What Happens in Frankenstein?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tells the story of the scientist Victor Frankenstein, who, driven by an obsession with the secret of life, animates a monstrous body. The results are disastrous, bringing woe to the monster and to Frankenstein and his loved ones.

Frankenstein summary key points:

  • While searching for a passage through the Arctic, explorer Robert Walton encounters a man adrift on an ice floe, whom he invites onboard. The man reveals himself to be Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who tells the story of his search for his own terrible creation.
  • As a university student, Victor becomes obsessed with discovering the secret of life. In his experimentation, he gathers and assembles body parts in an effort to recreate human life. When he succeeds in bringing the ghastly Creature to life, Victor flees in terror.
  • The Creature roams the world, hiding from humans who reject him out of fear and disgust. By learning to read, he comes to realize the horror of his existence, of which Victor was the cause.
  • The Creature begins to hunt down and kill Victor’s loved ones, including his friend Henry and his wife, Elizabeth. The Creature pursues Victor to the Arctic, where Victor dies on Walton’s ship. The Creature wanders into the Arctic alone after Victor's death, and plans to end his life there.

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Volume One

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins with a series of letters from English explorer Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville. Walton has traveled to Russia to fulfill his lifelong dream of embarking on a voyage to the Arctic, where he hopes to make important scientific discoveries. After sailing steadily north for a while, Walton and his crew find themselves surrounded by ice and witness a strange sight: a huge man in a dogsled speeding across the frozen sea. The next day they rescue a different, emaciated man who is stranded on a sheet of ice with the remnants of a dogsled beside him. This man is later revealed to be Victor Frankenstein. Victor is near death and remains unable to speak for several days. Walton nurses him back to health in his cabin, and as the two men become acquainted, Walton grows to love and admire his mysterious, melancholy guest. Victor is clearly suffering from some terrible loss, and he reveals that he came to the Arctic to pursue the huge man Walton saw previously. After Walton tells him that he is willing to sacrifice anything to achieve his scientific ambitions, Victor decides to tell the captain the story of his life, which Walton records.

In the first part of his tale, Victor spends an idyllic childhood in Geneva, Switzerland, with his loving upper-class family. He enjoys particularly close relationships with his adopted sister, Elizabeth, and his best friend, Henry Clerval. At an early age he develops a passion for natural philosophy, and he spends his adolescence devouring the works of the medieval alchemists, dreaming of discovering the elixir of life. When he realizes how outdated the alchemists’ theories are in comparison to modern theories, however, he becomes disillusioned and gives up his study of the sciences entirely.

When he is seventeen, Victor’s parents decide to send him to school at the University of Ingolstadt. But just before he is scheduled to leave, his mother, Caroline, dies of scarlet fever. After spending time mourning with his family, Victor travels to Ingolstadt as planned. There he meets professor of biology M. Krempe and professor of chemistry M. Waldman , who inspires him to resume his study of the sciences. For the next four years, Victor applies himself to his studies with a passion, driven by an ambition to reveal the mysteries of nature, life, and death, and winning acclaim for his achievements. He is particularly fascinated by the idea of discovering how to create life. Just as he is about to return home to Geneva, his experiments finally succeed. Victor spends the next two years assembling an eight-foot-tall man out of parts taken from cadavers. When he...

(The entire section is 4,570 words.)