Possibly one of the most well-known fictional monsters in the entire world is the “Adam of your labors” that was created by Dr. Victor Frankenstein from different human body parts in Mary Shelley’s classic book Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, published in early 1818. Indeed, a simple Google search for “Frankenstein” reveals nearly 80 billion matches, and the theme appears in countless motion pictures, television series and even children’s cartoons, Although the patchwork creature has become known as “Frankenstein” over the years, the monster actually has no name in the book but is rather referred to alternatively only as “the fiend” or “the creature” throughout the book.
The inspiration for the text was provided by Lord Byron who suggested to a convivial social group meeting in Geneva that they should each write a scary story of some type, and this suggestion was the catalyst for Frankenstein. Today, it is reasonable to conclude that Shelley was also inspired by the numerous high-profile experiments with newly discovered electricity that were fascinating people around the world at the time, and this fascination is evinced by its use as a mortal substitute for the supernatural creation of the monster.
The inspiration for the remainder of Shelley’s story, however, was simply pure literary genius as demonstrated by the book’s enduring popularity today. A summary of the book’s plot is provided below, followed by a list of characters and an analysis of the major characters in the book. Finally, a description of the various themes that emerge from a reading of Frankenstein is followed by a chapter-by-chapter summary and analysis.
Rather than jumping right in to the chilling scene where Victor animates his creation, the book begins with a series of four letters written by Robert Walton, an affluent and prominent explorer and seagoing adventurer attempting to be the first person to reach the North Pole, to his sister, Margaret Saville. The first letter, postmarked St. Petersburgh (Russia) and dated December 11, 17___, provides assurances of Walton’s safe arrival at his destination without any of the mishaps his sister has feared due to her “evil forebodings” about the voyage and recounts how he invested his spare time to scientific research and boasts about he gained valuable empirical experiences working on a Greenland whaling ship. The first letter describes his preparatory arrangements for the voyage, including recruiting able seamen, and concludes with Walton’s best wishes for his sister and a cautionary note that they may not meet again for several months or perhaps even years – or more ominously, never.
The second letter, postmarked Archangel (Russia) and dated March 28, 17___, laments his loneliness and provides a somewhat gratuitous recount of his earlier life when he was an autodidact for many years with a fascination for his uncle’s travelogues (his sister undoubtedly knew all of this and this information was apparently provided for the entertainment and edification of readers only). In sharp contrast to the buoyancy of his first letter, the second letter bemoans the writer’s lack of friends and inability to communicate with others of a like mind, but Walton still insists that his goal is worthwhile and he intends to see it through to a successful outcome.
The third letter, with no postmark (sent by means of a passing merchantman) and dated July 7, 17___, is short and to the point. In this letter, Walton advises his sister that his voyage has commenced and is “well advanced.” Moreover, Walton retains his sense of enthusiasm and positive expectations for a successful outcome to his adventure (“But success shall crown my endeavours”), and emphasizes the advantages he has in terms of skilled seamanship and esprit de corps amongst the sailors. Indeed, the “floating sheets of ice that continually” pass them do not daunt them, and concludes by citing a list of achievements that has brought him thus far and wishing his sister best regards.
This character is the novel’s protagonist who was first introduced in the final letter from Captain Walton to his sister when he rescued him from an ice floe. The crux of the well-known storyline depicted in hundreds of motions picture is the fact that Victor has discovered the secret of life and has cobbled together a human and imbued it with the life force using the magic of electricity. This act, however, has some unexpected and unintended effects that serve as the driving force behind Victor’s actions throughout the book.
With a face that even a mother could not love and a gigantic physical stature that, the Monster is actually smart and can speak normally, but his frightful countenance and huge size prevent him from being accepted by others. His reactions to this continual rejection and his hate-filled feelings for Victor, his creator, for causing his predicament combine to create a perfect storm for Victor who wants to rid the world of his creation to keep him from harming others once and for all.
Captain Robert Walton
The first character introduced in the novel, Walton was the author of the series of four letters to his sister, Margaret Saville, that served to set the stage for the incredible events that followed.
On the one hand, Victor is clearly a brilliant scientist who not only enjoys a well-to-do family background, but also possesses the intellectual capacity to understand the current state of scientific knowledge and conceptualize new innovations for using electricity in other ways as well. Even though Victor tries to “play God” by creating life, he does so innocently enough, at least from the pragmatic perspective of pursuing pure scientific investigation, but with little or no regard for what will happen if he is successful. In addition, Victor proves himself to be resilient and stalwart, even in the face of seemingly impossible odds, in an effort to destroy what he created to protect humankind from the Monster. On the other hand, though, Victor fails to protect his family members, including his loving bride and brother as well as others from the deadly revenge sought by the Monster, and it is little wonder Victor is left an emotional wreck by story’s end.
