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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Characters
R. Walton The main narrator of the story’s events. Captain of a ship northbound toward the Arctic pole. A selflearned man who desires, above all else, companionship. Encounters a near-death Victor Frankenstein while on his voyage and takes him aboard, faithfully transcribing his life story. The main protagonist whose story figures as the dominant narrative of the story. A man whose obsessive intellectual pursuits lead to his demise and irrevocable break from humanity. The culmination of Victor’s frenzied experiments to discover the secret of life. A creature that longs for human society but can never attain it. As the product of Frankenstein’s unnatural, individualistic endeavors, it severs Frankenstein’s ties to humanity by destroying his family. Discourages Victor from studying mystical teachings (e.g. Cornelius Agrippa), which would later give way into a “predilection for [natural philosophy]” (21) and lead to his doomed scientific inquiries. His happiness and well-being throughout the work lies contingent upon that of Victor. While he persists in his appreciative attitude toward life even in times of tragedy, he dies of heartbreak upon receiving news of Elizabeth’s death. The thread holding the Frankenstein family together. Victor’s childhood companion and eventual wife. Killed by Victor’s Creature on their wedding night. Victor’s longtime friend and companion. Represents what Victor could’ve been—inquisitive but not to the point of unnatural excess and still a member of society. Also killed by the Creature. Victor’s younger brother and the first of the Creature’s victims. The Frankensteins’ servant, wrongly executed for the murder of William.
V. Frankenstein Creature
Elizabeth L. Henry Clerval William Justine Moritz
In letters to his sister Margaret Salville, R. Walton reflects on his desire for glory and knowledge in reaching the ends of the earth. During his voyage, he recounts a strange accident in which his ship was surrounded and trapped by ice; after the ice broke, freeing his ship, Walton found his men talking to a man who had been drifting in the arctic waters on his sled. The stranger is welcomed aboard and restored to good health. Walton then relates how the stranger, seeing a mirror of himself in Walton (“You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.”), proceeded to relate his unfortunate history, serving as something of a cautionary tale. The stranger’s narrative, which Walton faithfully records in his letter, thus commences. Victor Frankenstein, born in Geneva, relates his family’s history—one of his father’s dearest friends, Beaufort, escaped the shame of debt by retreating to live a life of obscurity. His grief of self-exile eventually gave way to sickness, and his daughter Caroline tended to him endlessly until his passing. Two years after Beaufort’s funeral, Victor’s father and Caroline were married. Sometime during Victor’s childhood, his father brought his sister’s daughter Elizabeth Lavenza into their household and the two children quickly took to each other. Frankenstein then introduces Henry Clerval, one of his schoolfellows who also came to be included in his blissful “domestic circle” (21). Victor is an especially inquisitive child, and mystical studies appeal to him strongly, despite his father’s attempts to discourage his reading of such “sad trash” (22) written by the likes of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. His first thunderstorm at the age of fifteen stimulates his intellectual curiosity further.
When Frankenstein turns seventeen, his parents decide to send him to school in Ingolstadt. Victor’s departure is deferred by Elizabeth’s taking ill with scarlet fever, which is passed onto and kills Victor’s mother. On her deathbed, Caroline tells Elizabeth that, henceforth, she will “supply [her] place” (26), a role assignment that gives support to Freudian interpretations of the text. Within two years of his enrollment at Ingolstadt, Victor has risen to preeminence within the university, propelled by his natural aptitude for natural philosophy. During his time at school, Victor is driven by an obsessive desire to ascertain the “principle of life” (32), a pursuit which spurs him to toil day and night in search of an answer. Culling bones and body parts from charnel houses, Victor assembles together a creature that is to be instilled with life. It is one dreary night in November that Victor’s labors are realized with the awakening of his creation. Horrified by its indescribable ugliness, Victor flees in terror. Hereafter, Victor is plagued by neurotic thoughts and fears about the moral ramifications of his creation. Frankenstein is relieved by Henry Clerval’s presence, but still tormented by his nightmarish creation, he falls into a feverish illness, his childhood companion remaining by his side to see to his recovery. During this episode, Victor receives a letter from Elizabeth discussing a certain Justine Moritz, the family’s servant, and his younger brother William. The summer passes joyfully while the two await word from Alphonse Frankenstein about a date of departure. One afternoon, Victor and Clerval return to college to find a letter from Victor’s father informing him of William’s unfortunate murder. Victor is immediately overcome with the “extremest agitation” (50), and their journey home is “very melancholy” (51). During a thunderstorm, Victor is terrified to see what he believes to be his “hideous progeny” lurking behind trees—it is at this moment that he becomes certain that the Creature must be William’s murderer. Upon arriving home in Geneva, Victor discovers that poor Justine has been apprehended for William’s murder. Elizabeth appeals to him for help in exonerating the guiltless girl, and so Victor accompanies the family to her trial. Justine defends herself, claiming that she passed the night of William’s murder in a barn but having no account of the incriminating photo of Caroline Frankenstein. Elizabeth testifies in her defense, but when Justine confesses her guilt, the judges unanimously sentence her. Victor and Elizabeth visit Justine in her prison-chamber where the accused girl reveals that she confessed a lie, believing it would grant her absolution. In her last words, Justine nobly consoles herself and Elizabeth. Victor, however, remains inconsolable with guilt.
