by Mary Shelley (1797
Type of Work:
Conceptual horror novel
Switzerland; late 1700s
Robert Walton, an explorer attempting
to sail to the North Pole
Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist
who creates a “monster”
Clerval, Frankenstein’s friend
The Monster, Frankenstein’s angry, frustrated,
and lonely creation
His ship surrounded by ice, Robert Walton
watched with his crew as a huge, misshapen “traveller” on a dog sled disappeared
across the ice. The next morning, as the fog lifted and the ice broke up,
they found another man, nearly frozen, on a slab of floating ice. By giving
him hot soup and rubbing his body with brandy, the crew restored him to
health. A few days later he was able to speak.
This stranger, Victor Frankenstein, seemed
upset to hear that an earlier sled had been sighted. Then he began to tell
Victor had been born the only child of
a good Genevese family. During a journey with her husband abroad, his mother
found a peasant and his wife with five hungry babies. All were dark-complected,
save one, a very fair little girl. His mother decided at that moment to
adopt the child.
Victor and his adopted sister, Elizabeth
came to love one another, though they were very diverse in character. Elizabeth”busied herself with following the aerial creations of poets,” while, for
Victor, “it was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn
… the physical secrets of the world.”
After the death of his mother when he was
seventeen, Victor departed for the University of Inglostadt. There, young
Frankenstein grew intensely interested in the phenomena of the human body:
“Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?” He investigated
the processes of death and decay, and soon became obsessed with the idea
of creating life itself.
After days and nights of laboring, “I succeeded
in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself
capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” Frankenstein set
out to create a superior living being, hoping to eventually uncover the
formula for eternal life.
In his brilliant and terrible research
‘ Frankenstein doggedly collected body parts from charnel-houses and cemeteries.
Finally, “on a dreary night of November … I beheld the accomplishment
of my toils”: an eight-foot monster. Applying electricity to the “lifeless
matter” before him, Victor saw “the dull yellow eye of the creature open;
it breathed hard, and convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” The scientist
was appalled. “Breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” He had created
Exhausted, Frankenstein fell asleep, seeking
a “few moments of forgetfulness.” But, as he tossed in bed, a cold draft
woke Victor, and “I beheld the wretch … his eyes … fixed on me.” He
shrieked in horror, scaring the monster away, then escaped downstairs.
A long depressive illness followed this
episode. Victor slowly began to recover. But soon he received terrible
news from his father: William, the youngest son, had been strangled, and
his murderer remained at large. “Come dearest Victor; you alone can console
Elizabeth,” his father pled.
The scientist returned to Geneva during
a terrible storm. As he plodded along, he “perceived in the gloom a figure,”
and knew instinctively that it was “the filthy demon to whom I had given
life.” Then a horrible thought struck him: this monster might be his brother’s
But when Victor arrived at his mournful
home, he was told that William’s killer had already been unmasked. Justine,
the family’s long-time servant, had been found in possession of a locket
that held a picture of their mother, taken from William during the murder.
The poor girl seemed to confirm her own guilt “by her extreme confusion
of manner”; and, though Victor believed Justine was innocent, he hesitated
to come forward because he felt the story of his monster was too fantastic
to be taken seriously. Justine was hanged, and Victor, “seized by remorse
and a sense of guilt,” took a solitary journey to Mont Blanc. During a
hike up a mountain path he saw a strange, agile figure – his own monstrous
creation – advancing towards him “with superhuman speed.”, Be gone, vile
insect,” he commanded. But the monster countered: ” . . . You, my creator,
detest and spurn me, thy creature …. How dare you sport thus with life?”
Creature and creator argued back and forth until the monster convinced
Victor to hear his account.
Life for the intelligent and sensitive
being had been difficult. “I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time.
. . ” he explained. He wandered, surviving on berries and stream water,
until he found a fire left by vagrants, and learned to keep warm. When
food grew scarce he approached a village; but because of his hideous features,
1. some [of the villagers] fled, some attacked me, until grievously bruised
by stones … I escaped to the open country.”
