*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. 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...
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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.
The setting of the novel ranges all over Europe, emphasizing places with which Shelley herself was familiar: Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, England, Scotland, Ireland, and even the Arctic. The tale begins and ends in the Arctic with the explorer Robert Walton seeking a northwest passage. On his journey he first meets Victor Frankenstein and then the monster himself. The arctic atmosphere itself is a fitting symbol for the scientific enterprise on which Frankenstein has embarked and Walton is embarking. The landscape is barren and white: it is human beings who turn the landscape and scientific creation into colorful creation or black horror.
As Dr. Frankenstein lies dying, he recounts his history to Walton. When he speaks of his home in Geneva by a blue lake and snowy mountains, his description is filled with warmth, light, and love. At age seventeen Frankenstein became a student at the University of Ingolstadt, in upper Bavaria, where he later creates his monster.
. . . dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me...
Frankenstein recoils from his creation, and the monster flees. The rest of the novel follows the theme of pursuit and thus ranges over Europe. Frankenstein has a nervous breakdown and returns to the peacefulness of home. To cure his despair, he wanders on one occasion to the valley of Chamounix. Here, he meets the monster again. Shelley's descriptive powers heighten whenever she presents the monster against a background of sublime and terrifying nature. Frankenstein is mountain climbing across a "troubled sea" of ice (prophetic of the setting at the end of the novel) when the monster bounds toward him over the ice crevices.
As the monster tells of his adventures since his creation, the scene shifts to Germany and the humble cottage of the De Laceys, whom the monster has watched to learn how people act and talk. After promising to make a mate for the monster, Frankenstein plans a trip to England with his friend Clerval. On their way they travel leisurely on the Rhine. From London they travel north to Edinburgh, where they separate. All the time the monster has been following them. Frankenstein goes to a remote Orkney Island to create his female monster. In desolate surroundings the monster again appears and vows revenge when Frankenstein destroys the female creature.
Frankenstein goes sailing to get rid of the female body parts, and his boat is blown off course to Ireland. There he is accused of his friend Clerval's murder and is thrown into prison, where he again has a mental collapse. Released into his father's custody, he returns to Geneva, but this time the powers of home fail to heal. The monster takes his complete revenge, and Frankenstein vows to follow him until he can rid the world of the fiend he has created. The pursued becomes the pursuer.
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.
Shelley uses an important literary technique—the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Walton tells the whole story of Frankenstein and his monster as related to him by Frankenstein, with the addition of his own meeting with the monster after Frankenstein's death within the context of his Arctic exploration. Within Frankenstein's account is the monster's own tale of what he did after fleeing from Frankenstein: How he watched the De Laceys and came to understand human speech, emotion, and history. Each of the stories presents comparisons and contrasts to the others. For example, Walton's exploration of the Arctic is a scientific discovery similar to Frankenstein's creation of the monster, but Walton's expedition fails when his men force him to turn back, whereas Frankenstein does succeed in creating the monster, although the results are questionable.
In addition to having the stories play off one another, Shelley uses the characters to play off one another. Walton, for instance, feels much sympathy for Frankenstein but resembles the monster. He, too, longs for companionship—he has "no friend ... no one to participate [in] my joy ... to sustain me in dejection." When Frankenstein dies, Walton loses both his dreams of friendship and his dream of discovery.
In a tale of a murderous and revengeful monster, there are, of course, scenes of violence and terror: three murders, an execution, and a cottage burned by arson, as well as three more deaths. Like classical Greek dramatists, Shelley to some extent mitigates the horror of these scenes by having the violence take place "offstage." That is, she never directly presents the monster strangling his victims. In each case she describes how the body is found and the sorrow the family members, friends, and community feel at the death. She emphasizes the grief rather than the grisly details of the murder or the horrible condition of the body. In no sense does she linger over gory details. The monster's victims are all innocent. If the monster had killed only his creator for cruelly abandoning him, the reader's judgment of the monster might be less harsh. The impact of the violence is further diminished because Frankenstein is reporting to Walton each murder long after the deed was done.
