Last Updated on April 25, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2221
When Victor is seventeen, his parents decide to send him to school at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. His departure is delayed, however, when Elizabeth becomes gravely ill with scarlet fever. Victor’s mother is able to nurse Elizabeth back to health but contracts the illness herself in the process. On her deathbed, she tells Victor and Elizabeth that she has always hoped they would one day marry. After his mother’s death, Victor mourns with his family for several weeks. He spends the last evening before his departure with Clerval, who wanted to study at the university with Victor but was prevented from doing so by his merchant father. In the morning, Victor says a fond farewell to Clerval and his family and leaves for Ingolstadt in a melancholy mood, knowing he will miss them and not looking forward to being in the company of strangers. Eventually, though, he begins to feel excited about the knowledge he expects to acquire at the university.
His first morning in Ingolstadt, Victor goes to visit various professors. Driven, in his older self’s view, by the “Angel of Destruction,” he starts with a professor of natural philosophy called M. Krempe. The professor is horrified to learn that Victor’s previous study of science revolved around the medieval alchemists. He invites Victor to attend a series of lectures to be given by himself and, on alternating days, by a chemistry professor called M. Waldman. Victor is disinclined to go, as he finds M. Krempe conceited and unpleasant. Moreover, though Victor can no longer believe in the medieval theories that once fascinated him, he finds modern natural philosophy to be a disappointing, limited endeavor. The next week, however, he decides to sit in on a lecture by M. Waldman and finds his imagination ignited by the charismatic professor’s praise for the achievements of modern chemistry. Victor lies awake that night, resolved to return to his study of the sciences and to “unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” The next day he visits M. Waldman at home. The professor receives him kindly and, on hearing of his study of the alchemists, praises them for having inspired much of modern science, even though their theories have been disproven. Careful to conceal just how enthusiastic he is, Victor tells the professor he has decided to study chemistry. M. Waldman advises Victor to study every branch of the sciences, shows him around his laboratory, and lends him books. Victor later regards this day as having decided his destiny.
For the next two years, Victor devotes himself entirely to the study of natural philosophy, particularly chemistry. He often works in his laboratory late into the night. M. Waldman becomes his mentor, and Victor is even able to find value in M. Krempe’s lectures despite the professor’s abrasiveness. He makes rapid progress in his studies and wins acclaim at the university for his accomplishments, and at the end of two years he has learned all he can from his professors. Just as he is considering returning home, however, Victor becomes completely consumed by a monumental new discovery. For some time now he has attempted with “almost supernatural enthusiasm” to discover the source of the life force by studying corpses, a pursuit that, while unpleasant, has left him largely unbothered due to the lack of superstition with which he was raised. Now, finally, he has succeeded not only in discovering the cause of life but the secret of giving life to “lifeless matter.” After spending some time contemplating his new power, Victor excitedly begins the task of creating a human being, who he decides will be a huge eight-foot-tall man. He imagines himself the creator of a new species who will owe him their happiness and gratitude, and hopes he might one day even succeed in bringing the dead back to life. Completely obsessed with his task, Victor works nonstop in his laboratory with body parts he collects from graves, charnel-houses, slaughterhouses, and dissecting rooms, ignoring the disgust he sometimes feels for his work. During this time he neglects both the beauty of nature and his correspondence with his loved ones in Geneva, becoming more anxious and unhealthy all the time.
Late one November night, Victor finally succeeds in bringing his creation to life. The instant the creature opens one of its yellow eyes, Victor is overcome by horror and revulsion. Though he tried to make the creature beautiful, he now finds it hideous, and the dream he worked so hard to achieve becomes a nightmare. He runs into his bedroom and eventually falls asleep, only to wake up terrified from a nightmare about Elizabeth’s death and his mother’s corpse. Not only that, but his creation is standing at his bedside, staring down at him while muttering and grinning. The creature extends a hand toward him as if asking him to stay, but Victor rushes out into the courtyard, where he paces all night in anguish.
In the morning, Victor walks the streets of Ingolstadt, too afraid to return to his apartment. Outside the inn he unexpectedly runs into Clerval. Victor is overjoyed to see his friend—the first happiness he has felt in months. Clerval tells Victor his father has consented to let him study at the university. He expresses concern about how thin and pale Victor has become, and Victor tells him he hopes the work that has led him to that state is now at an end. When they reach Victor’s apartment, Victor fearfully runs upstairs to see if the creature is still there and is relieved to find the apartment empty. As he and Clerval have breakfast together, Victor alarms his old friend with his wild, restless behavior. Hallucinating that the creature is in the room, he falls unconscious from fear. From that point Victor remains ill for several months, frequently raving about his creation while Clerval nurses him back to health. When he recovers, Clerval tells Victor his family longs to receive a letter from him and that one arrived from Elizabeth a few days ago.
Caroline’s death is the first real tragedy seventeen-year-old Victor has ever experienced, but it will be far from the last—or the worst. Telling his story to Walton, Victor recalls the loss of his mother to scarlet fever as “an omen, as it were, of my future misery.” The fact that Victor is able to obtain solace for his grief from his family members (particularly from Elizabeth) and, eventually, to return to his everyday duties sharply contrasts with how Victor will grieve his later losses. It is in keeping with Victor’s characterization of his mother as infinitely kind, caring, and fond of her adopted daughter that Caroline contracts scarlet fever by taking care of Elizabeth. Her dying wish—that Victor and Elizabeth will marry, and that their marriage will console Alphonse in his old age—will remain a significant part of the story. Victor’s first experience of the “most irreparable evil” of losing a loved one likely influences his obsessive need to understand the secrets of life and death.