He finally made his home in an abandoned
hovel adjoining a cottage. In the cottage lived an old, impoverished, blind
man, with his son and daughter. The creature learned the rudiments of verbal
language by listening to their conversations. After some months, the monster
gathered his courage and chatted with the blind man as he was alone, relating
his situation. But just as the monster was about to ask his human friend
for refuge, the son returned home and “with supernatural force tore me
from his father.” The disheartened, confused monster fled from the cottage.
Despised by all who saw him, he wandered
the countryside until one day he came upon a young boy – Victor’s brother
– who “loaded me with epithets which carried despair to my heart.” In bitter
rage, the monster killed the boy, then took the locket that hung around
the child’s neck and hid it on Justine’s clothing as she slept.
After relating this tale, the monster made
a frightful demand: “You must create a female for me. . . ” “I do refuse
it,” Victor declared. Making a mate for this monster could give rise to
a hostile superhuman race. However, promising that lie and his mate would
retreat in peace to the wilds of South America, the monster’s pleas and
threats finally i-noved Victor: “I consent to your demand…”
Still, back in his laboratory, Victor could
not collect the courage for his work: “I feared the vengeance of the disappointed
fiend, yet I was unable to overcome my repugnance to the task which was
Perplexed, Victor traveled to Britain with
the intent of marrying his foster sister, Elizabeth. But first he retired
to a remote area of Scotland, where he planned to finish his work in solitude.
Even there he could sense the monster near, waiting for the “birth” of
his mate. But shortly before the female’s completion, Victor destroyed
her in disgust. Watching at a window, the lonely, enraged brute forced
his way into the house. But this time Victor was adamant; he would not
again enter into such a work.
“Man, you shall repent of the injuries
you inflict …. I shall be with you on your wedding night,” the vengeful
monster intoned. Despite these words, Victor determined that his marriage
to Elizabeth would take place.
Following the wedding, Victor stood watch
downstairs, waiting for the appearance of his rejected creature. just as
Victor be an to believe that by some fortunate chance the monster would
not come, a shrill and dreadful scream broke the stillness. Victor rushed
to the nuptial chamber. But alas, he was too late. All he bebeld was Elizabeth’s”bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the murderer on its bridal bier.”
His story completed, the chilled and weakened
Victor Frankenstein died there on the ice-bound ship, unavenged.
That night the monster visited Walton in
the dead man’s cabin. Standing over his creator’s body, the beast first
asked the dead scientist’s pardon, but then blamed Frankenstein for his
sorrow – and for destroying his unfinished mate:
My heart was fashioned to be susceptible
of love and sympathy …. But when I discovered that he, the author at
once of my existence and of its unspeakable torments, dared to hope for
happiness … envy and bitter indignation filled me with an insatiable
thirst for vengeance … I desired love and friendship. Am I to be thought
the only criminal, when all …human kind sinned against me?
Then, predicting his own imminent death
by fire, the monster bid Walton farewell, sprang from the window, and vanished
across the Arctic ice fields.
Mary Shelley wrote this novel on a dare
at the age of nineteen. While she and her husband (the renowned poet Percy
Bysshe Shelley) were vacationing with Lord Byron and others in the Alps
– where much of the story takes place they started to exchange ghost stories.
Intimidated at first by the fame of some of her companions, some of England’s
greatest writers, Mary finally offered up her contribution, Frankenstein:
the Moden Prometheus. The work was a breakthrough, spawning the birth of
two literary genres: science-fiction and horror fiction.
This novel – and resultant motion pictures,
which have usually degenerated into simple horror plots – has had a recent
resurgence in popularity due to the efforts of “feminist critics,” who
have penetrated its deeper themes. Along with her exposition of the dangers
and ethical dilemmas involved in experimenting with life, and her homily
against judging by appearances, perhaps one of Shelley’s most important
contributions in Frankenstein is her brilliant portrayal of the male desire
– conscious or unconscious to circumvent the role of woman in giving life.
With a new focus on these deeper issues during the last half century, Frankenstein
has achieved renewed status as a multidimensional literary classic.