Volume 2: Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1561
Tormented by guilt and remorse after Justine’s death, Victor sinks into despair. His father tries to console him, but Victor’s terrible secret prevents him from taking any comfort in Alphonse’s words. After the Frankensteins retire to their country house in Belrive, Victor spends his nights alone on Lake Geneva. He often thinks of drowning himself but is unwilling to abandon his family to the malice of the creature. Victor’s only hope now lies in the thought of avenging William and Justine’s deaths by destroying his creation. Elizabeth, too, has fallen into a state of depression and disillusionment. Nevertheless, she attempts to comfort Victor and dissuade him from thoughts of revenge. Not even Elizabeth’s kind words, however, can bring Victor comfort, and instead he feels only fear that he might one day lose her.
One August day, Victor impulsively embarks on a journey toward the Alpine valley of Chamonix, hoping to find relief from his torment in the majesty of nature. About two months have passed since Justine’s execution. As he rides through the mountains and into the glacial valley, Victor finds his spirits lifted by the scenery, which he remembers from his childhood. His fear of the creature drops away as he contemplates the impressive scenery, which he regards as evidence of God’s omnipotence. Even so, he is still intermittently gripped by despair. Eventually he reaches the village of Chamonix, where he watches a lightning storm above Mont Blanc from the window of his room at the inn before falling into an exhausted sleep.
Victor spends a peaceful day roaming the beautiful valley, but the following morning he wakes up feeling melancholy. Though heavy rain and mist now obscure the mountains, he decides to ride out alone toward the summit of Montanvert. At one point, looking at his bleak surroundings, he thinks it would be better to be an animal than a human being. Around noon he arrives at the ascent, then crosses a glacier. As he pauses on the other side to take in the view, Victor feels his heart swell with joy and cries out to the “wandering spirits” of the mountains to either allow him this moment of happiness or take him away with them.
Just as he says this, Victor sees the creature coming toward him across the glacier. Though at first overcome with terror, he is quickly seized by rage and hatred. Addressing his creation as “Devil,” Victor threatens to avenge the deaths of his loved ones. The creature responds that he expected to be greeted by his creator in this manner, as all humans hate the “wretched,” and he himself is “wretched beyond any living thing.” He says he will leave Victor and his loved ones alone if Victor will comply with his conditions, but that if he refuses, the creature will continue to exact his revenge. At this Victor angrily attacks the creature, who easily moves out of the way. The creature tells Victor that, as his creator, he owes his creation fair treatment and even affection. Though the suffering and loneliness he has endured have made him a “fiend,” the creature says that he was originally loving and benevolent. He promises to return to become that way again if Victor will listen to his story and grant him his request. Moved by a combination of curiosity and compassion, Victor agrees to follow the creature to his hut, as he feels it is his duty to hear his creation’s tale.
When he first discovered the secret to instilling life, Victor naively envisioned himself as the beloved creator of a happy new species. Now, however, he finds himself responsible for the destruction of two innocent lives and the grief of his remaining family members. With Victor’s suffering, the meaning of Frankenstein’s subtitle—The Modern Prometheus—begins to become clear. In Greek myth, Prometheus was a Titan who created and cared for the human race. For his crime of stealing fire from the gods and giving it to human beings, Zeus condemned Prometheus to spend eternity chained to a rock while an eagle tore out his liver. Each night Prometheus’s liver grew back, and each day the eagle returned to tear it out again. When he first began his studies at Ingolstadt—and when he first began to build the creature—Victor imagined his work would make him, like Prometheus, a benefactor of humanity as well as the benevolent creator of a new race of beings. His “theft” of the ability to create life from nature or God can be compared to Prometheus’s theft of fire from Mount Olympus. Unlike Prometheus, Victor abandons the being he creates, but he suffers similar consequences for his daring: a long, slow, tortuous tearing away of his loved ones and an unbearable sense of guilt and remorse. As is foreshadowed at the end of Volume One, each time Victor recovers somewhat from his loss, his torment is rekindled by a new tragedy—just as each time Prometheus recovered from his wound, his punishment was repeated.
Victor’s deep emotions, contemplation of suicide, and quest for emotional healing in the rugged majesty of the Alps all fit into the Romantic tradition that influenced Mary Shelley. The rapture Victor feels amid the imposing mountains and glaciers of Switzerland echoes Walton’s passion for the stark beauty of the Arctic. For the Romantics, nature was divine, and Victor says the scenery around him “spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence.” While Victor aspired to attain godlike powers by creating the “daemon,” he now takes comfort in the feeling of being surrounded by evidence of an all-powerful Creator: “I ceased to fear, or to bend before any being less almighty than that which had created and ruled the elements, here displayed in their most terrific guise.” Interestingly, the Romantic view of nature as “sublime” (a word Victor uses to describe his surroundings several times in the text) was largely a reaction to the rationalization of the natural world that arose along with the rapid scientific advancement that characterized the Age of Enlightenment—the period during which Frankenstein takes place. Victor decided after seeing the oak tree struck by lightning that natural philosophy was pointless because nature was essentially unknowable, and his abandonment of his studies brought him peace. His obsessive ambition to reveal and master nature’s secrets at Ingolstadt, however, has brought him only misery. The naive belief he once had in his ability to achieve greatness has been lost, and as Victor climbs Montanvert, he even thinks it might be better to be an animal (a “brute”) than a man—a sentiment that will later be echoed by the creature. The poem Victor quotes to illustrate the ever-changing, unpredictable nature of human life, “Mutability,” was written by Mary Shelley’s husband, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The idea that human beings can be swayed, as Victor puts it, “by every wind that blows and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us,” fits with the impulsive nature of Victor’s past and future actions.
Just as Victor is starting to feel a sense of joyful exultation in his surroundings, the creature appears, just as he did when Victor exulted in the thunderstorm in Plainpalais. This time, though, the creature is deliberately seeking Victor out. Victor notes that the creature wears an anguished expression, but he ignores this, determined without ever having even spoken to his creation to fight him to the death and addressing him as “Devil.” The creature compares himself to Satan and Victor to God when he says, “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.” John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which retells the biblical story of Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve, will later be seen to have played a major part in the creature’s sense of self, and this will not be the last time the creature laments that Victor’s abandonment has left him more like Satan than Adam. The creature’s claim that he was originally benevolent but was made a “fiend” by misery, maltreatment, and alienation introduces the theme of nature versus nurture and the Romantic idea that people are born good. The isolation imposed upon the creature by his physical appearance—and Victor’s abandonment—mirrors the isolation Victor has imposed upon himself by keeping his terrible secret from his family. In this scene, the creature appears to be the more rational and eloquent one, beseeching his creator to listen to his story while Victor responds with rage and insults. The creature points out Victor’s hypocrisy when he observes that Victor created him only to now be prepared to kill him with a clear conscience. “How dare you sport thus with life?” he asks. In the creature’s view, he and Victor are bound together in a way that can only be undone by one of their deaths. When Victor at last agrees to listen to the creature’s tale, it is because he has begun at last to take some measure of responsibility for the creature’s existence and abandonment and to think about a creator’s duties toward his creation.