Frankenstein Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 67-page guide for “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 24 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Dangers of Knowledge and The Definition of Humanity.
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, along with future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet Lord Byron, and others, traveled to Switzerland. 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 the themes of the omniscience of nature, the danger of excessive knowledge, and what makes one human.
Frankenstein opens with a frame story, told in first-person narrative from the point of view of Robert Walton. Walton is writing to his sister as he prepares to hire a ship to explore the North Pole, a boyhood dream. He expresses cautious excitement to discover parts of the world never before seen. 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. After enjoying an idyllic childhood, he goes to 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 a question that has baffled scientists.
Frankenstein embarks on the dark task of creating a living being. When the creature awakens, Frankenstein, horrified by his grotesque appearance, abandons him.
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 his youngest brother, William, was murdered and a young woman who grew up in the Frankenstein’s home, Justine Moritz, is accused of killing him. Frankenstein returns home, where Justine, though innocent, is executed. Frankenstein is sure the creature killed William and framed Justine, and he 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 several times to communicate with humans but was rejected and attacked each time. 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 try to speak with them, they attacked. At this point, the creature waged war on mankind.
When the creature encountered William, he hoped that the child’s innocence would prevent William from being prejudiced against the creature, 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 believes he has an obligation to the creature. He returns home, where he becomes engaged to Elizabeth Lavenza, his parents’ foster child who 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 that she will be dangerous. The creature is wild with rage and promises to be with Frankenstein on his wedding night.
Frankenstein sails onto the sea to dispose of the companion’s remains. When his boat washes ashore in Ireland, he is arrested for the murder of Clerval, whose body was found the day before. After his release, he returns home, and he and Elizabeth marry. She is murdered by the creature on their wedding, and 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 and farther north, taunting him with messages saying he will make him suffer before killing him. He had been searching for him still when Walton found him on the ice.
The story returns to Walton’s perspective. Frankenstein asks him to promise 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 to Walton that he only committed crimes out of desperation and loneliness. He says he intends to take his own life by setting himself on fire, then leaves the ship.