Upon studying this unit, the learners will be able to:
In the former units of this block, you have studied features of romanticism in literature. You are familiar with romantic writings in different genres. So, you may be curious to know about the theme and form of fictional narrative during the romantic period. With these deliberations on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you may be able to understand the thematic and structural aspects of fiction in the romantic period.
Apart from its romantic nature, the novel is also noted for its various other features. Do you watch science fiction movies? There are plenty of movies which deal with scientific explorations and their future possibilities and threats. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could be considered as the mother of scientific fiction. This is one of the early scientific novels which gives clues to the most revolutionary scientific leap forward and its hazards.
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is considered a Gothic horror novel, a subcategory of romanticism, which deals with mystery of nature and supernatural contents. The Gothic novel is a literary genre that emerged during the 1750s, along with its mystery and supernatural elements. It also deals with ancient events, repressed sexuality and psychological problems.
Limit of the Knowledge, Ambition, Alienation, Gothic fiction
In her novel, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus published in 1818, Mary Shelley combines genres like scientific and gothic horror fictions. The novel deals with the story of Victor Frankenstein, a natural science student from Geneva, who experiments in order to instil life to human organs gathered from corpses; and the subsequent tragedy it brings forth.
5.3.1 Brief Outline of the Plot
In the beginning of the novel, Robert Walton, an explorer, seeks a new route from Russia to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic. While on their voyage, Walton’s crew accidentally meets an exhausted man named Victor Frankenstein floating on an ice sheet in the sea. The plot of the novel is Frankenstein’s anecdote of his tragic life experiences to Walton. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, Frankenstein shows a keen interest in exploring new ideas and mysteries. During his childhood days, Elizabeth was his close friend who had been adopted by his family as she was an orphan.
In his childhood Frankenstein showed interest in science and later joined the University of Ingolstadt to study science. Elizabeth and his mother Caroline are seriously affected by a fever. Though his mother dies, Elizabeth recovers and becomes healthy. M. Krempe and M. Waldman are two important professors he meets at the university. During his study at University around two years he could impress his teachers and colleagues. The major endeavour of Frankenstein is to instil life to a dead body. Though he is successful in his experiment, giving life to the dead body, it becomes an obsessive nightmare throughout his life with its monster-like features. It takes away his peace of mind and he wanders everywhere with a restless mind unable to avoid his feeling of guilt and disgust. This obsessive thought leads him to lose his mental and physical health.
Henry Clerval takes care of him and helps him recover his health. Soon, he gets a letter from his father asking him to return home as William, his youngest brother, is murdered by an anonymous person. Justine Moritz, their housekeeper, falsely accused of the murder is sentenced to death. Though Frankenstein knows the real killer, he remains incapable of revealing the real killer due to the supernatural feature of the event.
In order to refresh himself from this traumatic situation, Frankenstein moves from Geneva to Mount Montanvert where he meets his creature-monster who informs him of his loneliness and difficulty of existence as he does not belong to the human sect. Even though Frankenstein orders him to keep away from his sight, the monster compels him to listen to his stories. Insulted by the human beings, he seeks revenge not on entire humans but specifically on Frankenstein’s family. The monster makes a request to Frankenstein to create one more monster as his mate so that he can save himself from loneliness and exclusion. The monster decides to leave Europe to South America and Frankenstein plans to move from Geneva to England and Scotland. He also plans to marry Elizabeth. Frankenstein disengages himself from the creation of the second monster and disposes its remaining parts in the sea. This leads the monster to vow revenge on Frankenstein.
Frankenstein’s boat is destroyed in a storm and he lands in Ireland. He has to undergo a trial for the washed up dead body of Henry Clerval in Ireland. But he is saved as he is proven to be innocent and acquitted from the crime consequently. Though plunged in misery and frustration as he caused the death of many, he appears determined to marry Elizabeth. When the plan of his marriage progresses, the thought of the monster and possible dangers he may cause torment Frankenstein. Though he took many precautions to prevent the monster from entering the marriage ceremony, the monster stealthily enters the room of Elizabeth and strangles her.
