The novel, Frankenstein begins with four letters written by Robert Walton to his sister Mrs. Margaret Saville, while he is on an expedition to explore the North Pole. Written in epistolary form, Frankenstein employs the flashback technique which has been compared by a Chinese box–a structure of stories within stories.
Robert Walton’s expedition to explore the Arctic regions brings him in contact with the principal narrator, Victor Frankenstein, who is found almost dead and is nursed back to life by Walton. Victor narrates his quest to find the secrets of life to Walton. Within Victor’s narrative is the narrative of the monster he had created. The narrative is again taken up by Victor till he is found in the icy regions. From this point till Victor’s death, the narrative is taken up by Walton again and that brings the novel to an end. Once the outer layer is peeled off, another layer emerges; it is followed by yet another and still yet another layer. Mary Shelley skillfully manages the material she has conceived and developed and woven it into an artistic fabric. Frankenstein (1818) thus anticipates Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847).
The novel begins with four letters written by Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer, to his sister in England. Each letter describes his progress in his exploration. The first letter is written when Walton arrives in St. Petersburg: the second and third letters give an account of progress made by Walton and his sailors. The fourth letter describes Walton’s encounter with the almost dead Victor Frankenstein, who is nursed back to his life by Walton and his team. They then request him to narrate his experiences.
Victor Frankenstein’s Narrative
Victor Frankenstein describes his parents, their love affair and marriage. His mother Caroline brings one Elizabeth Lavenza as Victor’s childhood companion. Caroline dies after giving birth to two sons, William and Ernest, who are much younger than Victor.
Victor develops close friendship with Henry Clerval. He discovers old books written by Agrippa and others, and he becomes interested in occult studies. When Victor and Clerval finish their schooling, Victor’s father decides to send him to a university while Clerval father is not in favour of higher studies. Letters of introduction are given to Victor, but his departure is delayed by Elizabeth’s scarlet fever and later by his mother’s death. Elizabeth is now assigned the care of his younger brother’s William and Ernest.
Elizabeth describes her background in a long letter. Justine was the daughter of a nobleman, M. Moritz, who loved her more than any other of his children. After his death, the widow treated Justine harshly. At twelve, Justine was brought by her aunt to live with them more or less as a servant. Victor hardly noticed her presence in the household because he was in school at that time. It was after Justine’s mother lost all her other children that she repented for ill-treating Justine. She then died. Justine had been brought to the household earlier for some time. In her letter, Elizabeth reminds Victor of Justine’s beauty and virtue.
Victor at the University
Victor met two professors at the University of Ingolstadt– M. Krempe and M. Waldman, Victor found M. Waldman more polite and encouraging, M. Waldman prompted Victor to study Mathematics besides Chemistry Victor spent two years at the university: he did not visit his home at Geneva during this period.
When victor asked M. Waldman about the principle of life, he was advised first to examine decay, corruption and death. Victor set up his laboratory on the top of his apartment in a cell separated from all the other apartments. He gathered the pieces of human bodies that he picked up from the Charvel house. One day in the month of November, Victor succeeded in animating the human frame he had got together.
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What he saw horrified Victor. He was so terrified when he looked at the monster like creature that he had created that Victor rushed out and came to his bedroom. But his sleep was disturbed when the monster came to his bedroom and opened his jaws as if to say something. Victor bolted out. He kept walking the streets throughout the night in fear.
Early next morning he came across his friend Henry Clerval getting down from a coach. The two friends then went to Victor’s apartment. But there was no sign of the monster there. Clerval thought that victor was in a disturbed state of mind. Victor also felt ill.
In due course Victor cleared his cell of all the apartments. He also changed his apartment after which he went on a walking excursion with Clerval. When he returned, there was a letter from his father informing him of William’s death and asking him to return home immediately. Victor’s departure for home was, however, prevented by snowfall. He later got a coach and travelled to Lausanne, where he spent some time.
Strange Happenings in Geneva
When Victor reached home, he found the gates shut and he had to spend the night in a nearby village. He walked about the spot where William had been murdered. A flash of lightening revealed to him the figure of the monster. But before Victor could do anything, it quickly escaped. Victor now knew who the murderer of his brother was.
He went home to console his father. To his shock, he was told by Ernest that the murderer had been found. It was Justine, who had murdered William for the jewelled miniature picture of Caroline; it had been found in her pocket and was considered to be a sufficient proof of her crime. Victor could not convince anyone about the identity of the real murderer, for he feared that no one would believe him, Justine was convicted of William’s murder and hanged to death.
Excursion to Chamounix
Two months after Justine’s death, Victor recollected himself. His father suggested that they should go on an excursion to the valley of Chamounix for the sake of peace and harmony. They travelled in a carriage till the climb started. Then they rode on mules and reached the beautiful valley with snow-clad peaks. Victor was happy.
