Frankenstein Summary and Analysis
by Mary Shelley
Victor is brought before the magistrate, and several witnesses testify against him. The victim, a young man of about twenty-five years of age, was found by a crew of local fishermen. When Victor hears that the victim was strangled, he trembles with anxiety; this, he knows, is his creature's preferred modus operandi.
Seeing Frankenstein's agitation, Mr. Kirwin, the magistrate, suggest that Victor be shown the body, so that the tribunal might judge his reaction. Frankenstein is well composed as they conduct him toward the room in which the body has been laid; he has an unassailable alibi for the time that the body was found. When he walks into the chamber, he is overcome with horror: the lifeless form of Henry Clerval lies before him. Frankenstein throws himself upon the body, and becomes almost mad with grief and guilt; he is carried from the room in convulsions.
For two months, Victor lies in a delirium of fever and confusion. He cries out that he is a murderer, and begs his attendants to aid him in apprehending the monster. He often imagines that he feels the hands of the monster closing about his neck, and starts from his bed in an agony of terror.
Victor longs for death, and finds his ability to survive such an epidemic of tragedies bitterly ironic. He concludes that he was, after all, "doomed to live."
When Victor finally emerges from his delirium, he finds that a grim-faced old woman has been attending upon his sickbed. She tells him that he will be sorely punished for the murder that he has committed, and would be better off dead; she seems to take pleasure in her own hatefulness and cruelty. The physician who is sent to examine Victor is equally careless and unfeeling. Victor bitterly reflects that now only the executioner is concerned with his well-being.
Frankenstein learns that Mr. Kirwin alone has shown him great kindness during his sickness; it is he who provided Victor with his sickroom and doctor. The magistrate visits him and expresses confidence that he will be cleared of all responsibility for the murder. He tells Victor that "a friend" has come to see him; thinking that it is the monster, Victor begs to have him sent away. Mr. Kirwin, much taken aback by this outburst, sternly informs him that the visitor is his father; at this, Victor is overjoyed.
He immediately asks after the safety of Elizabeth and Ernest, and the elder Frankenstein assures him they are all well. At the mention of Clerval, Victor weeps and exclaims that a horrid destiny hangs over his head.
His father's presence is "like that of a good angel" for Victor, and he slowly begins to regain his health. He often wishes that he were dead, but imagines that it is some dark force that keeps him alive, so that his evil destiny might be fulfilled.
Though Victor is cleared of all criminal charges, as "the cup of life [is] poisoned forever." His father tries in vain to cheer him, but Victor suffers from an insuperable melancholy. He is under constant observation, so as to keep him from taking his own life.
At length, Victor determines to triumph over "selfish despair," so that he might return to Geneva to protect his remaining family. Though the elder Frankenstein wishes to postpone the journey until his son has recovered from his melancholy, Victor will not be dissuaded. He cannot sleep without the aid of laudanum (a tranquilizer), and is frequently tormented by nightmares in which he is strangled by his creature.
There is a certain irony in Victor's being cleared of murder. On the one hand, he does bear some of the responsibility for Henry's death, insofar as it was he who created the monster; on the other, he was committing murder (of a kind) on the night in question. Recall that he was disposing of the female creation's remains at sea while the monster was strangling his friend. It might be said that Victor murdered that second creature; Henry's death can thus be regarded as his punishment for doing so.
The secret of the creature's existence is becoming too much for Victor to bear; he accuses himself of murder (albeit while in a semiconscious state) and tells his father that there is a nightmarish destiny which he has yet to fulfill. Victor longs to supercede the barrier of secrecy that has been erected between him and the rest of humanity. Here, we can see that he has forsaken his former selfishness: though he often longs for death, he forces himself to overcome this self-serving impulse in the hopes of keeping his surviving family from harm.
The death of Clerval serves as a symbol for the death of the last of Frankenstein's romantic idealism. It was Henry who helped to focus Victor's attentions on the world beyond the purview of science; it was he who enabled Victor to delight in the simple pleasures of nature. Victor is now deprived of even that joy, since he no longer has the privilege of seeing the world through Clerval's eyes. With each new murder, a piece of Frankenstein dies as well. He becomes increasingly broken, and is tormented by hysterical fits and fevers. Each of his attempts to withdraw into death or madness is thwarted, however: Victor is "doomed" to stay alive until his destiny has been completed.
Victor and his father are forced to stop in Paris, as Victor has grown too weak to continue the journey. The elder Frankenstein urges him to take solace in society. Victor, however, cannot bring himself to comply: the company of people is abhorrent to him. Though he is full of a great and indiscriminate love for humanity, feeling them to be "creatures of an angelic nature and celestial mechanism," he does not feel himself worthy of sharing in their intercourse. He has created a being who delights in bloodshed, and thus deserves only abhorrence and hatred.
Victor tells his father that he is the true engineer of all the catastrophes that have befallen them, but Alphonse attributes his confession to delirium. When his father begs him not to say such dreadful things, Victor replies that he would gladly have died in their place, but that he could not sacrifice all humankind to save those whom he loved. At length, Frankenstein is able (albeit through "the utmost self-violence") to control his desire to declare his guilt to the world.
