Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..©
is a Gothic novel with elements of science fiction.
as a Gothic Novel
is a Gothic novel, a literary genre that focuses on dark, mysterious, terrifying
events. The story unfolds at one or more spooky sites, such as a dimly
lit castle, an old mansion on a hilltop, a misty cemetery, a forlorn countryside,
or the laboratory of a scientist conducting frightful experiments. In some
Gothic novels, characters imagine that they see ghosts and monsters. In
others, the ghosts and monsters are real. The weather in a Gothic novel
is often dreary or foul: There may be high winds that rattle windowpanes,
electrical storms with lightning strikes, and gray skies that brood over
landscapes. The Gothic novel derives its name from the Gothic architectural
style popular in Europe between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. Gothic
structures—such as cathedrals—featured
cavernous interiors with deep shadows, stone walls that echoed the footsteps
of worshippers, gargoyles looming on exterior ledges, and soaring spires
suggestive of a supernatural presence.
as Science Fiction
contains elements of science fiction, a literary genre focusing on a fictional
story of how scientific experiments, discoveries, and technologies affect
human beings for better or worse. Science fiction differs from pure fantasy
in that it presents events that appear to be scientifically plausible.
Traveling to another galaxy in a spaceship is scientifically plausible.
Riding to the moon on a winged horse is not scientifically plausible.
London firm of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones published
Frankenstein in 1818 when the author, Mary Shelley, was in her early
twenties. In 1831, the London firm of Henry Colby and Richard Bentley published
a revised edition with a new introduction by the author.
Title and Its Meaning
full title of the novel is Frankenstein: or the New Prometheus.
It compares the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, to the Greek god Prometheus.
Prometheus was the son of the gods Iapetus and Clymene, both Titans. The
Titans, led by Cronos, were the original rulers of the universe; they were
later overthrown by the Olympians, led by Zeus. .......The
name Prometheus was formed from the Greek pro (before)
and methes (thinking); thus, his name means forethought.
He is associated with the creation of man from earth and water and with
the bestowal on man of gifts that made him superior to animals. After the
Olympians became the supreme rulers of the universe, Prometheus continued
to look out for the welfare of human beings. Thus, when the time came to
sacrifice animals to the ruling Olympians, Prometheus reserved the choicest
parts of animals for man and the fat and bones for the Olympians. Zeus,
the king of the Olympians, eventually discovered what was going on. In
retaliation, he withheld fire from man. Fire, of course, was essential
for providing warmth, making tools, cooking food, and other life-sustaining
activities. In turn, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and returned it to
man. Zeus then punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock on Mount Caucasus
and sending down an eagle to feed constantly on Prometheus’s liver. (To
access the Greek play on this subject, click here.) Because Prometheus
was immortal, his liver restored itself every time the eagle ate of it.
Thus, Prometheus suffered unrelenting, everlasting torture. Zeus declared,
however, that he would release Prometheus if Prometheus disclosed to him
knowledge he had of a plot against Zeus. But Prometheus defiantly refused
to do so.
Hercules freed Prometheus.The comparison of Frankenstein to Prometheus
is apt, for three reasons. First, like Prometheus, Frankenstein became
a creator. Second, Frankenstein also defied heaven, for in making the monster
he usurped power reserved for heaven alone. Third, Frankenstein suffered
greatly for this defiance. Ultimately, death freed him.
action in the novel takes place in (1) the city of Geneva in southwestern
Switzerland, as well as the surrounding countryside; (2) Ingolstadt, a
city on the Danube River in south-central Germany, not far from Munich;
(3) the lower slopes of Mont Blanc, part of the Alpine mountain range on
the border of Italy and France; (4) cities and other locales in Germany
and The Netherlands; (5) London and other English towns; (6) the Orkney
Islands off the coast of Scotland; (7) the Arctic regions north of Russia;
(8) a ship in the Arctic regions.
Young scientist consumed by a passion to discover and control the force
that sustains human life. After he animates his artificial, he has a profound
change of heart in which he regrets bringing his creature to life.
The Monster: Grotesque
eight-foot creature. In a sense, he is a manifestation of the dark side
of Victor Frankenstein's soul.
Wealthy and generous father of Victor.
Kind and loving mother of victor.
Adopted child of Alphonse and Caroline Frankenstein. She and Victor become
playmates as children and fall in love as young adults.
Henry Clerval: Loyal
friend of Victor Frankenstein.
Robert Walton: Ship
captain who takes Victor aboard in the Arctic. He listens to and writes
down Victor’s strange story.
