Frankenstein Summary and Analysis
by Mary Shelley
At the outset of spring, a stranger an exquisitely beautiful young woman of exotic appearance appears at the family's cottage. Felix is ecstatic to see her, kisses her hands, and refers to her as his "sweet Arabian"; later, the creature learns that her true name is Safie.
The creature notes that her language is different from that of the cottagers, and that the four humans have great difficulty in understanding one another. They communicate largely through gesticulation, which the creature is initially unable to interpret; he soon realizes, however, that the cottagers are attempting to teach Safie their language. He secretly takes part in her lessons and, in this way, finally begins to master the art of speech.
The book from which Safie's lessons are taken, called the Ruins of Empires, provides the creature with a cursory knowledge of history. He grows to understand the manners, governments, and religions of modern Man, and weeps over the atrocities that human beings commit against one another. Upon hearing of man's obsession with wealth and class, the creature turns away in disgust; he wonders what place he can have among such people, since he owns no property, and is absolutely ignorant of the circumstances of his birth.
The creature curses his newfound knowledge, which has caused him to regard himself as a monster and an outcast. He despairs of ever gaining the fellowship of his beloved cottagers, as he is certain that they will recoil from his hideous appearance. At chapter's end, he is friendless, loveless, and almost completely without hope.
The language of Chapter 13 is extremely baroque, and lends the landscape a romantic, unreal quality: skies are described as "cloudless"; there are "a thousand scents of delight, and a thousand sights of beauty"; Safie is not merely brunette, but has "shining raven hair." This sort of diction elevates seemingly ordinary events to the level of the spectacular: it reveals the extent to which the creature idealizes the cottagers and all that is associated with them. He worships them, and longs for their love and acceptance. The creature's essential humanity now becomes clear to the reader: he feels sympathy, affection, and desire; he is capable of aesthetic appreciation (as we see in his enjoyment of the family's music); he has mastered language; and he is capable of self-analysis and reflection.
In referring to the Ruins of Empires, Shelley subtly reminds the reader of the ways in which humanity itself is monstrous: people commit unspeakable violence against one another, and exploit those who do not possess the trivial virtues of money and noble birth. The creature's horror at these revelations reveals his essential goodness; it also serves to echo the terrified disgust with which the villagers met his own deformity. Once again, Shelley forces us to reconsider the question of monstrousness here, it seems that it is the neglectful and selfish Frankenstein, and not his suffering creation, who truly deserves to be called a monster.
With the creature decrial of his own knowledge, he and Frankenstein become more closely allied in the reader's mind indeed, they are nearly indistinguishable. Both creator and creation are made outcasts by what they know; both long for nothing so passionately as they do their former innocence.
Some time elapses before the creature learns the family's history. Their surname is De Lacey, and they are the last of a noble French family. Only a few months previously, they had lived in Paris; there, they were surrounded by luxury and a glittering coterie of friends and intimates. They had, however, suffered a great misfortune, which forced them to go into exile.
The cause of this unhappy upheaval was Safie's father, a wealthy Turkish merchant who had been unjustly imprisoned by the Parisian government. All of Paris knew that racism, and a hatred of the merchant's Islamic faith, were the true cause of his incarceration. Felix, appalled by this injustice, went to the merchant's cell and vowed to do everything in his power to liberate him. To encourage the young man, the merchant promised Felix the hand of his beautiful daughter in marriage. The two young people fell in love immediately upon seeing one another, and eagerly looked forward to their union.
The merchant, however, loathed the idea of his cherished daughter marrying a Christian, and conceived a plan to betray Felix and take his daughter with him to Turkey. Safie, for her part, did not wish to return to her native land: her mother had been a Christian, and she longed for the greater freedom enjoyed by women in the countries of Europe.
Felix freed the merchant the night before his scheduled execution. As Felix was conducting the two fugitives across the French countryside, the French government threw Agatha and the elder De Lacey into prison. Felix, hearing of this, immediately decided to return to France, and asked the merchant to lodge Safie in Italy until such time as he could meet her there.
In Paris, the De Laceys were stripped of their ancestral fortune and condemned to live in exile for the rest of their lives. The treacherous merchant did nothing to help them, and in this way did the De Laceys come to live in the miserable German cottage in which the creature had found them.
The merchant, afraid of being apprehended, was forced to suddenly flee Italy. In her father's absence, Safie promptly decided to travel to Germany, where she was reunited with her lover.
The creature introduces this chapter as "the history of my friends"; it reveals his deep attachment to the family, and the meticulous attention he paid to every word they said. He tells Frankenstein that he transcribed the letters that Felix and Safie exchanged, and wrote down the family's story in order to remember it more exactly; it is clear that he regards the history of the world and the history of the De Laceys as being equally important.
