'Frankenstein' Summary

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a Gothic horror novel about a man named Victor Frankenstein who discovers the secret to creating life. He uses this knowledge to form a hideous monster, which becomes the source of his misery and demise. The novel is presented as an epistolary nested narrative, following the first-person accounts of Captain Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster himself.

Part 1: Walton’s Opening Letters

The novel opens with Robert Walton’s letters to his sister Margaret Saville. Walton is a sea captain and a failed poet. He is traveling to the North Pole in pursuit of glory and has high hopes for geographical and scientific discoveries. On his journey, he spots what looks like a giant rushing by on a sledge; soon after, his ship passes an emaciated and frozen man floating on a slice of ice. The crew rescues the stranger, who reveals himself to be Victor Frankenstein. Walton is impressed with his wisdom and cultivation; they talk and Walton states that he would sacrifice his own life for the sake of a greater good, and for lasting glory. Frankenstein then launches into his own story as a warning of the dangers of such a life philosophy.

Part 2: Frankenstein’s Story

Frankenstein begins his tale with his happy upbringing in Geneva. His mother, Caroline Beaufort, is the daughter of a merchant and marries the older, reputable Alphonse Frankenstein. She is graceful and affectionate, and young Frankenstein has a wonderful childhood. He loves reading about the secrets of heaven and earth—natural philosophy, alchemy and the philosopher’s stone. He seeks glory and wishes to uncover the mystery of life. His close childhood friend, Henry Clerval, is his opposite; Clerval is curious about the moral relations of things, and is fascinated by tales of virtue and chivalry.

Frankenstein’s parents adopt Elizabeth Lavenza, an orphaned child of Milanese nobility. Frankenstein and Elizabeth call each other cousin and are brought up together under the care of Justine Moritz, another orphan who serves as their nanny. Frankenstein praises Elizabeth much as he does his mother, describing her as saintly, and admiring her grace and beauty.

Frankenstein’s mother dies of scarlet fever before he leaves for the University of Ingolstadt. In a state of heavy grief, he throws himself into his studies. He learns about chemistry and modern scientific theories. Eventually he discovers the cause of life—and he becomes capable of animating matter. He works in a feverish excitement to build a being in the likeness of a man, but proportionally larger. His dreams of beauty and fame are crushed when his finished creation is, in fact, monstrous and completely repulsive. Disgusted with what he has created, Frankenstein runs out of his house and happens upon Clerval, who has come to the University as a fellow student. They return to Frankenstein’s place, but the creature has escaped. Utterly overwhelmed, Victor falls into an intense sickness. Clerval nurses him back to health.

Frankenstein eventually decides to travel home to Geneva once he recovers. He receives a letter from his father, which relays the tragedy that his younger brother, William, was murdered. Frankenstein and Henry return home, and upon reaching Geneva, Frankenstein goes for a walk to see for himself the place where William was killed. On his walk, he spies the gigantic creature in the distance. He realizes that the creature is responsible for the murder, but he is unable to prove his theory. Justine, who was framed by the monster, is convicted and hanged. Frankenstein is heartbroken. He turns to nature for isolation and perspective, and to forget his human problems. Out in the wilderness, the monster seeks him out to talk.

Part 3: The Creature’s Tale

The creature takes over the novel’s narrative and tells Frankenstein his life story. Soon after his birth, he realizes that all people are terrified of him and hateful towards him solely because of his appearance. Chased away by villagers throwing stones, he runs to the wilderness where he can hide from civilization. He finds a place to call home close by a cottage. A family of peasants lives there peacefully. The creature observes them daily and grows very fond of them. His empathy for humankind expands and he longs to join them. When they are sad, he is sad, and when they are happy, he is happy. He learns to speak through observation, and calls them by their names: Mr. De Lacey, his son Felix, his daughter Agatha, and Safie, Felix's love and the daughter of a ruined Turkish merchant.

The creature teaches himself to read. With literature, he displays a human consciousness, facing the existential questions of who and what he is. He discovers his ugliness, and manages to disturb himself deeply when he spies his own reflection in a pool of water. But the monster still wants to make his presence known to the De Lacey family. He talks with the blind father until the other peasants come home and are terrified. They drive the creature away; he then journeys to Frankenstein’s home, and happens upon William in the wood. He wishes to befriend the boy, believing his youth would make him less prejudiced, but William is just as disgusted and fearful as anyone else. In a rage the monster strangles him and frames Justine for the murder.

After completing his story, the creature asks Frankenstein to create a female companion with similar deformities. The creature has come to terms with the fact that he won’t be able to have any relationships with humans. He believes his malicious acts are a result of his isolation and rejection. He gives Frankenstein an ultimatum: the master will either deliver a creature companion or all he holds dear will be destroyed.

Part 4: Frankenstein’s Conclusion

Frankenstein again picks up the narrative. He and Elizabeth make their mutual love known. Frankenstein then travels to England with Henry, so that he can finish his engagement with the monster away from his family and friends before he marries Elizabeth. They travel together for some time, and then separate in Scotland; Frankenstein begins his work there. He believes the creature is stalking him and is plagued by what he promised to do, as he is convinced that creating a female creature would lead to a "race of devils." Ultimately, he fails to deliver his promise, despite the creature confronting him. The creature threatens that he will be with Frankenstein on his wedding night, but Frankenstein will not create another monster.

He journeys on to Ireland and is immediately imprisoned. The creature has strangled Clerval, and Frankenstein is believed to be the suspect. In jail, he becomes deathly ill for several months. His father comes to his rescue, and when the grand jury validates the proof that Frankenstein was on the Orkney Islands when Clerval was killed, he is liberated. He and his father travel home. He marries Elizabeth and prepares to battle the creature, remembering the monster’s threat. But while he is readying himself, the monster strangles Elizabeth to death. The creature escapes into the night, and shortly afterwards, Frankenstein’s father dies as well. Frankenstein is devastated, and he vows to find the creature and destroy him. He follows the monster up to the North Pole, where he comes across Walton’s expedition, and thus rejoins his narrative to the present.

Part 5: Walton’s Concluding Letters

Captain Walton ends the story as he began it. Walton’s ship is trapped in the ice, resulting in the deaths of some of his crewmen. He fears mutiny; many want him to turn southward as soon as the ship is free. He debates whether or not to forge ahead or turn back. Frankenstein urges him to move forward with his journey and tells him that glory comes at the price of sacrifice. Walton ultimately turns the ship around to return home, and Frankenstein passes away. The monster then appears to find his creator dead. He tells Walton of his plan to go as far north as possible and die so that the whole sordid affair can finally end.

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Pearson, Julia. "'Frankenstein' Summary." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/frankenstein-summary-4580213. Pearson, Julia. (2021, September 1). 'Frankenstein' Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/frankenstein-summary-4580213 Pearson, Julia. "'Frankenstein' Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/frankenstein-summary-4580213 (accessed June 6, 2023).