At a Glance

  • Frankenstein is an epistolary novel told in the form of letters from Robert Walton to his sister. In this letter, Walton recounts Victor Frankenstein's life story as it was told to him before Victor died. Victor tells his story in the first person, giving readers direct access to his thoughts and emotions.
  • Frankenstein alludes to John Milton's Paradise Lost and to the Biblical figure of Satan. The Creature identifies with Satan not because of his evil but because Satan, too, was cast aside by his creator. The Creature's bitterness drives him to murder.
  • Death is an important theme in the novel. The Creature is quite literally made of dead body parts that have been reanimated, giving him a monstrous and terrifying appearance. Revenge leads the Creature to lash out at Victor and kill those close to him, including his friend Henry and his wife Elizabeth.


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The structure of Frankenstein is epistolary, a popular novel framework in the nineteenth century that might be unfamiliar to contemporary readers. The story consists of letters from Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville. At first, they contain incidents of his own Arctic exploration and reveal him as a man obsessed with a “love for the marvellous” that lures him from mundane pursuits that would anchor him to humanity. When he encounters Victor Frankenstein, the epistolary framework dissolves, and Victor tells his tale in the first person.

Growing up in a wealthy Geneva household, Victor passes a happy childhood in the company of Elizabeth Lavenza and Henry Clerval. At seventeen, he enters the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, where he is determined to discover the origin of life. He succeeds in animating a piecework human body, but he is horrified and flees from the creature that he has fashioned. Two years later, after he receives news that his brother William has been murdered, Victor sees the monster and intuitively knows him to be the murderer. Victor remains silent even though Justine Moritz is convicted of the crime and executed. Later, he meets the monster on Mt. Montanvert and listens to his story.

Having found shelter in a hovel attached to a cottage inhabited by the DeLacey family, the monster learned to speak. When the DeLaceys took in Safie, an Arab woman whom they had known in wealthier and happier days in Paris, they taught her to read, and the monster followed the lessons along with her. He had Victor Frankenstein’s journal and so learned of his creator. He also read John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) and identified with Satan, who was rejected by his creator and who seeks revenge by making war on humanity. Rejected by the DeLaceys when he revealed himself to them, the monster decided to travel to Geneva to find his creator. He murdered William when the latter feared and rejected him.

The monster explains to Victor that he is malicious only because he is isolated and miserable, and he persuades Victor to make him a mate. Victor goes to Scotland with Henry Clerval with this purpose in mind, only to destroy his half-finished female as the monster looks on. The monster retaliates by killing Clerval and by strangling Victor’s wife, Elizabeth, on their wedding night. Victor vows to pursue the creature relentlessly, as obsessed about killing him as he was about creating him. As his tale ends, the novel resumes its epistolary framework.

Walton relates the death of Victor Frankenstein. When he himself encounters the monster, he does not kill him as Victor requested but listens to the story from his perspective. The monster depicts himself as loving Victor and suffering deeply from remorse. He claims that he was created to be susceptible to love and sympathy and was wrenched apart when offered only misunderstanding, rejection, and violence. Promising to end his own life, the monster leaves Walton to ponder the meaning of the events that he has heard.

The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus is framed as a series of letters written by polar explorer Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville, who is home in England. He relates to her his adventures, including a story told to him by a young man, Victor Frankenstein, whom his ship has rescued from the polar ice.

As a young university student at Ingolstadt, in Bavaria, Frankenstein is determined to find the secret of life. He studies constantly, ignoring his family back in Geneva, Switzerland. He steals body parts from charnel houses and medical laboratories, then uses the power of electricity to create a living being. He immediately knows he has erred: His creature is ghastly. It leaves Frankensteins quarters, but not his life.

Frankenstein next sees the creature back in Geneva, where he has returned following the death of his young brother William. Although a servant girl, Justine, is accused of causing Williams death, Frankenstein sees the creature lurking near the place of the murder and knows he is the killer. Frankensteins anguish is intensified when innocent Justine is executed for the murder. In his agony, Frankenstein leaves home to wander in the mountains. The creature confronts him and tells him his own story.

After leaving Ingolstadt, the creature wandered throughout the countryside. He discovered quickly that he was frightening and repugnant to humans and took to traveling at night and hiding during the day. The creature learned to speak and to read during a long stay in a hovel attached to a poor farm familys hut. During his stay, he performed many kindnesses for the family and felt sympathy for their poverty. He befriended the old father, who was blind. As soon as other family members returned and saw him, they fled. In anger, the creature set their farm on fire.