Similarly, Captain Walton is also a noteworthy gentleman-scholar who is fully consumed by scientific interest to the extent that he is willing to sacrifice his health and even his life if necessary in order to add to the existing body of knowledge. The fact that he was able to form a close friendship with Victor in so short of time when he was unable to do so with most others previously indicates the similarity in these two characters.
In some ways, this novel is simply a good read on a snowy night when “only the Moon howls,” especially when viewed as a response to Lord Byron’s literary challenge. In other ways, though, Shelley presents a number of key themes in her grisly tale, including the notion of creation, theretofore reserved solely to the realm of the Almighty. Likewise, abandonment and revenge quickly emerge as relevant themes in the storyline, as well as the importance of family to well-being and happiness. In addition, the theme of nature versus nurture can be applied to the manner in which the monster developed over time, having been left to his own devices in a hostile world. Finally, an overarching theme that develops over the course of the novel is the dangers involved in unrestrained scientific inquiry, and electricity then was analogous to research into nuclear applications today.
The actual book begins with Victor describing his childhood to is new friend, Captain Walton, including stories about his parents, Caroline and Alphonse, met and eventually got married a couple of years later. With respect to his heritage, Victor boasts that, “I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic” and explains that his father in particular was a renowned public servant. In addition, Victor provides a vivid description of his family’s extensive travels throughout Europe and notes that he was born in Naples during their travels. Finally, Victor describes his parents’ compassion for those less fortunate and how his mother had visited the poor families in the region during their visit to Italy.
On one such excursion, Victor and his mother first encountered Elizabeth Lavenza, described as “thin and very fair” in sharp contrast to the other four impoverished children of the peasant family. According to Victor, “Her hair was the brightest living gold, and despite the poverty of her clothing, seemed to set a crown of distinction on her head. Her brow was clear and ample, her blue eyes cloudless, and her lips and the moulding of her face so expressive of sensibility and sweetness that none could behold her without looking on her as of a distinct species, a being heaven-sent, and bearing a celestial stamp in all her features.” As it turns out, Elizabeth was a foundling who was actually of noble birth that the peasant woman had taken to raise as one of her own. After convincing the peasant mother and village priest that it would be in her best interests, Elizabeth became a ward of the Frankenstein family.
Continuing the dialogue with Captain Walton, Victor explains that he and Elizabeth soon determined they were authentic soul-mates whose differences just drew them closer together. For instance, Victor tells Captain Walton that, “Harmony was the soul of our companionship, and the diversity and contrast that subsisted in our characters drew us nearer together.” During this period in his life, Victor’s relationship with his best friend, Henry Clerval, is also reinforced, making this an especially positive period in his life. In addition, Victor becomes highly interested in science, and he reads the works by ancient men of knowledge to try to learn their secrets.
When Victor is exposed to a demonstration of electricity for the first time, though, he becomes convinced that the ancient thinkers were wrong and electricity was the key to the future of science, a view that was confirmed when he witnessed lightning in action: “When I was about fifteen years old we had retired to our house near Belrive, when we witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. . . . I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump.” This event was especially influential for Victor and his future scientific investigations involving electricity.
After he turned 17 years old, his parents make the decision that Victor should enroll in an Ingolstadt university; however, prior to his departure, Elizabeth infects Victor’s mother, who had been caring for her despite the known risks that were involved, with scarlet fever. Before she dies from this disease, though, Victor’s mother encourages him to marry Elizabeth. Although still brokenhearted over the loss of this mother, Victor finally departs for Ingolstadt a few weeks later where he secures accommodations and a meeting with a natural philosophy professor at his new university. The professor advises Victor that all of his previous research into alchemy was worthless and, struggling to identify a new course of study, he attends a lecture by a professor of chemistry who successfully persuades Victor to pursue a course of scientific study. Especially noteworthy was the professor’s counsel to Victor that, “The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind,” which clearly had an enormous effect on Victor’s views about the dangers of unrestricted scientific inquiry.
Spending time in this fashion allowed the monster to also learn about the cottagers who had a mixed past. The old man, De Lacey, was the blind father of Agatha and Felix, and had once been a prominent member of the Parisian community. Likewise, Safie’s father had been a successful Turkish merchant until he fell into disfavor with the government: ““The father of Safie had been the cause of their ruin. He was a Turkish merchant and had inhabited Paris for many years, when, for some reason which I could not learn, he became obnoxious to the government.”