Victor is wracked with feverish neurosis, which, compounded by the recent misfortune, weighs heavily upon the Frankenstein household. While making an excursion to the valley of Chamounix, Victor experiences sublimity in nature: “The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect solemnizing my mind, and causing me to forget the passing cares of life” (70). At the summit of Montanvert, Victor encounters his abominable creation and accuses him of murder. The Creature defends himself and pleads with his master to listen to his tale, which comprises the rest of Volume II. The Creature recounts his early beginnings, slowly acquiring skills of perception and cognition. After an unfortunate incident in which he inadvertently sends a village fleeing from fear, the Creature retreats to the country and finds dwelling in a hovel. Near his new abode, he comes across a rural family with whom he became fixated. Through observation the Creature, by degrees, comes to acquire language—learning how to associate objects with words—and learns the cottagers’ names: Felix, his sister Agatha, and their father De Lacey. One spring, a beautiful woman, accompanied by a guide, arrives at the family’s doorstep. Felix immediately becomes enamored with the beautiful Arabian, whose name is Safie. While Felix instructs Safie in various disciplines, the Creature learns alongside her with alacrity and rapidity, gaining knowledge not only in speech but also in reading and writing. Before long, the Creature learns of human society and its hierarchical structure with its property divisions and social ranking. (As the Creature notes regretfully, “sorrow only
increased with knowledge” (90).) But he also hears of the family unit and its structure, leading the Creature to wonder about and lament his extreme lack of fellow companionship. The Creature narrates the history of his friends as he came to hear of over an elapsed period of time. Prior to their current state of impoverishment, the family had enjoyed wealth and luxury living in Paris, but when Felix aided Safie’s father in escaping prison (Felix had been outraged by the Turk’s imprisonment for his religion and enticed by his promises of wealth and Safie’s hand in marriage), the French government sentenced Agatha and De Lacey to jail. Felix’s attempts to free his family failed, and five months later, a trial proceeding took place which stripped them of their wealth and exiled them to their current residence of squalor in Germany. Meanwhile, the dishonorable Turk reneged on his promises, fleeing to Italy with Safie and sending Felix and his family only a small sum of money. Safie, however, after hearing news of Felix’s exile, resolves to depart for Germany to be with her lover. The Creature continues with his self-edification, reading classical works such as Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter. The first work, in particular, leaves an indelible impression on the Creature, finding his antithesis in Adam and his likeness in Satan. Then he reveals how, in the laboratory in which he was created, he chanced upon Victor’s journal, which detailed the minute details and process of his creation. As the household’s happiness increases in the company of Safie, so too does the Creature’s misery with the increasing awareness of his loneliness and isolation. One day, while Agatha, Felix, and Safie are taking a walk, the Creature decides to approach the cottage. He knocks and the blind De Lacey welcomes him inside, asking him questions about his personal history. The Creature reveals that the friends he has been referring to in their conversation are none other than De Lacey and his family, at which point the rest of the household returns home and chases away the Creature. From this moment onward, the Creature declares “everlasting war against the species [of men]” (104). The next day he approaches the cottage to find Felix conversing with men about payment of rent and his family’s need to depart in light of the horrific encounter with the Creature. Thoughts of revenge and fury swirl about in the Creature’s heart and he takes to the road in search of his Creator, recalling that Victor had once mentioned Geneva as the name of his hometown. When he reaches Geneva, he comes across a beautiful boy and desires to take hold of him so as to educate him to be his companion. But the boy screams and threatens to tell his father Frankenstein. Recognizing his name as belonging to his hateful Creator, the Creature strangles the boy to death. After the deed, he spots a beautiful portrait of a woman on the boy’s breast and, noticing a similarly beautiful woman pass by, decides to plant it into the folds of her dress. At the close of his story, the Creature beseeches his Creator to make him a female companion to allay his misery and control his vices. Victor is initially loath to the idea but consents to his demand when he promises to remove himself from master’s life for good.
