Frankenstein Summary and Analysis
by Mary Shelley
On a chill night of November, Victor finally brings his creation to life. Upon the opening of the creature's "dull yellow eye," Victor feels violently ill, as though he has witnessed a great catastrophe. Though he had selected the creature's parts because he considered them beautiful, the finished man is hideous: he has thin black lips, inhuman eyes, and a sallow skin through which one can see the pulsing work of his muscles, arteries, and veins.
The beauty of Frankenstein's dream disappears, and the reality with which he is confronted fills him with horror and disgust. He rushes from the room and returns to his bedchamber. He cannot sleep, plagued as he is by a dream in which he embraces and kisses Elizabeth, only to have her turn to his mother's corpse in his arms.
He awakens late at night to find the creature at his bedside, gazing at him with a fond smile. Though the monster endeavors to speak to him, he leaps out of bed and rushes off into the night. He frantically paces the courtyard for the remainder of the night, and determines to take a restless walk the moment that morning comes.
While walking in town, Frankenstein sees his dear friend Henry Clerval alight from a carriage; overjoyed, he immediately forgets his own misfortunes. Clerval's father has at last permitted him to study at Ingolstadt; the two old friends shall therefore be permanently reunited. Henry tells Victor that his family is wracked with worry since they hear from him so rarely. He exclaims over Frankenstein's unhealthy appearance; Victor, however, refuses to discuss the details of his project.
Victor searches his rooms to make certain that the monster is indeed gone. The next morning, Henry finds him consumed with a hysterical fever. Victor remains bedridden for several months, under the assiduous care of Henry, who determines to conceal the magnitude of Victor's illness from his family. Once Victor can talk coherently, Henry requests that he write a letter, in his own handwriting, to his family at Geneva. There is a letter from Elizabeth that awaits his attention.
In this chapter, Victor's scientific obsession appears to be a kind of dream one that ends with the creature's birth. He awakens at the same moment that the creature awakens the moment the creature's eyes open, Frankenstein's own eyes are opened to the horror of his project. He is wracked by a sickness of both mind and body; this reflects the unnatural character of his endeavor, in which he attempted to take the place of god.
The narrator's sentences become abbreviated, abrupt, indicating his nervous, paranoid state. It is significant that Victor dreams of his mother and Elizabeth: as women, they are both "naturally" capable of creation (through giving birth). With their deaths, the natural creation and earthly virtue they represent dies as well. Victor's kiss is the kiss of death, and his marriage to Elizabeth is represented as being equivalent to both a marriage to his mother and a marriage with death itself.
At the moment of his birth, the creature is entirely benevolent: he affectionately reaches out to Frankenstein, only to have the latter violently abandon him. Despite his frightful appearance, he is as innocent as a newly-born child which, in a sense, is precisely what he is. Victor's cruel treatment of the creature stands in stark contrast to both his parents' devotion and Clerval's selfless care: he renounces his child at the moment of its birth. The reader begins to recognize the profoundly unethical character of Frankenstein's experiment and of Frankenstein himself.
Elizabeth's letter expresses concern for Victor's well-being and gratitude to Henry for his care. She relates local gossip and recent family events. The family's most trusted servant, Justine Moritz, has returned to the family after being forced to care for her estranged mother until the latter's death. Victor's younger brother, Ernest, is now sixteen years old and aspires to join the foreign service; his other brother, William, has turned five and is doing marvelously well. Elizabeth implores Victor to write, and to visit, as both she and his father miss him terribly. Frankenstein is seized by an attack of conscience and resolves to write to them immediately.
Within a fortnight (two weeks), Victor is able to leave his chamber. Henry, after observing his friend's distaste for his former laboratory, has procured a new apartment for him and removed all of his scientific instruments. Introducing Clerval to Ingolstadt's professors is pure torture, in that they unfailingly exclaim over Victor's scientific prowess. Victor, for his part, cannot bear the praise, and allows Henry to convince him to abandon science for the study of Oriental languages. These along with the glorious melancholy of poetry provide Frankenstein with a much-needed diversion.
Summer passes, and Victor determines to return to Geneva at the end of autumn. Much to his dismay, his departure is delayed until spring; he is, however, passing many marvelous hours in the company of Clerval. They embark on a two-week ramble through the countryside, and Victor reflects that Henry has the ability to call forth "the better feelings of his heart"; the two friends ardently love one another.