Following the arrest of Safie’s father for a capital crime he did not commit, the monster met Safie during a visit to the prison where he was incarcerated and it was love at first sight. In support of his story, the monster presents Victor with copies of letters written to De Lacey from Safie he had laboriously copied. The De Lacey family, though, also experienced their own fair share of troubles and the family had been exiled to Germany where the monster discovered them in their humble cottage. Although her father tried to compel her to return to Turkey with him where a slave-like state awaited her, she managed to take some money and flee to Felix after learning where he was living.
During one of his frequent excursions into the woods surrounding the cottage in search of something to eat, the monster discovers some books (Johann a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, Wolfgang von Goethe’s Sorrows of Werter, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the latter of which will have a significant impact on the monster since he read it literally) and clothing in a small suitcase. Armed with these newfound resources, the monster returns to his lean-to and reads the books avidly in hopes of learning more about the world around him.
The knowledge the monster obtains from his readings combined with what he was able to cobble together from listening to the cottagers and some of Victor’s notes he had taken from his apartment before he fled convinced him that he was an abomination that was doomed to isolation. Nevertheless, the monster still attempts to make a connection with others and tries to introduce himself to the cottagers for whom had grown fond. When everyone besides the blind De Lacey leaves the cottage one afternoon, the monster shyly introduces himself and starts to explain his circumstances when the others return and, alarmed and frightened at his appearance, chase him out of the cottage.
Feeling completely alone in the world and rejected by all whom he encounters, the monster becomes determined to get his revenge whenever and wherever possible, with a special emphasis of finding and killing Victor. After traveling towards Geneva for a number of months, the monster comes across a young girl who is struggling to remain afloat in a stream. After saving her from drowning, the girl’s companion thanks the monster by shooting him, believing that he was responsible for her condition. Following this untoward event, the monster then encounters William, Victor’s younger brother, on his way to Geneva.
Learning that the boy’s father is Alphonse Frankenstein and realizing the boy’s relationship to his creator, the now-enraged monster kills William. This monster cries out, “Frankenstein! you belong then to my enemy—to him towards whom I have sworn eternal revenge; you shall be my first victim.” After killing Willima, the monster removes a picture of Caroline Frankenstein from his hands and secrets it in Justine Moritz’s dress while she is asleep in a barn. This picture is subsequently used as firm “evidence” of Justine’s guilt in William’s murder for which she is executed as described above. After telling Victor about this events, the monster presses Victor to create another creature, a female, for his life mate since he is unique in the entire world.
Continuing to harangue Victor to comply with this demands for a female mate he can call his own, the monster prevails on his creator’s obligations to him since he did not ask to be created. This argument finally overcomes Victor’s initial reluctance and he agrees, especially since the monster advises Victor that all of the violence and deaths were due to the monster’s bleak loneliness and that he would take his new monster bride to South America where they would live happily ever after in the jungle.
After Victor agrees to comply with these demands, the monster cautions Victor that he will be keeping his eye on him until he has fulfilled his promise to create a female monster as a companion for him. In this regard, the monster entreats Victor: “I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create.”
Following this unsettling encounter with the monster, Victor begins to have second thoughts about the wisdom and even the viability of creating another creature given all of the logistics that would be involved. After all, his first creation had already caused the deaths of two people he was close to, and he was uncertain and worried about the outcome if he added yet another monster to the gruesome mix. Alphonse, observing Victor’s unease, inquires if his imminent marriage to Elizabeth is the cause of this round of depression and anxiety, but Victor reassures his father that his thoughts about marriage to Elizabeth represent the sole source of comfort to him in his present condition. For example, Victor assures Alphonse that, “My dear father, reassure yourself. I love my cousin tenderly and sincerely. I never saw any woman who excited, as Elizabeth does, my warmest admiration and affection. My future hopes and prospects are entirely bound up in the expectation of our union.”
In an effort to cheer his Victor up, his father proposes an immediate celebration of the upcoming nuptials but Victor declines since he wants to finish his second creation and satisfy his responsibility to the monster before he marries Elizabeth: “Alas! To me the idea of an immediate union with my Elizabeth was one of horror and dismay. I was bound by a solemn promise which I had not yet fulfilled and dared not break, or if I did, what manifold miseries might not impend over me and my devoted family!”