Frankenstein Summary and Analysis
by Mary Shelley
Victor is tormented by the false calm that descends upon the Frankenstein household following the death of Justine. He is wracked with guilt; though he intended to further the cause of human happiness, he has ended in committing "deeds of mischief beyond description horrible." Victor's health suffers as a result of his massive sense of guilt and the bleak depression that accompanies it. His father, observing his misery, becomes ill as well.
The Frankenstein family, "blasted" as a result of their recent misfortunes, retires to their summer home at Belrive. There, Victor passes most of his hours in solitude; the fact that he must keep his role in William's death a secret makes the company of his family agonizing to him. He finds himself in extreme disharmony with the landscape of Belrive, which impresses him with its beauty and serenity. He often contemplates suicide, but is deterred by thoughts of Elizabeth's grief; he also fears the untold havoc his creature could wreak in his absence. Victor's hatred of the creature reaches pathological proportions, and takes on the character of an obsession; he thinks of nothing but his eventual revenge.
Elizabeth, too, is much changed by the tragedy; she has lost faith in the essential goodness of both humanity and the world as a whole. Now, men appear to her "as monsters thirsting after each other's blood." She does, however, persist in her fervent belief in Justine's innocence; she feels great pity for the man who must carry the guilt for William's murder on his conscience. Victor despairs when he hears her say this, as he feels that he is the man who must bear that guilt.
He seeks escape from his misery by traveling through the Alpine valley of Chamounix, in which he had often vacationed as a boy. Victor is awestruck by the overwhelming grandeur of the landscape, and views it as proof of the existence of an omnipotent god. The hard physical exercise exhausts him, and he is able to take refuge in sleep for the first time since the execution of Justine.
The reader cannot help but feel a certain ambivalence toward Victor's thoughts of suicide: while they reveal the magnitude and authenticity of his feelings of remorse, they also bespeak a certain selfishness. That he overcomes his desire to kill himself indicates that he is capable of mastering his self-absorption at least occasionally: his concern for his family, and for the suffering that the creature could cause humanity as a whole, keeps him from the "base desertion" of suicide.
In this chapter, we see the dramatic effect that nature has upon Victor's well-being and state of mind. He praises nature for what he calls its sublimity that is, for the way in which it stands beyond the scope of human control and comprehension. This awestruck admiration is bitterly ironic, in light of the fact that Frankenstein's agony was originally caused by his desire to master nature and unlock its secrets. Nature, for Frankenstein, reveals the existence of an all-powerful god the very god whose works he attempted to improve upon and replace.
Elizabeth's apprehension of men as bloodthirsty monsters is quite significant: it highlights the ambiguous moral status of both Frankenstein and his creature. Who, Shelley insistently asks, is the true monster? The creature whom Victor abandoned? Or Victor himself, who obsessively fantasizes about taking his violent revenge upon the monster he himself created?
Victor continues to wander aimlessly in the valley of Chamounix, taking great consolation in the magnificence of the natural landscape. At the same time, he notes that the landscape is characterized by disorder and destruction: the valley is plagued by constant avalanches, and it often seems that the mountains themselves will crash down on Victor's head.
Victor determines to climb to the top of Montanvert, one of the region's forbiddingly massive glaciers. The sight of the mountain fills him with a "sublime ecstasy"; he believes that human contemplation of natural wonders "gives wings to the soul and allows it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy." He is filled with melancholy as he ascends the mountain, however, and, amid rain and rockslides, meditates on the impermanence of all human dreams and attachments. When he has reached the summit, Victor invokes all the "wandering spirits" of the dead, and asks them to either permit him to be happy or carry him to his grave.
As if summoned by this call, the monster appears. Victor rains curses upon him and threatens to kill him, but the creature remains unmoved. He says that he is the most wretched and despised of all living things, and accuses his creator of a gross disregard for the sanctity of life: how else could Victor propose to murder a creature which owes its existence to him? The monster asks Frankenstein to alleviate his misery, and threatens to "glut the maw of death... with the blood of [Victor's] remaining friends" if he does not comply with his wishes.
The monster eloquently argues that he is intrinsically good, full of love and humanity; only the greatness of his suffering has driven him to commit acts of evil. Though he is surrounded by examples of human happiness, he finds himself excluded, through no fault of his own, irrevocably excluded from such bliss. He implores Frankenstein to listen to his story; only then should he decide whether or not to relieve the creature of his agony.
Victor's sojourn in the valley of Chamounix reveals his desire to escape the guilt he bears for the recent tragedies. There, he seeks oblivion in sleep, and in the bleakness of the glacial landscape. The chaos of that landscape, in which avalanches and rockslides are a constant threat, suggests that Victor's escape from his responsibility will be short-lived; it also foreshadows further tragedy.
The encounter between Victor and his creature is charged with Biblical allusions: like Adam, the creature has been forsaken by his creator. For him, Frankenstein occupies the position of the Christian god. The creature is also subtly aligned with the figure of Satan, or the devil: like him, he is a "fallen angel," grown brute and vicious in the absence of his god.
