Last Updated on July 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 898
While we encourage your class to read Frankenstein in its entirety, we understand that time is a constraint. These key plot points will help guide you to the most salient parts of the novel.
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Victor Frankenstein Is Found by Robert Walton’s Crew (Letters 1–4): The novel begins in epistolary form, narrated by explorer Robert Walton in four letters to his sister, Margaret Saville. Walton, who is sailing with a Russian crew to the North Pole, describes encountering the eccentric Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Nearly dead, Frankenstein begins to tell Walton his life story. The novel proceeds from Frankenstein’s point of view as his story begins.
Frankenstein Studies “Natural Philosophy” at Ingolstadt (Chapters 3–4): The novel’s emphasis on monstrosity and reanimation begins with Frankenstein’s growing passion for “natural philosophy.” Frankenstein, who enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Geneva, encounters death for the first time at age seventeen. His mother, a kind and compassionate woman, dies of scarlet fever right before he leaves for the university at Ingolstadt. As a university student, he becomes convinced that he can create a noble race and attempts to animate his own creature.
The Creature’s Animation (Chapter 5): After months of experimentation and preparation, Victor Frankenstein succeeds in sparking life out of a stitched-together assemblage of body parts. The monstrosity of Frankenstein’s creature showcases the novel’s underlying argument that nature is the most perfect force in the universe. Frankenstein violates the natural processes of life and death when he animates the creature, whose appearance is so horrifying and unnatural that Frankenstein promptly abandons it.
Death and Revenge Commence (Chapters 7–8): The creature, cognizant and crazed, escapes the laboratory and begins to wander the world in search of its maker. The novel’s major theme of revenge is revealed when the creature murders William, Frankenstein’s youngest brother, to punish Frankenstein for abandoning it. Frankenstein discovers the creature lingering at the site of William’s murder, but tells no one because he does not think anyone will believe he created a monster. Frankenstein, though overcome with guilt, refuses to take responsibility for violating the laws of nature. His silence leads to the wrongful execution of Justine Moritz, who is erroneously blamed for William’s murder.
The Creature Acquires Language (Chapters 11–16): The creature suffers as he navigates the world he does not understand. He spends months living in the mountains and observing the impoverished De Lacey family, anonymously gifting them firewood and being left books in return. Having learned to speak and read, the creature approaches them in hopes of companionship; horrified, they family drives him away and abandons their home. The creature’s surprising eloquence, combined with his tragic experience of repeated rejection on the basis of his appearance, underscores the novel’s concern with the consequences of social prejudice. The creature reveals himself to be capable of goodness, empathy, and intelligence. However, he is condemned to a life of isolation and rage because of humanity’s prejudice against him.
A Companion for the Creature (Chapter 20): The creature’s natural need for companionship introduces a major conflict in the novel: Frankenstein must repeat his unnatural animation experiment in order to make the creature happy, but a new creature— which would have free will of its own—might cause even more damage. Despite knowing that the creature will likely commit murder again, Frankenstein decides not to finish creating a mate for him. Instead, he destroys the new creature’s body before animating it.
The Creature Resolves to Seek Revenge (Chapters 21–23): Frankenstein’s destruction of the creature’s mate is met with the creature’s destruction of his best friend, Henry Clerval, and his future bride, Elizabeth Lavenza. For the creature, who warns Frankenstein that “‘I shall be with you on your wedding-night,’” murdering Elizabeth and preventing Frankenstein from finding his own companionship is an act of justice. Frankenstein resolves to avenge Elizabeth’s murder and follows the creature all the way to the Arctic.
Revenge Ends in Death (Chapter 24): Ultimately, as Robert Walton narrates in his final letter to his sister, Frankenstein’s and the creature’s mutual obsession with revenge ends in death. Frankenstein dies from exhaustion and exposure. The novel ends with the creature’s declaration that he will make a funeral pile and “consume to ashes this miserable frame” so that no “curious and unhallowed wretch [. . .] would create such another as I have been.” The creature does what Frankenstein repeatedly failed to do: recognize that his creation was unnatural and take responsibility for it. Furthermore, he resolves to destroy himself to prevent other ambitious men from finding him and becoming inspired to create their own unnatural beings.
Structure of the Text
Frankenstein unfolds through a series of narrators, each with a separate form for their narration. The beginning of the novel is written in epistolary form: in letters, Walton conveys the story of his journey to the North Pole and his meeting Victor Frankenstein. Walton’s letters serve as the initial frame story within which Frankenstein reveals his tale to Walton. Deeper layers of narration emerge as the novel progresses, with readers even getting a third-hand account of the creature’s story through Frankenstein’s own account of events. These multiple layers of narration make for unreliable narrators as events become complicated and affected by the perspectives of those who tell them.