He receives a letter from Elizabeth, who says that she is longing to see him. She expresses regret that he has suffered so terribly, and tells him that if his unhappiness is related in any way to their impending marriage, she will gracefully leave him to the arms of another.
Victor is reminded of the creature's threat to be with him on his wedding night. He decides that if the creature succeeds in murdering him, he will at last be at peace; if, on the other hand, he triumphs, he will be able to enjoy both freedom and life with Elizabeth.
As Frankenstein wants desperately to please both Elizabeth and his father, he decides that he will not delay the marriage any longer than is necessary: after all, the creature has demonstrated, by the murder of Clerval, that he will not be kept from violence before the fateful wedding.
At Geneva, he finds Elizabeth much changed by all that is happened. She has lost the vivacity of her youth, but Victor regards her, in her new compassion and gentleness, as an even more fitting companion "for one so blasted and miserable" as he.
He often feels that he will succumb to madness; at these times, only Elizabeth can soothe him. Frankenstein promises her that he will reveal the reason for his misery on the day after their wedding.
His father urges him to let go of his unhappiness. Though their circle has grown small, it will be bound more closely together by mutual misfortune, and, in time "new objects of affection" will be born to replace what has been lost.
Victor and Elizabeth look forward to their union with both pleasure and apprehension. The necessary preparations are made, and the couple determines to honeymoon on the shores of Lake Como, in Italy. Victor takes a number of precautions to protect both himself and his beloved; he becomes accustomed to carrying pistols and daggers about his person wherever he goes.
As the wedding-day approaches, the threat seems to be almost a delusion; Victor allows himself to believe that the marriage will actually take place, and that he will at last know happiness. Elizabeth seems cheerful, but is seized with melancholy on the day that the wedding is to take place. Victor now regards her sadness as a presentiment of evil, and imagines that she was apprehensive to discover the reason for his misery.
All is perfect on their wedding day. It is to be the last happy day in Victor's life. As they land on the shores of Como, both Elizabeth and Victor are overcome by a sense of inexplicable foreboding.
The hastiness of Victor's wedding is indicative of his frantic desire to create an illusion of order and tranquility for his family. The narrator vows not to "delay the moment a single hour." His urgency fills the reader with an almost unbearable apprehension, since we realize that Victor is hurtling toward the consummation of his horrible destiny. For Alphonse and Elizabeth (and even, to some extent, for Victor himself), the event appears to be a means of safeguarding the future. Elizabeth and Alphonse cling to the idea of the marriage as to a raft at sea; they hope to salvage something of happiness from the senseless and unremitting tragedy.
Elizabeth, for her part, finds her joy commingled with an inexplicable foreboding of misfortune; in this way, Shelley foreshadows her doom. Victor seems to have temporarily lost the ability to reason; the decision to marry despite the creature's threat is nearly mad in its recklessness. In telling the story to Walton, he remarks that the creature "as if possessed of magic powers... had blinded him [Victor] to his real intentions." By this point in the novel, the creature has taken on supernatural proportions: it is as though he were the unleashed wrath of hell itself. Thus the earthly weapons that Frankenstein carries to protect himself against the creature seem futile in the extreme.
Significantly, Frankenstein compares himself and Elizabeth to Adam and Eve. He says that his "paradisiacal dreams of love and joy" are dashed by the realization that "the apple was already eaten, and the angel's arm bared to drive [him] from all hope." This Biblical allusion has a number of ramifications. The apple of which Eve ate came from the Tree of Knowledge, which God had forbidden them to touch; it was for their curiosity that the first people were cast out of Paradise. Similarly, Frankenstein's misfortune befell him as a result of his overweening scientific curiosity and his desire to defy the work of God.
Frankenstein is aligned with both Adam and Eve, and, implicitly, with the creature himself: recall that the creature briefly compared himself to Adam during his reading of Paradise Lost. Strangely, this metaphor also serves to put the creature in the place of both God and the angel he is thus positioned as the creator of Frankenstein himself. Their roles are now utterly reversed.
Night has fallen by the time Victor and Elizabeth land on the shores of Como. The wind rises with sudden violence, and Frankenstein becomes increasingly anxious: he is certain that either he or his creature will die on this very night. Elizabeth, seeing his agitation, implores him to tell her what it is he fears. Though he attempts to console her, he cannot bring himself to reply to her question; he says only that it is a dreadful night.
Hoping to spare Elizabeth from the sight of the monster, Victor asks her to retire to her bedchamber. She complies, and Victor stalks the corridors of their villa, searching for any trace of the monster. At length, he hears a dreadful scream; too late, Victor realizes the enormity of his mistake.
Upon entering the bedroom, he finds Elizabeth lying strangled upon the bed, her clothes and hair in a state of disarray; the print of the monster's fingers are still fresh upon her neck. Unable to tolerate the shock, he collapses.