Mary Walton Saville:
Sister to whom Robert Walton writes his letters, which include an account
of Frankenstein's life. The initials of the fictional Mrs. Saville, M.W.S.,
are the same as those of the author of Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft
Justine Moritz: Frankenstein
family servant falsely accused of murder.
William, Ernest Frankenstein:
Younger brothers of Victor.
De Lacey: Blind man
who lives with his son and daughter in a country cottage. He befriends
Felix, Agatha De Lacey:
Son and daughter of the blind man. When they see the monster with their
father, they drive the monster off.
Victor’s chemistry instructor and advisor.
Professor whom Victor dislikes but who gives Victor sound advice.
Mr. Kirwin: Magistrate
who arrests Victor as a suspect in the murder of Henry Clerval.
Madame Moritz: Mother
of Justine. Because she does not get along with Justine, she allows the
Frankensteins to take her daughter in.
Peasant Family: Italian
Family that cares for Elizabeth lives before the Frankensteins adopt her.
Shelley wrote Frankenstein as both a frame tale and an epistolary
narrative. Following are definitions of these terms:
frame tale is a story with a plot structure in which an author uses two
or more narrators to present the action. The first narrator sets the scene
and reports to the reader the details of a story told by a character. (In
some frame tales, the first narrator reports the details of several stories
told by several narrators.) In Frankenstein, Captain Robert Walton—a
minor character—is the first narrator. He sets the scene and listens
to the story told by Victor Frankenstein, the main character. All of the
information Walton reports to the reader is in the form of letters written
to his sister. Thus, Frankenstein is a frame tale in that it is
like a framed painting: Walton's story is the frame, and Frankenstein's
story is the painting.
frame tales—such as Chaucer's
and Boccaccio's The Decameron—have
several narrators telling stories "inside the frame." One famous frame
Arabian Nights (also called The Thousand and
One Nights)—has only one narrator, a sultan's
bride named Scheherazade, who tells many tales "inside the frame," including
the well-known stories of Sindbad the Sailor, Aladdin and his magic lamp,
and Ali Baba and his magical command "Open sesame!"
epistolary novel is a novel in which a character (or characters) tells
the story through letters (epistles) sent to a friend, relative, etc. In
Captain Robert Walton writes letters to his sister to bring her up to date
on his expedition in the Arctic. After his ship takes Victor Frankenstein
aboard, he listens to Frankenstein’s story and writes it down in letter
Robert Walton is on an exploration of the Arctic regions in the White Sea
off the northern coast of Russia when ice temporarily halts the progress
of his ship. While waiting for the ice to break up, he and his crew observe
through telescopes a strange sight on Monday, July 31: A gigantic creature
on a dog sled crossing solid ice about a half-mile off. Two hours later,
the ice begins to release its hold on the ship. By nightfall, the ship
can sail again. However, Walton delays resumption of the voyage until the
next morning for fear that the ship will strike an ice floe in the dark.
daybreak on August 1, the crewmen sight a man of normal stature and a dog
sled floating toward them on a block of ice. When they take him aboard,
he is half-frozen and terribly weak. Over the next several days, Walton
attempts to nurse him back to health. He also writes a letter to his sister
in England, Margaret Saville, in which he describes the events of July
31 and August 1 and discloses that he is writing down a story that his
patient, a man named Victor Frankenstein, is telling him. This letter is
to be carried to England by a ship leaving the nearest port city, Archangel
(Arkhangelsk), Russia: Here is a summary of Frankenstein’s story:
Geneva, Switzerland, Victor Frankenstein enjoys a happy and privileged
childhood, thanks to his loving parents, the wealthy and respected Alphonse
and Caroline Frankenstein. Mrs. Frankenstein is an extremely kind and gentle
woman devoted to uplifting the poor and the downtrodden.
Victor is five, the Frankensteins vacation in the Lake Como region of northern
Italy. One day, while Alphonse conducts business in Milan, Mrs. Frankenstein
and Victor visit the cottage of a poor peasant family with five children
to offer comfort and assistance. One of the children is a fair-skinned,
golden-haired little girl. She was taken in by the peasants after her German
mother died in childbirth and her Italian father gave her up. Mrs. Frankenstein
is quite taken with her. So is Mr. Frankenstein when he returns and sees
Victor playing with the lovely creature. Her name is Elizabeth Lavenza,
and she is almost the same age as Victor. The Frankensteins propose to
adopt her, and the peasant family approves the proposal, realizing that
their visitors can give the little girl a fine and loving home.
so, when the Frankensteins return to Geneva, they are four. Elizabeth and
Victor become inseparable companions. But Victor sees the world around
him through a different lens than Elizabeth, as he explains:
While my companion contemplated
with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearances of things,
I delighted in investigating their causes. The world was to me a secret
which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden
laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me,
are among the earliest sensations I can remember.
