In Frankenstein, how is Victor Frankenstein's appearance described?

Quick answer:

Victor Frankenstein is described as being of a sickly nature, with a thin and gaunt body, yet with an educated manner and the ability to convey intense passion and energy despite his fragile frame.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Most of our understanding of Victor's appearance comes from Walton. When his sailors first rescue Victor from the iceberg, Walton writes to his sister that:

His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition.

But as time goes on, Walton increasingly sees Victor as a sensitive, refined, and physically attractive man. At first, Victor's eyes are usually wild, but Walton states:

There are moments when, if anyone performs an act of kindness towards him or does him any the most trifling service, his whole countenance [face] is lighted up, as it were, with a beam of benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equalled. But he is generally melancholy and despairing, and sometimes he gnashes his teeth.

Walton goes on to tell his sister that Victor's

manners are so ... gentle that the sailors are all interested in him ... I begin to love him as a brother, and his constant and deep grief fills me with sympathy and compassion. He must have been a noble creature in his better days, being even now in wreck so attractive and amiable.

The lonely Walton increasingly warms up to Victor and writes to his sister:

I have found a man who, before his spirit had been broken by misery, I should have been happy to have possessed as the brother of my heart.

Walton idealizes him and also mentions the beauty of his voice:

a penetration into the causes of things, unequalled for clearness and precision; add to this a facility of expression and a voice whose varied intonations are soul-subduing music.

Walton's description of Victor is important for several reasons. First, as our first impression of Victor, it builds reader sympathy for this character. He is intuitive, delicate, once beautiful, suffering, a refined European from the educated classes. We are inclined to listen to his story with sympathy, and it is likely we will be biased in his favor.

Second, he fits the mold of the Byronic hero, the suffering soul tortured by a secret grief and refined, poetic sensibilities. Third, Walton's favorable response to his new friend's good looks starts to establish the importance of physical appearance, a major theme of the novel. Because Victor fits Walton's preconceived notions of looking like a sensitive European, Walton is drawn toward him. It is very possible that Walton's positive response to Victor's physical beauty (or the romantic wreck of it) leads Walton to conclude that Victor's soul is purer than it is. As we will find as Victor tells his story, he has treated the creature he made with deep insensitivity and rejection and has not been a good person towards him. Finally, we perceive how the creature's outward appearance of ugliness leads Walton to reject it, showing the difficulties faced when an outwardly monstrous form covers a soul that wants to be good.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Most of our physical description of Victor Frankenstein comes from Walton's narration in the letters that frame the narrative. Walton notes upon first seeing Frankenstein that in contrast to the Creature, who he has spotted from a distance, Victor appears civilized and educated. From this, we can assume that he is likely well-dressed and well-groomed. However, when Victor arrives on the ship, Walton notes that he is in remarkably poor physical condition:

His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition.

Walton describes Victor as thin with a "decaying frame," suggesting that he appears sick and gaunt. However, the most animated part of his appearance is his eyes, which Walton says "have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness," but light up and become alive when he is more alert.

A recurring theme in Walton's description of Frankenstein is that of a vibrant spirit shining through the frail exterior. He sees him as almost angelic in his ability to devote himself entirely to his emotional experience without nourishing his body in the same way. Indeed, throughout the novel, Victor consistently prioritizes his intellectual pursuits over his physical health. His obsession with his scientific endeavors border on the fanatic, and as a result he is frequently ill or in a weakened state, deprived of food and rest. From this, we can surmise that though he has a thin appearance, he does not have the lethargic or lifeless face one might expect from someone so consistently sick. Instead, his fragile body is capable of conveying intense passion and energy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Mary Shelley offers small clues to Victor Frankenstein's appearance throughout her novel, Frankenstein. The first description is provided in Letter IV.

He was not, as the other traveller seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but an European.

Based upon this limited description, readers can assume that Victor is white, with defined features and brown or blonde hair. He is most certainly not physically unrefined, given Walton fails to define him as a savage.

That said, later in the letter, Walton goes further in physically defining Victor. Victor is emaciated from his search for the Creature. This means that Victor is very thin and, one can assume, his facial features are even more refined given his gauntness. Walton describes Victor's eyes as being both mad and wild. At the same time, his outward disposition speaks of kindness.

Later, throughout the novel, Victor is constantly described as being ill. When working on reanimating life, Victor puts all else on hold. His own health is ignored. Therefore, one can assume that Victor has both a look of one who is educated yet thin from obsessive work.

Like the Creature, Victor's exact physical description is masked. While the missing physical descriptions of the Creature are apparent (Shelley does not want to paint a specific picture of the Creature; instead, she wants readers to create their own mental picture of him), leaving Victor's physical appearance open to interpretation makes him far more curious to us.

One could assume that the only important thing about Victor's physical appearance is that he is thin and uncommonly ill. This sets up the image of the "pale student of unhallowed arts" Shelly pictured in her dream which was the beginning of the novel.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial