The novel begins with a series of letters from Arctic explorer Captain Walton to his sister. Victor Frankenstein is found near death and recounts the tale that lead to him being found on the ice.
Born and raised in Geneva, Frankenstein had a prosperous upbringing that included two brothers, Ernest and William; his cousin Elizabeth; Justine, a family servant; and Henry Clerval, a boyhood friend. After watching his mother die of disease, the young Victor Frankenstein goes to the University in Ingolstadt where he is initially rebuked for lacking a modern scientific background before becoming one of the school’s brightest minds.
Years into his study, Frankenstein begins an experiment on reanimating corpses and succeeds on a massive creature of his own design. When the Creature opens its eyes for the first time, Frankenstein runs away in fear before fainting in front of Henry who had just arrived for his own study.
After being nursed to health over the course of a year, Henry and Victor return to Geneva to discover Justine is accused of William’s murder, of which she is convicted.
Later, Frankenstein meets the Creature, where it explains its past and demands a mate be constructed for it. He agrees and travels with Henry to Scotland to perform the experiment.
On the final night, Frankenstein has a change of heart and destroys the body in full view of the Creature.
The next day, Henry’s body is discovered by local authorities and Frankenstein is accused, although later acquitted. He then travels home with his father and proceeds to marry Elizabeth.
On the night of the wedding, the Creature murders Elizabeth before taunting Frankenstein to follow him into the Arctic. Having told his story to Walton, he then dies. The Creature emerges, explaining his vendetta against Frankenstein, and leaves.
The novel is groundbreaking for its multiple themes and how they interact within the text and how the themes can be applied to multiple characters within. Many of the themes are refinements of other contemporary artistic works and that of Shelley’s family, friends, and contemporaries. The themes often build onto one another and are often inseparable from Shelley's own life and history.
In discussing Isolation and Community Captain Walton, the narrator of the letters discusses his sorrow at being alone and having no peers despite being icebound on a ship crewed by sailors of his selection. Instead, he laments in wanting an intellectual, or at least a class, equal. Victor Frankenstein and the Creature tangle with isolation as well with Victor working fiendishly to complete his experiment at the cost of communicating with his family back home in Geneva. After the experiment is successful, Victor continues to remain introverted despite being surrounded by his family in Geneva and later with Henry and then his father in his travels. The Creature faces isolation due to his terrifying appearance, leading him to resent the Frankenstein family and to murder them slowly over the course of the novel after his request for a companion creature is denied. The isolation culminates in Victor chasing the Creature across the barren arctic with Victor truly being alone for the first time as his entire family, save for Ernest, has been killed.
In reference to Nature versus Nurture, the soul of the Creature is at the center of the discussion with the primary question being, ‘Is the Creature evil by birth and circumstance or is the Creature evil because of its environment and lack of education and care by its creator, Victor Frankenstein?’ Both interpretations are completely valid and easily backed up by the Creature’s actions and its own words: the emotional murder of Young William and the calculated, premeditated murder of Elizabeth.
Education is also an important theme throughout the novel. Victor Frankenstein is taught to read and write at a young age and given unlimited access to education throughout his life, culminating in being sent to the University at Ingolstadt to pursue his scientific endeavours. As a literary foil to its creator, the Creature is given nothing in the form of education from Victor, not even a name. It does, however, learn to speak while watching the deLacey family teach Safie, a young foreign woman engaged to Felix. The Creature learns to read as well with it reading Victor's notes about its own creation.
Nature and the Sublime dominate the backdrop of the novel. Captain Walton is facing death in the Arctic as he explores. Victor Frankenstein admits that lightning inspired him to pursue science as his passion. The Creature itself can be seen as a force of nature, uncontrollable and unstoppable. The immutable power of nature and the sublime are examined as Frankenstein experiments and faces the wrath of his creation and a slow death at the hands of the unforgivable Arctic wastes.
