Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a combination of Gothic novel and science fiction. It tells the story about Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who builds a horrible monster from corpses and brings him to life. The monster ends up being his source of misery and death.
The novel’s plot is epistolary. The narrative is told through the first-person perspectives of Victor Frankenstein and Captain Walton. Frankenstein can also be described as a frame story. It refers to a story that is framed or surrounded with another story or series of stories.
1. The Narrative of Captain Walton
The novel begins with Robert Walton’s correspondence to Margaret Saville in England. These letters tell about his trip. Robert Walton is sailing to the North Pole with a group he accompanied by sailors. They are looking for glory. He is an ambitious and passionate man who hopes to make important scientific and geographical discoveries. However, their journey soon comes to an abrupt halt when they are trapped in Arctic ice.
Walton and his team see something strange from across the frozen ocean: A huge man rushing along the ice in a dog-sled. Soon after, they discover a man looking frail and frozen on a chunk of ice. He seems to be in danger of his death. Walton’s crew immediately takes the stranger aboard and rescues him. The stranger turns out to be Victor Frankenstein.
For several days, Walton nurses Frankenstein back to health. Walton sees Frankenstein in recovery and begins to talk with him. Frankenstein’s wisdom and cultivation impress him and the two soon strike up a friendship. Frankenstein later tells Walton his long-held tragic story, having become more comfortable with Walton.
Throughout the rest of the novel, Robert Walton is telling Victor Frankenstein’s tragic story to his sister in England through a series of letters. The novel’s end is when he takes over the narration.
2. The Tragic Story of Frankenstein
Victor Frankenstein’s story begins with the description of his perfect childhood in Geneva, Switzerland. He was born to a wealthy Swiss family. His father, Alphonse Frankenstein, is a wealthy descendant of Genovese nobility while his mother, Caroline, is the daughter of Alphonse’s friend, Beaufort, a merchant. His parents are wonderful and kind.
Victor Frankenstein is his first child. He also has two older brothers, Ernest Frankenstein and William Frankenstein. His parents adopt Elizabeth Lavenza (an orphan of Milanese nobility) and raise her as part of their family. Victor grew up with Elizabeth Lavenza, his adopted sister, and Henry Clerval, his best friend.
2.1. Frankenstein’s Passion for Science
Victor Frankenstein has a passion to natural philosophy and alchemy. Henry Clerval likes studying the history and struggle of humans. Frankenstein spends his childhood studying the works and dreams of finding the elixir to life.
Victor is seventeen years old when his parents decide that it is the right time for him start university studies at Ingolstadt. His mother and Elizabeth get sick with scarlet fever as he is about to set off for Ingolstadt. His mother succumbs to the disease, and Elizabeth is able to recover. His mother’s last wish is that Frankenstein and Elizabeth may someday marry. After mourning his mother’s death, Victor Frankenstein goes up to the University of Ingolstadt and throws himself into his studies.
After berating Frankenstein for his inordinate time spent on Agrippa, Paracelsus, and other biology topics, Mr. Krempe suggests that he take up a more modern reading course. Frankenstein doesn’t care about the mundane work of modern scientists compared to the amazing dreams of the alchemists.
Frankenstein also meets Mr. Waldman (a chemistry professor) at the university. Mr. Waldman is driven by his ambition to be a natural philosopher and he wants to make a name for himself. Frankenstein is more passionate about his studies as a result. He studies every day, neglecting his friends and family.
2.2. Frankenstein’s Discovery of the Principle of Life
Frankenstein develops a proficiency in chemistry and other modern scientific theories over time. Frankenstein is obsessed with the idea of discovering life’s principle. He eventually succeeds and discovers what it means to be human. He devises a plan for creating a human being from pieces of the deceased.
Frankenstein hides in his apartment, and he works alone. After years of struggle, Frankenstein finally creates a terrifying creature with an enormous size and an uncanny appearance. Frankenstein stares at him horror-stricken when the Creature opens his yellow, dull eyes. He is so disgusted by his horrible creation that he flees from his laboratory and seeks refuge in Ingolstadt’s streets all night. When he returns to the apartment, the Creature vanished. Frankenstein is agitated and goes into delirium and fever. Clerval, Frankenstein’s friend, visits him and takes him to the hospital.
