Experience a horror classic, reanimated.
Even if you’re not a fan of the genre, there are a couple of big horror names that are hard to miss. There’s Dracula. There’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And then there’s Frankenstein.
Admit it – you immediately have a picture in mind: a green, human-like monster with bolts in its head. You also probably know that in the original story, Frankenstein is not actually the name of the monster. It’s the name of the scientist who creates the monster.
But did you know that the original book was written as early as 1816? Did you know it was written by a woman? And did you know that Mary Shelley was just 18 years old when she came up with the story?
That’s not all that might surprise you about this horror classic. We’ll take a deep dive into Frankenstein to understand what makes it such a groundbreaking work of fiction.
If you want to read a super short summary of the book, you can skip ahead to the final section.
The Demise of Victor Frankenstein
The story of Frankenstein begins with four letters, written by an ambitious young explorer named Robert Walton to his sister Margaret.
Walton recounts his preparations for his exploration mission to the North Pole. Although he reports feeling lonely and isolated from his shipmates, he’s driven by his desire to accomplish something great. Soon after setting sail, Walton and his crew encounter a stranded, emaciated man stuck in the ice with his sled. They take him on board and nurse him back to strength. In turn, the stranger shares his story.
He turns out to be none other than Victor Frankenstein.
Victor begins the tale of his demise with his childhood. He grows up as the only child of his well-to-do parents in Geneva. When he’s five, his mother adopts an orphan girl, Elizabeth. Apart from his best friend Henry, Elizabeth becomes Victor’s most beloved childhood companion. Later, his parents have another child, his younger brother William.
From a young age, Victor is obsessed with natural philosophy. He particularly loves old-school alchemists like Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. One day, he watches a lightning bolt destroy a tree near his house and becomes fascinated with electricity.
After his mother’s untimely death, 17-year-old Victor leaves to study in Ingolstadt, Germany. His new professors update his scientific knowledge and leave a deep impression on him. Victor is more determined than ever to devote his life to the pursuit of scientific greatness.
Soon, he becomes so absorbed in his studies that he forgets all about his family in Geneva. He’s particularly interested in the mysteries of life, death, and decay. But he goes further than anyone before him: Victor Frankenstein discovers the secret of life.
Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein in 1816, when she was just 18 years old, on a rainy summer vacation in the Swiss Alps. Trapped indoors reading ghost stories, she and her travel companions started a horror story contest. Among these companions were her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as Lord Byron. But Mary was the only one to later publish her story.
The culture of communal story-telling responsible for the book’s creation is reflected in its structure. The story is mainly told by explorer Robert, who in turn hears it from Frankenstein himself. But Frankenstein’s account too is interspersed with letters from his family. In a later part of the book, we even hear from the monster itself. So like any good horror story, the tale of Frankenstein is told and retold many times.
Mary Shelley’s travels to Geneva and Burg Frankenstein in Germany seem to have inspired the settings of the book. There’s also a clear influence of the Gothic and Romantic literary traditions of her time. But the mix of science and horror she concocted was groundbreaking. So much so that some consider Frankenstein to be the first science-fiction novel of all time.
“I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation”.
The Creation of Frankenstein’s Monster
By now Victor is spending all of his time in his apartment, working on a secret creation to bring to life: a human-like creature with yellow skin, black hair, and black lips. He grows so pale and sickly over all this work that his family is seriously worried about him. But he won’t be deterred.
Finally, on a rainy November night, he animates his creation. But things don’t turn out as expected. Victor has tried to select the creature’s dead parts for beauty, but he’s horrified at the ugly monster that comes to life. He flees his apartment and spends the night outside. In the city, he runs into his old friend Henry, who has just arrived to study at the university. Henry accompanies the traumatized Victor back to his apartment. But the monster is gone.
Several months pass, in which Henry nurses the shell-shocked Victor back to health. Once recovered, Victor shows Henry around the university. But engaging with natural science now makes him incredibly nauseous.
Victor’s orphan sister Elizabeth sends a letter informing him that Justine Moritz, a girl who used to live with their family, has returned to the house. A little later, his father writes with some terrible news. His youngest brother William has been murdered. Victor leaves for Geneva immediately.
In the woods outside the city where they found his brother’s body, Victor has an eerie encounter. He sees the monster lurking behind some trees and becomes convinced that his creation is responsible for the murder.
But the townspeople think the murderer is Justine. Victor tries to convince them otherwise, but Justine confesses to the crime out of fear. She’s executed, and Victor becomes sick with guilt.
