Summary of "Frankenstein" by Mary Godwin Shelly
by Christoph Champ, 13-Apr-1999
Every time I read this story (or novel) I find something new and interesting in it. There are so many dimensions: The surface, inside, throughout, and at a distance. I find it difficult that a girl of 19 could have written a story with such depth; she must have been inspired!
I have divided my summary into three chapters or subdivisions. The subdivisions are then further divided into theories. They are the following: Sources, Elements of Style, and Central Theme.
- 1 Sources
- 2 Elements of Style
- 3 Central Theme
- 4 Notes
I would imagine that Mary Shelly must have read a lot of books as a youth to write so complex a story that pulls into it some many different fields of story, history, and science. I would propose that some of the sources that Shelly used in this story were not consciously selected. However, each contributing resource made its way into the novel subtly and with artistry.
Theory of "Motherlessness"
I would say the influence of Mary Wollstonecraft's (Mary's mother) death upon Mary Shelly is seen by the virtual absence of strong women throughout the story. Victor's mother dies just before he leaves for the University of Ingolstadt. His stepsister and fiancée, Elizabeth, is orphaned due to the death of her mother in childbirth (and later father). Justine, the nursemaid of Victor’s brother, William Frankenstein, is wrongfully executed. Elizabeth herself is taken from the world on the threshold of her marriage.
The Creature is motherless as well. Victor in male pride takes the role of mother and father of his creation. The Creature witnesses the promise of femininity through the peek hole of a hovel but even in the DeLacey family the mother is absent. Is it any wonder that the Creature, motherless child that he is, yearns for one thing—female companionship?
Theory of Paternal Indifference
Shelly's story warns creators of all kinds to love their creations and to take the social effects of knowledge very seriously. While Victor admits his failure as a scientist, he never concedes the pathetic nature of his parenting.
Theory of the Elements of Romanticism
According to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, the term Romanticism means: " . . . Emotionally it was expressed in extreme assertion of the self and the value of individual experience, together with the sense of the infinite and transcendental. Socially it championed progressive causes, through when these were frustrated it often produced a bitter gloomy and despairing outlook. The stylistic keynote of Romanticism is Intensity, and its watchword is Imagination".
Shelly must have closely observed the scenery in which she traversed while in France, Germany, and Switzerland; the descriptions she uses, beautifully woven into the story, bring the reader to view this country through her eyes. I have traveled and lived in these countries; Mary Shelly does an excellent job in relating the beauties of this area of Europe.
Dogmatic Romanticism, from then till now, leaves in its wake heartbreak, suicide and sorrow. The fast and furious Romantic lifestyle was not suitable for maintaining a family. I see certain aspects of unconscious criticism of radicalism. Victor, as a youth, was on his Romantic quest for fire (knowledge) but left him burnt. Victor strove to be the best in his field as was left in the end with despair and disappointment.
It seems as if Shelly uses Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus as a subtle critique of the excesses in Romanticism, it is equally a critique on all ideologies of inflation whether scientific, religious or philosophical. I also see her exalting human pride at Nature's limitation.
Elements of Style
Theory of Gothic Presence
According to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, the term Gothic means: "Tales of the macabre, fantastic, and supernatural, usually set amid haunted castles, graveyards, ruins and wild picturesque landscapes. They reached the height of their considerable fashion in the 1790s and the early years of the 19th century".
I would say that there are Gothic elements to Shelley's novel. In common with these Gothic tales, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus made use of the connection between theme, character, and setting. One of the chief elements in the novel is the use of atmosphere to create mood. The icy mists of the Arctic and the bleak windswept alpine glacial fields are linked to the spiritual and social isolation of the Creature and its Creator. The image of the Creature's silhouette climbing the crags of Mount Blanc amid outgrowths of tree stumps illumined by the icy blue flash of lightning.
Not unlike Victor Frankenstein, Gothic heroes are trapped in gloom unable to appreciate the light of day—heroic in their rebellion yet pathetic in their destiny. Their pain and suffering exalt them above the collective and enshrine them in their excruciating settings. In order to depict the shadowside of her heroes, Shelly uses ghostly visitations—a mirror image of the self. Creator and Creator in Frankenstein are in reality one self-reflecting different sides of human personality.
In Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus the haunted Gothic castles and medieval trappings are replaced by experimental science and rationality.
Theory of Science Fiction Presence
According to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, the term Science Fiction means: "The current name for a class of prose narrative which assumes an imaginary technological or scientific advance, or depends on an imaginary and spectacular change in the human environment".
I would dare say that Shelley's story has inspired robotics sci-fi and even films such as The Terminator.