In order to take revenge upon the monster, Frankenstein chases him throughout Europe and Russia. In the Arctic when Robert Walton meets Frankenstein, he was about to get hold of the monster. It was the time when Frankestein had been sheltered and nursed by Walton’s team.
In the last moments of Frankenstein, the monster visits the place in order to meet his creator for the last time. During this visit, he meets Walton and shares his side of the story. Soon after the death of Frankestein, the monster disappears and is seen never again.
Victor Frankenstein: Victor is the narrator of the major portion of the novel. He is the protagonist of the novel who was born at Geneva to Alphonse Frankenstein and Caroline. He endows life to a dead body which ruins his peace of mind and ravages his family.
The Monster: The monster is the creation of Victor Frankenstein at the University of Ingolstadt whom Victor plans as a beautiful being but once the creation is completed, he appears as an ugly monster. The monster expresses his loneliness and exclusion from the human social fabric and he requests Victor to create him a female counterpart. When Victor expresses his unwillingness to create it, the monster takes revenge against him by killing his family members and friends.
Robert Walton: Robert Walton is a seafarer who saves the life of Victor Frankenstein from ice. His letters to his sister begin and end the novel Frankenstein. His letters function as the frame of the narrative which gives ample space for Victor’s tragic story.
Alphonse Frankenstein: Alphonse is a highly sympathetic and supportive father who lavishes his love and affection on his son Victor Frankenstein. He dies soon after Elizabeth was strangled by the monster.
Elizabeth Lavenza: Elizabeth is a beautiful orphan who had been adopted by the Frankenstein family. She is the proposed bride of Victor Frankenstein but is killed by the monster to take revenge upon Victor.
Henry Clerval: Henry is a friend of Victor Frankenstein who was initially denied the opportunity to study at Ingolstadt University by his father. Later he joins the University and takes care of Victor when his health deteriorates. He was murdered by the monster in his trip with Victor Frankenstein.
The Structure of the Novel
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein adopts an epistolary form to narrate the story of the novel. In the entire novel, Mary Shelley juxtaposes narrations of three different characters. In the beginning and end of the novel, the plot is unfolded through the letters of Robert Walton to his sister. Then the story is narrated by Victor Frankenstein. In the middle of the novel, some sections are narrated by the monster. The storyline of the novel is outlined as a story within story format as Shelley begins with the story of Robert Walton and his letters. Within this narrative/letters there happens another story which is recounted by Victor Franken-stein. Within the story of Victor, there occurschapters which are narrated by the monster. The novel is thus successful in providing multiple perspectives and in maintaining the quality of a polyphonic text. Each section or narrative is given full autonomy so that each speaker narrates events from their own experiences which are not judged by any other character.
In the beginning of the novel Frankenstein, Shelley provides a series of letters written by Robert Walton to his sister Margaret Saville. The event takes place in the 18th century.
The first letter is dated 11 December, which is written from St. Petersburg, Russia. This letter informs that Walton is about to begin a journey to the North Pole via sea. There are two reasons behind his journey; one is to find out the northern route to other regions of the world and the second is to study the origin of magnetism in the North Pole. Walton had aspired to be a poet, but failed and he tries to accomplish his childhood dream of reaching the North Pole as he desires some higher purposes to fulfil in his life.
In the second letter written from Archangel Russia, Walton writes of his feeling of loneliness as he is brought up in a comfortable manner which makes him too sensitive to the ferociousness of the sea. Walton confesses his romantic fascination for the beauty of the sea and its dangers which is his reason for loving Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of Ancient Mariner’
In the third letter, Walton writes that so far his journey is successful. Some of the favourable situations are the better climate and the loyal and committed companions except the ice sheets appearing which foreshadows impending danger. The letter comes to an end stating the determination of the people whatever may happen.
In the fourth letter, Walton narrates an incident when their ship comes across a sheet of ice. From there they encounter old Victor Frankenstein who appears very tired and starving. The crew nurses him and it takes two days for his recovery. Soon, Walton and Victor Frankenstein become friends and start sharing their experiences. Concluding the fourth letter, Walton informs that Victor has consented to narrate his tragic story of life the next day itself. Here the frame narrative of Walton comes to an end and begins the narrative of Victor Frankenstein.