The De Laceys' story illustrates both the goodness and evil of which mankind is capable more importantly, it shows the way in which each person may be capable of both good and evil. Felix's strong sense of justice leads him to aid the merchant; his love for his family draws him back to Paris, despite the fact that he knows that he will face a stiff punishment. By contrast, the merchant who is himself a victim of bigotry and hatred betrays the man who risked his life to help him. The creature thus encounters the two contrary aspects of human nature.
Of course, Shelley's representation of the Muslim merchant as lying and duplicitous is itself an example of nineteenth-century racism. By the same token, Safie's nobility of spirit is presumed to come from her Christian mother; the underlying assumption here is that Muslims, and Turks, are not capable of human kindness.
From the history of the cottagers, the creature learns to admire virtue and despise vice. His education is greatly furthered by his discovery of an abandoned leather satchel, in which he finds three books: Milton's Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. He regards these books as his treasures, and they are of infinite importance to him: they alternately transport him to the highest ecstasy and cause him the most crushing despair.
The creature is enthralled with Werther's meditations upon death and suicide; with Plutarch's elevated regard for the heroes of past generations; and with the grand themes presented in Paradise Lost. He reads all of the books as though they were true histories, and regards Milton's story of the struggle between God and his creations as completely factual. In his mind, the biblical story defines his own. He does not see himself as Adam, however, but as Satan: unlike Adam, he is alone, without a Creator to protect him or an Eve to sustain him. He is full of envy, wretched, and utterly an outcast.
Soon after the discovery of the satchel, the creature finds Frankenstein's laboratory journal; from it, he learns the circumstances of his creation. He curses his creator and the day he received life; he grieves over his own hideousness and despairs of ever finding human companionship. The creature bitterly reflects that even Satan is more fortunate than he at least Satan has fellow devils to console him. He, by contrast, has no one; his increasing knowledge only serves to make him more aware of his wretchedness. He is, however, still able to retain his hope that the cottagers will recognize his virtues and overlook his deformity if only he can bring himself to speak to them.
With the arrival of winter, the creature finally determines to speak to the cottagers: he reasons that he is not unworthy of love and kindness, and that the De Laceys are compassionate enough to offer it to him. He decides to speak to the senior De Lacey at a time when the other cottagers are away. The old man, who is blind, will be better able to appreciate the mellifluousness of his speech and the genuine goodwill in his heart; the young people, by contrast, would be horrified at the very sight of him. He hopes to gain their trust by first gaining that of their respected elder.
Though the creature's dread of rejection nearly paralyzes him, he at last summons all of his courage and knocks upon the De Laceys' door. After a fraught silence, the creature bares his soul to the old man: he tells him that he is a wretched outcast, and that the De Laceys are his only friends in all the world. De Lacey is astonished, but Safie, Felix, and Agatha burst into the cottage before he can reply to the creature's entreaty. The women scream in terror, and Felix, in a "transport of fury," violently beats the creature with his walking stick. The creature, his heart still full of love for the De Laceys, cannot bring himself to retaliate. Instead, he flees the cottage and takes refuge in his hovel.
The creature's discovery of the satchel of books is one of the most significant events in the novel. The Sorrows of Young Werther and Paradise Lost are arguably two of the greatest books in the history of world literature: they thus serve as examples of the highest beauty which mankind is capable of producing. Similarly, Plutarch's Lives exalts the work of heroes, thereby providing another illustration of human virtue and accomplishment.
While the satchel furthers the creature's knowledge of civilization, and of the triumphs and sufferings of men, it also, in his own words, teaches him to "admire the virtues and deprecate the vices of mankind." One might describe this as a moral education; that is, the creature comes to distinguish between good and evil, and to look upon the former as preferable to the latter. Paradise Lost is the most important of the three books with regard to the creature's burgeoning morality. Milton's poem concerns itself with the struggle between God and the Devil, which is, at least in the Western imagination, the most important, most epic battle between the forces of good and evil.
The fact that the creature regards the books (all of which are fictional) as true histories illustrates that his childlike credulity and innocence has survived his early suffering. And yet, the books themselves shatter that innocence: through them, he feels the tragedy of his predicament for the first time. He feels himself to be forsaken, and cannot decide if he is most like Adam or most like Satan: he decides upon the latter because he is so much an outcast, completely without guidance or protection.
The struggle between good and evil described in Paradise Lost is also an allegory for the struggle within each human being, and within the creature himself. At this point in the novel, warring impulses vie with one another for the creature's soul: will he behave as a man, or as a monster?
By the end of the chapter, the reader is not certain which of his impulses will prevail. As Felix is mercilessly beating him, the creature is unable to lift his hand against him: in this way, Shelley indicates the creature's innate humanity. If he later behaves as a monster, the reader cannot help but understand why: he has been terribly abused and reviled by those people whom he loved and trusted best. Despite his essential goodness, he is hated and so he can only hate mankind in return.
