88 pages 2 hours read

Mary Shelley

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1818

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


First published in 1818, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a novel by Mary Shelley. It is written in the tradition of Romanticism, a late 18th-century and early 19th-century movement that responded to the Enlightenment. Rejecting rationalism, Romantic literature often celebrated the power of nature and of the individual. Frankenstein is also considered a Gothic novel because of its emphasis on darkness, the sensational, and the wildness of nature.

Shelley was the daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneering feminist thinker. In 1815, Shelley traveled to Switzerland along with future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet Lord Byron, and others. Partly inspired by the erratic weather caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora, they held a contest to see who could write the most frightening story. Shelley’s resulting novel, Frankenstein, explores themes including Nature as a Miraculous, Healing Force, The Danger of Knowledge, and The Definition of Humanity.

Content Warning: Both the source material and guide contain references to suicide, murder (including the violent death of a child), and body horror.

Plot Summary

Frankenstein opens with a frame story written in the first-person perspective of Robert Walton. Walton writes to his sister as he prepares to hire a ship to explore the North Pole, a boyhood dream. He expresses cautious excitement to discover new parts of the world. One day, he and his crew save a man nearly frozen to death on the ice—Victor Frankenstein. Walton immediately takes a liking to Frankenstein, who despite his melancholy appears kind and well-bred. When Walton tells him about his desire for knowledge and glory, Frankenstein tells his own story so Walton might take a lesson from his life.

The novel then moves into the first-person perspective of Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein is from Geneva, Switzerland. After enjoying an idyllic childhood, he attends university in Ingolstadt, Germany, to pursue his interest in the natural sciences. After voracious study, he learns the secret of creating life. He is excited by the idea that he alone knows the answer to this age-old question.

Frankenstein pursues the dark task of creating a living being. However, when he succeeds and the creature awakens, Frankenstein abandons him, horrified by his grotesque appearance.

Henry Clerval, Frankenstein’s childhood friend, surprises him by arriving in Ingolstadt to join him at the university. When Frankenstein falls into a fever, Clerval nurses him back to health. Frankenstein is devastated when a letter from his father reveals that William, his youngest brother, was murdered. Justine Moritz, a young woman who grew up in the Frankenstein house, is accused of killing him. Frankenstein returns home, where Justine is executed despite being innocent. Certain the creature killed William and framed Justine, Frankenstein feels responsible for their deaths. He is also furious with the creature for causing this misery.

To soothe his despair, Frankenstein embarks on a solitary tour through the mountains. When the creature suddenly appears, Frankenstein threatens to kill him. The creature attempts to explain that his nature was once good, but loneliness and misery led him to commit monstrous acts. He also chastises Frankenstein for abandoning him and promises that if Frankenstein listens to his story and fulfills a request, he will leave humankind forever.

Frankenstein accompanies him to a hut, where the creature relates how he was abandoned immediately upon awakening. He spent his first nights cold and alone in the forest. He tried to communicate with humans but was always rejected and attacked. He took refuge in a hovel belonging to some poor cottagers, whom he secretly observed for many months, learning their ways and growing to love them. He also performed anonymous acts of kindness for them. When he finally mustered the courage to speak with them, they attacked him, at which point the creature declared war on mankind.

When the creature encountered William, he hoped the child’s innocence would prevent any prejudice, but the child screamed in fear. When the creature realized he was Frankenstein’s brother, he killed him and framed Justine. The creature tells Frankenstein that he must create a female companion as hideous as the creature. If he refuses, the creature will kill the rest of Frankenstein’s loved ones.

Though furious, Frankenstein feels obligated to the creature. He returns home, where he becomes engaged to Elizabeth Lavenza, his parents’ foster child, whom he grew up believing he would marry. Frankenstein and Clerval travel together to Scotland, where Frankenstein, touring alone, finds a remote hut to create the creature’s companion. However, when he is almost finished, he destroys her, fearing she will be dangerous. Wild with rage, the creature promises to be with Frankenstein on his wedding night.

Frankenstein disposes the companion’s remains in the sea. When his boat washes ashore in Ireland, he is arrested for the murder of Clerval, whose body was found the day before. After he is proven innocent and released, he returns home. He and Elizabeth marry, only for the creature to murder Elizabeth that same day. Frankenstein’s father later dies from despair.

Frankenstein dedicates his life to finding and destroying the creature. He begins a long chase, with the creature leading him farther north, taunting him with messages, promising to make Frankenstein suffer before killing him. Frankenstein was still searching for the creature when Walton found him on the ice.

The story returns to Walton’s perspective. Frankenstein asks him to kill the creature and then dies. After Frankenstein’s death, Walton finds the creature watching over his body. The creature expresses remorse and reiterates that he only committed crimes out of desperation and loneliness. He says he intends to take his own life by setting himself on fire and then leaves the ship.

Related Titles

By Mary Shelley