He made his way to Geneva, saving a small child from drowning along the way. Every time he tried to perform an act of kindness, however, he caused a reaction of horror. On the mountaintop, the creature begs Frankenstein to make him a mate so he need not be lonely. Then, he says, he will leave humankind alone and live with his mate in seclusion. If not, he says, he will be with Frankenstein on his wedding night.

Frankenstein promises to make him a mate but questions his wisdom. He travels to England with his friend William Clerval, then goes alone to an isolated spot in Scotland to carry out his promise.

He cannot finish the job. He abandons it and prepares to return home. The creature, infuriated by Frankensteins unwillingness to keep a promise, kills Clerval, then returns to Geneva to kill Frankensteins bride, his adopted sister Elizabeth, on their wedding night.

The tragedy and the guilt are too much to bear. Frankenstein resolves to pursue the monster until one of them is dead. He travels by dogsled across the snowy expanses of Russia toward the North Pole. He is picked up by Robert Waltons ship during his pursuit and dies on the ship after telling Walton his story. The creature appears and tells Walton of his remorse for his deeds, then sets off into the cold to build his own funeral pyre.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Arctic Circle

*Arctic Circle. Frankenstein is told at a great distance, both physically and psychologically. The epistolary novel opens with letters from Robert Walton to his sister in England. Walton is on an exploring expedition to the far north, and his letters are dated from locations farther and farther north, starting with St. Petersburg, Russia, then Archangel, then unspecified locations, as Walton passes into unexplored territory. When his ship is surrounded by fog and ice floes, his crew sees Victor Frankenstein crossing the ice with a dog sled. They rescue him; Frankenstein tells his story. Before he does so, however, Frankenstein indicates that the desire to find the North Pole is as dangerous as his inquiry into unknown scientific regions, asking Walton, “Unhappy man! Do you share my madness?” When Frankenstein’s story is complete, he dies. His monstrous creation, after finally forgiving him, flees across the polar sea and out of human knowledge.


*Geneva. City in western Switzerland that is home to Victor Frankenstein, who describes it lovingly, speaking of its “majestic and wondrous scenes” and the “sublime shapes of the mountains.” The countryside is described more fully than the city, but enough details are given to indicate that Shelley knew Geneva well. While Shelley was staying near Lake Geneva with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, and other friends, they had a competition for the best ghost story. Shelley said the core idea for Frankenstein came to her then, in a dream. Visiting or leaving Geneva has powerful consequences for the characters in the novel. After they met, Frankenstein’s father and mother moved to Geneva. When Victor was five, his father went to Milan, and returned with Elizabeth, the lifetime friend and nearly sister to Victor whom he marries.

When Victor returns to Geneva, everything seems to be different. His creation’s presence transforms his home, which earlier seemed to be a paradise, into a place of pain and chaos. Victor’s brother William is killed, and a life-long family servant is sentenced to death. Late in the novel, Victor returns to Geneva for the last time to marry Elizabeth. When his creation kills Elizabeth on their wedding night, the transformation of Geneva into a hell on earth is complete.


*Ingolstadt. City in Bavaria, Germany, where Victor Frankenstein entered the University of Ingolstadt when he was seventeen and to which he returns in later years. The university had a great deal of autonomy during the seventeenth century, and was known for its support of Enlightenment rationality. Few specifics are given about Ingolstadt itself. Frankenstein studies there and escapes the stabilizing influence of his family but connects only with his professors, not with a community or place. There he learns modern chemistry from his professor Monsieur Waldman, which he blends with his earlier knowledge of alchemy to create life. Once he does, Ingolstadt becomes essentially haunted; Victor wanders its streets, afraid of his creature. Only the arrival of Henry Clerval, his old friend from Geneva, calms him.

*Mont Blanc

*Mont Blanc. Highest mountain in the Alps, to which Victor retreats when he is upset by the thought that his creation has caused the deaths of William and Justine. While gazing upon the awful beauty of Mont Blanc, he speaks aloud to the spirit of the place, which seems so pure. His creation answers, indicating that no place is free of the taint Frankenstein his created. The mountain’s glacier becomes a courtroom of natural philosophy as the creature accuses Victor of defaulting on his responsibilities as creator.


Cottage. Home of a poor family in which the creature observes human interaction. When the creature tells the story of his life since his creation, the cottage where he observes a family, is central to it. He learns to speak by listening to the cottage’s inhabitants, and from them he learns about the possibility of love. Before this time, he is ignorant as an animal, but now, he becomes a tortured soul. Observing the small society in the cottage brings him close enough to humanity to realize what he is denied.


*London. Capital of Great Britain to which Victor Frankenstein goes to investigate another scientist’s discoveries before he can meet the creature’s demand that he make him a woman to be his companion. In London, Victor establishes a lab, and begins work, but he and Clerval also travel throughout England and Scotland. Their travels are idyllic, but everywhere they go, Victor is sure the creature follows him.


*Scotland. Country to which Victor goes to continue his work because it is farther from civilization. There he works on a mate for the creature then reconsiders and destroys it. The creature appears at that moment, confirming Victor’s fears that he has been followed. When Victor tries to sail home, he gets lost at sea and almost dies, symbolizing the danger inherent in his unchecked scientific explorations.


*Ireland. Country in which Victor is arrested for the murder of his friend Clerval, whom the monster has killed, after he lands there and goes ashore to ask for directions. While he is jailed in Ireland, he falls into a guilty fever for months. His imprisonment in this remote land confirms his growing fear that there is no place to which he can go to escape responsibility for his actions.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Frankenstein is, in many ways, a tale of mixed identities. Thus it seems somehow fitting that tradition has always linked the name of Frankenstein with a monstrous being rather than with the mad scientist who created him. Yet in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, the original version of this popular story, Frankenstein is that scientist, and only on a symbolic level does the reader confuse him with his horrible creation. This is not the only pair of linked identities in the novel. The monster, as he is called here, serves as a kind of alter ego to each of the novel’s main characters—and even, finally, to its author. Shelley seems to sympathize more fully with the monster than with any other character.

Shelley structures the story like a Russian nesting doll: It is really a story within a story within a story. Robert Walton opens the tale, writing letters home to his sister as he embarks on a fantastic voyage of Arctic exploration. He hungers for a friend, a like-minded companion. Then, in his fourth letter, he describes how he has found a man out wandering on the ice, weak from exposure and malnourishment, and taken him into his ship. He sees in him the potential friend for whom he has longed. The man is Victor Frankenstein, and Walton lets him speak.

Victor recounts the story of his life, starting with his privileged childhood in Geneva, Switzerland. From an early age, he was obsessed with creating life. All science was, to him, the body of knowledge that gave human beings godlike powers. The intensity with which he pursued his studies made it nearly impossible for him to maintain closeness to his family and friends. His dear friend Henry Clerval did not see the danger in his studies. Elizabeth, his sister by informal adoption and eventually his betrothed, saw that his work was driving him to poor health and estranging him from his family, but she was powerless to bring him home.

After years of nearly frenzied study, Victor was ready. Robbing body parts from graves, he constructed a monstrous form. Finally, one stormy October night, he brought it to life. Yet when he saw his creature reaching out toward him, trying to smile, Victor rushed from the building, unable to take on the creature as his own charge. By the time he returned to his rooms the next day, accompanied by Clerval, the monster was gone. Victor became feverish, and Clerval nursed him back to health over some months.

When Victor returned home to his family and to Elizabeth, he was greeted by news that brought his feelings of dread into painful focus: His younger brother William had been found murdered. Authorities had arrested Justine Moritz, a beloved and trusted young servant, on circumstantial evidence. Victor, walking mournfully on Mont Blanc one stormy night, saw the monster’s form suddenly illuminated by a flash of lightning on a far peak, and he understood: The monster had killed his brother. Later, in agony, he watched as Justine was convicted and executed for the crime. Another stormy night in the mountains, the monster approached Victor closely enough for them to converse and begged him to hear his story. Victor agreed.

At this point, the monster becomes the narrator, as the reader hears how he told his own, very different life story. He told of eking out a miserable existence, of terrifying everyone who saw him, and of learning to hide, watch, and listen. He told of finding a kind of shed attached to a hut occupied by a family; from them, listening through the cracks in the wall, he learned to speak and to read. He told of reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost and other books, and of coming to understand the intense pain of his solitude. Finally, he asked Victor to create a partner for him and promised to leave him alone forever if he would.

Victor agreed to create a mate for the monster but found himself unable to follow through with it. For the rest of the novel, he tells how he and the monster engaged in a deadly cat-and-mouse game. First the monster killed Clerval. Then Victor believed that the monster was hunting him but learned on his wedding night that he was to suffer rather than die: The monster killed his beloved Elizabeth on the bridal bed. Victor then pursued him to the Arctic wasteland in which Walton has found him.