While the others remained at the inn, Victor started for the summit of Montanvert. On reaching the summit, he shouted to the wandering spirit and asked it to leave him in peace. Then he suddenly saw the monster come close to him and converse with him in his own language. The monster asked Victor to complement him by creating a female companion for him like all the creatures in the world had. He would then leave the country, stay away from all kind and be virtuous. Victor agreed and both of them descended the mountain. They entered the lonely hut, where the monster started narrating his tale to Victor.
The Monster’s Tale
The monster told Victor that after his creation, he had felt oppressed; he could not face light. He spent considerable time in the forest near Ingolstadt He was tormented by hunger and thirst, to satisfy which he ate wild fruit and drank water from the brooks. When he was able to walk out of the forest after many days, he felt extremely cold.
One day he found a fire left by some wandering beggars; it provided him warmth. He learnt to keep the fire burning by placing dry wood on it. He then ate the leftover of all and satisfied his hunger. The monster’s process of learning started.
The Learning Process
When he left the place, he wandered about for three days. Then he spotted a hut. He entered the hut and found an old man inside. The old man was preparing his breakfast on fire. When he saw the monster, the old man shrieked and ran away. The monster then devoured the old man’s breakfast which consisted of bread, cheese, milk and wine. At noon the monster left the old man’s hut and moved across the fields. He came to a small village where he saw beautiful huts, cottages and gardens. He entered a hut. The children shrieked on seeing him and women fainted. The villagers attacked him and drove him out. The monster retreated far away from the village where he built his own hut. He spent his nights there.
The monster’s hovel was on the outskirts of the village. He kept a watch on the family and observed their gentle manners. To begin with, he used to steal eatables from the cottage. But realizing the family’s poverty, the monster later sustained himself on only wild fruit and stream water. To ease their labour of collecting wood from the forest, he cut the piles of wood at night and placed them by the cottage door. The family thanked their guardian spirit for this kind act.
Subsequently, the monster tried to pick the mode of communication and learnt the language when he heard the young man reading aloud. He now learnt that the girl’s name was Agatha, the old man was her father and the young man’s name was Felix. They often played on a musical instrument, which the monster liked. It was a small family of three. The monster gradually picked up and spoke their language, though his voice was not as sweet as their’s.
Tale of Passionate Love and Sacrifice
One day as the old man was about to start playing on the instrument, they heard someone tapping at the door. It was a veiled lady on horseback. She was accompanied by a countryman as guide. When Agatha asked the lady who she was, the lady replied in a strange language, mentioning the name of Felix. Felix heard his name and came out. The moment the lady saw him, she threw up her veil. Overjoyed to see her, Felix kissed her and called her his sweet Arabian”. The language in which they spoke to each other was different and neither of them could properly understand each other
Felix helped the lady dismount. She was taken inside the cottage and introduced to the rest of the family. She knelt at the old man’s feet, but he raised her and embraced her affectionately. After some time, the lady indicated that she was trying to learn their language. The monster also resolved to learn their language. The lady’s name was Safie. When Felix said, “Good Night, Sweet Safie” the monster heard them. He picked up the language faster than Safie.
Felix read Volney’s Ruins of Empires to Safie and instructed her. The monster learnt of the advance and progress of mankind as well as the foul acts they committed for acquiring property and wealth. The monster felt sad at the nature of all those whose history and misdeeds he heard Soon he had learnt everything
After this digression, the monster narrated the history of the poor family to Victor. The old man’s name was De Lacey. He was once a wealthy nobleman who had lived in Paris till a few months ago. Safie’s father, a Turkish merchant, was the cause of his ruin. For some reason, was imprisoned the day Satie arrived from Constantinople to join him. He was tried and condemned to death. In fact it was not any crime but his religion that was the cause of Safie’s father’s sentence. Felix was present at his trial. He was horrified at the injustice and he planned to get the man out. The Turk noticed that Felix loved his daughter and he promised to give Safie’s hand in marriage to Felix if he took him out of the prison, which Felix eventually mentioned to do.
Salie’s mother was a Christian Arab, who was made a slave by the Turks. Safie’s father bought her and married her. She did not like the Muslims, but she was in bondage. She, however, instructed Safie in the tenets of her own religion, he, Christianity, Satie’s mother died. But Safie’s mind was made up to marry a Christian rather be a part of some Arab’s harem.
After Felix managed to get her father out of prison, he brought them secretly to place called Leghorn, where the Turk waited for an opportunity to sneak into his country. He continued to assure the lovers, but he had different plans. He loathed the idea of Safie marrying a Christian.
Meanwhile the French Government discovered the secret plot. De Lacey and Agatha were thrown into prison. Felix got the news at Leghron. After obtaining a promise from the Turk that Safie would remain a lodger at a convent in Leghron, he rushed to Paris. He delivered himself to the law so that his father and Agatha could be free. But they remained in jail for about five months after which all their properties were confiscated and they were exiled. They found asylum in a miserable cottage in Germany, where the monster had now found them.
