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Frankenstein Chapter Summaries
Understand the plot of the novel as it unfolds with our chapter by chapter guide.
The novel opens in epistolary (letter) form. The first letter is from Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville. He is travelling north, hoping to find “a country of eternal light.” But he receives a “foretaste of those icy climes” in which the novel begins and ends.
Robert has reached Archangel in northern Russia. He laments the fact that he has no friend, or companion of a sympathetic nature and does not expect to find one. This prepares us for the meeting with Victor Frankenstein. Walton refers to Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, another tale of pride and downfall.
Walton continues northwards, confident in “the determined heart and resolved will of man.”
Despite being locked in “vast and irregular plains of ice”, Walton and his crew spy “a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature.” This is the first sight of the creature created by Victor Frankenstein.
On the following day Frankenstein himself is rescued from the ice, “dreadfully emaciated...melancholy and despairing.” When he hears of the gigantic figure he asks whether it could have been destroyed by the ice. Walton cannot confirm this, which means that at the end of the novel, we do not know whether the creature still lives. Walton and Victor form a close attachment.
Through their conversation, Victor fears that Walton is infected with the same “madness” for knowledge that has brought him to the verge of destruction. He prepares to relate his story, though he states that “nothing can alter my destiny.”
Victor recounts the story of his upbringing, in a rather muddled narrative of chance, fate and adoption. Victor’s parents adopted Elizabeth Lavenza, who becomes a kind of sister to Victor.
Victor’s passion for investigating “the hidden laws of nature” begins to dominate his life. Meanwhile Victor’s brother is born, and he befriends Henry Clerval, with whom he shares many pleasures but “it was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn,” Victor remarks, and his reading of ancient classics is channelled accordingly. It is when Victor sees “a stream of fire” engulf an oak tree in a thunderstorm that he begins to consider the idea of galvanism, as a way to animate life.
Victor’s mother dies of scarlet fever. Victor departs to become a student at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria. His professors react to him in different ways. Krempe tells him he has wasted his time studying ancient alchemists, but Waldman has more respect for these “men of genius” and Victor takes inspiration from the latter.
Through his study of “the natural decay and corruption of the human body” Victor makes his great discovery, becoming “capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” He warns Walton “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge,” but begins “the creation of a human being.” To make the experiment easier he determines to “make the being of a gigantic stature.” In the process he says “he dabbled among the unhallowed dumps of the grave.”
Frankenstein completes his task but he is so horrified by the monstrous appearance of his creation that he rushes from the room, only to awaken to find “the wretch” looking at him and trying to speak. Victor flees from the house.
He meets Clerval, who is concerned at his state of mind. Returning to his apartment he finds the creature gone. He suffers a nervous collapse, which lasts for several months.
Another letter, this time from Elizabeth, speaks of family matters, particularly the adoption of Justine Moritz as a kind of servant, which “in Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France or England.” Victor recovers but finds his former studies disgusting.
Victor receives a letter from his father which tells him that his younger brother, William, has been found dead - murdered. Missing from the body is a miniature (a painting) of the child’s mother, so it is believed theft is the motive.
En route to Geneva, Victor visits the spot where his brother’s body was found. During a terrible thunderstorm – a Romantic motif – Victor spies the creature he has created and realises that it has murdered William, proclaiming: “I had turned loose into the world a depraved wretch.”
Knowing that no-one will believe him, and that the creature possesses superhuman strength, he remains silent, only to discover that Justine has been identified as the killer! In her pocket has been found the stolen miniature.
The trial of Justine commences. There is much circumstantial evidence pointing to her guilt, although Elizabeth speaks in her defence. Victor is amazed to find that Justine has confessed.
Justine is executed, and Victor now attributes two deaths – Justine and William – to his own actions in creating their murderer.
Victor reflects on what he has done. “I had begun life with benevolent intentions,” he comments but now he is fearful of “the fiend I had let loose.” The effects of the deaths on Elizabeth also appal him. He wanders amongst the Alps but his spirits are “weighed down by horror and despair.”
Victor takes some comfort from the magnificent scenery, only to find himself face to face with the monster. We hear it speak for the first time, accusing Victor: “You, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature.” The monster compares itself with the fallen angel and claims “I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity.” The monster demands that Victor listen to his story (which will make up the next 6 chapters of the novel).
Essays on Chapters 6-10
The creature describes his awakening to consciousness, almost as if in a new creation, but he realises his appearance terrifies people. He takes refuge in a hovel adjoining a cottage. Through observation he learns much about human behaviour although as yet he cannot understand language.
