Frankenstein Key Ideas and Commentary
by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein book cover
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(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...

(The entire section is 1,040 words.)