The Ambition and Pride of the novel’s characters set the plot in motion. Captain Walton seeks glory for being the first to successfully explore the Northwest Passage and does not want to admit defeat even in the face of mutiny. Victor Frankenstein obsesses over his creation, believing it beautiful and perfect until its animation. Later, he suspects the Creature is truly responsible for his young brother’s death but is to -prideful to speak up at the trial. His ambition to become a world renown scientist stands in the way of receiving help and inevitably leads to the conclusion of the novel with his death.
Gender and the Domestic versus Public Spheres is also examined in the novel. Victor Frankenstein, a Genevan nobleman, wishes to create and ultimately preserve life. This is biologically beyond him and he uses science to complete his goal, but without appropriate maternal, or even paternal, care, the Creature is rejected. The Creature lives in both masculine and feminine roles, formerly as the actor and murderer of the Frankenstein clan and latterly as a passive recipient of knowledge through the deLacey family and the botched creation of his companion. The women of the novel are all secondary characters, left within the domestic sphere, with none of them surviving to the end.
The pursuit of Knowledge and/or Science acts as the backbone theme of the novel. Captain Walton risks his life and the lives of his crew to find the Northwest Passage. Victor Frankenstein seeks a way to create and preserve life, the former being a feat gifted only to women and the latter a philosophical pursuit. The education of the young Victor is also examined, as he is taught to read and write at a young age and allowed limitless access to his father’s library. The works of Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus are criticised☃☃ for being outdated by Victor’s professors at Ingolstadt, despite the obvious infatuation the young scientist possesses for them. Knowledge also acts as a tangible item with the Creature eventually learning of his creation through the scientific notes of Victor, left behind as he fled his own laboratory in fear. Victor eventually attains his goal of scientific discovery of death and reanimation, at the cost of his family and his own life.
- Victor Frankenstein
- The Creature
- Captain Robert Walton
- Elizabeth Lavenza
- Henry Clerval
- Alphonse & Caroline Frankenstein
- Justine Moritz, Ernest Frankenstein, and William Frankenstein
- Professors Waldman and Krempe
- The DeLacey Family
- Margaret Walton Saville
- Nature versus Nurture
- Isolation and Community
- Nature and the Sublime
- Ambition and Pride
- Gender and/or Domestic versus Public Spheres
- Knowledge and/or Science
- Frame Narratives
- Parenting / Parent-Child Relationships
Relevant Contextual Legends, Allusions, and Literary Sources
Legends and Allusions
Literary Sources (chronological order, by publication date)
- John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667). One of the three texts that the Creature reads prior to meeting Victor Frankenstein. The Creature parallels Adam as a created being as well as Satan as a discussion of free will, identity, and rebellion against the creator.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). The sublime power of nature and the Arctic is paralleled with the isolated Captain Walton. The theme of a survivor telling a tale of punishment at the hands of nature is carried first by Victor Frankenstein and then later Captain Walton by the content of his letters to his sister.
- Lord Byron, Manfred (1817). One man’s quest for power over nature. Like the title character, Frankenstein seeks forbidden knowledge and is isolated as he focuses on his task. The sublime acts as the strongest theme with the hero attempting to conquer it.
- Geneva, Switzerland
- Ingolstadt, Germany
- Mont Blanc
- The Orkney Islands
- The Arctic
- Castle Frankenstein (Germany)
Relevance and Cultural Impact
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus has been adapted countless times with the first stage adaption in 1823 Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Peake and continuing non stop as the source material was adapted to fit the popular genres of the time. Notable film adaptations include Universal Pictures Frankenstein, directed by James Whale with Boris Karloff playing the Creature in the film and its sequels.
The success of Karloff’s portrayal of the creature cemented the silent, flat top spouting, green giant with bolts in the neck as the archetype for the Creature in popular culture. In addition to Karloff’s promotional image as the flag bearer for the Creature, popular culture has evolved the nameless creation so that the name Frankenstein is synonymous with the creature, not merely the creator. Pop culture has gone as far as including Frankenstein’s creature as a staple for Halloween costumes.
The name itself, ‘frankenstein,’ as adapted into modern English with ‘franken-’ attached to another noun. This combination is often used to describe, disparagingly, genetically modified foods as ‘frankenfoods.’ Other uses of the titular character’s surname include Frankenweenie, two films with the same name by director Tim Burton.