Last Updated on April 25, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1217
In Chapter One, Victor Frankenstein assumes the role of narrator as Walton records his story.
Victor reveals that he belongs to a distinguished family from Geneva, Switzerland. His father, Alphonse, was a respected politician, one of whose closest friends was a successful merchant named Beaufort. After unexpectedly falling into poverty, Beaufort fled in shame to the town of Lucerne along with his daughter, Caroline. Once there, he became too depressed and ill to look for work, leaving Caroline to care for him and earn their meager income plaiting straw. Ten months later, Beaufort died. Alphonse, having finally discovered where his friend had fled, found Caroline weeping by her father’s coffin. Alphonse took Caroline back to Geneva, where he placed her under the care of his relatives. Two years later, Alphonse and Caroline married. Alphonse revered Caroline for her goodness and dedicated his life to helping her recover from the hardships she had endured. After their wedding, they traveled to Italy, where Victor was born.
Victor’s childhood is a blissful time: his parents are kind and loving, and the family travels often. When he is five, they take a trip to the region of Northern Italy near Lake Como, where his parents—who often pay charitable visits to the poor—notice a particularly impoverished-looking cottage. Caroline and Victor eventually meet the hardworking peasant couple who live there with several children, one of whom is an angelic-looking girl named Elizabeth Lavenza. Caroline learns that Elizabeth is the orphaned daughter of a Milanese nobleman and decides to adopt her. Elizabeth is loved by everyone and becomes to Victor his “more than sister,” whom he regards as his own cherished possession. The two children call each other “cousin.”
As they grow up, Victor and Elizabeth continue to have a close relationship, which draws much of its harmony from their complementary personalities: Elizabeth has a calm disposition and is satisfied with contemplating the beauty of poetry and nature, while Victor is more intense and regards the natural world with a fervent curiosity. Caroline and Alphonse eventually have two more sons, and the family settles in Switzerland permanently, spending most of their time at their country estate in Belrive. At school, Victor finds himself uninterested in most of his classmates but forms a close friendship with a boy named Henry Clerval. While Victor is fascinated by learning the secrets of the natural world, Clerval is concerned with chivalry, adventure, and heroism. Elizabeth, meanwhile, exerts a positive influence on them both with her “saintly soul.”
When Victor is thirteen, he makes a fateful discovery at an inn during a family vacation: a volume of the works of the medieval alchemist Cornelius Agrippa. Victor finds Agrippa’s ideas exciting, but when he shows the book to his father, Alphonse dismisses it as “sad trash” without further explanation. Victor’s passion for Agrippa only grows, however, and when he returns home, he devours similar works by Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. Dissatisfied with the sense that modern scientists like Isaac Newton appear to have gained only a tiny glimpse of the secrets of nature, Victor is fascinated by the deeper knowledge these medieval writers seem to have possessed. His imagination is captured above all by the idea of eradicating disease and death by discovering the elixir of life.
At fifteen, during a violent thunderstorm, Victor sees a beautiful old oak tree on his family’s property destroyed by lightning. A man knowledgeable about natural philosophy happens to be staying with the Frankensteins at the time and explains a new theory about electricity and galvanism that seems to Victor infinitely more impressive than the ideas of the alchemists. Disillusioned, Victor decides to abandon natural philosophy entirely, judging it a waste of time, and begins to study mathematics instead. This change brings him peace, and he now regards the decision to give up natural philosophy as the work of his guardian angel. Unfortunately, Victor tells Walton, his guardian angel proved no match for Destiny, who had already decided upon his downfall.
Victor describes his childhood as idyllic: he comes from a wealthy and loving family, enjoys the peaceful beauty of the Swiss countryside, and has a passionate interest in the world around him. Most importantly, Victor has close relationships with his kindhearted parents, Caroline and Alphonse; his “saintly” adopted sister, Elizabeth; and his adventurous, imaginative best friend, Clerval. The Frankenstein family isn’t untouched by sorrow, however. Victor’s parents were brought together by the impoverishment and death of Caroline’s father, and Elizabeth was left orphaned by the death or imprisonment of her father and raised by poor peasants. Victor himself is an introverted young man who feels isolated from the other boys at school until he strikes up a friendship with Clerval. Love, family, and friendship are portrayed as remedies for all life’s ills.
As he looks back on his happy childhood, however, Victor sees the earliest origins of the tragedy that would destroy his happiness beyond any remedy. His all-consuming interest in the medieval alchemists illustrates his obsessiveness, a trait Victor will later display to a much greater degree. Central to his character are Victor’s dissatisfaction with the limitations of modern science; his desire to attain “real” knowledge of the secrets of nature, life, and death; and his dreams of achieving glory by making discoveries that will benefit humankind. In his youth, his intense and restless passion for discovering scientific knowledge is balanced by Clerval’s focus on the “moral relations of things,” as well as by Elizabeth’s kindness, gentleness, and contentment with appreciating rather than striving to understand nature.
As a child (and in keeping with Victorian gender norms), Victor regarded Elizabeth as his rightful possession, one that he cherished above all else. His statement to Walton that “till death she was to be mine only” foreshadows the tragic events that will be revealed later in the novel, events Victor attributes to “Destiny.” Victor will continue to refer to fate and destiny throughout his narrative, as though the consequences of his actions—or inaction—are preordained and unavoidable. It is also significant that Victor attributes his abandonment of the sciences to the work of his “guardian angel.”
Lightning like that which destroys the oak tree at Belrive will recur several times in the story, often in connection with Victor’s emotions and with the creature he will eventually bring to life. Galvanism, the theory explained to Victor by the Frankensteins’ houseguest after the storm, was a popular topic during the early 1800s, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Developed by Italian scientist Luigi Galvani in the late 1700s, galvanism centered on the idea that dead bodies could be reanimated by being stimulated with an electrical current. Victor is so impressed by what his guest tells him about galvanism that he abandons the alchemists, which leads him to become disillusioned with natural philosophy as a whole. Giving up natural philosophy brings Victor peace, but not for long. At the end of the chapter, Victor foreshadows the disasters his scientific career will bring about with another reference to fate: “It [his abandonment of natural philosophy] was a strong effort of the spirit of good; but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.”
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