Slowly, Victor is returning to his old, carefree self. He takes great joy in the natural world, and is able to forget his former misery. The two are in high spirits upon their return to university.
With Elizabeth's letter, we realize how utterly Victor has been cut off from the outside world. His narration of his first two years at Ingolstadt mentions few proper names, and concerns itself not at all with anyone else. The reader realizes how much time has passed, and how much has changed in faraway reader. We learn the names of Victor's brothers, and of the existence of Justine. Elizabeth's relation to Justine is much like Caroline's relation to Elizabeth: she cares for the less fortunate girl and heaps praise upon her, calling her "gentle, clever, and extremely pretty."
Justine's history, however, illustrates two of the novel's darker themes: the inevitability of atoning for one's sins, on the one hand, and the kind of suffering that atonement entails, on the other. Justine's cruel mother could not bear her, and had her sent away; after Justine's departure, her cherished children died, one by one, and left her utterly alone. She therefore had to rely upon Justine to care for her on her deathbed. This amply illustrates the code of justice propounded by the novel: one must always pay for one's cruelty, and pay with the thing that one holds most dear.
Victor's abandonment of science and natural philosophy is illustrative of his irrational attempt to deny that the events of the past two years have ever occurred. Victor seems to truly believe that he is impervious to harm: he does not pursue his lost creature, but goes about his life at university with supreme carelessness. He takes up languages and poetry two things in which he has never before shown the slightest interest and attempts to forget all that has come before. Victor thus displays a highly questionable relationship to reality: unless directly confronted by his mistakes, he refuses to acknowledge that he has made them at all. He is exceedingly weak, as his prolonged illness (which was both mental and physical) makes clear.
Ending the chapter at the height of springtime, Shelley emphasizes Victor's wish to be reborn. The reader, however, already knows that such a wish is entirely in vain.
At Ingolstadt, Victor and Henry receive a letter from Victor's father: William, Victor's youngest brother, has been murdered. While on an evening walk with the family, the boy disappeared; he was found dead the following morning. On the day of the murder, Elizabeth had allowed the boy to wear an antique locket bearing Caroline's picture. Upon examining the corpse, Elizabeth finds the locket gone; she swoons at the thought that William was murdered for the bauble. She comes to blame herself for his death. Victor's father implores him to come home immediately his presence will help to soothe the ravaged household. Clerval expresses his deepest sympathies, and helps Victor to order the horses for his journey.
On the way to Geneva, Victor becomes seized by an irrational fear. Certain that further disaster awaits him at home, he lingers for a few days at Lausanne. Summoning all his courage, he sets out again. Victor is moved to tears at the site of his native city, since his estrangement from it has been so prolonged. Despite his joy at being reunited with Geneva, his fear returns. He arrives at night, in the midst of a severe thunderstorm. Suddenly, a flash of lightning illuminates a figure lurking among the skeletal trees; its gigantic stature betrays it as Frankenstein's prodigal creature. At the sight of the "demon," Victor becomes absolutely certain that he is William's murder only a monster could take the life of so angelic a boy.
Victor longs to pursue the creature and warn his family of the danger he represents. He fears that he will be taken for a madman if he tells his fantastic story, however, and thus resolves to keep silent.
At the Frankenstein estate, Victor is greeted with a certain melancholy affection. His brother, Ernest, relates a piece of shocking news: Justine, the family's trusted maidservant, has been accused of William's murder. The missing locket was found on her person on the night of the murder. The family particularly Elizabeth passionately believes in her innocence, and avers that their suffering will only be magnified if Justine is punished for the crime. They all dread Justine's trial, which is scheduled to take place at eleven o'clock on the same day.
The account of William's death is written in highly disjointed language: the sentences are long and frequently interrupted by semicolons, as though each thought is spilling into another. This indicates the magnitude of the distress felt by the narrator's father as he writes. Letters, in general, play a central role in the novel: it begins and ends with a series of letters, and many important details of plot and character are related through them. They enable Shelley (who has, for the most part, committed herself to Victor's first-person narration) to allow the voices of other characters to interrupt and alter Victor's highly subjective account of the novel's events.
Victor's reaction to the letter reveals a great deal about his character. Though he is wracked with grief, his thoughts soon turn to his own anxiety at returning to his home after so long an absence. His self-absorption begins to seem impenetrable to the reader. Victor's uneasiness also foreshadows the moment of horror that greets him at Geneva; the reader has come to share his distress, and is thus as horrified as he by what the lightning illuminates.
