Study Guide

Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein Analysis

The Plot (Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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 creature learned to speak and to read during a long stay in a hovel attached to a poor farm familys hut. During his stay, he performed many kindnesses for the family and felt sympathy for their poverty. He befriended the old father, who was blind. As soon as other family members returned and saw him, they fled. In anger, the creature set their farm on fire.

He made his way to Geneva, saving a small child from drowning along the way. Every time he tried to perform an act of kindness, however, he caused a reaction of horror. On the mountaintop, the creature begs Frankenstein to make him a mate so he need not be lonely. Then, he says, he will leave humankind alone and live with his mate in seclusion. If not, he says, he will be with Frankenstein on his wedding night.

Frankenstein promises to make him a mate but questions his wisdom. He travels to England with his friend William Clerval, then goes alone to an isolated spot in Scotland to carry out his promise.

He cannot finish the job. He abandons it and prepares to return home. The creature, infuriated by Frankensteins unwillingness to keep a promise, kills Clerval, then returns to Geneva to kill Frankensteins bride, his adopted sister Elizabeth, on their wedding night.

The tragedy and the guilt are too much to bear. Frankenstein resolves to pursue the monster until one of them is dead. He travels by dogsled across the snowy expanses of Russia toward the North Pole. He is picked up by Robert Waltons ship during his pursuit and dies on the ship after telling Walton his story. The creature appears and tells Walton of his remorse for his deeds, then sets off into the cold to build his own funeral pyre.

Frankenstein Form and Content (Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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 Paris, they taught her to read, and the monster followed the lessons along with her. He had Victor Frankenstein’s journal and so learned of his creator. He also read John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) and identified with Satan, who was rejected by his creator and who seeks revenge by making war on humanity. Rejected by the DeLaceys when he revealed himself to them, the monster decided to travel to Geneva to find his creator. He murdered William when the latter feared and rejected him.

The monster explains to Victor that he is malicious only because he is isolated and miserable, and he persuades Victor to make him a mate. Victor goes to Scotland with Henry Clerval with this purpose in mind, only to destroy his half-finished female as the monster looks on. The monster retaliates by killing Clerval and by strangling Victor’s wife, Elizabeth, on their wedding night. Victor vows to pursue the creature relentlessly, as obsessed about killing him as he was about creating him. As his tale ends, the novel resumes its epistolary framework.

Walton relates the death of Victor Frankenstein. When he himself encounters the monster, he does not kill him as Victor requested but listens to the story from his perspective. The monster depicts himself as loving Victor and suffering deeply from remorse. He claims that he was created to be susceptible to love and sympathy and was wrenched apart when offered only misunderstanding, rejection, and violence. Promising to end his own life, the monster leaves Walton to ponder the meaning of the events that he has heard.

Frankenstein Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Arctic Circle

*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

*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 returns to Geneva for the last time to marry Elizabeth. When his creation kills Elizabeth on their wedding night, the transformation of Geneva into a hell on earth is complete.

*Ingolstadt

*Ingolstadt. City in Bavaria, Germany, where Victor Frankenstein entered the University of Ingolstadt when he was seventeen and to which he returns in later years. The university had a great deal of autonomy during the seventeenth century, and was known for its support of Enlightenment rationality. Few specifics are given about Ingolstadt itself. Frankenstein studies there and escapes the stabilizing influence of his family but connects only with his professors, not with a community or place. There he learns modern chemistry from his professor Monsieur Waldman, which he blends with his earlier knowledge of alchemy to create life. Once he does, Ingolstadt becomes essentially haunted; Victor wanders its streets, afraid of his creature. Only the arrival of Henry Clerval, his old friend from Geneva, calms him.

*Mont Blanc

*Mont Blanc. Highest mountain in the Alps, to which Victor retreats when he is upset by the thought that his creation has caused the deaths of William and Justine. While gazing upon the awful beauty of Mont Blanc, he speaks aloud to the spirit of the place, which seems so pure. His creation answers, indicating that no place is free of the taint Frankenstein his created. The mountain’s glacier becomes a courtroom of natural philosophy as the creature accuses Victor of defaulting on his responsibilities as creator.