Instead of beginning with Victor's point of view, Shelley introduces us to Walton first. Using a frame device, in which the tale is told to us by someone who reads it or hears it from someone else, Shelley invites readers to believe Victor's story through an objective person. Shelley also uses an important literary device known as the epistolary form—where letters tell the story—using letters between Walton and his sister to frame both Victor's and the creature's narrative. Before the novel's first chapter, Walton writes to his sister about the "wretched man" he meets, building suspense about the "demon" Victor mentions at the beginning of his narrative. Once Victor begins telling his story, we slowly learn about his childhood and the eventful moments leading up to his studies at the University. Then, the creature interrupts Victor, and we get to hear all the significant moments leading up to his request for a partner. Since the theme of listening is so central to this novel, Shelley makes sure, by incorporating three different narratives, that readers get to hear all sides of the story. Walton's letters introduce and conclude the novel, reinforcing the theme of nurturing.
The majority of the novel takes place in the Swiss Alps and concludes in the Arctic, although Victor and Clerval travel to other places, such as London, England, the Rhine River which flows from Switzerland north to the Netherlands, and Scotland. All of these locations, except for the Arctic, were among the favorite landscapes for Romantic writers, and Shelley spends great care describing the sublime shapes of the majestic, snow-clad mountains. However, aside from the dark Arctic Ocean, Shelley's setting is unusual; most Gothic novels produce gloomy, haggard settings adorned with decaying mansions and ghostly, supernatural spirits. It is possible the author intended the beautiful Alps to serve as a contrast to the creature's unsightly physical appearance. In addition to the atypical Gothic setting, Shelley also sets her story in contemporary times, another diversion from Gothic novels which usually venture to the Middle Ages and other far away time periods. By using the time period of her day, Shelley makes the creature and the story's events much more realistic and lifelike.
Spanning the years between 1785 and 1830, the Romantic period was marked by the French Revolution and the beginnings of modern industrialism. Most of the early Romantic writers favored the revolution and the changes in lifestyle and sensibility which accompanied it. After shaking off old traditions and customs, writers experienced the newfound freedom of turning inward, rather than outward to the external world, to reflect on issues of the heart and the imagination. In addition, writers like English poet William Wordsworth suddenly challenged his predecessors by writing about natural scenes and rustic, commonplace lifestyles. English poet Samuel Coleridge explored elements of the supernatural in his poetry.
Mary Shelley combined the ethical concerns of her parents with the Romantic sensibilities of Percy Shelley's poetic inclinations. Her father's concern for the underprivileged influenced her description of the poverty-stricken De Lacey family. Her appeals to the imagination, isolation, and nature represented typical scenes and themes explored in some of Percy Shelley's poetry. But Mary's choice of a Gothic novel made her unique in her family and secured her authorial place in the Romantic period.
Horace Walpole introduced the first Gothic novel in 1764 with The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. Gothic novels were usually mysteries in which sinister and sometimes supernatural events occurred and were ultimately caused by some evil human action. The language was frequently overly dramatic and inflated. Following this movement was the Romantic movement's fascination with the macabre and the superstitious aspects of life, allowing them the freedom to explore the darkest depths of the human mind. Most critics agree that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein reflected her deepest psychological fears and insecurities, such as her inability to prevent her children's deaths, her distressed marriage to a man who showed no remorse for his daughters' deaths, and her feelings of inadequacy as a writer. The Gothic novel usually expresses, often in subtle and indirect ways, our repressed anxieties. The settings usually take place far away from reality or realistic portrayals of everyday life. Shelley's setting, of course, is the exception to most Gothic novels. The fact that the creature wanders the breathtaking Alps instead of a dark, craggy mansion in the middle of nowhere either compounds the reader's fear or makes the creature more human.
