Mary Shelley provides a gothic tale where the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, creates a life form in his laboratory. The creature grows increasingly isolated and lonely, and becomes intellectually aware. He ends up killing members of Victor’s family, leading to Victor’s profound sense of failure and regret.
The story unfolds until Victor remains on the brink of death, as reported by Robert Walton, who narrates through letters and a frame narrative.
The opening lines of the book serve to inform readers about how the story of Frankenstein came about. Mary Shelley was vacationing in the Swiss Alps when she and her companions challenged one another to write a ghost story.
The opening of the book shows the epistolary form of the novel (written through letters). An explorer called Robert Walton is writing to tell his sister, Margaret, about the lead-up to his departure to the northern passage towards the Pacific. He is driven by a “great purpose”.
Walton reveals his loneliness in the second letter and wishes to find someone educated to talk with on that level. The third letter is brief, informing his sister that the ship has set sail.
It is revealed that the ship has stalled amongst ice, and in the distance, Walton and his shipmates spot a strange creature. Later on, they find a man on a sled and bring him onto the ship to recover. The stranger, befriending Walton, eventually begins to tell his story. The narrative switches at this point to the stranger’s perspective.
We learn that the man is Victor Frankenstein, who fondly recalls his adopted sister Elizabeth being taken in by his parents. Elizabeth and Victor grow up as best friends, and he also has a close friend called Henry Clerval. However, Victor becomes more distant when his teenage self becomes fascinated with the natural world and modern philosophy.
At age 17, Victor goes to university, and he receives news that his mother has died so he returns home for a while. Back in Ingolstadt, a meeting with a philosophy lecturer intensifies Victor’s drive to pursue his studies. Victor becomes fascinated by how the human anatomy works, and how the body decays after death. He is desperate to discover the secret of ‘creating life’ without natural steps. Therefore, he decides to secretly attempt making an animate creature and becomes increasingly isolated and withdrawn as he does so.
On a stormy night, Victor completes his creation but is horrified by its appearance as it wakes. He spends the next day pacing around, deeply affected by the experience and unsure of what to do. He then comes across his friend Henry, whom he brings back to the apartment where the monster has gone. Henry has to nurse Victor back to good health when he falls ill following the trauma of what he has done.
Victor receives a letter from Elizabeth saying that she is concerned about him. Towards the end of the chapter, Henry and Victor walk through nature to uplift spirits, as Victor thinks he must leave university life.
In chapter seven, Victor receives a letter stating that his younger brother has been murdered. He decides to walk to the spot where his brother’s body was found and then rediscovers his creation at the scene. At this moment, Victor realises his creation caused the incident, yet allows a character called Justine (who lived with his family) to falsely take the blame. As a result, Justine is executed, which causes Victor to become consumed with guilt. He even contemplates suicide.
Victor is initially surprised when the creature approaches him, saying:
“Devil, do you dare approach me? And do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head?”
However, this does not phase the creature, who approaches Victor and speaks eloquently, inviting him to a cave to tell his story.
The monster reveals how he learned about fire by making it and touching it, realising it was hot. The creature then describes his experiences in a village, where his appearance frightened the inhabitants. Continually rejected, he took refuge near a cottage, secretly observing the residing family of De Lacey, Felix, Agatha, and a visitor named Safie. From them, he learned to speak and understand human interactions.
Over time, he discovered a set of Victor’s notes, which revealed the circumstances of his creation. Hoping for companionship, the creature attempted to make his presence known to the blind De Lacey. While the old man responded without fear, Felix, Agatha, and Safie were terrified upon seeing him, causing the creature to flee.
Much time passes, and he becomes fluent and educated. He further understands the family’s history, which involves being exiled and losing their wealth.
Rejected yet again, the creature journeys out of Geneva and commits further crimes against Victor’s family. Finally, the monster tracks Victor down and pleads for him to create a mate for him:
“You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This you alone can do, and I demand it of you as a right which you must not refuse to concede.”
They reach an agreement that a female will be made; however, Victor becomes reluctant.
Alongside this narrative, Victor and Elizabeth are engaged, to be married. However, he is putting this off until he can solve the situation with the monster. Victor becomes overwhelmed with the potential consequences, particularly the fear that they might procreate.
The creature becomes enraged with Victor when he fails to create the companion, even threatening him. Following a series of misunderstandings and tragic events, Victor finds himself accused of a crime he did not commit.
Devastated by the loss of his close friend, Henry Clerval, Victor’s health deteriorates, and he’s temporarily imprisoned. Upon his release, and still haunted by the creature’s threats, he marries Elizabeth. telling her that he will reveal a secret once they are married.
However, tragedy strikes once again when the creature fulfils his ominous warning. As the wedding day approaches, the monster ends up killing Elizabeth and Victor’s father. Grief-stricken by the death of his father and his wife, Victor becomes determined to hunt down and destroy his creation. This mission of vengeance leads him further north, bringing the story full circle to where Walton discovers him in the Arctic.
The frame narrative returns to Walton, who writes to his sister recording that his new friend Victor remains on the brink of death.