Mary Shelley made an anonymous but powerful debut into the world of literature when Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus was published in March, 1818. Only nineteen when she began writing her story, Shelley was visiting poet Lord Byron at Lake Geneva in Switzerland with her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, when Byron challenged each of his guests to write a ghost story. Settled around Byron's fireplace in June 1816, the intimate group of intellectuals had their imaginations and the stormy weather as the stimulus and inspiration for ghoulish visions. A few nights later, Mary Shelley, who once said, "My dreams were at once more fantastic and agreeable than my writings," imagined the "hideous phantasm of man" who became the confused yet deeply sensitive creature in Frankenstein. While many stage, television, and film adaptations of Frankenstein have simplified the complexity of the intellectual and emotional responses of Victor Frankenstein and his creature to their world, the novel still endures, as seen in the range of reactions explored by various literary critics and over ninety dramatizations.
Although early critics greeted the novel with a combination of praise and disdain, readers were fascinated with and a bit horrified by the macabre aspects of the novel. Interestingly, the macabre has transformed into the possible: the ethical implications of genetic engineering, and, more recently, the cloning of livestock in Scotland, find echoes in Shelley's work even into the twenty-first century. In addition to scientific interest, literary commentators have noted the influence of both Percy Shelley and William Godwin's (Mary's father) in the novel, while many contemporary critics have focused their attention on the novel's biographical elements, tracing Shelley's maternal and authorial insecurities to her very unique creation myth. Ultimately, the novel resonates with philosophical and moral ramifications, as the themes of nurture versus nature, good versus evil, and ambition versus social responsibility dominate readers' attention and provoke thoughtful consideration of the most sensitive issues of our time.
Critical Thinking Questions
- How does humanity's treatment of Frankenstein's monster shape its actions?
- Are Frankenstein's experiments ethical? Why or why not?
- How are Frankenstein and his creation similar? How are they different?
Frankenstein opens with Robert Walton's letter from St. Petersburgh, Russia, to his sister in England. He encourages her to share his enthusiasm about his journey to the North Pole to discover both the secret of magnetic and a passage through the poles. In additional letters he wavers between his solitude and alienation on the one hand, and his determined heart and resolved will on the other. His last letter tells the startling story of his having seen a being of gigantic stature shaped like a man, fleeing across the ice which is threatening to enclose the ship. The next day another sled appears, carrying the wasted and maddened Victor Frankenstein, pursuing the giant. Walton takes Frankenstein aboard. When he tells Frankenstein his purpose, how he hopes to make great discoveries, Frankenstein cautions him to leave off his mad pursuit, to listen to his story of how once he began in earnest to know all that could be known.
Victor's Story, Part I
Born in Naples, Italy, to a wealthy Swiss family, Victor Frankenstein is the only child of doting parents until, when he is five, his mother brings home an orphaned girl named Elizabeth to be Victor's "sister." In Victor's happy childhood in Geneva, he and Elizabeth grow in their parents' love, and they are joined by more siblings. Victor develops a deep friendship with Henry Clerval, a fellow student, but where Clerval studies "the moral relations of things," Victor conceives a passion to discover the physical secrets of the world.
At seventeen, as he is to leave for the University at Ingolstadt, Elizabeth contracts scarlet fever. Nursed by Victor's mother, she recovers, but his mother dies. On her deathbed, she begs Elizabeth and Victor to wed. After some delay, Victor departs for Ingolstadt, where his chemistry professor so encourages him in the study of science that Victor determines to discover the secret of life, perhaps even how to create life itself. He pursues his studies in the chemistry lab and in dissecting rooms and morgues, gathering the material for his experiment to make a creature from discarded corpses, perhaps one "like himself." Cut off from contact with all others, ignoring letters from friends and family, he exhausts himself. Finally, on a dreary November night, Victor succeeds in animating a creature. Drained of all strength, he falls asleep, only to awaken from a nightmare to find the creature staring at him. He flees in horror at what he has done.
The next day Clerval arrives and Victor's appearance and condition shock him. Victor can not tell Clerval what he has done. He believes he can keep his secret, for, on his return to his room, he discovers that the creature has fled. The nervous exhaustion into which Victor then falls lasts for several months, during which Clerval nurses him by taking him away from the lab and into the mountains on long walks.