Chapter 1-4- Summary
Narration of Victor Frankenstein: Childhood and University Days
Different from the initial letters, where the narrator is Walton, from Chapter One onwards the speaker is Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein begins his tale from his childhood; the story even dates back to his parents’ affair and subsequent marriage. He was born in a rich and elegant Swiss family. His father Frankenstein journeys to meet his old friend named Beaufort who had fallen into poverty and who was about to die when he reached him. Caroline, the impoverished daughter of Beaufort, expresses her devotion towards Master Frankenstein who takes her to Geneva. When he returns, they get married at home. In the initial years of their marriage, the couple travelled to various countries like Germany, France and Italy. It was in Italy that Victor Frankenstein was born to the couple as their first child. Both the parents and the child had shown an adorable relationship among them.
Caroline, as a woman emerged from penury, made her routine of visiting people of poor background in order to uplift them from their poverty. In one of her travels, she met an or-phan girl of angelic beauty who was living with a poor family in Italy. The girl, named Elizabeth Lavenza, was brought into their family, and became an intimate companion of Victor Frankenstein. Another close friend of Victor Frankenstein was Henry Clerval who was a highly imaginative character. There was a remarkable difference between the characters of Victor and Clerval. Victor was highly passionate and inquisitive about the mysteries and secrets of the world, whereas Clerval had a taste for virtue, heroism and morality. At the age of thirteen itself Victor had shown his fascination for the famous alchemist Cornelius Agrippa. When he was seventeen years old, his family sent him to the University of Ingolstadt.
The first professor he encountered in the University was Krempe, a renowned professor of natural philosophy. The professor had so strong contempt for Victor for his interest in reading absurd and outdated sciences so that he suggested him to start his reading on science afresh. Enthralled by the lecture of Waldman, another professor in the university, Victor plans to study natural philosophy as his subject of interest.
At the University of Ingolstadt, Victor spends most of his time studying natural philosophy and chemistry. His talent in the subject impresses his professors and classmates alike. As a result of his fascination for finding out the secret of life, Victor engages in tireless work of instilling life to the dead body. In his apartment, disengaging himself from outside ties, Victor secretly experiments to create a beautiful being.
The Monster Comes to Life
On a November night, Victor becomes successful in bringing life to his creation. Soon he realises the grave error that he has committed. Victor had thought that his creation would be beautiful, but now he realises that it is extremely ugly. As Frankenstein’s dream shatters, he is filled with disgust and fear. He becomes restless and his sleep is plagued by horrible dreams. Whenever he enters the room, he is annoyed with the thought of whether the monster is present there. Victor is bedridden as his fever intensifies by his frequent obsession with the monster. Though he remains in the bed for several months, under the great care of Henry, Victor recovers from his illness.
Henry requests him to address a letter to his family as there awaits a letter from Elizabeth to be addressed. Elizabeth’s letter is indicative of her care for Victor. After his recovery, Henry arranges a new apartment and removes all his scientific instruments as he observes Vic-tor’s dislike for his laboratory. Victor finally decides to leave for Geneva. In the company of Clerval, Victor returns to his former life of joy and warmth.
Before they return home, while at the University of Ingolstadt, Victor receives a letter from his father that his youngest brother has been murdered. In his letter, his father requests him to return home as immediately as possible as he believes that his presence would bring solace to the psychologically ravaged family members.
On his journey to Geneva, Victor becomes obsessed with some wild, fearful thoughts. When he reaches Geneva, in the midst of the night, frequented with thunderstorms and lightning, Victor witnesses a figure lurking among trees. Seeing the monster there, Victor understands that the monster is the real murderer. At home, Victor comes to know that their house servant Justine has been accused of the murder. Elizabeth and Victor passionately desire for proving the innocence of Justine.
