The True Story
Or the New Prometheus
By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2005
Revised in 2009.©
is a Gothic novel with elements of science fiction.
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.
.......The 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.
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.
Victor Frankenstein: 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.
Alphonse Frankenstein: Wealthy and generous father of Victor.
Caroline Frankenstein: Kind and loving mother of victor.
Elizabeth Lavenza: 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 Shelley.
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 the monster.
Felix, Agatha De Lacey: Son and daughter of the blind man. When they see the monster with their father, they drive the monster off.
Professor Waldman: Victor’s chemistry instructor and advisor.
Professor Krempe: 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:
By Michael J. Cummings..© 2005
.......At 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:
.......In 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.
.......When 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.
.......And 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:
.......But 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.
.......As 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.
.......After 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 Caroline terribly.
.......At 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."
.......Above 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?
.......Two 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
.......It 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 its limbs.”
.......Confronted 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.
.......In 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 former pursuits.
.......One 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 gallows.
......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.
.......The monster now tells Victor what has come to pass since that fateful night in the laboratory.
.......Forlorn, 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.
.......The 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.
.......Victor 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.
.......After 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.
.......When 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.
88.......Elizabeth 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.
.......After Victor’s father receives news of Elizabeth’s death, he dies of a broken heart.
.......Determined 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 body—and himself.
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.
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.
.......When 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
.......The 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.