Victor receives from his father a letter relating the death of Victor's younger brother William, strangled by someone after he had been out walking, wearing a necklace with a miniature likeness of Victor's mother. The miniature was missing when the corpse was found. On his frantic return journey, in an electrical storm in the mountains near Geneva, Victor sees the monster and thinks that the monster might have killed William. At home Victor learns that everyone believes Justine, a family servant, to be guilty, for the necklace missing from the corpse was found on her. Victor exclaims that she is innocent, that he knows who the killer is, but does not speak up at her trial. Justine gives a forced confession and is convicted and hung. Overcome with remorse at the deaths of William and Justine, convinced of his own guilt, Victor seeks solitude. Elizabeth and his father attribute his behavior to his grief at his brother's death. He leaves the house to walk the Swiss Alps, journeying to the village of Chamounix. In a painful retreat amid the "solitary grandeur" of the mountains, he meets the monster crossing an ice field. To Victor's shocked expressions of outrage the monster replies calmly, asking Frankenstein to listen with compassion to his tale.
The Monster's Story
Fled from the laboratory on the night of his "birth," the monster discovers himself cold, unfed, and unbefriended in the mountains outside Ingolstadt, "a poor, helpless, miserable wretch." He searches for food and shelter, which he finally finds in a hovel adjoined to a cottage whose inhabitants—an old man, a young man and woman—he observes. When he learns that the cottagers are not so happy as he believes they should be, he gathers firewood at night to replenish their woodpile and lessen their labors. Meanwhile, in the course of several seasons, he studies them, learns their names (Felix and Agatha and their father), and begins to study their language.
One day another woman arrives on horseback. Felix seems especially happy in her presence. The monster listens as Felix instructs her from a history book. He learns of human law and government, of rank and wealth, of human greatness and vileness. "Of what a strange nature is knowledge!" he exclaims. Above all, he learns of his own lonely deformity. He tells Frankenstein the story of this De Lacey family, a wealthy French family who suffered a reversal of fortunes, were imprisoned and exiled to the poverty in which the monster finds them. From such books as John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost the monster learns more of human virtues and vices and of his own misery.
And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant, but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they and could subsist on a coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?
One day when only the old man is in the cottage, the monster enters, introducing himself as a weary traveler. He discovers that because the old man is blind, he is not repulsed by him. The monster then tells his tale of misery and loneliness; the old man responds sympathetically. When the others return, horrified at his monstrous appearance, they chase him. From seclusion in the forest the next night he emerges to burn down the cottage, then flees toward Ingolstadt, determined on vengeance. He comes upon young William Frankenstein out walking. When the boy repulses the monster's friendly overtures, the monster kills him. He takes from the boy a locket with the likeness of a woman and when he later meets another young woman asleep in a barn, he places the locket on her, certain that he can implicate her in the boy's murder. He concludes his tale by proposing to Victor that only Victor's creation of a female of similar deformity will grant him the happiness he cannot find among humans.
Victor's Story, Part II
The monster pleads with Victor to make him a mate, threatening him and his family if he does not. Frankenstein agrees, but only on condition that the creatures flee to uninhabitable parts of the earth where they will do no harm to humans. Victor returns to his family, more downhearted than ever. His father proposes that the long-hoped-for marriage of Victor and Elizabeth might restore Victor to happiness. Victor wishes instead to travel to England to discover from philosophers there something he believes might complete his work. He promises to marry Elizabeth on his return. His father arranges to have Clerval meet him along the way in Strasbourg, France. They walk in the mountains, then travel by boat down the Rhine River and to England. In Edinburgh, Scotland, Victor asks Clerval to permit him to travel on alone for a time. Frankenstein, convinced that the monster has been following him, seeks solitude for his work on a remote island in the Scottish Orkneys. On a moonlit night his fears are realized when he looks up from his work on the new creature to discover the monster peering at him through the window. Victor then vows to destroy his new, half-finished creation. The monster threatens him, "I will be with you on your wedding night."
