Frankenstein Volume 1: Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis
by Mary Shelley

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Volume 1: Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis

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...

(The entire section is 1,217 words.)