At the heart of Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about the dangers of playing god. Victor is so consumed by his scientific ambition that he neglects his family and friends. But he also fails to consider the consequences and moral implications of his grand experiment.
Only after bringing the monster to life does Victor realize his grave mistake. But instead of taking responsibility for his creation, he runs away from it. Consequently, the monster causes the death of two of his beloved family members. Victor realizes too late how much chaos he’s brought into this world. But will he be able to correct it?
The Monster’s Curse
After William’s and Justine’s death, Victor becomes so depressed that he even contemplates suicide. In hopes of cheering him up, his father takes the Frankenstein family on a trip to their old home in Switzerland.
There, Victor decides to climb the Montanvert glacier to revive his naturalist spirit. But when he reaches the summit, the monster appears, leaping at him with “superhuman” speed. Victor curses and threatens his creation, trying to persuade it to go away. But the monster eloquently appeals to Victor’s duty as its creator and convinces him to follow it into an ice cave.
Sitting by the fire, Frankenstein’s monster recounts the events of his life. It tells Victor about the confusion and fright it felt upon being created and the loneliness and despair it’s experienced ever since. Since fleeing Victor’s apartment, it has wandered the wilderness, nearly driven mad by hunger, thirst, and cold. Every human it tries to approach runs away in terror.
The monster finally discovers how to make fire, and is able to sustain itself by stealing food from people’s houses. But upon observing one of the poor families it’s been stealing from, it starts to feel guilty. It tries to help the family by gathering firewood for them and leaving it on their doorstep. It also learns the names of its unwitting hosts – Felix, Agatha, and their blind old father DeLacey – and starts developing a deep affection for them. When a foreign woman named Safie joins the house, the monster is able to pick up its resident’s language alongside her.
From eavesdropping on conversations, the monster learns about world events and the personal history of the cottagers. It also finds a bag of books containing John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Not knowing that it’s a work of fiction, the monster is deeply affected by the biblical story of the fall of man. It’s becoming more and more disgusted by its own ugliness and the unnatural way in which it was created.
In a last hope to join the human community, the monster decides to reveal itself to the cottagers. It makes a plan to approach blind old DeLacey first, alone. But as it’s explaining its situation to him, Felix, Agatha, and Safie return to the cottage. Terrified by the monster’s appearance, Felix drives it away.
After this bitter rejection, the monster vows revenge on humankind – but particularly on its creator Victor. It travels for months to reach Victor’s home in Geneva. In the woods outside the city, the monster meets Victor’s younger brother, William. When he introduces himself as Frankenstein, the monster flies into a rage and strangles him.
One of the most interesting and novel accomplishments of Frankenstein is that parts of the story are told by the monster itself. Mary Shelley doesn’t simply paint Frankenstein’s creation as a soulless ghoul intent on evil. On the contrary – the monster is intelligent, eloquent, and very perceptive of human emotions. It’s also clearly capable of affection and wishes nothing more than to join the human community.
But the humans it encounters can’t see past its devilish appearance. The monster is deeply pained by the fear and rejection hurled at it – especially by its own creator. It’s the agony of loneliness that ultimately drives it to become violent. But although it explains this to Victor, and once again appeals to his duty as its creator, its message is lost on him – as we’ll see in the next part.
“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!”
The Monster’s Bride
After telling its story, the monster presents Victor with a solution. It asks him to create a female companion to ease its loneliness and isolation. This, the creature promises, would stop it from being violent. It would hide with its monster bride somewhere deep in the jungle, never to be seen again. Victor refuses at first, but the monster finally convinces him.
After they part, however, Victor puts the idea of creating a monster bride on hold. He’s still occupied with his grief over the loss of William and Justine. Plus, he’s about to get married to Elizabeth. But he soon realizes that he can’t do so in good conscience without fulfilling his promise to the monster first. He asks his father to arrange a two-year tour of Britain, during which he plans to gather all the information needed to create the monster bride. His friend Henry accompanies him on the travels.
When they arrive in a small town in Scotland, Victor decides to leave Henry in the care of an acquaintance. He travels to a desolate island in the Orkneys, where he sets up a small laboratory in a shack to complete the rest of his project in solitude. Just as the first time, Victor is consumed by his work on the new creature. But this time, there’s no joy or excitement in it. He’s sick to his stomach about the horror he’s creating. And he’s worried that the female monster may not want to hide away in the jungle, or worse, that she’ll want to have children – spawning a “race of devils” on earth.