Victor makes friends with a boy at school named Henry Clerval, the Frankenstein
household is blessed with the company of three children who love one another.
Henry is a bright boy who composes songs and writes stories of romance
Victor, as noted, is more interested in science and its seemingly magical
powers. He becomes an avid reader of the works of Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535),
the German physician, philosopher, and expert on occultism; Paracelsus
(1493-1541), the German-Swiss alchemist and physician; and Albertus Magnus
(1200-1280), the brilliant German priest who promoted the study of natural
science at a time when it was looked on with suspicion. In these books
Victor seeks clues that will unlock the secrets of life around him.
the years pass, Victor’s love of science grows and at age 17 he prepares
to travel to Ingolstadt to study at the university. But before he leaves,
misfortune strikes. First, Elizabeth becomes dangerously ill with scarlet
fever. In time, though, she recovers, thanks to the excellent care she
receives from Mrs. Frankenstein. Unfortunately, the latter contracts the
illness from Elizabeth and her health rapidly declines. On her deathbed,
she importunes Victor to marry Elizabeth someday, for she realizes they
are right for each other. It is, of course, a prospect that Victor welcomes,
for he too realizes that he and Elizabeth are a matched pair.
his mother dies, he is devastated. He remains home several weeks to recover
from the terrible loss and to console Elizabeth. Like Victor, she misses
the university two professors advise Victor to abandon his fascination
with alchemy and the occult and devote himself to modern science. His chemistry
instructor, Professor Waldman, is particularly helpful to young Victor.
However, although Victor generally follows their advice, he continues to
harbor a keen desire to penetrate the deep mysteries of science. "In other
studies," he says, "you go as far as others have gone before you, and there
is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual
food for discovery and wonder."
all, he seeks to discover what he calls “the principle of life." What sustains
life? Is it possible to restore life to a dead body?
years pass quickly as he searches for answers while avidly studying chemistry
and anatomy. To supplement what he learns in lectures, books, and university
laboratories, he visits cemeteries and houses of the dead to study corpses.
In his apartment, he sets up his own laboratory and begins experimenting
day and night. In time, he acquires the knowledge he desires and decides
to piece together a human being from selected parts of corpses. He plans
to animate the body. Because it would be difficult to work with small body
parts, he says, “I resolved . . . to make the being of a gigantic stature,
that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large. After
having formed this determination and having spent some months in successfully
collecting and arranging my materials, I began
is long and tedious work. One November morning at about 1 a.m., after Victor
has performed all the necessary steps, “I saw the dull yellow eye of the
creature open," he says."It breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated
now with a horrid creature stirring to life, he immediately regrets what
he has done. Leaving the laboratory, he goes into his bedroom and paces.
Eventually, completely exhausted, he lapses into sleep and dreams of his
beloved Elizabeth. When he awakens the monster is standing over him. Fear—and
regret for having played God—overtake him and he runs from the apartment
and wanders the streets.
the morning, Victor runs into his old friend from Geneva, Henry Clerval,
who has come to join Victor at the university. After they exchange greetings,
Victor takes him back to his apartment and is relieved to discover that
the monster is gone. But Victor’s debilitating fatigue—the result of spending
so much time in his laboratory while attempting to keep up with his studies—remains,
and Victor falls ill for several months. All the while, Henry is there,
nursing him back to health. Henry has come to the university to study Oriental
languages—Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit—and Victor decides to give up science
and study languages also. He no longer has the stomach to continue his
day, a letter from his father arrives informing him that his little brother
William has been found murdered by strangulation. When Victor returns home,
he learns that circumstantial evidence implicates the Frankensteins’ servant,
Justine Moritz, as the murderer. However, Victor and Elizabeth well know
that she is too gentle a person to have committed the crime. Besides, Victor
has caught a brief glimpse of his monstrous creation in the vicinity and
believes the monster killed William. But if he tells anyone about his creation,
who would believe him? His and Elizabeth’s efforts to exonerate Justine
fail, and Victor ends up standing by silently while Justine goes to the
deaths of William and Justine afflict Victor with grief, sadness, shock,
remorse, and guilt. When he goes on a hiking expedition to be alone with
his thoughts, he encounters the monster on Mont Blanc. By this time, the
monster has learned how to speak, for he has observed a family while hiding
near their country home and has read several books he found: Paradise
Lost, by John Milton; The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Johann
Wolfgang von Goethe; The Lives, by Plutarch; and The Ruins
of Empire, by Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf Volney. He
even befriended the elderly head of the family, a blind man, while the
other members of the family were away. But when the other family members
returned, they reacted to his grotesque appearance by driving him away.