His life is being threatened by the natural philosophy and alchemy which once ruled it. When he thinks about his creation, he feels sick and ashamed. After he has recovered, he decides to return home to Geneva.
2.3. Frankenstein Gets Tragic News From Geneva
Frankenstein is sent a letter from Geneva before he leaves Ingolstadt. It states that William, his younger brother has been killed. Unnamed fear grips him and he rushes to return home for the first-time in six years.
One day, while walking through Plain Palais, the place of William’s murder, Victor sees the gigantic creature in the distance. He is now certain that the horrible creature he has created is responsible for William’s murder.
On the other hand, the Frankenstein family searches for William’s murderer and ends up suspecting their maidservant, Justine, of killing him. But Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth don’t think so and express their disbelief. Their families tell them that Justine is found with the locket William wore the night of William’s death. The necklace was missing from William’s corpse and they’ve now found it in Justine’s clothes. Frankenstein is guilt-ridden but he remains silent, fearful that he will be called mad if he tells his story. Frankenstein is devastated when Justine, an innocent, is killed.
Both Justine’s and William’s deaths weigh heavily on Frankenstein and he blames himself as their true murderer. To relieve his grief and find some comfort, he looks to the beauty of nature for solace.
3. The Sad Tale of the Creature
Frankenstein was alone hiking in the mountains when the Creature appeared and asked him to tell his story. Frankenstein eventually agrees to listen, even though he was initially overwhelmed with anger, fear and hatred for the Creature. Frankenstein is accompanied by the Creature to their hut, and he hears his tale. Frankenstein tells Robert Walton about the creature he created. This is the Creature’s first-person narrative.
Frankenstein is told by the Creature about his miserable life. He suffers from rejection and suffering because of his horrible appearance. After leaving Frankenstein’s laboratory, he goes to the village where the frightened villagers insult and attack him. Soon, he realizes how terrified everyone is of him due his appearance.
3.1. His Search for Companionship
After traveling long distances alone, and feeling extreme hunger and cold, he finally makes it to the country. There, he finds refuge in a tiny house with an old French man and his children. He learns to read and speak by watching the family for almost a year. Moreover, by reading three books of literature that he recovers from a satchel in the snow, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Sorrows of Werter, and a volume of Plutarch’s LivesHe is able to show a human consciousness and confront existential questions about who and what he really is.
The Creature develops a liking for and compassion for the French noble family and starts anonymously doing chores for them. Then, longing for some kindness and protection, he finally decides to meet the family’s elderly patriarch, a blind man. The old man’s blindness renders him able to recognize the creature’s innocence and sincerity irrespective of his appearance. But before he is able to make his case, the blind man’s children return home unexpectedly. Frightened by the Creature’s appearance, they beat him and chase him out of the house. The Creature quickly enraged the family and burned their cottage to the ground.
3.2. The Creature’s Demand
The monster feels completely lost and decides to seek out his creator. He goes to Frankenstein’s laboratory in search of his whereabouts. Here he happens to discover his tragic origin in Frankenstein’s journal and finally resolves to travel to Geneva to meet his creator.
When he reaches Geneva, he meets William, Frankenstein’s younger brother, in the forest. The creature, attracted by William’s beauty, resolves to make him friend. But William Frankenstein calls him “Hideous monster!” and struggles to escape. As soon as he discovers that the boy “belongs to the enemy” he kills him and frames Justine for the murder.
Here, the Creature’s narrative breaks off. After telling Frankenstein his story, the Creature demands that Frankenstein create a female companion to share his loneliness. Frankenstein is told that if he does not agree, his loved ones will all be destroyed. Frankenstein only agrees to the creature’s promise to leave Europe with his mate forever and return to Geneva.
4. Frankenstein’s Narrative
When Victor Frankenstein reaches Geneva, his father suggests that now Frankenstein should marry Elizabeth in order to fulfil his mother’s dying wish. Although Frankenstein is in love with Elizabeth and wants her to marry him, he realizes that he must fulfill his promise to the Creature first before marrying Elizabeth. He leaves England with Henry Clerval, his friend, to complete his work. Before he leaves for England, he promises to his father to marry Elizabeth when he returns.
