Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tells the story of scientist Victor Frankenstein’s creation of a monster and the disaster and woe that result.
- Victor Frankenstein, telling his story to explorer Robert Walton, explains that he assembled a creature out of body parts, brought it to life, and fled in terror.
- The creature was rejected by humans and came to realize the horror of his existence, blaming Victor.
- The creature began to hunt down and kill Victor’s loved ones and pursued Victor to the Arctic.
- Victor dies on Walton’s ship. The creature wanders into the Arctic alone after Victor's death and plans to end his life there.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2408
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins with a series of letters from English explorer Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville. Walton has traveled to Russia to fulfill his lifelong dream of embarking on a voyage to the Arctic, where he hopes to make important scientific discoveries. After sailing steadily north for a while, Walton and his crew find themselves surrounded by ice and witness a strange sight: a huge man in a dogsled speeding across the frozen sea. The next day they rescue a different, emaciated man who is stranded on a sheet of ice with the remnants of a dogsled beside him. This man is later revealed to be Victor Frankenstein. Victor is near death and remains unable to speak for several days. Walton nurses him back to health in his cabin, and as the two men become acquainted, Walton grows to love and admire his mysterious, melancholy guest. Victor is clearly suffering from some terrible loss, and he reveals that he came to the Arctic to pursue the huge man Walton saw previously. After Walton tells him that he is willing to sacrifice anything to achieve his scientific ambitions, Victor decides to tell the captain the story of his life, which Walton records.
In the first part of his tale, Victor spends an idyllic childhood in Geneva, Switzerland, with his loving upper-class family. He enjoys particularly close relationships with his adopted sister, Elizabeth, and his best friend, Henry Clerval. At an early age he develops a passion for natural philosophy, and he spends his adolescence devouring the works of the medieval alchemists, dreaming of discovering the elixir of life. When he realizes how outdated the alchemists’ theories are in comparison to modern theories, however, he becomes disillusioned and gives up his study of the sciences entirely.
When he is seventeen, Victor’s parents decide to send him to school at the University of Ingolstadt. But just before he is scheduled to leave, his mother, Caroline, dies of scarlet fever. After spending time mourning with his family, Victor travels to Ingolstadt as planned. There he meets professor of biology M. Krempe and professor of chemistry M. Waldman, who inspires him to resume his study of the sciences. For the next four years, Victor applies himself to his studies with a passion, driven by an ambition to reveal the mysteries of nature, life, and death, and winning acclaim for his achievements. He is particularly fascinated by the idea of discovering how to create life. Just as he is about to return home to Geneva, his experiments finally succeed. Victor spends the next two years assembling an eight-foot-tall man out of parts taken from cadavers. When he succeeds in bringing his creation to life, however, Victor is so horrified by the creature’s hideous appearance that he runs away. After wandering the streets of Ingolstadt all night, Victor runs into Henry Clerval, who has arrived to begin his own course of study at the university. When the friends return to Victor’s apartment, Victor is relieved to find the creature gone, but he remains so agitated that he falls into a months-long state of fever and delirium. Clerval nurses him back to health.
Just as Victor is beginning to feel like his old self again, he receives word that his youngest brother, William, has been murdered. He returns to Geneva for the first time in six years. While walking through Plainpalais, where William was killed, Victor sees the creature he brought to life scaling a steep mountain. He becomes convinced that his creature is responsible for the murder. When he arrives home, however, Victor’s family tells him their beloved servant, Justine Moritz, has been accused of the crime. Victor expresses his disbelief but chooses to keep quiet about the creature, fearing he would be thought mad if he were to tell his story and believing that Justine will be acquitted. But Justine is found guilty, largely because a valuable necklace that Elizabeth lent to William to wear on the night of the murder—and that was missing from William’s corpse—was found in Justine’s clothes. Justine is hanged, and Victor is racked with guilt.