monster now tells Victor what has come to pass since that fateful night
in the laboratory.
angry that Victor had created him as a hideous creature abhorred by society,
he vowed revenge on his creator. From Victor’s notebooks, he discovered
where the Frankenstein family resided. One day he went to Geneva looking
for Victor but happened upon William in the countryside not far from the
Frankenstein home. William had wandered off while playing. Unaware that
the boy was a Frankenstein, he treated him kindly and tried to befriend
him. However, William’s only thought was to get away. When the monster
found out who the boy was, he killed him in a rage and took a locket he
was wearing. In a nearby barn, he found the maidservant Justine sleeping
after spending an exhausting day searching for the boy. He planted the
locket on her, and it later served as the evidence that implicated Justine.
monster now threatens further harm to Victor’s family and friends unless
he creates a female monster to be his companion. The gigantic creature,
speaking with surprising eloquence, says that he and his mate will then
live alone, outside the company of others. When Frankenstein promises to
do as the monster wishes, the monster says he will follow Victor everywhere
to see that he lives up to his promise.
decides to perform his loathsome task in the British Isles. There, with
the monster following close behind, he can be assured that his family will
be safe back in Geneva. At the same time, he will be able to consult with
English scientists who have technology he needs to complete his task. Henry
Clerval accompanies him on his journey, which takes them up through Germany
and The Netherlands and across to England, where they spend time together
in London and other locales before Victor goes alone to the Orkney Islands
off the Scottish coast to fulfill his promise. As expected, the monster
follows him there.
making all the preparations, Victor is about to animate the female body
when he changes his mind at the last minute; he simply cannot create another
abomination to walk the earth. In the presence of the the monster, he burns
the body. The monster, enraged, vows to visit him next on the night of
his marriage to Elizabeth. Victor then dumps the remains of the burned
body in a lake.
Victor leaves, locals arrest him for a murder. He is dumbfounded: Whose
murder? Where? When? Then he discovers that the victim—found near the shore
where Victor had launched his boat—is his friend, Henry Clerval. On his
neck are strangulation marks that Victor knows were left by the monster.
After Victor spends three months in jail—much of the time ill and delirious—court
testimony establishes that he was on the Orkney Islands at the time of
the murder. He is released and returns to Geneva.
greets him lovingly, and they set a date for their marriage. Meanwhile,
Victor remains on constant watch for the monster, keeping guns and knives
at the ready in case of attack. Confidant of his ability to defend himself
and his loved ones, he proceeds with his marriage plans. The wedding day
is a joyous occasion. On their honeymoon trip, Victor and Elizabeth decide
to spend the night at Évian-les-Bains, on the shore of Lake Geneva.
After they check into their lodging place, Victor—believing the monster
might make an attempt on his life—leaves the their room to inspect the
hallways and dark corners. Then he hears Elizabeth screaming. He rushes
back to her. Too late. She is lying dead across a bed. Victor catches a
glimpse of the monster at the window. Victor fires a pistol at him. But
the monster escapes and dives into the lake. The sound of the gunshot brings
people to the room, and a search for the murderer commences. It fails.
Victor’s father receives news of Elizabeth’s death, he dies of a broken
now to end the life of the monster, Victor tracks him to the Arctic regions.
There, after telling his story to the captain, he dies. The monster comes
on board, claims the body, and tells Captain Walton he plans to burn the
The Boundaries of Science
Frankenstein believes he has the right as a scientist to pursue truth and
knowledge even when his quest ventures into the domain of the divine. Science,
he thinks, has virtually no boundaries. It may explore and experiment when,
where, and however it pleases. It may play God.