Frankenstein takes the remains of the new creature and dumps them into the sea from a boat he takes offshore. When he awakens hours later, he has drifted to Ireland. Several people on shore take him to a magistrate to answer for the death of a man found murdered the previous evening. The man, to Victor's horror, is Clerval. Imprisoned for several months, Frankenstein is freed after the magistrate discovers Victor's innocence. The magistrate sends for Victor's father in Geneva to bring him home. On his return he marries Elizabeth, worried all the while about the monster's threat, "I shall be with you on your wedding night," which he interprets to mean that the monster will kill him. On the wedding night, however, the monster breaks into their room and kills Elizabeth. After he sees the monster staring through the window, grinning, Victor vows to seek revenge. He pursues the monster across the Alps, across Europe, into Russia and north to the pole, where he finds himself stranded on an ice flow before he is taken aboard Walton's ship.
One week after his last letter to his sister, during which Frankenstein relates his story, Walton writes again to say that Frankenstein still intends to pursue the creature until he dies. Walton, too, is still determined to pursue his quest, although mountains of ice surround the ship and threaten to lock it in place. When his sailors ask to turn back, Walton consents to turn south. His final letter to his sister recounts Frankenstein's death and his dying advice to Walton to forego ambition and seek tranquility instead. Walton's grief over his new friend's death is interrupted by the appearance of the monster in Frankenstein's cabin, grieving over the death of his creator. The monster tells Walton how his vengeance had never been joyful to him, how he was unjustly treated by the humanity which had created him, and thus, though born in innocence and goodness, he became malignant evil. He now lives in remorse, alone. He springs from the cabin window and disappears across the ice.
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.
Robert Walton: Walton's letters begin and end the novel, framing Victor's and the creature's narratives in such a way that Walton embodies the most important qualities found in both Victor and his creature. Walton, in other words, balances the inquisitive yet presumptuously arrogant nature of Victor with the sympathetic, sensitive side of the creature. As an Arctic explorer, Walton, much like Victor, wishes to conquer the unknown; but when he discovers Victor near death on the icy, vast expanse of water, he listens to Victor's bitter and tormented tale of the creature and reconsiders continuing his own mission to the possible peril of his crew. When the creature appears at Victor's deathbed, Walton fails to fulfill Victor's dying wish to destroy the creature; instead, he does what Victor continually failed to do throughout the novel: he listens to the creature's anguished tale with compassion and empathy.
Caroline Frankenstein: Victor Frankenstein's mother, Caroline was the orphaned daughter of an impoverished merchant who was one of Alphonse Frankenstein's merchant friends. She married the much-older Alphonse two years after he completed his long search for the family. A devoted mother, she contracts the scarlet fever while caring for Elizabeth, Victor's adopted sister. She dies just before Victor leaves to attend the University.
Alphonse Frankenstein: Victor's father is described by his son as "respected by all who knew him for his integrity and indefatigable attention to public business." Alphonse met Victor's mother because of his persistence in pursuing a friend who had fallen on hard times in order to give him assistance. Alphonse is also a nurturing, loving parent, and tries many times to remind Victor that family and happiness are just as important as books and learning. It is his letters to Victor that serve as occasional reminders of the outside world while he is occupied with his experiments.
William Frankenstein: Victor's youngest brother, who runs from the creature's presence in fear; the creature kills him, but Justine Moritz, a family friend, gets blamed for the death. Victor knows from the first that the creature is the murderer, but arrives home too late to prevent Justine from accepting blame for William's death.
Justine Moritz: The Frankenstein family adopts Justine because she had been abandoned by her mother. She is a favorite of Caroline Frankenstein, but returns for a time to her own mother after Caroline's death. Justine later returns to the Frankensteins, and continually reminds Elizabeth "of my dear aunt." She is found with young William's locket after his death and put on trial for his murder. Although Victor knows the creature is responsible for William's death, he says nothing at Justine's trial, reasoning that "I was absent when it was committed, and such a declaration would have been considered as the ravings of a madman and would not have exculpated her who suffered through me." Despite Elizabeth's testimony regarding Justine's good character, she is sentenced to death and then executed.
Henry Clerval: Victor's closest friend and companion, who balances his emotional and rational pursuits. He studies Oriental languages but passionately loves nature and life. Victor acknowledges that "[H]is wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart." And unlike Victor, who wishes to learn "the secrets of heaven and earth," Clerval aspires "to become one among those whose names are recorded in story as the gallant and adventurous benefactors of our species."