Though reluctant to leave his family when he sets out for Ingolstadt, Victor says he “ardently desired the acquisition of knowledge”—a desire that has been with him throughout his youth and that will soon become an all-consuming obsession. Victor attributes the events of his life to fate when he says he is directed to his natural philosophy professor M. Krempe by “Chance—or rather, the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction, which asserted omnipotent sway over me from the moment I turned my reluctant steps from my father’s door.” Victor has been avoiding natural philosophy ever since he realized the medieval theories could never hold up to modern science, and M. Krempe’s “repulsive countenance” and harsh condemnation of the alchemists do not encourage him to take up the subject again. More than anything, however, Victor is motivated to avoid natural philosophy by his belief that modern scientists, rather than looking for something glorious like the elixir of life, are engaged in nothing more than dismissing all the grand ideas that interested him in science in the first place. When Victor hears the much more likeable M. Waldman lecture on the “miracles” that have been achieved and the “almost unlimited powers” that have been gained by modern chemists, however, his seemingly unavoidable passion for science is rekindled. M. Waldman speaks about chemistry in terms similar to those in which Victor recounts his initial fascination with the alchemists: although they have disproved the possibility of transmuting metal into gold or brewing an elixir of life, modern scientists “penetrate into the recesses of nature”; they “command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.” Victor is intoxicated by the possibility of attaining and even surpassing these godlike powers. Frankenstein takes place during the Age of Enlightenment—a time of prolific scientific experimentation and discovery—and the prevailing mood that anything might be possible through science is reflected in M. Waldman’s passionate lecture on chemistry and Victor’s enthusiastic response to it. It is worth noting that the Romantic movement, with which Mary Shelley is associated, was conceived in opposition to Enlightenment ideals.
Victor’s strong admiration of M. Waldman’s “benevolent” expression, “sweet” voice, eloquent words, “attractive” manners, and kind nature echo Walton’s admiration of similar qualities in Victor. Perhaps M. Waldman is the kind of man of science Victor could have become if destiny (as Victor sees it) had not had other plans. He refers to M. Waldman’s lecture as “the words of . . . fate” and says of the day he visits the professor’s home, “it decided my future destiny.” Perhaps most significant is M. Waldman’s statement that “ ‘The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.’ ” Victor certainly wants to gain personal glory from his scientific pursuits, but he also hopes to benefit humanity through his discoveries. Unfortunately, his single-minded ambition to “unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” is about to horrific results. The fact that Victor struggles against his scientific ambition as though against “a palpable enemy” after hearing M. Waldman’s lecture provides further foreshadowing that Victor’s unstoppable ambition will lead to his tragic downfall.
Victor does not disclose the exact nature of the discovery he makes or of how he brings the creature to life, but many critics believe Shelley intends to imply that Victor uses galvanism, or stimulating dead bodies with an electric current. It is possible to interpret the lecture on galvanism that so impresses Victor in Chapter Two as foreshadowing his later application of the theory. Victor describes himself as being “animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm” while building the creature, and though he believes he is doing work that will benefit society and bring him glory, this enthusiasm—or obsession—leads Victor to isolate himself and ignore his family, social life, and health, along with his ever-increasing anxiety and the “loathing” he sometimes feels for the grisly details of his work. Victor also ignores the beauty of nature that was so important to the Romantic tradition and to his own youthful happiness in Geneva. Instead, he tries to assert power over nature by manipulating the natural forces of life and death.
The moment it is brought to life, the creature’s ugliness leads Victor to see his creation as a monster or demon, one which he abandons without even giving it a name or attempting to interact with it. His dreams of glory and beneficence are crushed at the very moment they are realized, and his nightmare of turning Elizabeth into a corpse with his kiss foreshadows the further destructive consequences of his actions. When the creature appears at Victor’s bedside in the moonlight, Victor ignores the creature’s attempt to “detain” him with one outstretched hand and instead flees, thereby completely abandoning responsibility for his creation. It is significant that the creature appears in the light of the moon, with which he will remain associated throughout the novel. The “dismal” rain that falls from a “black and comfortless sky” while Victor wanders the streets of Ingolstadt in misery the next morning is one of Frankenstein’s many examples of the pathetic fallacy, or the attribution of human feelings to inanimate objects or elements of nature such as the weather—a literary technique frequently employed by the Romantics. And just as Walton did in an earlier letter to Margaret, Victor quotes Romantic poet Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in his case to describe the “fear and dread” he felt while walking through Ingolstadt that night, knowing that “a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread.”
When Clerval arrives in Ingolstadt and nurses Victor back to health, Victor slowly finds himself reconnecting with everything he ignored during the two years he spent building the creature: friendship, happiness, and, as the dismal winter gives way to a “divine spring,” the natural world and the spiritual comfort it provides. He keeps the cause of his illness secret from Clerval, however, and still experiences terror at the thought of his creation.
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