experimentation of the fictional Frankenstein foreshadows the experimentation
of some real-life researchers of the 20th and 21st centuries. For example,
the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele—a member of the Institute for Hereditary
Biology and Racial Hygiene, founded in Nazi Germany in 1934—performed cruel
experiments on live human beings in the Birkenau concentration camp, where
he served as an SS officer beginning in 1943. Mengele, known as the “Angel
of Death," was attempting to further his knowledge of twins and of fertility
techniques. Jewish inmates became virtual guinea pigs, enduring great pain
and suffering. Here in the 21st Century scientists are experimenting with
the cloning of human beings, an activity which many theologians condemn
The Duty to Help the Poor,
the Sick, and the Ostracized
sometimes overlooked but nevertheless important theme of the novel is society’s
duty to support and care for the poor, the neglected, the sick, and the
ostracized. Victor Frankenstein’s mother and father demonstrate this theme
from the outset through their good works on behalf of the impoverished
and downtrodden. Mrs. Frankenstein regularly visits the poor, and she and
her husband adopt Elizabeth and take in the servant girl, Justine. Moreover,
Mrs. Frankenstein, well aware that scarlet fever is a contagious disease,
remains at Elizabeth’s bedside until she recovers.
Mrs. Frankenstein contracts the disease herself and dies of it. Victor’s
best friend, Henry Clerval, also understands the importance of caring for
fellow human beings. When Victor becomes ill, Henry tends to him over several
months. He also helps Victor through difficult times. On the other hand,
Victor selfishly ignores others while conducting his experiments. Moreover,
he makes no preparations to care for the creature he hopes to bring to
life. When he succeeds in his experiment, he abandons his creation, becoming
like a father or mother who abandons his or her child. The monster thus
feels neglected, unwanted. Consequently, he seeks revenge against Victor
by killing Victor’s little brother and planting evidence that implicates
Justine as the murderer. When Victor fails to create a female to alleviate
the monster’s loneliness, the monster kills Elizabeth when she and Victor
are on their honeymoon. After Victor tracks the monster to the Arctic regions,
he falls deathly ill from exhaustion and exposure to the cold. But Captain
Robert Walton takes him aboard and nurses him—just as Mrs. Frankenstein
nursed Elizabeth and Henry nursed Victor.
Frankenstein’s monster first goes into the world, he is like a little child
waiting to be loved and appreciated. But society rejects him because of
his grotesque appearance. In this respect, he is a symbol—the summation
of—all those who suffer because they are different in some way. These “different"
members of society include the handicapped, the retarded, and the deformed,
as well as persons ostracized because of their skin color, religion, or
social status. Only the blind man treats the monster humanely. Because
the blind man cannot see, he cannot form prejudices. Consequently, he judges
the monster in other ways—and accepts him.
The Ultimate Terror: Loneliness
society has isolated him—because he must live alone away from the damning
eyes of humans—Frankenstein’s monster suffers terribly from loneliness.
Even “Satan had his companions," the monster says," fellow devils, to admire
and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred." Out of desperation,
he asks Victor Frankenstein to create for him a female companion. Victor
first agrees to do so, then changes his mind at the last minute. As a result,
the monster attempts to plunge Victor into loneliness—by killing his loved
climax of a literary work can be defined as (1) the turning point at which
the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the
final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Frankenstein
occurs, according to the first definition, when the monster comes
to life. At this point, Victor Frankenstein realizes how wrong he was to
make the gigantic artificial man. According
to the second definition, the climax occurs when the monster kills Elizabeth
on the day that she married Victor.
Frankenstein: His name suggests victory. But his creation of new life
brings only defeat and death.
Lacey: He is a blind man who is the only character capable of seeing
the humane side of the monster.
Moritz: Though her name suggests justice, she is executed for a murder
she did not commit.
Questions and Essay Topics
Do you believe a scientist has
a right, or even a duty, to conduct scientific experiments that may lead
to outcomes that some believe are immoral or unethical? For example, does
a scientist have a right to clone a human being? Does he have a right to
develop more powerful military weapons, including bombs, gases, and chemicals
that can destroy tens of thousands of people?
As a youth, Victor Frankenstein
studies alchemy and the occult? What is alchemy? What is the occult? Does
his study of them influence him after he begins studying chemistry, anatomy,
and other scientific disciplines at the university?
Victor explains his fascination
with science in this way: "In other studies you go as far as others have
gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific
pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder." Do you agree
that "other studies" allow a person to "go as far as others have gone before
you"? Explain your answer.
Write an informative essay explaining
the characteristics of a Gothic novel. In your essay, trace the origin
of the term Gothic and why it is used to describe a literary genre. Also,
give examples of Gothic novels besides Frankenstein and identify what they
share in common with Frankenstein.
The story of Frankenstein continues
to be highly popular today. Scores of Hollywood films center on it, and
the Frankenstein mask remains a big seller before Halloween. What accounts
for the enduring popularity of this tale?
Who is more monstrous, Victor
Frankenstein or the monster he created?