that is home to Victor Frankenstein, who describes it lovingly, speaking of its “majestic and wondrous scenes” and the “sublime shapes of the mountains.” The countryside is described more fully than the city, but enough details are given to indicate that Shelley knew Geneva well. While Shelley was staying near Lake Geneva with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, and other friends, they had a competition for the best ghost story. Shelley said the core idea for Frankenstein came to her then, in a dream. Visiting or leaving Geneva has powerful consequences for the characters in the novel. After they met, Frankenstein’s father and mother moved to Geneva. When Victor was five, his father went to Milan, and returned with Elizabeth, the lifetime friend and nearly sister to Victor whom he marries.
When Victor returns to Geneva, everything seems to be different. His creation’s presence transforms his home, which earlier seemed to be a paradise, into a place of pain and chaos. Victor’s brother William is killed, and a life-long family servant is sentenced to death. Late in the novel, Victor...
(The entire section is 895 words.)
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Frankenstein is, in many ways, a tale of mixed identities. Thus it seems somehow fitting that tradition has always linked the name of Frankenstein with a monstrous being rather than with the mad scientist who created him. Yet in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, the original version of this popular story, Frankenstein is that scientist, and only on a symbolic level does the reader confuse him with his horrible creation. This is not the only pair of linked identities in the novel. The monster, as he is called here, serves as a kind of alter ego to each of the novel’s main characters—and even, finally, to its author. Shelley seems to sympathize more fully with the monster than with any other character.
Shelley structures the story like a Russian nesting doll: It is really a story within a story within a story. Robert Walton opens the tale, writing letters home to his sister as he embarks on a fantastic voyage of Arctic exploration. He hungers for a friend, a like-minded companion. Then, in his fourth letter, he describes how he has found a man out wandering on the ice, weak from exposure and malnourishment, and taken him into his ship. He sees in him the potential friend for whom he has longed. The man is Victor Frankenstein, and Walton lets him speak.
Victor recounts the story of his life, starting with his privileged childhood in Geneva, Switzerland. From an early age, he was obsessed with creating life. All science was, to him, the body of knowledge that gave human beings godlike powers. The intensity with which he pursued his studies made it nearly impossible for him to maintain closeness to his family and friends. His dear friend Henry Clerval did not see the danger in his studies. Elizabeth, his sister by informal adoption and eventually his betrothed, saw that his work was driving him to poor health and estranging him from his family, but she was powerless to bring him home.
(The entire section is 790 words.)
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The revival of scholarly interest in Frankenstein has directly paralleled the emergence and development of feminist literary scholarship. On the one hand, Shelley’s novel has perhaps been an obvious subject of study for those who investigate the separate tradition of literature by women. On the other hand, Frankenstein anticipated and provided many of the concerns that feminist scholars would have. It expresses the rage and pain felt by those who are left out, who are not allowed a full place in their own culture.
Mary Shelley tells the reader that she felt some pressure to be a writer: Both her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were celebrated writers, and it was expected that she would continue the tradition. Yet her introduction is full of apologies for her work, and one sees everywhere the marks of difficulties she had being taken seriously. Not the least of these is the preface that was written by Percy Shelley in her voice, in which he acknowledges that the “humble novelist” needs to explain why she might aspire to the heights of great poetry. Frankenstein represents, symbolically, both some of the pressures on a woman writer and her critique of the culture that has created her but sees her as its “monster.”
The female characters in Shelley’s novel do not offer any kind of model response to the failures enacted by the males. Only in the novel’s symbolic vocabulary, in its acts of violence and its sympathies for the most hideous of creatures, do readers find a program for change. This work by a woman in a “feminine” genre—the gothic novel—is complex enough to provide generations of readers and scholars with puzzles to unravel. On the whole, it is not Mary Shelley’s prose that readers have admired; in any case, scholars are not sure how much of it is hers and how much Percy Shelley’s, since he went over it and rewrote many of its sentences. The power of this novel lies in its plot and in its central characters, the monster and his creator. Here is Pygmalion with a vengeance—and written by a woman.
Ideas for Group Discussions
Volume 1: Letters 1-4 Questions and Answers
1. What does Robert Walton hope to accomplish on his voyage?
2. How did Walton prepare himself for the expedition?
3. What did Walton read for the first 14 years of his life?
4. How old is Robert Walton?
5. Why did the ship’s master decide not to get married?
6. How far is the ship from land when Walton sees the gigantic figure in the dogsled?
7. How does Walton describe his expedition when his new passenger asks about the ship’s destination?
8. How does Walton feel about the man he rescues?
9. Why is the man Walton rescues traveling alone on the ice?
10. How does Walton feel about...
(The entire section is 274 words.)
Volume 1: Chapters 1 and 2 Questions and Answers
1. How did Victor’s father spend his “younger days”?
2. While Victor was intrigued by science as a child, what were Elizabeth’s chief interests?
3. What did Henry Clerval write when he was nine years old?
4. Where does Victor first come across the works of Agrippa?
5. What does Victor witness during the thunderstorm?
6. Why doesn’t Henry Clerval attend the university with Victor?
7. What subject does Professor M. Krempe teach?
8. How does M. Waldman react when he hears the names of Agrippa and Paracelsus?
9. Before he leaves for the university, what does Victor hope to accomplish with his...
(The entire section is 267 words.)
Volume 1: Chapters 3, 4, and 5 Questions and Answers
1. After he begins his study of natural philosophy, how does Victor feel about M. Waldman?
2. How tall does Victor plan to make his creature?
3. How does Victor describe himself after his months of study?
4. In what month does Victor finally complete his experiment?
5. What color is the creature’s hair and lips?
6. After he brings the creature to life, who does Victor dream about meeting in Ingolstadt?
7. What does the creature do when he visits Victor in his bedroom?
8. As he wanders the streets of Ingolstadt, what poem does Victor quote?
9. After he recovers from his illness, how does Victor...
(The entire section is 253 words.)
