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Meet Frankenstein
Or the New Prometheus
By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Meaning of the Title
Narrative Approach
Plot Summary
Character Irony
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Author's Biography
Complete Free Text
Graphic Novel
Index of Study Guides
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2005
Revised in 2009.©
Type of Work

.......Frankenstein is a Gothic novel with elements of science fiction. 
Frankenstein as a Gothic Novel

.......Frankenstein 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 structuressuch as cathedralsfeatured 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. 
Frankenstein as Science Fiction
.......Frankenstein 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.


.......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.

The Title and Its Meaning

.......The 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. 
.......Ultimately, 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.

.......The 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. 

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.

Narrative Approach

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as both a frame tale and an epistolary narrative. Following are definitions of these terms:
Frame Tale
.......A 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. 
.......Some frame tales—such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's The Decameronhave several narrators telling stories "inside the frame." One famous frame tale—the 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
.......An epistolary novel is a novel in which a character (or characters) tells the story through letters (epistles) sent to a friend, relative, etc. In Frankenstein, 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 form. 

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings..© 2005
........Captain 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. 
.......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:
    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.
.......After 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 and chivalry.
.......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

.......Victor 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 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 as immoral.

The Duty to Help the Poor, the Sick, and the Ostracized

.......A 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. 
.......Unfortunately, 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. 


.......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

.......Because 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 ones. 


.......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.

Character Irony

Victor Frankenstein: His name suggests victory. But his creation of new life brings only defeat and death.
De Lacey: He is a blind man who is the only character capable of seeing the humane side of the monster.
Justine Moritz: Though her name suggests justice, she is executed for a murder she did not commit.

Study 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?