As he’s contemplating this, he looks up at a window of his shack and sees the monster grinning at him. Shocked by the sight of what he perceives to be pure evil, Victor locks himself in the shed and destroys his female creation. The monster is furious. But instead of attacking Victor right away, it just gives him an eerie warning: it will be there on his wedding night.
One prominent theme in Frankenstein is the idea of responsibility – particularly the responsibility of the creator to their creation. The monster often appeals to Victor’s duty as its maker. It believes that as the person who has brought it to life, Victor must play some part in making that life worth living.
Since the monster believes that its destructive actions are the consequence of loneliness, it demands that Victor create a companion for it. And although he initially agrees, Victor is once again deterred by the hideousness of his creation. It’s Victor’s superficial rejection of his creation, and his refusal to deliver on his promises, that leads the monster to become truly evil.
The Bitter End
Victor packs up his laboratory and takes a boat out onto the ocean, dumping the remains of the female creature into the water. Exhausted, he falls asleep and nearly drifts out into the open sea. By sheer luck, the winds change and he’s able to reach the mainland.
But returning to the village, he receives anything but a warm welcome. He learns that Henry has been murdered, and the townspeople think that he’s the killer. Several of them testify against him – claiming they saw a boat similar to his on the night of the murder.
When the magistrate of the village takes him to see Henry’s dead body, Victor is shocked to see the black marks around his neck where the monster has strangled him. He faints and wakes up in prison, once again succumbing to a mysterious illness. His father rushes from Geneva to be with him. He stays with Victor until his trial, where he’s finally declared innocent.
The Frankensteins are able to travel back to Geneva. Victor is still determined to marry Elizabeth, but the monster’s threat looms in his mind. When the wedding day finally arrives, he’s unbearably nervous.
The couple spends the wedding night in a family cottage. Finally, Victor can’t bear the tension any longer. He orders Elizabeth to go to bed and starts searching the house for the monster. Suddenly, he hears Elizabeth scream.
Too late, he realizes it was never him the monster intended to kill – it was Elizabeth. Victor is shattered by her death, and his father is so grief-stricken that he dies a few days later.
By now, Victor’s whole family has been ruined by his own creation. He decides that the only thing left to do is to find and destroy the monster. His hunt leads him deep into the ice of the North, where Walton and his crew finally find him.
Frankenstein concludes as it began: with letters from explorer Robert Walton to his sister. Walton informs her that Victor is on his deathbed, urging him to continue the monster hunt. But Walton’s crew is begging him to abandon the dangerous ice mission and return to England. Victor tries to convince them to continue their ambitious quest, but Walton ultimately listens to his men.
Victor dies just before the ship heads back to England. A few days later, Walton hears a strange sound from the room where Victor’s body is kept. He investigates and is shocked to find the monster by Victor’s bedside, weeping over its creator. But he’s too curious to attack it. The creature tells Walton of its suffering and the regret it feels over its evil deeds. It tells him that now that its creator is dead, it’s also ready to die. In the final scene, the monster bids Walton farewell and vanishes into the cold, dark ice.
Frankenstein is a tale about the dangers of unchecked ambition, science without ethics, and the destructive powers of loneliness.
Victor’s obsession with scientific glory first isolates him from his friends and family, and finally completely destroys them. By rejecting it so completely, he drives his monstrous creation to evil. Most devastatingly, Victor seems unable to learn from his mistakes. Even on his deathbed, he urges Walton and his crew to continue their dangerous mission for scientific glory.
Victor comes across as deluded, superficial, and cowardly. He played god in creating life but is unwilling to fill the role when it matters. In the final moments of his life, he’s become as inhuman a creature as he accuses the monster to be.
“I shall die, and what I now know to feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. […] My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell”.
Frankenstein tells the story of an ambitious scientist of the same name who becomes obsessed with the idea of creating life. But when young Victor Frankenstein finally succeeds in animating his creation, he’s shocked at the horror he’s created. Instead of taking responsibility, he runs away, leaving his monster to fend for itself.
The monster is not without intelligence and emotion, but it’s continually rejected by the human community. Eventually, it can’t take the pain of isolation anymore and vows revenge on its creator. It kills Victor’s little brother, William, leading to the execution of his friend Justine. In one final bid to halt the destruction, the monster asks Victor to create a female companion to ease its loneliness.
But Victor eschews his responsibility once more. As a consequence, he loses his best friend Henry, as well as his childhood companion and future wife Elizabeth, and finally, his father. Devastated, Victor vows to hunt down and kill the monster. The pursuit leads him deep into the North, where he’s picked up by young explorer Robert Walton – who finally writes down the tale of Frankenstein’s demise.