Upon his return to Geneva, Victor is reluctant to set to work on his new task. His father expresses his desire that he and Elizabeth marry, to which Victor responds by reassuring him of their future union. Victor then arranges a journey to England with Clerval to complete his dreaded project. While Clerval is able to freely socialize with fellow men of distinguished learning, Victor finds that there is an “insurmountable barrier placed between [him] and [his] fellow-men” (123). One night in his laboratory, Victor suddenly grasps the wickedness of his actions and furiously destroys his soon-to-be second creation, vowing never to resume such endeavors again. Moments later, the Creature appears at the scene and is outraged by Victor’s rebellion. After some heated exchange, the Creature cries that Victor will rue his misdeeds and they will see each other again on his wedding night. Victor receives a letter from Clerval imploring him to “leave [his] solitary isle” (133) and to meet so that they can arrange plans. Before Victor is ready to depart, he decides to pack up his chemical instruments from his laboratory and cast
them into the sea. When he arrives onshore, he is coldly treated by the townspeople while one man in particular orders him to see Mr. Kirwin concerning the death of a gentleman the previous night. At the magistrate’s, several witnesses come forward to relate their discovery of the man, who had apparently been strangled to death. At the mention of the “black mark of fingers on his neck” (137), Victor becomes agitated to the notice of the magistrate. When Victor sees the corpse of Henry Clerval before him, a paroxysm of grief and guilt overcomes him. Sometime while he is held under the care of the prison nurses and the magistrate, Victor’s father pays him a visit to Victor’s delight. Eventually the charges against Victor are dropped and the two make their way home to Geneva. On multiple occasions Victor bemoans his culpability in the deaths of William, Justine, and Henry to the bewilderment of his father. When the two arrive in Paris, Victor receives a letter from Elizabeth, in which she speaks against their union, unless it were by his own free choice (147). A week later, when Victor and his father return to Geneva, Victor professes his desire to marry his cousin and the wedding date is set for ten days from thence. Despite their matrimonial bliss, as the day of the wedding passes into night, Victor becomes increasingly uneasy, recalling his creation’s threatening promise to be there on his wedding night. While he is pacing back and forth the inn, he hears a blood-curdling scream and traces it source to a room, in which he finds Elizabeth’s lifeless body. In the grip of despair, Victor looks up to find the Creature grinning back at him at the open window. He rushes at him with a pistol and calls on the assistance of nearby men to track down the Creature but to no avail. Soon upon returning to Geneva, Victor’s father passes away, overwhelmed with heartbreak. Victor desperately divulges all the details of his story to a local magistrate and requests aid in his pursuit. Dissatisfied with the man’s inaction and incredulousness, Victor takes off and resolves to do his own vengeful bidding, determined to destroy his creation at all costs. The obsessive chase takes Victor to the farthest extremes of the North Pole, at which Walton finds him and takes him into his company. Here Victor’s narration ends and Walton’s resumes. As Walton’s journey becomes increasingly infeasible, his ship nearly entrenched in ice, the crewmen begin to mutiny against Walton. Frankenstein rises to the occasion and delivers an impassioned oration in the vein of Dante’s Ulysses to spur the men to continue onward with their dangerous expedition. But unlike the fraudulent counselor, Walton does redirect the course of his ship homeward. Soon thereafter, the hapless former scientist succumbs to his ailing health; his dying words to Walton express an astonishing lack of remorse for his past actions (“nor do I find it blameable” p. 173) and advise the captain to avoid ambition, “[s]eek[ing] happiness in tranquility” (174). Walton later finds the Creature hovering over Frankenstein’s body. In contrast to Victor’s final words, the monster expresses extreme remorse for his sins and bids farewell to his creator. Resigning himself to a life of solitude, he escapes into the darkness, never to be seen again.