After Justine’s execution, Victor attempts to relieve his inner turmoil by riding alone through the Alps to the valley of Chamounix. On a nearby glacier, he is approached by the creature, who asks Victor to listen to his story. Though initially filled with rage and hatred for his creation, Victor agrees to accompany the creature to his hut and hear his tale.
The creature tells Victor that on the night he was brought to life, he made his way into the forest near Ingolstadt, where he lived on roots and berries. After being chased out of a village he had wandered into in search of food and shelter, he hid in a hovel attached to a small cottage in the woods. The cottage was inhabited by a loving family consisting of two siblings, Felix and Agatha; their blind father, whom the creature calls by his and his children’s last name, De Lacey; and, later, Felix’s fiancee, Safie. For nearly two years, the creature secretly observed and did favors for the cottagers, whom he grew to deeply admire. He learned that the De Laceys had once been respected members of the Parisian upper class but were exiled after Felix helped a wrongfully convicted Turkish merchant escape from prison. Felix and the merchant’s daughter, Safie, had fallen in love, and instead of returning to Constantinople with her father, Safie had run away in order to reunite with Felix. The creature was moved by this story, as well as by the stories of virtuous Greeks and Romans he heard Felix read aloud to Safie. He learned to speak, read, and write French, enabling him to read books he found in the forest (including John Milton’s Paradise Lost) and Victor’s journal, which he found in the pocket of a coat he had taken from Victor’s apartment. When he read the journal, the creature was horrified to learn about his origins and his abandonment by his creator. Tormented by loneliness and longing above all to be accepted into the cottagers’ family in spite of his frightening appearance, the creature eventually introduced himself to De Lacey, who showed him compassion. But when Felix, Agatha, and Safie saw them together, Felix attacked the creature, and the cottagers moved away the next day. The anguished creature burned the empty cottage before setting out to find Victor, whom he holds responsible for his suffering.
In the woods on the way to Geneva, the creature saved a child from drowning in a river and was shot in the arm by the child’s guardian. This incident filled him with feelings of hatred and vengeance toward humanity. Then, in Plainpalais, he encountered William and seized him with the intention of making him his companion. When the creature learned that the boy was a member of the Frankenstein family, he strangled him to death in order to make Victor suffer. He then took the necklace William was wearing, attracted by the beautiful miniature of Caroline Frankenstein. When he saw Justine Moritz asleep in a nearby barn, the creature planted the necklace on her so that she would be forced to pay for his crime.
After telling his story, the creature has one request for Victor: he wants Victor to create him a female companion who, being as ugly as himself, will not reject him. If Victor consents, the creature and his mate will live a peaceful life far away from humanity in South America. If Victor refuses, however, the creature will continue to destroy Victor’s life and murder his loved ones. Victor reluctantly agrees to the creature’s terms and returns to Geneva.
At home in Geneva, Victor puts off his promise to the creature. His father, Alphonse—who, along with Victor’s mother, always hoped Victor and Elizabeth would one day marry—suggests Victor marry Elizabeth now in order to raise everyone’s spirits. Victor loves Elizabeth but realizes he needs to fulfill his promise to the creature before marrying her. He decides to travel to England to speak to scientists who have made new discoveries he believes will help him with his task. He also plans to find a remote place where he can assemble the female creature. Accompanied by Clerval, Victor sails to London, where he reluctantly begins to gather information and materials. Clerval, meanwhile, enthusiastically sets about securing a career in England’s trade with India. When the two are invited to Scotland by a mutual acquaintance, Victor accompanies Clerval on the journey north and leaves him with their acquaintance in Perth. He then travels to the Orkney Islands, where he rents a hut in an isolated corner of the archipelago and begins to assemble a female creature.