Shelley suggests that the creature's misdeeds are caused by the enormity of his suffering; at heart, he is essentially good and, more importantly, essentially human. If he is monstrous, no one but Frankenstein is to blame. When the outraged creature demands of his creator, "How dare you sport thus with life?," the question succinctly represents the sentiments of the reader and perhaps even of the author as well. Frankenstein, in his hypocrisy, longs to murder a being who owes its life to him. If the creature is, paradoxically, both inherently good and capable of evil, then his creator is as well.
The creature has only the vaguest memory of his early life: he recalls being assailed with sensory impressions, and was for a long time unable to distinguish among light, sound, and smell. He began to wander, but found the heat and sunlight of the countryside oppressive; he eventually took refuge in the forest near Ingolstadt, which offered him shade. The creature found himself tormented by hunger, thirst, and bodily pain. Only the light of the moon consoled him, and he grew to love the sound of birdsong. When he attempted to imitate it, however, he found the sound of his own voice terrifying, and fell silent again. With the same ecstatic astonishment that primitive man must have felt, the creature discovers fire.
All of the people that the creature encounters in his travels regard him with horror: he is often pelted with stones and beaten with sticks, though he attempts to make overtures of friendship. He finally comes upon a miserable hovel; this is attached to a cottage of poor but respectable appearance. Exhausted, he takes refuge there "from the inclemency of the weather and from... the barbarity of man." The creature, in observing the cottage's three inhabitants, contrives a great affection for the beauty and nobility of their faces. They an old man, a young man, and a young woman enthrall him with the sound of their music and the cadence of their language, which he adores but cannot understand.
This chapter is told from the creature's point of view. In this way, Shelley humanizes the creature: his first-person narration reveals him as a character of surprising depth and sensitivity. The reader becomes familiar with his trials and sufferings; we realize that, at the time of Frankenstein's abandonment, the creature was as innocent and defenseless as a human infant.
Like an infant, he is plagued by blurry vision, confusion of the senses, and an aversion to direct light: he experiences the world precisely as a young child would experience it. His syntax, as he begins describing his early life, is almost painfully simple. He is as yet incapable of interpreting or analyzing the world and his perceptions of it.
The creature's narrative voice is surprisingly gentle and utterly guileless: one of the most poignant moments in the novel is when the creature, despised by Victor and feared by the rest of mankind, collapses and weeps out of fear and pain.
In all of his encounters with humanity, the creature is met with horror and disgust. In the face of such cruelty, the reader cannot help but share the creature's fury and resentment: though he means no harm, his unbeautiful appearance is enough to make him a wretched outcast. He is, through no fault of his own, deprived of all hope of love and companionship; the reader thus slowly begins to sympathize with his desire to revenge himself on both his creator and on brutal humanity as a whole. As the novel progresses, we become more and more uncertain as to who is truly human, since the creature's first-person narration reveals both his own humanity and his creator's concealed monstrousness.
The creature begins by recalling his deep and tormenting desire to speak to the cottagers, who impress him with their gentleness and simplicity. He hesitates, however, as he is fearful of incurring the same kind of disgust and cruelty that he experienced at the hands of the villagers.
In observing the family, he discovers that they suffer from great poverty. The two young people are very generous with the old man, and often go hungry so that he might eat. The creature, greatly touched by this, ceases to take from their store of food, even though he is terribly hungry himself. He begins to cut their firewood for them, so that the young man, whose name is Felix, will no longer have to.
The creature spends the entire winter watching the cottagers, and grows to love each of them passionately. He attempts to learn their language, which he regards as "a godlike science." At first, he makes little progress. Every act of the cottagers, however banal, strikes him as miraculous: to watch them read aloud, or play music, or simply speak to one another, delights him immeasurably. Though he realizes that they are terribly unhappy, he cannot understand why: to him, the family seems to possess everything one could want: a roof, a fire, and the glories of human companionship.
Upon seeing his own reflection in a pool of water, the creature becomes even more certain that he will never know such happiness; he finds his own face to be monstrous, capable of inspiring only fear or disgust. Nonetheless, he dreams of winning the love of the cottagers by mastering their language; in this way can he reveal to them the beauty and gentleness of his soul.
This chapter details the creature's deep longing to join human society. He is, at first, utterly ignorant of the ways of humanity, and must learn everything from scratch. In essence, he is still a child, with all of a child's innocence and capacity for wonder. To him, the cottagers are god-like, blessed, despite the extreme humbleness of their existence.
In comparing himself to them, the creature feels himself to be a monster: he is shocked by his own reflection, and is nearly unable to accept it as his own. At the same time, he still dreams of acceptance into human society, and attempts to master language in order to inspire the family's affection and trust. The reader cannot help but pity the creature, and fear for him: we know too well that human society obstinately refuses to accept those who are different, regardless of the beauty of their souls. At chapter's end, the reader can only wait uneasily for the moment when the creature will present himself to his beloved family.
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