Frankenstein begins his tale, sensibly enough, with his childhood: he is from a wealthy and well-respected Swiss family. His parents met, he tells us, when his father went in search of a dear old friend. This man, named Beaufort, had fallen into poverty and obscurity; when the elder Frankenstein finally found him, he was entirely wretched and very near death. His daughter, Caroline, attended him with almost-religious devotion. Upon Beaufort's death, Caroline turned to Master Frankenstein for comfort, and the pair returned to Geneva together; a few years later, they were married.
During the first years of their marriage, the Frankensteins traveled constantly, for the sake of Caroline's fragile health. They divided their time among Germany, Italy, and France; their first child, Victor, was born in Naples, Italy. Victor’s parents adored him, and he adored them in turn; his childhood, from the very first, was wholly idyllic. Until he was five, Victor was an only child, and both he and his parents felt the absence of other children strongly.
Caroline Frankenstein made a habit of visiting the poor: since she herself had been saved from poverty, she felt it her duty to improve the lot of those who did not share her good fortune. One day, she discovered an angelic girl-child, with fair skin and golden hair, living with a penniless Italian family. As the girl was an orphan, and her adoptive family lacked the means to care for her, the Frankensteins determined to raise the child as their own. The child, whose name was Elizabeth Lavenza, became Victor's sister and his constant companion, as well as the object of his unquestioning worship. For him, she is his most beautiful, most valuable possession.
This chapter is primarily concerned with the theme of family and kinship. The absolute necessity of human contact and emotional ties is stressed here: the elder Frankenstein goes through great trouble to visit his impoverished friend, and Caroline, too, is selflessly concerned with the needs of others (her father, her family, and the poor). It is important to note that Beaufort's ruin is itself connected to his decision to cut himself off from his former friends and live in absolute isolation; it is his isolation, more than his poverty, which leads to his death.
Because Victor speaks in first person, the other characters are presented as they relate to him ("my father, my mother, my sister"). At the beginning of his narrative, Victor is deeply embedded within a traditional family structure, and we develop our first impressions of his character in relation to it. His childhood is almost implausibly ideal; the reader therefore expects Victor to reflect the love and beauty with which he was surrounded as a boy.
A number of the relationships described in this chapter are structured as a relation between a caretaker and a cared-for: that between Caroline's father and Caroline; Victor's father and Caroline; the Frankensteins and Elizabeth; and between Victor and Elizabeth, to name a few. In this way, Shelley suggests that human connection and, to state the case rather more plainly, love itself is dependent upon one's willingness to care for another person particularly if that other person is defenseless, or innocent, and thus unable to care for themselves. The elder Frankenstein takes Caroline in after she is left penniless and an orphan; similarly, the family takes in the orphaned Elizabeth Lavenza to save her from a life of bitter poverty. Shelley subtly argues that there is nothing more wretched than an orphan: one must care for one's children, since one is responsible for bringing them into the world. This idea will become extremely important with the introduction of the monster, in that Victor's refusal to care for his own creature will say a great deal about the morality of his experiment.
The family ceases to travel after the birth of their second son. They return home to Switzerland, to their estate at the foot of the Alps. Young Victor prefers not to surround himself with a great many casual friends; instead, he is very intimate with a select few. These include a brilliant boy named Henry Clerval, renowned for his flights of imagination, and, of course, his beloved Elizabeth. Though Victor says that there can be no happier childhood than his, he confesses that he had a violent temper as a child. His temper was not directed at other people, however: it manifested itself as a passionate desire to learn the secrets of heaven and earth. Clerval, by contrast, was fascinated by questions of morality, heroism, and virtue.
At Geneva, Elizabeth's "saintly soul" serves to soothe and temper Victor's burning passion for study. Without her, his interest in his work might have developed an obsessional quality.
Frankenstein is full of pleasure as he recounts these scenes from his childhood, since they remain untainted by his recent misfortune. He can, however, see how his early scholarly endeavors foreshadow his eventual ruin.
At the age of thirteen, he becomes fascinated with the work of Cornelius Agrippa (a Roman alchemist who attempted to turn tin into gold and men into lions). His father tells him that the book is pure trash; Victor does not heed him, however, since his father does not explain why the book is trash. The system of "science" that Agrippa propounds has long since been proven false; Victor, unaware of this, avidly reads all of Agrippa's works, as well as those of his contemporaries, Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. Victor shares their desire to penetrate the secrets of nature, to search for the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life. The quest for the latter becomes his obsession. Though he acknowledges that such a discovery would bring one great wealth, what Victor really longs for is glory.