Shelley's classic defies strict categorization as either Gothic or Science Fiction. While containing elements of both, it moves beyond these genres and may be viewed as an argument against the Romanticism. In my opinion this story is very much 19th Century, yet can be applied to many aspects of our soon to be 21st Century society.
Theory of Symbols
Shelley's work has so many dimensions in using symbols. These symbols, I believe, are meant to be explored, not defined. What one interprets as the central theme of Shelley's Frankenstein will likely be different than that of another. I find no unquestionable meaning revealed by the text itself. Instead of defining any one theme, I would suggest that the story be explored critically and imaginatively so that the text can be seen in a multitude of ways. I am attempting to defend my lack of a comprehensive, yet condensed, summary of this work.
Theory of Scientific Theme
Was Shelly prophesying what modern science is morally finding today difficult to guard against the pride that accompanies technological or scientific knowledge?
In the story, Professor Waldman of Ingolstadt University links the power of science to metaphysical goals and aspirations. He declared that the scientific method had superseded theology or philosophy in yielding the truly miraculous. Science had in effect replaced spirituality as the means of the miraculous. In the words of Waldman: "The ancient teachers of this science . . . promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little . . . But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows".
Victor Frankenstein's downfall is when he realizes what possibilities modern science can unleash. He is so inflated and consumed with the knowledge of how to animate a human creature that he does not consider the morality of his actions. He is so absorbed in the minutia of his experiments that he creates each section of the Creature with care without considering the total effect. Deeply disappointed in the results of his experiment, Victor's enthusiasm turned to sheer terror when he realized what he had unleashed. The Scientist becomes The Hunted & The Haunted as a result of overstepping his boundaries.
Theory of Moral Education
This novel asks why and how do we create monsters that destroy innocent people? Shelley was making suggestions about how human nature unfolds in different contexts. Women, men, and monsters are educated through a similar process in the novel.
The young women in the story were rescued by Catherine Beaufort Frankenstein from lower class backgrounds. Elizabeth, rescued from the Italian peasantry, was educated toward domestic virtues that would enable her to be a fitting daughter, sister and wife. The same process of education is evident in Justine Moritz who was saved from the lower class as well. Justine was wrongfully accused of murder and executed. Elizabeth was the victim of the Creature, or, more accurately, was a victim of Victor's, perhaps, unmoral education. From a developmental viewpoint they were instructed toward passivity and set up for victimization. These are circumstances which would be beyond the educator's (or creator's) control and form character and destiny.
For the men, education was seen the means to a glorious reputation in some field: "Wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!".
The education of these men as well as Victor's friend, Clerval, involved cultural progress and mastery over the material world. In each case books played a significant part of their education. Walton bemoans the fact that he was self-educated and was reared on tales of the sea found in his uncle's library. Victor took his education into his own hands and read alchemical texts that put fantastic notions in his head.
Then there is the Creature's education and destiny. He was also self-taught. In describing his life experiences to his Creator the Creature recounts the progress of his intellect. Here again Shelley emphasizes progress, development and education as central themes in her novel.
The Creature learns through differentiation of the senses. The sensitive Creature learns through direct observation, from within a hut, of a loving family called the DeLacey's. His education is quite extensive—In some ways superior to Victor's and Walton's. He learned of history through Volney's Ruins of Empires. He overheard the lives of great humans in readings of Plutarch's Lives, and his theology was learned from Milton's classic, Paradise Lost.
Theory of Parent-Child Dynamics
The dynamics of doom are set up by the abhorrence of the parent (Frankenstein) for the child (the Creature). Instead of the expected adulation by his "offspring", he was immediately confronted with the Creature"s loathsomeness and his own responsibility.
Victor's entire venture was done in secret, in self-imposed isolation. Through his obsession he isolated himself from any form of community. While bringing his "child" into the world he was himself was alienated from society. Victor in essence experienced the burden of loneliness in parenting and didn’t have the character to cope with it.
Interestingly, the Creature, like all living beings, stands in awe and reverence toward the universe. As the moon moves through the sky he gazes in wonder. This Creature appreciates the love of the DeLacey family and is moved by higher culture as he develops. Sadly he is even rejected by the family that inadvertently modeled what love was. The beauty of their love only mocked his lonely existence and increased his pain.
The abandoned Creature finally set the terms of a truce with his Creator in an effort to establish justice. He will either be recompensed for his suffering existence through the creation of a mate or he will wreck his wrath on his Creator.
An unloved Creation is driven to wreck revenge on an indifferent Creator. Herein is the warning: love what you create or be utterly destroyed by it.
- Oxford Companion to English Literature
- Shelly, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, pp693
- Shelly, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus