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Synopsis of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Detailed synopsis of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley, New York, 1965, New American Library.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly was born in 1797, the daughter of William Godwin, a noted social scientist, and Mary Wollstonecraft, a leading literary figure of her time. She married Percy Bysshe Shelly in 1816. In that same year, she and her husband visited Switzerland where they became neighbors to Lord Byron. During that summer they read ghost stories and decided they should each write one of their own. Shelly and Byron were quick to start but never finished. Mary could not decide what to write about but, after an evening of philosophizing (Shelly and Byron philosophized, Mary listened), the idea came to her.

"Prometheus [from Greek mythology was] a Titan fabled to have made men out of clay, to have stolen fire for them from Olympus, and to have taught them various arts, in punishment for which he was chained by order of Zeus to a rock in the Caucasus, where his liver was daily gnawed by a vulture. He was freed when Hercules killed the vulture." The American College Dictionary.

Mary Shelly's Frankenstein is quite different from the Boris Karloff portrayal. There was no Igor. There were no castle on the hill and no angry villagers to burn it down. The monster had no electrodes implanted in his neck and lightning (though mentioned once in a childhood memory, was not indicated as being the animating agent (which was alluded to be of chemical origin). There was an old blind man (who played a guitar, not a violin) and there was a little girl who the monster actually saved from drowning.

The story is related through the letters of Robert Walton, the captain of a ship attempting to find a passage to the North Pacific by navigating across the North Pole, to his sister Margaret, in England. Walton is an adventurer who has dedicated his life to this purpose but finds himself lacking in one thing, a true friend, one with whom he can share his passion. His ship is far northward, alternating between being trapped by ice and having the ice break away and continuing onward. It is here, in this desert of ice, that he finds this friend. One evening the sailors pointed out a figure in the distance, a man on a sledge. The man must have been eight feet tall. Then the specter was gone.

That next morning, as the ice was once more breaking up, a chunk, on which lay a snow sledge and one remaining dog, floated near the ship. In the sledge lay a man, of normal stature, near to death. Even then, though, the man required assurance from the captain that they were heading north and not south, before he would consent to be brought aboard. The man's name: Victor Frankenstein.

At first Frankenstein was reticent to speak of himself, but as his strength grew and he saw in the captain a comrade in passion, he consented to tell his tale. The report could only be recounted as Frankenstein's strength endured and the captain made notes after each session.

Frankenstein was born in Geneva, Switzerland, where his father was a notable public figure. His mother was drawn to assisting the poor and one day while visiting Italy they came across a destitute family with five hungry babes. One appeared quite different then the others. Mrs. Frankenstein learned that this golden-haired, blue-eyed girl had been placed with this family by a Milanese nobleman to raise. The nobleman's fortunes had severely reversed (he may even be dead) and no further stipends arrived from him. The Frankensteins adopted little Elizabeth, who became the fast companion of Victor and the joy of the household. Later they had two more children, sons, of their own and life could have been considered idyllic.

Victor's departure for college at Ingolstadt was marred by the death of his mother from scarlet fever. Especially then, leaving his family, his good friend Henry Clerval, and his dear, dear Elizabeth proved excruciatingly difficult (it was assumed and hoped that they would be married). But the time came and he found himself in those halls of learning. He had always been drawn to understanding the secrets of heaven and earth and so he studied and excelled in the sciences. He became enthralled by the "structure of the human frame and, indeed, any animal endued with life." He rearranged his classes to enlighten him in the areas of anatomy and physiology. His quest consumed him: to find the source of life. His letters home became infrequent and finally stopped. He grew thin and pale.

And then, after two years of work, one dreary, rainy morning, he was ready. He had determined using large parts would make connecting them easier and so the creature extended a good eight feet. He applied his instruments of life and watched as the dull watery eye opened. The yellow skin barely covered the muscle and bone and though he had selected the parts with an eye to beauty, what he saw repulsed him. He turned from the monster and ran.

In the morning, wondering the streets, he encountered his friend Clerval dismounting a carriage. Henry had persuaded his father to let him attend college. He also had a letter from Elizabeth urging Victor to write and let her know his condition. This brought Victor some joy but he dreaded the beast waiting for him at his apartment. Bolstered by his friend's presence, they returned there and when he entered he found the creature gone.

We find out later that the nameless creature, quite intelligent but without the ability to control his passions, left the apartment that night, the night of his birth. He soon found that his appearance prevented him from having any companionship. So, rejected by his creator and by mankind, he took to the woods. He came upon a small house wherein resided an old man and his grown son and daughter. The creature created a concealment outside the house where he could watch the family through the window. By watching and listening he learned, like a child, to understand language. Later an Arabian woman came to stay with them and while the son taught her to read, the creature learned as well. Then, one day while scavenging for food in the forest, he came upon a bag containing three books: Plutarch's Lives, Milton's Paradise Lost, and the Sorrows of Werter. These he read, all as though they were history.