After Victor runs from the creature when the creature comes to life, Clerval nurses Victor back to health, playing the role of protector and comforter—a role Victor fails to assume for his own "child," the creature. The creature eventually strangles and kills Clerval because Victor destroys his half-created mate. Victor then vows revenge upon the creature.
Elizabeth Lavenza: The Frankensteins adopt Elizabeth when she is only a girl. She and Victor share more than the typical sibling affections for each other; they love each other and correspond while Victor attends the University. In her letters to him, Elizabeth keeps Victor abreast of family and other social matters, such as the town gossip. She also describes Justine's welfare, reminding Victor that orphans can blossom physically as well as mentally, given the proper love and attention. Her unselfish behavior serves as a contrast to Victor's when Elizabeth gives testimony on Justine's behalf during her trial while Victor remains silent even though he knows Justine did not murder William. Elizabeth and Victor are reunited and get married, despite the creature's threats to be with Victor on his wedding night. Elizabeth is kept ignorant of the creature's existence and his threats, and when Victor leaves the room on their wedding night, the creature kills Elizabeth.
Waldman, M.: Victor's kind professor inspires him to "unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation." Victor hears M. Waldman's lecture on the progress of science and determines "more, far more, will I achieve." The behavior of this man of science stands in stark contrast to Victor's, for M. Waldman takes time away from his research to teach Victor and introduce him to the laboratory, whereas Victor pursues his experiments to the exclusion of all else.
Kirwin, Mr.: An Irish magistrate who believes Victor is responsible for Clerval's murder, for Victor is agitated on hearing the manner of the man's death. After Victor becomes bedridden upon viewing Clerval's corpse, Kirwin cares for Victor's needs and helps him recover his health. Kirwin is sympathetic to the suffering young man, even though his feverish ravings seem to indicate his guilt in the murder. He also arranges for the collection of evidence in Victor's behalf, sparing him a trial.
De Lacey, Mr.: As the blind father of Felix and Agatha, Mr. De Lacey serves as a surrogate father to the creature. The creature notes his benevolence towards his family, and notes that "he would talk in a cheerful accent, with an expression of goodness that bestowed pleasure even upon me." De Lacey and his children are in their current exile because of the aid they rendered, unasked, to a Turkish merchant who was wrongly sentenced to death; the merchant later betrayed them. Because Mr. De Lacey is blind, the creature approaches him to try to gain his sympathy and friendship. Even though Felix and Agatha return home and run the creature off, Mr. De Lacey is the only one in the book who does not judge or fear the creature.
Felix De Lacey: A hard-working son who cares for his family and his beloved Safie. He appears sad and unhappy until Safie, his fiancee, arrives at his home. His involvement with Safie's father gets him, his father, and his sister Agatha exiled from their homeland, France. Nevertheless, his unasked-for kindness to Safie's father, a foreign convict, stands in contrast to his cruel dismissal and beating of the creature, who is doing nothing but sitting at the feet of Felix's father.
Agatha De Lacey: Daughter of Mr. De Lacey, Agatha shows tenderness and kindness towards her family and Safie. She too, however, is horrified by the creature and faints upon seeing him.
Safie: Safie becomes known to Felix through the letters of thanks she writes to him. Although her father is Turkish, her mother was a Christian Arab who had been enslaved by the Turks before marrying one of them. Safie cherishes the memory of her mother, who instructed her daughter in Christianity and fostered "an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Muhammed." Against her father's wishes, Safie flees Turkey and joins Felix De Lacey and his family. Her broken English becomes a learning opportunity for the creature, because he receives the same language lessons as she does. Shelley's stereotypical treatment of Turkish Muslims in her portrayal of Sadie's situation was most likely a way to bring up the issues of women's rights that were articulated by her mother, writer Mary Wollstonecraft.
The creature also known as: Frankenstein's monster: Like a newborn baby reaching out to his mother, the creature reaches out to Victor when he is transformed from an inanimate to an animate being. Victor labored for two years in order to give the creature life, but he is so appalled by the creature's hideous appearance that he flees, leaving the creature to fend for himself. Shelley initially leaves her readers in suspense as to the creature's whereabouts. We do not hear his story until after he finds Victor and requests a mate for himself. He describes his life to Victor after he "awoke," explaining the difficulties he had learning basic survival techniques. The creature then describes his happiest moments watching the De Lacey family together. Living in a shack attached to the De Lacey cottage, the creature viewed the family without their knowledge. He discovered a family relationship rooted in mutual respect and benevolent love, he learned how to speak and to read as the result of Safie's efforts to learn English, and he "looked upon crime as a distant evil."