When the trial begins, it disturbs Victor to the core as he becomes aware that he is responsible for the murder of his youngest brother which consequently leads to the murder of this innocent maid. Though Victor wishes to confess the reality, he remains silent as it will not be considered the truth. During the trial, much evidence has been produced against Jus-tine and the innocent Justine fails to respond to the questions properly and she becomes emotional when the dead body of William is shown. Despite the attempts from the part of Elizabeth, Justine’s lie that she has murdered William leads her to be prosecuted. This punishment of Justine emotionally torments both Victor and Elizabeth.
The Tale of the Monster
The monster experiences the world after it moves away from the apartment of Victor; it grasps the nature of light and darkness, and different functions of fire like its cooking and burning capacities. When the monster goes outside, it realises that people/humans are terrified of his appearance which leads him to remain hidden from the public. Finally, he decides to hide near a cottage where an unhappy family lives. Wondering the reason for their unhappiness, he finds out that it is because of their poverty and the blindness of the old man. Gradually the monster learns their language and understands that the name of the young woman is Agatha and the young man is Felix. Whenever the monster watches his own reflection in water, he realises the reason why people run away from him and look terrified.
When a beautiful Arabian girl comes to their family, their melancholic mood changes into great exultation. Felix in particular appears more elated and starts teaching her their language. When the monster knows more about family and society, it realises that as a monster he has no family and he does not belong to any societal fabric of humans. Then the monster tells about the three books that he got from the forest, among which John Milton’s Paradise Lost impresses him. The monster identifies himself with the character of Adam in the book but others associate him with the character of Satan as he lacks the love of his creator.
When the family members have gone outside, the monster plans to introduce himself to De Lacey, thinking that he cannot see him as he is a blind one. But unexpectedly Felix, Agatha and Safie reach their cottage. Shocked at the sight of the monster, Felix attacks him, Safie runs away from the place and Agatha faints.
The family’s rejection saddens him. But when his mind is calmed by the beautiful day that follows, he goes to the cottage to be on good terms with De Lacey. He could realise that the family had gone out of the cottage to terminate their contract with the landlord and they never returned to the place. By this the monster loses all his connection with society. Enraged, the monster burns the cottage, and heads up to take revenge upon Victor.
Narration of Frankenstein
From Chapter 17 onwards, Frankenstein’s narration restarts. The monster, asserting that the sole reason for his violence is his misery out of his loneliness, compels Victor to create a female friend for him. Victor though he thinks of creating the second monster as a friend to his first creation, he is obsessed with the thought that they may pose more threat to humanity. His father suggests Victor to marry Elizabeth soon to alleviate the pains of their family. As the question on the creation of the second monster still hangs on his head, Victor delays the marriage and leaves for England to maintain his peace of mind. In his journey to England, Clerval also accompanies him.
At London, Clerval appears excited and engaged in learning and social interactions but Victor is immersed in the thought of creating the second monster and starts seeking a lonely place for his work. Both Victor and Clerval move to Scotland and from there, Victor and Clerval part and Victor tries to set up a laboratary at a remote island in Orkney’s to work on his secret project.
Victor, on one night at his lab, appears engrossed in the thought whether the monster will keep his word that he would withdraw from Europe to remote, uninhabited areas of South America. When Victor looks outside, he could see the face of the monster grinning at him. Enraged by this, Victor cancels his creation of the female monster. Producing a howling sound as a token of his anger, the monster disappears and later returns threatening to meet him on the day of his marriage.
As Victor receives a letter from Clerval to proceed their journey, he takes all his laboratory materials to his boat to dump it in the ocean. He takes a nap in the boat and when he wakes up the weather has become violent and reaching the shore appears difficult. When he anchors at the shore, a group of angry town men gather around him and take him to Mr. Kirwin for a trial.
At his office, Victor comes to know that Clerval has been killed and they suspect Victor as the murderer. Victor has been bedridden for two months as he is seen completely crestfallen with his deteriorated health. No evidence had been produced against him and he was freed. He heads up to Geneva along with his father who has come to take care of his son.
During their journey back to Geneva they stop at Paris with the intention of energising Victor, but he expresses a reluctance to mingle with people. Victor even confesses that he is responsible for the murder of William, Justine and Clerval. But to no avail, his father does not believe him.
