In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, what is Dr. Frankenstein's goal at the beginning of the novel?
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein begins with a series of letters from an explorer named Robert Walton to his sister. Walton's ship has become mired in the frozen Arctic waters and his sense of isolation, physical and intellectual, is beginning to take a toll. It is in the fourth of this series of letters, however, that Shelley introduces the reader to the sense of foreboding that will color the narrative that follows. Walton and his crew view from afar a bizarre and disturbing site, ". . .a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature . . ." on a sled pulled by a team of dogs. The reader will soon enough learn that his mysterious figure is the creature Dr. Victor Frankenstein has been pursuing for quite some time. Not long after this strange appearance, Walton's ship is visited by Victor Frankenstein who, following his recovery from exposure and exhaustion, relates to his temporary savior the story of his life -- a life destroyed by his own inability to reconcile his moral reservations regarding tampering with nature and his intellectual need to experiment with the reanimation of dead tissue. In short, Dr. Frankenstein's goal at the beginning of the novel is the destruction of his creation, which has by now killed almost everyone of importance to his creator.
If the student's question was oriented towards Dr. Frankenstein's goal when he arrives at university as a brilliant but emotionally immature student, the aforementioned reanimation of dead tissue is the answer. The death of his beloved mother has deeply saddened the young man, and his interest in the concept of returning to life those who have died has its origins, at least in part, on this personal tragedy. It is in Chapter Four of Shelley's novel that she emphasizes her protagonist's growing obsession with fundamental questions of life and death. As the now-older Victor describes his frame of mind to Walton during his earlier years at university:
"One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?"
Frankenstein's obsession with understanding the transitions of life to death and the possibilities of reversing those transitions leads him to is macabre and self-destructive experiments culminating in the creation of "the wretch."