John Locke, a famous eighteenth-century philosopher, invented the concept of the "Tabula Rasa," the idea that the mind is a "blank slate" when we are born. Most critics agree that Locke strongly influenced Shelley's characterization of the creature, as she wanted her readers to understand how important the creature's social conditioning was to his development as a conscious being. The creature's environment, therefore, plays a critical role in shaping his reaction to and interaction with Victor during their first meeting. While the creature uses both rational and emotional appeals to convince Victor that he deserves and needs another being like himself to share his life with, he tries to emphasize Victor's duties as a creator. The creature eventually realizes that not only has Victor rejected him; the entire race of humankind abhors his image—an image resembling no one else in existence.
The creature vows revenge against his creator and takes Victor's youngest brother, William, as his first victim. After this incident, he discovers Justine asleep in a barn, and purposely puts William's locket in her hand so that she will be accused of the murder. Clerval and Elizabeth's murders follow this incident after Victor goes back on his promise to create a mate for the creature. The creature finally appears at Victor's death bed, confesses his crimes to Walton, and assures Walton that he will fade from existence when a funeral pile consumes his body with flames and sweeps him into the dark sea.
Victor Frankenstein: Born to an affluent, loving family, Victor Frankenstein hopes to leave a lasting impression on his fellow humanity. He leaves home to attend the University of Ingolstadt, where he studies natural sciences. His professor M. Waldman inspires him to push his experiments beyond the realm of "acceptable" science, so he begins to determine the limits of human mortality. Collecting cadaver parts from graveyards, he slowly pieces together the form of a human being. It takes him two years to complete his experiment, and when he finally gives his creature the spark of life, Victor can only run in fear. The creature's hideous appearance appalls Victor, upsetting him so much that he becomes very ill. He knows nothing about the creature's whereabouts until the creature finally approaches him.
Although Victor listens to his creature's tale with a mixture of loathing and dread, he reluctantly acknowledges that he owes the creature "a small portion of happiness"; so he promises to create a mate for the creature. After much consideration, however, Victor fears the consequences of his decision and destroys what little of the female he had created. Although he honestly believes the creature despises humanity and would therefore inflict harm upon anyone and everyone, Victor is more concerned about the creature and his mate creating other "monsters" to wreak havoc upon society. Although he feels guilt for the monster's actions, realizing that by making the creature he is the cause of them, he never accepts responsibility for how he has driven the creature to vengeance.
Ironically, he continues to worry about the creature's treatment of others even when both of them slip deeper into the Arctic iceland, far away from any form of civilization, and even after he hears of the creature's benevolent efforts to help the De Lacey family survive. The ending of the novel only reaffirms Victor's truly selfish motivations, as he fails to consider the needs of Walton's crew by asking them to continue their journey in order to kill the creature. He even calls the crew members cowards for wanting to return home without completing their mission. What Victor does not realize is that his quest to conquer the unknown has left him without family or friends; he dies on Walton's ship as lonely and bitter as his unfortunate creature.
Throughout the novel, Victor's self-centered actions are shown in stark contrast to those of his family, friends, and even strangers. Whereas his parents have taken in two orphaned children as and treated them as their own, Victor relinquishes responsibility for the only creature he has actually created. Unlike Elizabeth, who testifies on Justine's behalf at her trial despite the other townspeople's disapproval, Victor remains silent because he fears to be disbelieved or thought insane. Even the behavior of minor characters such as Mr. Kirwin, who exerts himself to nurse and defend a stranger who to all outward appearances is a murderer, serves to show how Victor is unnaturally selfish and as a result has performed an unnatural act.
Margaret Saville: Robert Walton's sister, with whom Walton corresponds at the beginning and end of the novel.
Connections: Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley was born on August 30, 1797, in London, England. She was the daughter of famed writers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Though she lacked a formal education, Shelley spent a significant portion of her free time reading and writing. She published her first poem, "Mounseer Nongtongpaw," in 1807.
While Shelley wrote several novels, her most famous was Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The story has remained a literary classic and has been adapted into numerous literary forms.