During this stay at Paris, Victor receives a letter from Elizabeth who conveys her interest in marrying him. Victor writes back to Elizabeth that he would immediately marry her but the thought of the monster torments him.
After one week’s journey, Victor, along with his father, arrives at Geneva. Marriage being fixed ten days later, Victor and Elizabeth sail to Italy for their honeymoon. The thought of the monster disturbs him frequently which suspends all pleasures of their journey. Once they enter into a cottage, there is a storm. Mindful of Elizabeth’s safety, Victor sends her to bed and remains there armed with a pistol. Soon he hears to the screaming sound of Elizabeth and he can see the lifeless body of Elizabeth. Victor gets a glance of the monster near the window. Though he fires at the monster, it misses and the monster escapes.
Victor returns home immediately and the father overwhelmed by the news of the murder dies. Gone mad, Victor is put in a cell and when he comes to his senses, narrates all his stories to the local magistrate. Thinking that most of his stories are illogical, and realising the impossibility of tracking the monster, the magistrate leaves the case without taking further action on it. With much contempt to the magistrate and all humanity, Victor pronounces that though human beings conceive them-selves as wise there are plenty of matters they are unaware of.
5.3.5 Walton’s Concluding Letters
Towards the end of the novel, Walton restarts his frame narrative to conclude the novel. He says that Victor is a victim of lofty ambition. These concluding letters also inform Margaret about the danger as the ship is surrounded by ice. In response to the demand of the crew, Walton agrees to return to England. The letter also informs the death of great Victor in the ship. Walton’s letter writing is interrupted as a sound emerges from the cabin where Victor’s dead body lies. Walton witnesses the monster crying over the dead body of Victor. To his astonishment, the monster confesses that he has gone through pity and remorse for Victor. The monster addressed by Walton as a wretch promises that he will put an end to his own life and he disappears.
5.3.6 Critical Analysis
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus is one of the early novels written in the gothic genre. Some of the important gothic features in the novel are its mystery, untold secrecy, horror and psychological impacts on characters. Unlike the ghosts and vampires in gothic literatures, the novel depicts the grotesque feature of the monster, its gigantic size, events taking place in dark and night atmosphere, settings of the novel like old and isolated areas. The relationship between Victor and the monster, which is mainly based on hatred, revenge, and remorse, provides a stark gothic atmosphere for the novel.
In the beginning of Frankenstein, Mary Shel-ley follows an epistolary narrative style where Robert Walton writes a series of letters to Margaret Saville about his polar explorations. The novel sheds light on the adventures of Robert Walton and his crew. Robert Walton also provides a long story of Victor Frankenstein which covers most parts of the novel. The major issue which is dealt with in Frankenstein is Victor’s failure to anticipate the repercussions of his action.
Victor Frankenstein’s inquisitive mind takes him away from societal norms and restrictions. Soon after he reaches Ingolstadt University, Victor tries to find out the secret of life and endeavours to instil life to a dead body. Keeping this in mind, he collects body parts, arranges laboratories and uses electricity to instil life to his creation. Before long, Victor realises the grave error that he had committed by the creating of a ghastly monster, in contrast to his dream of creating a beautiful being.
Back in Geneva, Victor realises the intensity of his mistake as he understands that his brother William is killed by the monster, his creation. His anguish is aggravated when Justine, the innocent servant girl, has been executed thinking that she is behind claiming the life of William. Infuriated by Victor’s unwillingness to create a female friend for the monster, the monster kills Victor’s close friend Clerval and his bride Elizabeth. As his father also dies ravaged by these murders, Victor loses most of his kith and kin.
It is when Victor Frankenstein travels across Russia to the North Pole to get hold of the monster and take revenge upon him, Robert Walton’s boat saves him. Narrating all his stories, Victor dies in Walton’s boat. Stricken with remorse, the monster approaches Walton and prepares his own funeral pyre. So, both in the case of Victor and the monster, the moments of revenge and remorse occur in different stages of their life.