Title: Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Date of Publication: January 1, 1818
Genre: Gothic science fiction
Biographical information about the author (for my knowledge only, but very helpful):
Mary Shelly was raised by her father after the death of her mother when she was a month old. Her father was an author himself, which inspired Shelly. She married Percy Shelly, a friend of her father’s after his first wife committed suicide. Their daughter died prematurely. Frankenstein is her most famous work, first written when she was 19.
Information about the literary period (for my knowledge only, but very helpful):
Frankenstein is one of the most famous novels in the Gothic genre, it was written at a time when the Gothic novel was slowly giving way to the literary movement of Romanticism, and the novel shares the Romantic emphasis on the “sublime” power of nature.
Robert Walton, on a ship bound for the North Pole, writes letters to his sister back in England. Walton finds Victor Frankenstein, and brings him aboard the ship to bring him back to health. Frankenstein describes the circumstances that brought him to the ice and near death. Victor describes his childhood in Geneva, his “cousin” Elizabeth and best friend Henry Clerval. Victor enters the university of Ingolstadt to study natural philosophy and chemistry. There, he is consumed by the desire to discover the secret of life and, after several years of research, becomes convinced that he has found it.
Upon completing his creation, he finds he has made a terrible mistake and runs away, falling ill with a fever. Henry nurses him back to helath. Victor returns to Geneva when a letter comes informing him that his youngest brother, William, has been murdered. While passing through the woods where William was strangled, he catches sight of the monster and becomes convinced that the monster is his brother’s murderer. Arriving in Geneva, Victor finds that Justine Moritz, a kind, gentle girl who had been adopted by the Frankenstein household, has been accused. She is tried, condemned, and executed, despite her assertions of innocence.
The monster approaches Victor. The monster begs Victor to create a mate for him, a monster equally grotesque to serve as his sole companion. Victor refuses at first, horrified by the prospect of creating a second monster. The monster is eloquent and persuasive, however, and he eventually convinces Victor. Horrified by the possible consequences of his work, Victor destroys his new creation. The monster, enraged, vows revenge, swearing that he will be with Victor on Victor’s wedding night. The next morning, Clerval is found murdered. Victor marries Elizabeth. He fears the monster’s warning and suspects that he will be murdered on his wedding night. To be cautious, he sends Elizabeth away to wait for him. While he awaits the monster, he hears Elizabeth scream and realizes that the monster had been hinting at killing his new bride, not himself. Victor vows to devote the rest of his life to finding the monster and exacting his revenge, and he soon departs to begin his quest.
Victor tracks the monster ever northward into the ice. Walton encounters Victor. Victor, already ill when the two men meet, worsens and dies shortly thereafter. The monster tells Walton of his immense solitude, suffering, hatred, and remorse. He asserts that now that his creator has died, he too can end his suffering. The monster then departs for the northernmost ice to die.
Memorable quotations significant to meaning:
- I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
- Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
- What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?
- So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.
- I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on.
Significance of opening scene:
The novel opens with letters from Robert Walton to his sister. Walton has set out on a sea-faring venture after failing as a poet, and writes to his sister back home of his experiences – such as finding a man we learn to be Victor Frankenstein who recounts his story to Walton, which Walton then transcribes for his sister to read. This lends credibility to the story, as it sets the story of Frankenstein in the real world.
Significance of closing scene:
The end is told in Walton’s letters just as the beginning is. Walton tells his sister he is returning to England, at his crew’s insistence after nearly perishing in ice. Frankenstein dies, and Walton meets the monster, hears the monster’s tale of misery, and pities him before remembering his friend’s tale. The monster leaves, with the intent to die alone, Walton being the last human to ever have to see him.
- Victor Frankenstein – The doomed protagonist and narrator of the main portion of the story. Studying in Ingolstadt, Victor discovers the secret of life and creates an intelligent but grotesque monster, from whom he recoils in horror. Victor keeps his creation of the monster a secret, feeling increasingly guilty and ashamed as he realizes how helpless he is to prevent the monster from ruining his life and the lives of others.
- The Monster – The eight-foot-tall, hideously ugly creation of Victor Frankenstein. Intelligent and sensitive, the monster attempts to integrate himself into human social patterns, but all who see him shun him. His feeling of abandonment compels him to seek revenge against his creator.
- Robert Walton – The Arctic seafarer whose letters open and closeFrankenstein. Walton picks the bedraggled Victor Frankenstein up off the ice, helps nurse him back to health, and hears Victor’s story. He records the incredible tale in a series of letters addressed to his sister, Margaret Saville, in England.
- Elizabeth Lavenza – An orphan, four to five years younger than Victor, whom the Frankensteins’ adopt. In the 1818 edition of the novel, Elizabeth is Victor’s cousin, the child of Alphonse Frankenstein’s sister. In the 1831 edition, Victor’s mother rescues Elizabeth from a destitute peasant cottage in Italy. Elizabeth embodies the novel’s motif of passive women, as she waits patiently for Victor’s attention.
- Henry Clerval– Victor’s boyhood friend, who nurses Victor back to health in Ingolstadt. After working unhappily for his father, Henry begins to follow in Victor’s footsteps as a scientist. His cheerfulness counters Victor’s moroseness.
Time – Eighteenth century
Place – Geneva; the Swiss Alps; Ingolstadt; England and Scotland; the northern ice
In Frankenstein, light symbolizes knowledge, discovery, and enlightenment. The natural world is a place of dark secrets, hidden passages, and unknown mechanisms; the goal of the scientist is then to reach light.
The dangerous and more powerful cousin of light is fire. The monster’s first experience with a still-smoldering flame reveals the dual nature of fire: he discovers excitedly that it creates light in the darkness of the night, but also that it harms him when he touches it.
Themes for discussion:
The pursuit of knowledge is central to Frankenstein. Victor attempts to find knowledge beyond that of human limits – such as the secret to life. Walton has similar pursuits of knowledge in his quest towards the North pole. Knowledge can be dangerous, and lead to ones ruin.
Victor Frankenstein creates a monster – literally bringing it to life, and makes it monstrous by ignoring its creation, taking no responsibility for the life he creates. The monster is not monstrous until he is repeated denied love and acceptance and so becomes as monstrous as all assume him to be. Victor himself is a kind of monster, as his ambition, secrecy, and selfishness alienate him from human society. Ordinary on the outside, he may be the true “monster” inside, as he is eventually consumed by an obsessive hatred of his creation.