200 years ago, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1797-1851). Shelley was 18 years old when she started writing the story and the first edition was published anonymously in London on 1 January 1818, when she was 20. Her name then appeared on the second edition which published in 1823.
Summary of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
Type of work Conceptual horror novel (plot: overcoming the monster which is one of top six or seven universal plots in novels)
Setting 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 his story:
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-complexioned, 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 dissimilar 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 17, 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 a freak.
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 murderer.
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 which 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.” “Begone, 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 had 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, “some [of the villagers] fled, some attacked me, until grievously bruised by stones … I escaped to the open country.”
He had 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’d 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 which 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 he and his mate would retreat in peace to the wilds of South America, the monster’s pleas and threats finally moved 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 enjoined me.”
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 brute 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 began to believe that by some fortunate chance the fiend 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 beheld 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 19. 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 her companions, some of England’s greatest writers, Mary finally offered up her contribution, Frankenstein: the Modern 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 multi-dimensional literary classic.
Summary of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus Mary Shelley is from Passing Time in the Loo, Vol 1 – The Top Collections of Summaries
The modern relevance of Frankenstein
With the advent of climate change, anthropocene, AI and geo-engineering, Shelley’s Frankenstein is seen by some as a warning for human creations that can get out of control and the horrors of inhumans. That’s one reading of this novel. Another one, among many, which is proposed by Claire Colebrook, cultural theorist, is that Shelley’s novel opens up a possibility to life to other forms of life apart from human and our inability to see other types of beings. Claire Colebrook is critical of the phrase ‘human condition’ which some people use but many scholars and thinkers drop from their usage because simply there are so many different ways in which humans exist and that we would not be able to talk about a single condition that marks all forms of being human and ideally we don’t want to be captured by it, fixed by it or fix it. Also, Shelley poses a question of ‘what if’ and that this form of humanity may not be the only form of a justifiable form of humanity or mode of existence. In other words, you don’t have to be human to be worthy of existence (and especially now, when humanity will most likely join the intergalactic community). In Shelley’s last novel, The Last Man, a viral epidemic wipes out all humans, except one man (around the year 2100) but animals survive (as a mode of existence) and seem to thrive without trying to kill each other.