When he revives, he finds himself surrounded by the people of the inn; he escapes from them to the room in which Elizabeth's corpse is lying. He falls upon her body and takes it in his arms. Wracked by indescribable grief, he looks up to see the monster grinning at him through the windowpane. Victor fires his pistol, but the creature eludes him.
Frankenstein alerts the other guests of the murderer's presence, and they try in vain to apprehend him. Though he longs to aid them in their search, he is feeble as a result of his shock and misery; he is carried, barely conscious, to his bed. Realizing that he does not know whether his father and brother are safe, Victor gathers all of his strength and travels to Geneva. On the journey, he reflects that he has lost all hope of future happiness; no being in all creation is so miserable as he.
Though both Alphonse and Ernest are safe when Victor arrives, the former soon perishes upon hearing of the death of Elizabeth. Victor has no memory of the time that immediately followed the death of his father; he later learned that he was kept in a miserable asylum, having been declared mad.
Upon his release, all Victor is obsessed by thoughts of taking revenge upon his creature. He visits a magistrate to ask for the help of the law in apprehending the creature. Though the official listens attentively, it is clear that he only half-believes Frankenstein's wild tale. He tells Victor, quite reasonably, that it would be nearly impossible to pursue a superhuman being of the kind he has described. Frankenstein is enraged, and vows that he will devote himself to the creature's destruction. He recognizes his lust for vengeance as a vice but says that, in his current state of wretchedness, it is "the devouring and only passion of his soul."
Once again, the natural landscape foreshadows impending violence: upon the arrival of the Frankensteins, the wind at Como grows violent and a storm arises. Predictably, nature has lost its power to reassure; now, it reflects the chaos and darkness which Victor carries within himself.
There is great irony in Victor's inability to recognize the monster's true intentions. The reader knows that it is Elizabeth, and not Frankenstein, who will bear the brunt of the monster's wrath; there is thus great pathos in Victor's horror at his mistake. The guilt he feels at Elizabeth's death is twofold: he both created her destroyer and left her completely unprotected at the moment of her death.
Victor is now indistinguishable from his creature: both are utterly bereft, loveless, and alone. Both are sustained only by their desire to revenge themselves upon the other. In their hatred for one another, they are more closely bound together than ever before.
Frankenstein has lost the capacity for voluntary thought; his entire consciousness is occupied by fantasies of revenge. He resolves to leave Geneva forever, as the country has become hateful to him in the absence of his loved ones. Taking a sum of money and his mother's jewels, he goes off in search of the monster.
Before leaving Geneva, however, he visits the graves of his family. He kisses the earth and vows to avenge their deaths; he calls upon "the wandering ministers of vengeance" and upon the spirits of the dead to aid him in his quest. Suddenly, Victor hears a "fiendish laugh," as though hell itself were mocking him. From out of the darkness, the creature whispers that he is "satisfied" that Frankenstein has determined to live.
For months, he pursues the creature over the better part of the earth. At times, he is guided in his search by peasants who have been frightened by the hideous apparition; at others, the creature himself leaves Frankenstein some clue of his whereabouts, so that Victor will not despair and abandon his quest. Victor feels that some good spirit protects him throughout this journey; it alone saves him from death. He has grown to despise his life, and only finds refuge in sleep; in dreams he is once again among his beloved dead.
The creature cuts taunting messages into trees and stones, in order to remind his creator of the absolute power he has over him. He provides Frankenstein with food and advises him to prepare himself for the intolerable cold of the North: it is into these icy wastelands that the creature intends to lead him. Though Frankenstein knows that this final journey will mean certain death, he pursues the monster without hesitation.
Upon seeing the creature traversing the ice on a dogsled, Frankenstein weeps tears of hope and joy. When he has almost overtaken his enemy, however, he inexplicably loses all trace of him. Shortly thereafter, the ice breaks apart, and Victor is set adrift on a single jagged floe. He is on the brink of death when Walton's ship appears in the distance.
Though Victor looks forward to the peace that death will bring him, he despises the idea of dying with his task is unfulfilled. He begs Walton to kill the creature if he shows himself to him no matter how eloquent and persuasive he seems.
Strangely enough, this final chapter of Victor's narration, in which he is suffering a decline, finds him more dynamic than he has been since the days of his first experiment. Revenge invigorates him, intoxicates him: the joy he feels at seeing the creature's sledge marks the first time he has been happy in innumerbale months.
Frankenstein liberates himself from his prison of guilt, opting instead for one of wrath. In a certain sense, the creature has finally succeeded in gaining the companionship he always desired. Frankenstein is doomed to share the creature's life, and to follow him wherever he may go: the two are as close as a parent and child, or a lover and his beloved. It no longer matters who occupies which position: each reciprocates the obsession of the other.
The chase appears almost childish: the creature taunts his creator, and Frankenstein pursues him with no regard for sense or reason. If nothing else, it presents Frankenstein with a challenge; it once again calls forth the lust for conquest that motivated his scientific endeavors. The creature is clearly his master, his leader, his animating force. Now it is the monster who brings his maker to life: without his desire for revenge, Frankenstein would surely have died long ago.
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