The Turk went back on his promise and sent some money, a pittance, to Felix for his pains. He hired a vessel to sneak into the Turkish dominions leaving Safie at Leghorn under the care of a confidential servant. Safie had some jewels with her. With the help of a native of Leghorn who spoke the languages of both the countries, she left for Germany. She had learnt the name of the place where Felix lived through her father’s papers.
When they were close to the place Safie’s attendant died. However, the woman in whose house they lived took care that Safie should reach her lovers place. Felix and the members of his family were extremely happy at Safie’s arrival.
The Monster’s Desire for a Companion
While Felix instructed Safie in their language, the monster picked it up. Once he found an opportunity to be alone with the blind father (De Lacey) he had a good time, but was attacked when others came. He had somehow managed to steal some books from the cottage, particularly Paradise Lost from which he learned about the creation of Adam and Eye. His desire for a companion for himself became intense. He pleaded with Victor to create a companion compatible with him. He would then turn virtuous and go away. He also confessed that he had strangled the young William in a fit of rage and placed the miniature picture of Caroline in Justine’s pocket. He repeatedly justified his need for a companion for himself as the other creatures have in this world. And Victor promised to create a companion for the monster.
Victor travelled with the Clerval to England from there to Scotland, where he wished to be left alone. He promised to see Clerval after a few months. He had by now collected sufficient material and instruments to create another being. He hired an isolated hut on an island. As he was about to complete the process, he saw the monster peeping through the window of his hut. In a fit of rage he tore off the frame. This infuriated the monster, who threatened to meet him on his wedding night.
Victor quickly gathered his material in a basket, hired a boat and threw the basket into the sea. A storm brought him to the shore where he was arrested for murder. When he was shown the face of the murdered man, he cried and fell into a delirium. The murdered man was his childhood friend Henry Clerval !
Victor was kept in a prison for some time and then he was shifted to a mental asylum. In the meanwhile it was discovered that Victor was on one of the islands on the day Clerval was murdered.
Victor was taken home and his marriage with Elizabeth was arranged. The couple were married and they went on their honeymoon. Thinking that the monster had threatened him, Victor carried weapons to save himself from danger. On the wedding night he inspected the passages and corridors of the place they were staying. But there was no sign of the monster.
Suddenly he heard a shriek and rushed in Elizabeth had been strangled to death by the monster! He saw the monster leaving and fired many shots. but it escaped. The sound of the shots brought in crowds of people. They joined him in search of the monster but all in vain. Victor returned to Geneva. His father died in grief.
Victor was now all alone. He made a report to the local magistrate explaining all that had transpired. But the magistrate dismissed his report as one of some supernatural spirits. He promised help, but told Victor that his report was improbable.
Pursuing the Monster
Victor then resolved to pursue the monster by himself. He went to the churchyard to offer tribute to all the dead member of his family and called upon the spirits to help him in getting hold of the monster and killing him. Suddenly he heard the voice of the monster from a nearly spot. He darted towards it and saw the monster jumping over ridges. Soon it was beyond Victor’s reach. But it had left marks and signs on the barks of trees and in stones, calling upon Victor to follow it to everlasting ices of the North Sea.
Victor continued to pursue the monster. Many villagers told him that they had seen a huge creature speeding on the ice. They informed him that a gigantic figure had arrived in their hamlets. He had carried off their stores and winter food, which he had placed in a sledge pulled by a number of dogs that he had captured.
Victor sold his land sledge and got the one that could be used on the frozen ocean. He stored his sledge with plenty of provisions and started. He was able to spot the monster, but soon the ground sea wrecked his sledge and his dogs died. He was himself about to drown when he saw a vessel. After destroying a part of his sledge, Victor was able to move towards the vessel in which Walton and his sailors were stuck.
Robert Walton picks up the narrative at this stage and writes to his sister, Mrs. Saville, in England about the subsequent happenings.
Victor’s story was confirmed by certain letters Walton found in his pocket. Walton and his sailors nursed Victor back to life, but he was not destined to live long. He was in a miserable condition. Walton gave details of Victor’s quest; his long speech infused courage in Walton and the sailors. He, however, consented to return to England. But ice cracked in the Arctic region and the sailors were in imminent peril. The sailors were about to return. At this point, Victor made his last encouraging speech to them. Gradually his eyes were closed for ever and the smile passed away from his lips.
All of a sudden, Robert Walton heard a sound from the cabin where Victor lay dead. A huge creature was bent over him. The monster confessed all his nefarious deeds and told Walton not to fear him for it was about to leave the vessel, collect a pile of wood and immolate himself as his last victim was dead now. The monster then sprang out of the cabin and disappeared.
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