Victor is also preoccupied with the question of how one might communicate with or even raise the dead. He finds no answer in the works of his Roman idols, and becomes entirely disillusioned with them when he witnesses a lightning storm. Since the Romans have no satisfactory explanation for this phenomenon, Victor renounces them entirely and devotes himself (at least for the time being) to the study of mathematics. Destiny, however, will return him to the problems of natural philosophy.
The reader is gradually introduced to those aspects of Victor's character that will lead to his downfall. He tells us that he possesses "a thirst for knowledge."
The narrator begins to pick apart and identify the aspects of his personality that will eventually lead to his downfall. He possesses what he calls a "thirst for knowledge." Thirst, of course, is a fundamental human need, necessary to one's very survival. Victor's desire to learn, therefore, is driven by nothing so insubstantial as curiosity: it is instead the precondition of his very being. Shelley thereby indicates that there is a compulsive quality to Victor's scholarship: it is something very close to madness.
Elizabeth is positioned here, quite literally, as a "saint." It is her gentle, feminine influence that saves Victor from his obsession during his time at Geneva. The influence of women, and of femininity, is thus presented as offering hope of salvation it inspires one to temperance and kindness.
Though both Victor and Clerval have passionate and creative characters, they express them very differently. Henry does it openly, with songs and plays; Victor, by contrast, does it privately, amidst books and philosophical meditations. His reading is directed toward the learning of secrets of forbidden knowledge. This predisposition to secrecy plays an essential role in Victor's scientific work and its consequences.
The question of the place of chance and destiny in Victor's fate also arises in this chapter. Victor "chances" upon the volume of Cornelius Agrippa; he suggests that he would never have become so fascinated with the alchemists if only his father had explained why their work was worthless. He also says that "destiny" brought him back to the study of natural philosophy: in this way, Victor attempts to absolve himself of culpability for his later actions. The word "creation" is deployed for the first time here, in reference to natural philosophy: Victor refers to it as "abortive creation." The idea of both creation and abortion will become highly significant in later chapters.
When he is seventeen, Victor's family decides to send him to the university of Ingolstadt, so that he might become worldlier. Shortly before his departure, Elizabeth falls ill with scarlet fever. Caroline, driven almost mad by worry, tends to her constantly, with complete disregard for the risk of contagion. Though Elizabeth recovers thanks to her extraordinary care, Caroline herself contracts the fever. On her deathbed, she joins Elizabeth and Victor's hands and says that her happiness is dependent upon their eventual marriage. With that, she dies. Victor cannot quite believe that his beloved mother is gone; he is stricken with grief and delays his departure to Ingolstadt. Elizabeth, determined to at least partially fill the void left by Caroline's death, devotes herself to caring for the surviving family.
Clerval comes to visit Victor on his last evening at home. Though Clerval is desperate to accompany Victor to university, his prosaic merchant father will not allow him to do so. Victor is certain, however, that Clerval will not remain bound to the crushing dullness of his father's business.
Upon his departure from Geneva, Victor reflects on the fact that he knows no one at Ingolstadt; he has always been unable to enjoy the company of strangers. However, his spirits are lifted by the thought of acquiring new knowledge.
The first person he encounters at Ingolstadt is Krempe, a professor of natural philosophy. This meeting is described as the work of an evil influence the "Angel of Destruction." The professor is astounded at the absurd and outdated science that Victor has read in the past, and tells him to begin his studies completely anew. At first, the narrator is indifferent to the idea of returning to science: he has developed a deep contempt for natural philosophy and its uses. This changes, however, when Victor attends a lecture given by a professor named Waldman. Victor is completely enraptured by the ideas of Waldman, who believes that scientists can perform miracles, acquire unlimited powers, and "mock the invisible world with its own shadows." He decides to return to the study of natural philosophy at once; he visits Professor Waldman the following day to tell him that he has found a disciple in Victor Frankenstein.
Caroline's decision to nurse Elizabeth, even though it means losing her own life, serves to indicate both Caroline's own selflessness and the high value placed on self-sacrifice in the book as a whole. Caroline on her deathbed is described as being full of "fortitude and benignity"; the irreproachable manner in which she has lived her life means that she can die peacefully, certain of her eternal reward. In telling Victor and Elizabeth that her happiness was dependent upon their union, Caroline makes their marriage a consummate symbol of earthly order and joy. The centrality of this event to the novel's trajectory thus becomes clear.
Victor's departure from home is both a coming of age and a dark foreshadowing of things to come. There is nothing affirmative in his departure from home: it is immediately preceded by his mother's death, the journey itself is "long and fatiguing," and he knows no one at all at Ingolstadt. At university, the obsessive pursuit of knowledge will come to take the place of Victor's friends and family; it will both substitute for human connection and make any such connection impossible.
The epic rhetoric of Waldman's lecture is quite striking, in that he makes the scientist out to be a god:
"...[They] have 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 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."