Many literary critics have noted the Doppelganger effect—the idea that a living person has a ghostly double haunting him—between Victor and his creature. Presenting Victor and the creature as doubles allows Shelley to dramatize two aspects of a character, usually the "good" and "bad" selves. Victor's desire to ignore his creature parallels his desire to disregard the darkest part of his self. The famous psychologist Sigmund Freud characterizes this "dark" side as the Id, while Carl Jung, another famous psychologist, refers to our "dark" side as the Jungian shadow. Jung claims that we all have characteristics we don't like about ourselves, yet these unsavory attributes stay with us like a shadow tailgating its leader. The creature represents Victor's "evil" shadow, just as Victor represents the creature's. When presented this way, it makes sense that so many readers confuse the creature and Victor by assuming that the creature is named Frankenstein. Both of these characters "alternately pursue and flee from one another . . . [L]ike fragments of a mind in conflict with itself," as Eleanor Ty observes in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography. But taken together as one person, Victor and his creature combine to represent the full spectrum of what it means to be human—to be joyful, compassionate, empathetic, and hateful, and also love humanity, desire knowledge, honor justice, fear the unknown, dread abandonment, and fear mortality. No other character in the novel assumes this range of human complexity.
Shelley uses an important literary technique—the story-within-a-storywithin- a-story. Walton tells the whole story of Frankenstein and his monster as related to him by Frankenstein, with the addition of his own meeting with the monster after Frankenstein's death within the context of his arctic exploration. Within Frankenstein's account is the monster's own tale of what he did after fleeing from Frankenstein: how he watched the De Laceys and came to understand human speech, emotion, and history. Each of the stories presents comparisons and contrasts to the others. For example, Walton's exploration of the Arctic is a scientific discovery similar to Frankenstein's creation of the monster, but Walton's expedition fails when his men force him to turn back, whereas Frankenstein does succeed in creating the monster, although the results are questionable.
In addition to having the stories play off one another, Shelley uses the characters to play off one another. Walton, for instance, feels much sympathy for Frankenstein but resembles the monster. He, too, longs for companionship— he has "no friend . . . no one to participate [in] my joy . . . to sustain me in dejection." When Frankenstein dies, Walton loses both his dreams of friendship and his dream of discovery.
Another literary technique which Shelley uses to give greater depth to her story is literary allusion. Frankenstein is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus," an allusion to the Greek god Prometheus who championed humankind and brought fire to it. Prometheus's kindness toward humanity, however, has a backlash: humans are alienated from heaven. Frankenstein is a modern Prometheus in that, striving against human limitations to bring light to people, he creates a human-like creature but alienates himself from his creation once he sees it can never fit into humanity.
Another important literary allusion in Frankenstein is to Paradise Lost. The book is introduced by three lines from Paradise Lost, and Paradise Lost is one of the three books which the monster reads and on which he founds his beliefs about the cosmos. He sees himself as both Adam and Satan—alone like Adam before Eve, yet bitter like Satan viewing the bliss of God. From these and other uses of literary allusion, Shelley makes her story much more than a horror story of a mad doctor and his monster; it is a creation story of profound frustration, alienation and responsibility with resonances of ancient Greek and Christian thought.
Another literary technique which Shelley uses to give greater depth to her story is literary allusion. Frankenstein is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus," an allusion to the Greek god Prometheus who championed humankind and brought fire to it. Prometheus' kindness toward humanity, however, has a backlash: Humans are alienated from heaven. Frankenstein is a modern Prometheus in that, striving against human limitations to bring light to people, he creates a humanlike creature but alienates himself from his creation once he sees it can never fit into humanity.
Another important literary allusion in Frankenstein is to John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667). The book is introduced by three lines from Paradise Lost, and Paradise Lost is one of the three books which the monster reads and on which he founds his beliefs about the cosmos. He sees himself as both Adam and Satan — alone like Adam before Eve, yet bitter like Satan viewing the bliss of God. From these and other uses of literary allusion, Shelley makes her story much more than a horror story of a mad doctor and his monster: It is a creation story of profound frustration, alienation, and responsibility, with resonances of ancient Greek and Christian thought.