As Victor finishes his tale, he warns Walton to learn from his example—and then he dies. At that moment, the monster enters, mourns the loss of his creator, and announces his own imminent suicide by self-immolation. He then vanishes into the darkness.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The revival of scholarly interest in Frankenstein has directly paralleled the emergence and development of feminist literary scholarship. On the one hand, Shelley’s novel has perhaps been an obvious subject of study for those who investigate the separate tradition of literature by women. On the other hand, Frankenstein anticipated and provided many of the concerns that feminist scholars would have. It expresses the rage and pain felt by those who are left out, who are not allowed a full place in their own culture.

Mary Shelley tells the reader that she felt some pressure to be a writer: Both her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were celebrated writers, and it was expected that she would continue the tradition. Yet her introduction is full of apologies for her work, and one sees everywhere the marks of difficulties she had being taken seriously. Not the least of these is the preface that was written by Percy Shelley in her voice, in which he acknowledges that the “humble novelist” needs to explain why she might aspire to the heights of great poetry. Frankenstein represents, symbolically, both some of the pressures on a woman writer and her critique of the culture that has created her but sees her as its “monster.”

The female characters in Shelley’s novel do not offer any kind of model response to the failures enacted by the males. Only in the novel’s symbolic vocabulary, in its acts of violence and its sympathies for the most hideous of creatures, do readers find a program for change. This work by a woman in a “feminine” genre—the gothic novel—is complex enough to provide generations of readers and scholars with puzzles to unravel. On the whole, it is not Mary Shelley’s prose that readers have admired; in any case, scholars are not sure how much of it is hers and how much Percy Shelley’s, since he went over it and rewrote many of its sentences. The power of this novel lies in its plot and in its central characters, the monster and his creator. Here is Pygmalion with a vengeance—and written by a woman.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Mary Shelley's Drawing Published by Gale Cengage

The French Revolution and the Rise of Industrialism
Most of the early Romantic waters strongly advocated the French...

(The entire section is 647 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Shelley uses an important literary technique — the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Walton tells the whole story of Frankenstein and...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Approaches to discussing Frankenstein are numerous. It can be looked at by itself as a work of literary art. Note the imagery and how...

(The entire section is 495 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The setting of the novel ranges all over Europe, emphasizing places with which Shelley herself was familiar: Italy, Switzerland, Germany,...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Instead of beginning with Victor's point of view, Shelley introduces us to Walton first. Using a frame...

(The entire section is 986 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Shelley uses an important literary technique—the story-within-a-storywithin- a-story. Walton tells the whole story of Frankenstein and his...

(The entire section is 392 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Frankenstein is a product of its time — the early nineteenth century — a world of social, political, scientific, and economic...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In a tale of a murderous and revengeful monster, there are, of course, scenes of violence and terror; three murders, an execution and a...

(The entire section is 167 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • Early 1800s: After the French Revolution ended, England turned its attention to domestic and economic...

(The entire section is 288 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Why is the novel subtitled The Modern Prometheus?

2. Why does Frankenstein create such a large, ugly monster rather...

(The entire section is 145 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Offers a wide variety of critical essays on the novel.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. An important early study that emphasizes Shelley’s response, as a woman writer, to John Milton.

Grylls, R. Glynn. Mary Shelley: A Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1938. Includes extensive discussion of events surrounding the writing of Frankenstein.

Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Discusses Frankenstein as a central feminine text in its century.

Levine, George, and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds. The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Collection of essays focusing more on the endurance of the story of Frankenstein rather than the novel, most notably “The Stage and Film Children of Frankenstein: A Survey,” by Albert J. LaValley.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1988. Combines critical analysis of the novel with biographical material from Shelley’s life.

Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Analyzes Shelley’s works in the context of the pressures experienced by women writers in the nineteenth century.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by Johann Smith. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. This edition contains five essays exemplifying different approaches to the novel and a good bibliography.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing....

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. How does the popular conception of Frankenstein differ from the monster Shelley describes in Frankenstein? Why has this change come...

(The entire section is 187 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Compare and contrast Robert Walton's and Victor Frankenstein's personalities. You might draw parallels between their quest to conquer the...

(The entire section is 180 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

There have been so many plays, movies, and recordings of Frankenstein that it would be difficult to list all of the productions....

(The entire section is 366 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Views: Mary Shelley. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. This volume collects some of the best modern...

(The entire section is 242 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Another literary technique which Shelley uses to give greater depth to her story is literary allusion. Frankenstein is subtitled "The...

(The entire section is 197 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Adaptations of Frankenstein may well number in the hundreds. The most significant motion picture adaptation is director James Whale's...

(The entire section is 1151 words.)