The lightning storm that greets Victor is a staple of Gothic narrative it necessarily reminds one of the classical (not to say clichéd) preamble to any ghost story: "It was a dark and stormy night..." It also reflects the state of imbalance and chaos in which Victor finds his family. Though William's murder is described as taking place on an idyllic day in spring, it is chill and stormy when Victor arrives shortly thereafter.
Upon seeing the creature through Frankenstein's eyes, the reader is inclined to jump to the same conclusion that he does. Victor's hatred of the creature reaches an almost hysterical pitch in this scene, as is indicated by his diction: he refers to his creation as a "deformity," a "wretch," a "filthy demon." The reader, too, immediately wishes to blame the creature even though we have no real grounds for doing so. The reader is thus made subtly complicit with the creature's outcast state.
Victor's decision to keep the monster's existence a secret in order to preserve his reputation reveals him as both selfish and foolhardy. A child has been killed, and a monster brought to life: in a world so severely out of balance, Frankenstein's reputation ought be the furthest thing from his mind.
The trial commences the following morning. Victor is extremely apprehensive as to what the verdict will be: he is tortured by the thought that his "curiosity and lawless devices" will cause not only one death, but two. He mournfully reflects that Justine is a girl of exceptional qualities, destined to lead an admirable life; because of him, her life will be cruelly foreshortened. Victor briefly considers confessing to the crime himself, but realizes that, as he was at Ingolstadt on the night of the murder, his confession would be dismissed as the ravings of a madman.
In court, Justine stands calmly before her accusers; her solemn face lends her an exquisite beauty. The prosecutor brings forth a number of witnesses, who provide compelling evidence against her: she was out for the whole night on which the murder was committed; she was seen near to the spot where the body was found; when questioned, she gave a confused and unintelligible answer; and she became hysterical at the sight of William's body. The most damning piece of evidence, however, is the fact that William's miniature, which he had been wearing at the time of the murder, was found in the pocket of Justine's dress.
Justine, called to the witness stand, provides another account of the events: with Elizabeth's permission, she had passed the night of the murder at her aunt's house in Chêne. Upon hearing of William's disappearance, she spent several hours searching for him; unable to return home, as it had grown too late, she determined to spend the night in a nearby barn. Justine says that if she was near the body, she did not know it; her confusion was only a manifestation of her tiredness. She remains unable to explain how the picture came to be on her person; she can only assume that the murderer himself placed it there.
Though few witnesses are willing to come forth to aver Justine's innocence, Elizabeth insists on speaking on the girl's behalf. She praises Justine's character, and says that she was beloved by the entire Frankenstein family; Elizabeth, for he part, will never believe that Justine is guilty. Despite this brave display of loyalty, Justine is condemned to death. Victor considers Justine's plight to be less than his own she is consoled by the fact of her own blamelessness, while he must live with his guilt.
Shockingly, Justine confesses to the murder, and expresses a wish to see Elizabeth, who asks Victor to accompany her. Justine tells them that she confessed to a lie in order to obtain absolution and avoid excommunication in her last moments. She does not fear death, and nobly spends her last moments in comforting Elizabeth and Victor. This only serves to heighten Victor's anguish, and he reflects that Justine and William are the first victims of his "unhallowed arts."
The minute attention paid to Justine's appearance, history, and speech only serves to heighten the sympathy felt by the reader. Her impassive countenance recalls that of a fragile doll: like a doll, she is a mere plaything, a pawn whose fate is entirely beyond her control. Throughout Chapter 8, the sentences are confused, and semicolons are frequently used to connect disjointed thoughts. In this way, Shelley indicates the magnitude of the chaos that has befallen the Frankenstein household: they have lost all control over both the present and the future, and are even unable to organize their own thoughts.
Though the reader might be tempted to hold Victor responsible for the verdict, this is an overly simplistic view of events. Frankenstein's decision to conceal the truth is terribly misguided; Shelley, however, gives us no indication that he does this in order to absolve himself of guilt. "Fangs of remorse" tear at him, and, in his own heart at least, he bears the guilt for both William's murder and Justine's execution. He can share his terrible secret with no one, and is thus utterly isolated, an outcast from human society.
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