One night when the new creature is near completion, Victor begins to ponder the possible consequences of his current work: the two creatures might wreak havoc together or even begin a new race of monsters that would threaten humankind. When he suddenly sees the creature’s face at the window, Victor destroys the creature’s unfinished mate. Devastated and enraged, the creature confronts Victor and swears revenge. Ominously, he tells Victor to remember that he will be with him on his wedding night. The next day, Victor receives a letter from Clerval asking him to travel to Perth so the two can return to London together, and Victor prepares to leave. Late that night he rows out to sea and throws the remains of the female creature overboard, then falls asleep in the boat. When he wakes up the next day, he realizes he is lost at sea and can do nothing but let the wind carry him. Eventually he reaches a harbor, where he is told that he has arrived in Ireland and must report to the local magistrate, Mr. Kirwin, on suspicion of murder. When he does so, several witnesses describe having found a young man’s dead body on the beach and having seen a man nearby in Victor’s boat. When he is shown the dead body, Victor realizes it belongs to Clerval, and he cries out in horror that he has destroyed his friend. Victor is then thrown in jail, where he lies delirious with fever. Two months later, he begins to recover, and his father, summoned by the sympathetic Mr. Kirwin, arrives from Geneva.
Victor is found innocent based on his presence on the Orkneys at the time of the murder, but he remains overwhelmed by guilt, depressed to the verge of suicide, and dependent on the laudanum he was administered while ill in prison. He and Alphonse return to Geneva, where Elizabeth is the only person able to somewhat lessen Victor’s misery. Though he still believes the creature intends to murder him on his wedding night, Victor agrees to marry Elizabeth as planned and looks forward to the marriage with a mixture of hope and fear. After their wedding, the couple travel to the town of Evian, where they stay at an inn. That night, seized by anxiety, Victor tells Elizabeth to wait for him in a separate room, then paces around the inn keeping watch for the creature. He hears a scream and runs into Elizabeth’s room to find her dead and the creature at the window. Search parties set out to track down the creature but are unsuccessful, and Victor returns to Geneva to ensure the safety of his remaining family members. He finds his father and his younger brother, Ernest, safe, but Alphonse falls ill when he learns of Elizabeth’s death and dies a few days later. Victor then suffers a mental breakdown and is confined to an asylum for several months.
After his release, Victor brings his case before a magistrate, demanding the creature be tracked down and brought to justice. When the magistrate appears skeptical of his story, however, Victor decides to leave Geneva and seek vengeance on his own. He pays a visit to his family tomb on the night of his departure, where the creature taunts him before disappearing into the darkness. Victor follows, beginning a pursuit that leads him into the wilderness of Russia and what was then known as Tartary. The creature leaves him food and clues, including notes written on tree bark and rocks in which the creature taunts Victor and commands him to follow him into the Arctic. Eventually Victor arrives at the Arctic Ocean, where he pursues the creature across the frozen sea in a dogsled. Just as he is beginning to gain on the creature, the ice breaks, separating them, and Victor is cast adrift on a floating sheet of ice. After several hours, he is rescued by Walton and his crew. Finished with his tale, he asks Walton to complete his revenge if he should die.
Walton, resuming his role as narrator, relates that he continues to admire Victor and that he wishes he could convince his ailing guest to continue living. Victor, while grateful to Walton, is resigned to his fate; he wants only to fulfill his task of destroying the creature and to be reunited with his loved ones in death. When the ship becomes immured in ice, Victor delivers a rousing speech in which he exhorts both captain and crew to continue their voyage north, but Walton eventually agrees to the sailors’ demand that they turn the ship around at the first opportunity rather than risk further danger. The ice breaks several days later, and Walton and his crew set a course for England. Victor, whose health has been rapidly declining, tells Walton that all feelings of hatred and vengeance have left him, but he still believes the creature should be destroyed. He dies later that same day.
That night, Walton finds the creature standing over Victor’s body. In spite of the terrible injustice he feels he has been shown by human beings, the creature laments having destroyed Victor’s life and says he is tormented by remorse and self-loathing. He tells Walton he plans to travel as far north as possible, where he will build himself a funeral pyre and finally die. The creature then leaps out the window and onto a sheet of ice, disappearing into the night.