Book Summary, Notes, and Study Guide for Frankenstein

Frontispiece for 1831 Edition of Frankenstein showing Victor Frankenstein disgusted with his creation.
Victor Frankenstein disgusted at his creation. From frontispiece of 1831 Edition. Theodore Von Holst (1810-1844), Tate Britain

Frankenstein was originally written by English author, Mary Shelley (1797- 1851). Its complete title is Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus. It was first published anonymously in London on January 1, 1818. The second edition, under Shelley's name, was published in 1823. A third edition, which included a preface by Shelley and tribute to her late husband who drowned in 1822, was published in 1831.

 The book is a Gothic novel and has also been called the first science fiction novel. 

Author

Mary Shelley was born in London August 30, 1797. She developed the story of Frankenstein while on a summer trip to Switzerland in 1816 when she was twenty years old and was traveling with her then married lover, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley

The story arose out of a competition between herself, Percy Shelley and their companions, Lord Byron and Byron's physician, John William Polidori, to write a tale about a supernatural occurrence. Mary initially struggled with an idea, but eventually, through listening to conversations between Percy and Lord Byron about attempts to reanimate corpses, current news stories, a dream, her imagination and own life experiences, a story emerged. According to Francine Prose, author of the introduction to a new illustrated Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, in the New Republic:

"One night, still puzzling over Byron’s assignment and trying to sleep, Mary had a vision in which she saw “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” She lay awake, trying to imagine a story that would frighten the reader as much as she had been frightened, then realized that she had found it. “What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow. On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story,” and set herself to making “a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.”  

The book, Frankenstein, was completed almost a year after their trip to Switzerland.

Shortly after the trip to Switzerland, Percy Shelley's pregnant wife committed suicide. Mary and Percy married soon thereafter, in 1818, but Mary's life was marked by death and tragedy. Mary's half-sister committed suicide soon after the trip to Switzerland, and Mary and Percy had three children who died in infancy before Percy Florence was born in 1819. 

Setting

The story begins in the icy northern waters where a captain is traveling to the North Pole. Events take place throughout Europe, in Scotland, England, and Switzerland.

Characters

Victor Frankenstein: The Swiss chemist who creates the monster.

Robert Walton: The sea captain who rescues Victor from the ice.

The Monster: The ugly creation of Frankenstein, who searches for companionship and love throughout the story.

William: Victor's brother. The monster murders William to punish Victor and sets the stage for more tragedy and torment for Victor.

Justine Moritz: Adopted and loved by the Frankenstein family, Justine was convicted and executed for killing William.

Plot

Rescued by the sea captain, Frankenstein relays events that begin as he pieces together a man using old body parts.

Once he manages to create the horrible being, however, Frankenstein regrets his action immediately and flees his home.

When he returns, he finds the monster is gone. Shortly after, Frankenstein hears that his brother has been murdered. A series of tragic events follow, as the monster searches for love and Frankenstein suffers the consequences of his immoral act.

Structure

The novel is a frame story with a three-part structure. The Creature's story is the core of the novel, which is presented to us framed by Victor Frankenstein's story, which in turn is framed by Robert Walton's narrative.

Possible Themes

This book raises many compelling themes and thought-provoking questions, and is as relevant today as it was two-hundred years ago.

The search for love reflects a strong theme in Shelley's own life.

The monster knows he is horrid and will never be loved, although he attempts to find love several times. He is constantly rejected and disappointed. Frankenstein, himself, searches for happiness through love, but he meets with tragic loss of several loves.

Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, who was an early feminist. Tragic, weak, women are portrayed in the story -- Frankenstein actually begins to make a second female monster, to provide companionship for his own first creation, but he then destroys it and dumps the remains in a lake; Frankenstein's wife dies tragically, as does the accused Justine -- but is this because Shelley actually believes women are weak, or does their subjugation and absence send a different message? Perhaps it is because female autonomy and power are perceived as a threat to the male characters. Without the presence and influence of women, everything that is important to Frankenstein is destroyed in the end.

The novel also speaks to the nature of good and evil, what it means to be human and to live morally.  It confronts us with our existential fears and explores the boundary between life and death. It causes us to reflect on the limits and responsibilities of scientists and scientific inquiry, and to think about what it means to play God, addressing human emotion and hubris.

Resources and Further Reading

How Frankenstein's Monster Became Human, The New Republic, https://newrepublic.com/article/134271/frankensteins-monster-became-human

It's Alive! The Birth of Frankenstein, National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/magazine/2017/07-08/birth_of_Frankenstein_Mary_Shelley/

Monstrosity and Feminism in Frankenstein, Electrastreet, https://electrastreet.net/2014/11/monstrosity-and-feminism-in-frankenstein/