Victor leaves Clerval in Edinburgh and heads to Orkney to fulfill his promise to the monster. He is almost halfway through his work of creation when he suddenly feels fearful and starts to doubt his promise to the creature. He is now extremely anxious over the prospect of his two creations mating and propagating “a race of devils” that may bring ultimate destruction to the world.
He is terrified by the thought and destroys his female creation. Upon seeing this, the Creature, who has followed Frankenstein across Europe, vows vengeance: “I shall be with you on your wedding-night.”
4.1.The Creature’s Revenge
Frankenstein takes the remains of the female creature and sets off in the middle of the night on a small boat. He then finally dumps them in to the ocean. But when he returns to shore, he is accused of a murder is taken into a dingy little room where he is shown the body of his beloved friend, Henry Clerval, actually murdered at the creature’s hands. He is taken into custody and suffers from severe illness for several months. His father comes to his rescue, and when the grand jury validates the proof that Frankenstein was on the Orkney Islands at the time of Henry Clerval’s murder, he is cleared of the criminal charge against him.
Frankenstein returns with his father to Geneva. One day, he receives a letter from Elizabeth and finally resolves to marry her at once in spite of the Creature’s threat. Frankenstein and Elizabeth leave for Evian after their wedding to stay in an inn. When Frankenstein, leaving Elizabeth waiting for him in a separate room, is pacing around the inn keeping watch for the creature, he hears Elizabeth’s scream. He rushes to Elizabeth’s room where he finds her lifeless body and the creature at the window. The tragic news of Elizabeth’s death causes Frankenstein’s father to pass away from grief.
4.2. Frankenstein’s Quest for the Creature
Frankenstein is then severely depressed and spends many months in an asylum. After his release from asylum, he brings his case before a magistrate and demands for the Creature’s arrest. However, the magistrate is skeptical of his story so he decides to leave Geneva to seek revenge.
Frankenstein, now having lost all his loved ones, sets out to pursue the creature and destroy him completely. He tells Walton that he has now lost every sensation except for revenge.
He always receives clues from the Creature, including food and notes on rocks and tree barks. The Creature chases him everywhere, and he finally finds himself in the Arctic. Just as he’s about to catch the Creature, however, the ice suddenly breaks and separates them. Frankenstein is then left to drift on a floating sheet. After several hours, he is taken aboard Walton’s ship and rescued by him. Frankenstein tells Walton about his story and asks him if he will kill the Creature before completing the task. Here Frankenstein’s narrative ends, and Robert Walton continues his letters to his sister in England.
5. Walton’s Conclusion of the Narrative
Walton is now the narrator again and we’re back in the present. Some of his crewmen are killed when the ship gets stuck in the ice. Frankenstein gives a stirring speech encouraging Walton and his crew not to stop their journey. He reminds them that glory can only be achieved by sacrificing.
Finally, Walton’s ship has been freed from the ice. His crew pressure Walton into abandoning his trip and agrees for him to return to England. Frankenstein, however, is determined to continue his quest.
But unfortunately Frankenstein’s health deteriorates and he dies. Just after his death, Walton discovers the Creature crying over Frankenstein’s body. He speaks about his sufferings, and how he now hates himself because of the many murders he has done. Walton learns of his plan, to incinerate his body at North Pole. This will bring an end to the entire ignoble affair. He then opens the window and steps onto the ice, before disappearing in the distance and darkness.
6. It is Frankenstein Gothic or Romantic?
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most well known 19th century classic Gothic stories of all time. The novel’s story revolves around several themes Gothic elements such as the nature of evil and the air of mystery and darkness, while both the monster and Victor Frankenstein face emotional turmoil. Frankenstein is also a classic Romantic novel. Like the characters in Romantic novels, Frankenstein’s characters are also portrayed as Romantic characters. Frankenstein often find refuge in nature, idealize the people living a simple life, and question the power of science and technology.