That this rhetoric inflames Victor is telling: what seduces him back to the world of natural philosophy is the hope of becoming a god, free of earthly law and limitations. He has become mad with the desire for not only discovery, but also for omnipotence (the state of being all-powerful) and omniscience (the state of being all-knowing). Victor tells us that Waldman's words were the "words of fate"; it was at this moment that his destiny was decided. Here, again, Victor absolves himself of guilt and locates the source of his ruin squarely outside himself, outside the purview of his own will: the fault lies not with him, but with fate, or destiny.
It is not accidental that the reader now learns the narrator's last name Frankenstein for the first time. This serves to depersonalize him and to distance him from the reader, thus signifying the abyss of experimentation into which he will soon fall. Indeed, "Frankenstein" can be seen as a separate persona, the embodiment of the narrator's god/scientist self (as distinct from the culpable humanity represented by "Victor").
Waldman makes Victor his cherished protégé, and does a great deal to accelerate the course of his education. Natural philosophy and chemistry become Victor's sole occupations. Laboratory work particularly fascinates him, and he soon finds himself secluded there for days at a time. Victor's great skill and unusual ardor impress his professors and classmates alike. Two years pass in this manner; the lure of scientific pursuit is so great that Victor does not once visit his family at Geneva.
Victor develops a consuming interest in the structure of the human frame: he longs to determine what animates it, what constitutes the "principle of life." Seized by a "supernatural enthusiasm," he begins to explore life by studying its inevitable counterpart: death. He rapidly verses himself in the rudiments of anatomy, and begins pillaging graveyards for specimens to use in his dissections. Victor discovers the secret of how to generate life through a sudden epiphany. He does not, however, share the content of this revelation with Walton (and, by extension, with the reader), because his own knowledge resulted in misery and destruction.
Even immediately following his epiphany, Victor hesitates before using his newfound skill, as he must first fashion a body. He determines to make one of gigantic proportions, so as to make his work somewhat easier. Victor eagerly anticipates the day when "a new species would bless [him] as its creator and source, [and] many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to [him]." He is drunk with the magnitude of his own power, and reflects, "No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as [Frankenstein] should deserve [that of his creations]."
His midnight labors occur while Victor is in a trance-like state, and he pillages graveyards and tortures living creatures in the name of his unholy labors. His work completely possesses his soul, and the seasons pass without his taking note of them.
Though Victor briefly worries about his father, who has been anxiously awaiting a letter from his son for over a year, he deludes himself into believing that the elder Frankenstein would understand and approve of his endeavors. In retrospect, he realizes that the pursuit of knowledge should be serene: when it is overly passionate, it takes on the character of an obsession. Simple pleasures are thereby destroyed; study itself becomes a thing "not befitting the human mind."
The fact that two years pass without Victor's visiting his family speaks poorly for his character. Though he knows his father and Elizabeth long to see him, he remains completely absorbed in his work. This indicates that Victor's capacity for altruism and benevolence has been utterly destroyed by his obsession; it also suggests that his character itself is deeply flawed. There is something fundamentally selfish in Victor, and his scientific pursuits are themselves the product of a desire for gross self-aggrandizement: he wants to create men who will worship him as their god.
The themes of chance and fate arise once again in this chapter. Frankenstein is on the point of returning to Geneva "when an incident happens" to change his mind. This plot device in which an expectation is expressed, only to be dashed a moment later by a seemingly chance occurrence is a common one in the novel. It serves at least two narrative purposes. On the one hand, it fills the reader with alternating currents of hope and despair: while we long for Frankenstein to save himself, we realize that his ruin is inevitable. This inevitability is both narrative (in that the beginning of the book makes it clear that Frankenstein's destruction has already occurred) and character-based: that is, we see how the elements of Victor's personality can lead only to his own downfall. The plot device of dashed expectation also serves to suggest that the course of destiny is unalterable. One's fate is determined, and there is little or nothing that any of us can due to change it.
Though Victor hesitates before beginning his research and after discovering the principle of life, he scoffs at his own discretion, saying that "cowardice or carelessness" have delayed or prevented many remarkable discoveries. He harbors real contempt for prudence and caution, believing them to be nothing but limitations upon what Man's capabilities. Frankenstein believes that Man should attempt to reverse death, to alter divine handiwork. Clearly, Victor will have to be punished for his hubris for his disrespect of both natural and heavenly boundaries.
Frankenstein becomes progressively less human that is to say, more monstrous as he attempts to create a human being. He tortures living creatures, neglects his family, and haunts cemeteries and charnel houses. As his morals suffer, his health does as well: he becomes pale and emaciated. Frankenstein's work is literally sickening the man who was once called Victor.