The creature observes a family that are unhappy and one of the causes is poverty. Their kindness moves him. He begins to understand (their?) language. He anonymously helps them with their daily tasks, and he hopes that despite his appearance he will “win their favour.”
Another woman, an “Arabian” named Safie, arrives, with whom Felix, the young man of the household, is clearly in love. The creature’s language skills steadily improve as he watches Felix instruct Safie, using a book called Ruins of Empires. From this the creature learns about the cruelty of mankind, the inequalities “of rank, descent and noble blood.” He feels sad about his own deformity and isolation.
He learns that the family is called De Lacey. Through another interior narrative, we hear the family’s story: Safie’s Turkish father’s unjust imprisonment; Felix’s involvement in his escape, with the promise of Safie’s hand in marriage; the fact that Safie’s Christian mother had created in her daughter “an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Mohammed.” Due to Felix’s activities Felix’s father and sister (Agatha) are also imprisoned, then exiled. Safie has fled from her father and found Felix once more.
This narrative gives Shelley the opportunity for some social criticism, and links to the creature’s own feelings of exile and oppression.
By chance the creature finds three books, one of which is John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost, the story of the fallen angel expelled from heaven, a situation very similar to Frankenstein. He also finds some letters from Victor, his absent creator. The creature says that his “heart yearned to be known.” So he enters into conversation with the blind De Lacey, but the rest of the family return, and they drive the “monster” away.
Rejected once more, the creature wanders, cursing his creator – “I, like the Arch Fiend, bore a hell within me.” He finds that the De Lacey family have left their cottage for good. He resolves to find his creator. En route he rescues a girl from drowning, but is shot at, deepening his bitterness towards mankind. Nearing Geneva he meets William and discovering he is a Frankenstein, murders him. He then places the portrait in Justine’s clothing. We now know the truth about these two deaths.
The creature demands that Victor “create a female” for him. In return he promises to “quit the neighbourhood of man.” Victor reluctantly agrees.
Victor keeps putting off the horrifying task he has agreed to. His father suggests he marry Elizabeth, but Victor knows he must first complete his promise. He decides to go to England to further his work, visiting Clerval and the sights of the Rhine en route. Clerval accompanies him to London.
While Clerval delights in the places they visit, Victor begins to gather the materials to make another creature, which, with a heavy heart, he starts to assemble on the remote Orkney Islands, having left Clerval elsewhere. Victor feels as if he has “committed some great crime” but still feels “guiltless.”
Victor realises that the creature has followed him, and in a frenzy of disgust, he destroys all his work on its mate. The creature curses him and promises “to be with [him] on [his] wedding night.” Throwing the remains of his work into the sea, Victor finds himself adrift in a small boat. Reaching land (Ireland) he is apprehended on suspicion of murder.
Essays on Chapters 16-20
Frankenstien; In her 1831 introduction to the novel Shelley explained how she wanted to 'curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart'. Do you think she achieves her aim? Look closely at chapter 20.
Look again at chapter 20 in which Frankenstein tells the monster he will not provide him with a female. Then answer the following questions - i) What characteristics of the Monster and Frankenstein does Shelley reveal?
Under questioning, Victor reacts suspiciously, and sees that the body is Clerval’s. The magistrate, Mr Kirwin, takes pity on Victor and arranges for his father to visit him. Victor is tried and found innocent but “the cup of life was poisoned forever” for him. They return to mainland Europe.
Victor’s terrible melancholy convinces his father he is “deranged.” Victor receives a letter from Elizabeth offering to free him from the betrothal. Victor remembers the creature’s threat, but is convinced it is directed against himself. They marry and Elizabeth remarks, with unknowing irony: “How happy and serene all nature appears!”
Victor leaves Elizabeth alone on their wedding night, and the creature murders her. He tells a magistrate the truth but is not believed. He determines to devote himself to the monster’s destruction.
Victor visits the cemetery where his family are buried, and hears the mocking laughter of his creation. Victor pursues him across Europe, moving further and further north. He finds himself marooned on the ice, sees Walton’s ship, and we are back at the beginning of the story.
The novel concludes with a further series of letters from Walton to his sister. Victor warns Walton of the dangers of his “senseless curiosity.” But he cautions the ship’s crew not to abandon their quest! Walton is forced to return, however.
On the voyage back Victor dies, asking Walton to continue his pursuit of the monster. Walton finds the creature mourning Victor’s death over the dead body of its creator. The creature tells Walton how “the fallen angel became a malignant devil.” He leaps from the ship and is “lost in darkness and distance.”