Volume 1: Chapters 6 and 7 Questions and Answers
1. Who is Ernest Frankenstein?
2. Why did William hide from Ernest in Plainpalais?
3. Why did Elizabeth feel responsible for William’s murder?
4. How long has Victor been away from home, studying at Ingolstadt?
5. When Victor sees the creature in the Alps, why doesn’t he pursue it?
6. How has Elizabeth changed in the six years since Victor has seen her?
7. How does Justine look and behave during her trial?
8. How did Justine react when she was shown William’s body?
9. Whom does Victor consider to be the “true murderer” of William?
10. How does Elizabeth feel after she visits...
(The entire section is 256 words.)
Volume 2: Chapters 1 and 2 Questions and Answers
1. Where does the Frankenstein family move to after Justine is executed?
2. How does Victor spend his time at Belrive?
3. When does Victor like to sail his boat?
4. Besides sailing, what else does Victor consider doing at the lake?
5. How do Victor and his family travel to Chamonix?
6. What is Victor looking at when the creature appears?
7. What does Victor call the creature when he first sees him?
8. What happens when Victor tries to attack the creature?
9. Why does Victor agree to listen to the creature’s story?
10. What is the creature’s mood when he enters the hut with Victor?...
(The entire section is 230 words.)
Volume 2: Chapters 3, 4, and 5 Questions and Answers
1. What is the first food the creature eats when he goes into the forest?
2. What does the creature call the moon?
3. What weapons do the villagers use to attack the creature?
4. What does Agatha, the young girl, do after she finishes playing her musical instrument?
5. Why is the creature perplexed at first by the unhappiness of the peasant family?
6. Who is the saddest member of the peasant family?
7. Do Felix, Agatha, and their father realize it is the creature who is helping them?
8. How does Felix change when Safie arrives?
9. What pet name does Felix call his fiancée?
10. What book...
(The entire section is 283 words.)
Volume 2: Chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9 Questions and Answers
1. What French city did the De Laceys live in?
2. At the conclusion of his trial, what sentence does Safie’s father receive?
3. Why didn’t Safie’s father want her to marry Felix?
4. What does Safie take with her when she leaves Turkey?
5. What are the creature’s “chief delights” when he is living in the shed?
6. How does old De Lacey describe the hearts of men to the creature?
7. What does the De Lacey family do after their encounter with the creature?
8. What does the creature do to the De Laceys’ cottage?
9. What happens when the creature sees the young girl fall into the stream?...
(The entire section is 268 words.)
Volume 3: Chapters 1 and 2 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Victor want to go to England?
2. Why does Alphonse want Victor to marry Elizabeth?
3. How long does Victor plan to be away from Geneva?
4. What does Victor take with him on his trip?
5. What poem does Victor quote from as he describes the beautiful scenery on his trip?
6. In London, why does Clerval remind Victor of his “former self”?
7. Why does Victor agree to go to Scotland?
8. How does Victor feel when he and Henry visit Hampden’s tomb?
9. While he is traveling in Scotland, what does Victor fear the creature might do?
10. To what islands does Victor travel in...
(The entire section is 286 words.)
Volume 3: Chapters 3 and 4 Questions and Answers
1. Where does the creature go after Frankenstein destroys the female creature?
2. What do the fishermen deliver to Victor while he is sitting on the beach?
3. Does Victor ever reconsider his actions after he destroys the female creature?
4. Is Victor afraid when he is adrift at sea?
5. What language does Victor use to address the Irish people?
6. How does Victor describe Mr. Kirwin?
7. What did the fishermen do when they found Clerval’s body?
8. While he is delirious, what does Victor say that implicates him in the murder of Clerval?
9. What does the prison nurse tell Victor about his father?...
(The entire section is 286 words.)
Volume 3: Chapters 5 and 6 Questions and Answers
1. After he is released from prison, does Victor tell his father about the creature?
2. Why do Victor and Alphonse go to Paris?
3. Besides thinking that Victor may have found someone else, why does Elizabeth believe that Victor may not really want to marry her?
4. Does Elizabeth love Victor?
5. How does Victor behave in the days leading up to his wedding?
6. What does Victor think the monster plans to do on Victor’s wedding night?
7. Where do Victor and Elizabeth intend to live after their wedding?
8. How does Victor get back to Geneva from Evian?
9. How does the magistrate react when Victor tells...
(The entire section is 270 words.)
Volume 3: Chapter 7 Questions and Answers
1. As Victor pursues the creature, what is the one thing that gives him pleasure?
2. What clues does the creature leave for Victor?
3. What does the creature steal from the villagers by the sea?
4. Why is Victor stranded on the ice?
5. How does Victor move his ice raft towards Walton’s ship?
6. How is the creature’s soul described by Victor ?
7. In his youth, what did Victor think he was destined to achieve?
8. Is Margaret Saville married?
9. When Walton’s crew wants to return home, what does Victor advise them?
10. Although Frankenstein wanted to destroy the monster, in his speech...
(The entire section is 304 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Discussion
Ideas for Reports and Papers
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
For Further Reference
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Offers a wide variety of critical essays on the novel.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. An important early study that emphasizes Shelley’s response, as a woman writer, to John Milton.
Grylls, R. Glynn. Mary Shelley: A Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1938. Includes extensive discussion of events surrounding the writing of Frankenstein....
(The entire section is 266 words.)