Themes and Issues
I apologize for the brevity of this analysis. Individualistic ambition versus human society In pursuit of his intellectual ambitions, Victor essentially extricates himself from human society, isolating himself in his laboratory in order to further his own individualistic aims. The Creature becomes an embodiment of Victor’s unnatural, individualistic excesses and thus literally destroys all ties that Victor has with humanity by murdering his family. Victor’s downfall can thus be read as a cautionary tale warning others of the social costs and dangers of seeking “ambition” (174) to the point of dehumanization. Such a conflict presents itself in Walton, a man who thirsts for knowledge and glory but simultaneously longs for human companionship. The Creature, another mirror of Victor, also exhibits this dualistic desire (but unlike Victor, human society is off-limits even from birth “Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings, who, pardoning my outward form, would love me…” p. 177).
Creator versus creation The moment that the Creature awakens and Victor acknowledges his existence as a being, a fellow subject of society (and not an object over which he has absolute control) is the moment that Victor becomes acutely aware of the social and moral ramifications of his actions. The creation leads a life independent to its creator and acquires its own social capital, which eventually overturns Victor’s position of power. The role reversal is elucidated when they meet again in England after Victor has torn apart the Creature’s female companion, the Creature cries out, “You are my creator, but I am your master, —obey!” (131). Is Victor responsible for his creation, however? Is his unrelenting guilt justifiable? On his deathbed, he claims he does not find his actions “blameable” (173), but as the man who has unleashed a force of destruction on society, is he not partly to blame? (Some questions I cannot answer and leave for you to ponder.) The Sublime in Nature The novel’s natural setting—the looming mountains, the illuminating flashes of lightning, the threatening icebergs— serves as a backdrop to amplify the aesthetic experience that is characteristic of the Gothic novel. Victor often finds solace in these scenes of sublimity, peaceably reminding him of the insignificance of man in relation to awesome nature: “The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind, and causing me to forget the passing cares of life” (70). Nature versus Nurture Is Frankenstein’s creation incorrigibly evil from birth? His account seems to suggest that he had been inherently good but became irreversibly evil after he was shunned by the pastoral family, likening himself to the fallen angel Lucifer: “I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion. But now vice has degraded me beneath the meanest animal…The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil”(177). But the forces of nature and nurture also seem to work together in shaping the Creature: “Evil thenceforth became my good. Urged thus far, I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen” (176).
Key Quotations and Passages
I apologize for the short list, but there are quotes scattered throughout this study guide.
It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils…How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe…Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of ap early whiteness; but these luxuriances seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion, and straight black lips. The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hardly for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I hd desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and the breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room… (37). See INDIVIDUALISTIC AMBITION VERSUS HUMAN SOCIETY, CREATOR VERSUS CREATION. By and far, the single most important passage in Frankenstein. The pivotal moment at which the creation becomes something independent of the creator and the point at which Frankenstein’s individualistic excesses are materialized in the Creature, who proceeds to sever Victor’s links to humanity. What do you mean? What do you demand of your captain? Are you then so easily turned from your design? Did you not call this a glorious expedition? …Return as heroes who have fought and conquered, and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe. (170) Victor’s impassioned oration, undoubtedly inspired by Dante’s Ulysses (Canto XXVI, The Inferno), to persuade Walton’s crew to continue forth with their dangerously ambitious voyage. Suggests that Frankenstein never really learned from his own unfortunate tale—moments later, he reflects on his life and finds that his actions were not “blameable” (173). The Creature’s final speech, on the other hand, is highly penitent and remorseful—has Victor’s sense of humanity (the Creature never loses his desire for humanity, as suggested by this speech) been ironically transferred onto his monstrous, “hideous progeny”?
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