'Frankenstein' Overview

Introduction to Mary Shelley's classic horror novel

Still from the 1931 film adaption of 'Frankenstein'
A scene from the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein.

John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is a classic horror novel and a prime example of the Gothic genre. Published in 1818, Frankenstein tells the story of an ambitious scientist and the monster he creates. The unnamed creature is a tragic figure who becomes violent and murderous after being rejected by society. Frankenstein remains potent for its commentary on the potential consequences of a singleminded search for enlightenment, as well as the importance of family and belonging. 

Fast Facts: Frankenstein

  • Author: Mary Shelley
  • Publisher: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones
  • Year Published: 1818
  • Genre: Gothic, horror, science fiction
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Pursuit of knowledge, importance of family, nature and the sublime
  • Characters: Victor Frankenstein, the creature, Elizabeth Lavenza, Henry Clerval, Captain Robert Walton, the De Lacey Family
  • Notable Adaptions: Frankenstein (1931 Universal Studios film), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994 film directed by Kenneth Branagh)
  • Fun Fact: Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein because of a horror story competition between herself and the poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley (her husband).

Plot Summary

Frankenstein tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist whose main ambition is to uncover the source of life. He succeeds at creating life from death—a creature in the semblance of a man—but is horrified by the result. The creature is hideous and deformed. Frankenstein runs away, and when he returns, the creature has fled.

Time passes, and Frankenstein learns that his brother, William, has been killed. He escapes to the wilderness to mourn, and the creature seeks him out to tell his story. The creature explains that after his creation, his appearance caused everyone he encountered to either hurt him or run away from him. Alone and desperate, he settled by the cottage of a family of impoverished peasants. He tried to befriend them, but they fled from his presence, and he killed William out of rage from neglect. He asks Frankenstein to create a female companion for him so that he may not be alone. Frankenstein agrees, but doesn't keep his promise, as he believes the experiment is immoral and disastrous experiment. Thus, the creature vows to ruin Frankenstein’s life and proceeds to kill all whom Frankenstein holds dear.

The monster strangles Frankenstein’s wife Elizabeth on their wedding night. Frankenstein then resolves to destroy the creature once and for all. He follows him north, chasing him to the North Pole, where he crosses paths with Captain Walton and reveals his entire story. In the end, Frankenstein dies, and the creature vows to travel as far north as possible to end his own tragic life.

Major Characters

Victor Frankenstein is the protagonist of the novel. He is an ambitious scientist obsessed with the search for scientific truth. The consequences of his discovery leads to a life of ruin and loss.

The creature is the unnamed monster Frankenstein creates. Despite his gentle and compassionate demeanor, he is rejected by society because of his grotesque appearance. He grows cold-hearted and violent as a result.

Captain Robert Walton is the narrator who opens and closes the novel. A failed poet turned captain, he is on an expedition to the North Pole. He listens to Frankenstein's tale and mirrors the reader as the receptor of the novel's warnings.

Elizabeth Lavenza is Frankenstein's adopted "cousin" and eventual wife. She is an orphan, yet she finds love and acceptance easily because of her beauty and nobility—a direct contrast to the creature's failed attempts to find a sense of belonging.

Henry Clerval is Frankenstein's best friend and foil. He loves to study the humanities and is concerned with morality and chivalry. He is ultimately strangled to death by the monster.

The De Lacey Family lives in a cottage close to the creature. They are peasants who have fallen on hard times, but the creature idolizes them and their gentle ways. The De Laceys serve as a prime example of familial support in the novel.

Major Themes

Pursuit of Knowledge. Shelley examines the anxieties surrounding technological and scientific advancement through the character of Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein's discovery and its disastrous consequences suggest that the singleminded pursuit of knowledge is a dangerous path.

Importance of Family. The creature is shunned by everyone he encounters. Lacking familial acceptance and belonging, his relatively peaceful nature shifts to malice and hatred. In addition, the ambitious Frankenstein alienates himself from family and friends in order to focus on his work; later, several of his loved ones die at the hands of the creature, a direct result of Frankenstein's ambition. By contrast, Shelley's depiction of the De Lacey family shows the reader the benefits of unconditional love.

Nature and the Sublime. Shelley evokes images of natural landscapes in order to put human trials into perspective. In the novel, nature stands in opposition to humankind's struggles. Despite scientific breakthroughs, nature remains unknowable and all-powerful. Nature is the ultimate force that kills Frankenstein and the creature, and it is too dangerous a force for Captain Walton to conquer on his expedition.

Literary Style

Shelley wrote Frankenstein in the horror genre. The novel features Gothic imagery and is heavily informed by Romanticism. There are countless poetic passages on the power and beauty of natural landscapes, and the language often refers to questions of purpose, meaning, and truth.

About the Author

Born in 1797, Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley was 21 when Frankenstein was published. With Frankenstein, Shelley set the precedent for monster novels and created an early example of the science fiction genre that remains influential to this day. 

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Pearson, Julia. "'Frankenstein' Overview." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/frankenstein-overview-4582525. Pearson, Julia. (2021, February 17). 'Frankenstein' Overview. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/frankenstein-overview-4582525 Pearson, Julia. "'Frankenstein' Overview." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/frankenstein-overview-4582525 (accessed June 4, 2023).