Cottage

Cottage. Home of a poor family in which the creature observes human interaction. When the creature tells the story of his life since his creation, the cottage where he observes a family, is central to it. He learns to speak by listening to the cottage’s inhabitants, and from them he learns about the possibility of love. Before this time, he is ignorant as an animal, but now, he becomes a tortured soul. Observing the small society in the cottage brings him close enough to humanity to realize what he is denied.

*London

*London. Capital of Great Britain to which Victor Frankenstein goes to investigate another scientist’s discoveries before he can meet the creature’s demand that he make him a woman to be his companion. In London, Victor establishes a lab, and begins work, but he and Clerval also travel throughout England and Scotland. Their travels are idyllic, but everywhere they go, Victor is sure the creature follows him.

*Scotland

*Scotland. Country to which Victor goes to continue his work because it is farther from civilization. There he works on a mate for the creature then reconsiders and destroys it. The creature appears at that moment, confirming Victor’s fears that he has been followed. When Victor tries to sail home, he gets lost at sea and almost dies, symbolizing the danger inherent in his unchecked scientific explorations.

*Ireland

*Ireland. Country in which Victor is arrested for the murder of his friend Clerval, whom the monster has killed, after he lands there and goes ashore to ask for directions. While he is jailed in Ireland, he falls into a guilty fever for months. His imprisonment in this remote land confirms his growing fear that there is no place to which he can go to escape responsibility for his actions.

Frankenstein Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

After years of nearly frenzied study, Victor was ready. Robbing body parts from graves, he constructed a monstrous form. Finally, one stormy October night, he brought it to life. Yet when he saw his creature reaching out toward him, trying to smile, Victor rushed from the building, unable to take on the creature as his own charge. By the time he returned to his rooms the next day, accompanied by Clerval, the monster was gone. Victor became feverish, and Clerval nursed him back to health over some months.

When Victor returned home to his family and to Elizabeth, he was greeted by news that brought his feelings of dread into painful focus: His younger brother William had been found murdered. Authorities had arrested Justine Moritz, a beloved and trusted young servant, on circumstantial evidence. Victor, walking mournfully on Mont Blanc one stormy night, saw the monster’s form suddenly illuminated by a flash of lightning on a far peak, and he understood: The monster had killed his brother. Later, in agony, he watched as Justine was convicted and executed for the crime. Another stormy night in the mountains, the monster approached Victor closely enough for them to converse and begged him to hear his story. Victor agreed.

At this point, the monster becomes the narrator, as the reader hears how he told his own, very different life story. He told of eking out a miserable existence, of terrifying everyone who saw him, and of learning to hide, watch, and listen. He told of finding a kind of shed attached to a hut occupied by a family; from them, listening through the cracks in the wall, he learned to speak and to read. He told of reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost and other books, and of coming to understand the intense pain of his solitude. Finally, he asked Victor to create a partner for him and promised to leave him alone forever if he would.

Victor agreed to create a mate for the monster but found himself unable to follow through with it. For the rest of the novel, he tells how he and the monster engaged in a deadly cat-and-mouse game. First the monster killed Clerval. Then Victor believed that the monster was hunting him but learned on his wedding night that he was to suffer rather than die: The monster killed his beloved Elizabeth on the bridal bed. Victor then pursued him to the Arctic wasteland in which Walton has found him.

As Victor finishes his tale, he warns Walton to learn from his example—and then he dies. At that moment, the monster enters, mourns the loss of his creator, and announces his own imminent suicide by self-immolation. He then vanishes into the darkness.

Frankenstein Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

Frankenstein Historical Context

Mary Shelley Published by Gale Cengage

The French Revolution and the Rise of Industrialism
Most of the early Romantic waters strongly advocated the French...

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Frankenstein Literary Techniques

Shelley uses an important literary technique — the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Walton tells the whole story of Frankenstein and...

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Frankenstein Ideas for Group Discussions

Approaches to discussing Frankenstein are numerous. It can be looked at by itself as a work of literary art. Note the imagery and how...

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Frankenstein Setting

The setting of the novel ranges all over Europe, emphasizing places with which Shelley herself was familiar: Italy, Switzerland, Germany,...

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Frankenstein Quizzes

Volume 1: Letters 1-4 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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

Study Questions
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

Study Questions
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

Study Questions
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...

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Volume 2: Chapters 1 and 2 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?...

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Volume 2: Chapters 3, 4, and 5 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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

Study Questions
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

Study Questions
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

Study Questions
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

Study Questions
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

Study Questions
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.)