The creature curses his creator for giving him life. Only his great rage, and his consuming desire for revenge, keeps him from taking his own life: he longs to "spread havoc and destruction around [him], and then to [sit down] and enjoy the ruin."
He falls upon the ground in utter despair and, at that moment, declares war upon all mankind for its callousness and cruelty. He vows to exact revenge upon his creator the man who "sent [him] forth into this insupportable misery."
With the arrival of morning, the creature allows himself to hope that all is not lost: perhaps he can still endear himself to the elder De Lacey, and thereby make peace with his children. When he returns to the cottage, however, he finds it empty. He waits, tortured by anxiety, until Felix finally appears in the company of a strange man. From their conversation, he learns that the De Laceys have determined to leave the cottage out of fear that he (the creature) will return.
The creature cannot believe that his protectors, his only connection to humanity, have abandoned him. He spends the remains of the day in his hovel, by turns weeping and feverishly contemplating the revenge he will take upon mankind. By morning, he is overcome with fury, and burns down the cottage in order to give vent to his anger.
The creature decides to travel to Geneva in order to revenge himself upon his creator.
The journey is long and arduous, and the weather has grown bitterly cold. Though he primarily travels by night, in order to avoid discovery, he permits himself to travel during daylight on one of the first days of spring. The new warmth soothes him, and the sunlight revives some of his former gentleness. For a few precious moments, the creature "dares to be happy."
At length, a young girl comes running through the forest, and he hides himself beneath a cypress tree. As he watches, she suddenly stumbles and falls into the rapidly moving water; the creature, without thinking, leaps in and rescues her from certain death. As he is attempting to revive her, a peasant (presumably the girl's father) snatches the girl away from him, and shoots the creature when he attempts to follow. The creature bitterly contemplates this "reward for [his] benevolence," and is seized with a new, even greater hatred of humanity.
Shortly thereafter, he arrives in Geneva. Once again, a child runs past his hiding-place in the deep woods. The creature is much taken with the beautiful child, and speculates that he is still too young to feel hatred for his deformity. He seizes the boy's arm as he runs past; the child screams in terror and struggles to get away. He calls the creature a "hideous monster," and says that his father, M. Frankenstein, will punish him. Upon hearing the name of Frankenstein, the creature, enraged, strangles him. He feels a "hellish triumph" at the boy's death, and reflects that his despised creator is not, after all, invulnerable.
The creature takes the necklace, as he finds the picture of Caroline exquisitely beautiful. At the same time, the image fills him with redoubled fury, for no one will ever look upon him with the divine kindness he sees in Caroline's eyes.
Seeking a hiding place, he enters a nearby barn and finds Justine sleeping within. Her beauty, too, both transports him to ecstasy and fills him with bitter despair, since he will never know the pleasures of love. Suddenly terrified that she will awake and denounce him as a murderer, he places the portrait of Caroline in Justine's dress: she, not he, will suffer punishment for the murder. In his madness, the creature thinks that it is the inaccessible beauty of people like Justine that caused him to kill William; it is thus only fair that she should atone for the crime.
At the end of his tale, the creature commands Frankenstein to make him a companion "of the same species and of the same defects," so that he will no longer be so miserably alone.
The idea of fire is pivotal to Chapter 16. When the creature sets the cottage on fire, it is as though he were giving vent to "the hell he [bears] within [himself]" a hell that hearkens back to that described by Milton in Paradise Lost, as we saw in the previous chapter. The fire consumes the cottage with its "forked and destroying tongues"; this image alludes to both the fires of hell and the forked tongue of Satan, who took the form of a snake when he appeared to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The weather both reflects and determines the creature's mental state: when the De Laceys abandon him, it is winter, and the countryside is barren and desolate. The heavens pour rain and snow, and violent winds ravage the landscape: these natural phenomena serve as symbols for the fury that the creature intends to unleash upon the world. With the arrival of spring, he finds himself filled with joy and benevolence. His encounter with the girl and her father is thus bitterly ironic: at a moment in which the creature permits himself to be happy, and to hope for an end to his sufferings, he is once more confronted with people's unreasoning horror of him. The fact that he saves the child from certain death indicates that, at least at this moment, he still has sympathy for mankind; if he loses it afterwards, the reader can scarcely blame him.
It is important to note that the creature's murder of William and mistreatment of Justine are the result of his longing for human connection. Upon seeing William, he wishes to keep the boy as his companion; the sight of Justine fills him with love and desire. He can have neither of them; neither is willing to overlook his external ugliness. It is therefore only fitting that he should end his tale by asking Frankenstein to make him a female companion, since all of his crimes arise out of his crushing loneliness. Shelley seems to suggest that isolation so total would drive anyone mad; the creature thus cannot be held responsible for his actions.
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