Finally, after watching his family for over a year, he decided that they would surely not spurn him. He would approach the old man, for he was blind and could not be put off by his appearance, when he was alone. This he did and the old man treated him kindly. But then the son and daughter returned and, assuming the creature would do their father harm, ejected him from the house. The creature, though he could have easily killed the son, left dejected. In the pocket of a coat he took when he left Frankenstein's apartment were pages of a journal Victor had kept. In it was mentioned Geneva, Victor's home. The creature decided to go there, to try to gain the thing that he most desired: a companion.

When he got there, by sheer chance, he encountered a boy. A boy, he thought, could not yet have become prejudiced by appearance and so he caught hold of him to talk to him. But the boy screamed and cried, 'My father is M. Frankenstein and he will punish you if you don't let me go!' He squeezed his throat to quiet him and soon he lay dead. From around his neck he took a small portrait of a lovely woman, the boy's mother. From there he found his way to a barn where he intended to pass the night. But lying on the straw was a beautiful young woman. Unknown to him, this was a servant of M. Frankenstein. The boy was lost and the servant had been looking for him. When the city gates were closed for the night, she decided to sleep there until the morning. The creature put the portrait in her pocket. He hated mankind for their of him and by doing this he could focus blame for the death of the child on this beautiful one.

Back in Ingolstadt, through the intervention of his friend Clerval, and by the removal of the fiend he had created, Victor was beginning to return to his old cheerful self. Then the letter arrived from Elizabeth. His brother was murdered and their favorite servant, Justine, is accused. He immediately left for Geneva. He arrived before the city gates opened and went to the place where his brother died. There he saw the shadow of the fiend and instantly he knew the truth, the murderer of his brother was his own creation. He, himself, killed his brother and he would be the cause of poor Justine's end, as well. He stayed with his family during the trial and after her execution he journeyed up the Alps, remembering that at times exercise had relieved his melancholy.

There, all alone and in the barren snow, he once again encountered his fiendish creation. This time he did not melt into the darkness but, rather, approached his creator. Here Frankenstein learned of his creature's life up to this point and of the demise of his brother and the reason for the condemnation of Justine. And it was here that the creature made his bargain with his creator. 'Make a companion for me and I will leave the environs of mankind forever.' At first Victor refused, not wishing to propagate this hideous race on humanity but the creature was persuasive. Victor relinquished. The creature vowed he would follow Frankenstein wherever he went and would appear to him when his companion was ready.

He returned to his home but could not start on the project. New knowledge on the subject of life was being revealed by scientists in England and he resolved to travel there but his father and Elizabeth would not allow him to travel alone and they called Clerval back from Ingolstadt to accompany him. Though he desired solitude, Henry's cheerfulness brightened his mood and quite lifted his spirits. The two visited London where Victor discoursed with the learned men and Henry kept company with the artists and musicians that flourished there. They traveled throughout England and Scotland but Victor could not content himself until his work was complete so, while Henry continued on, he rented a small hut on a small Scottish island. There he commenced to build a mate for his fiend.

One night, as he contemplated his nearly complete production, he found he could no longer carry out his sworn task. He could not create another fiend, another monster to breed even more of their ungodly kind. He tore apart his construction and as he looked up, he saw the face of his enemy in the window. 'What do you mean by destroying my companion?' And then he swore to Victor, "I will be with you on your wedding-night," and was gone.

Victor acknowledged that he would relinquish his life. He even looked forward to it. Since first creating the fiend, he longed for nothing more than his own death. That night he cleaned up the items in his hut, put them in a weighted basket and rowed out into the ocean where he deposited it. He fell asleep in the boat and when he came to shore he had crossed the channel into Ireland. There he was greeted by scowls and jailed. He was accused of murdering a man. Witnesses saw a man in a small boat retreating from the victim. The victim, it turned out, was Henry Clerval. Victor was despondent. His father arrived and when the trial finally came, he was acquitted. Now there were three murders on his head.

They returned to Geneva where Victor resolved to marry Elizabeth. If the fiend still lived and would indeed murder him on his wedding night, then so be it. The wedding took place and Elizabeth was radiant, though she worried for her beloved. That night, as they stayed in an inn on their way to their new home, Victor walked the halls. He was armed with a knife and two pistols. He waited for his enemy to assault him. But he misunderstood the words of the monster and he instantly realized his mistake when he heard his Elizabeth shriek. All life left him as he saw the marks on the throat of her dormant form.

From that day forward he pursued his hated foe. He followed through all manner of forest and mountain. The creature always just ahead. At times the monster would leave clues for him to find. He would goad him on, moving ever farther north. This is how it came to be that he now lay dying in the ship of Captain Walton.

During the time Frankenstein was aboard the ship, the crew were becoming concerned that they would all die waiting for ice breaks. They bargained with the captain and he finally relented that the next time an opening occurred, they should turn around and return to England. (So it was that the letters of Captain Walton were ever received by Margaret.)

The night Frankenstein died, as Walton readied himself for bed, he heard a noise in the room where the body lay. If he ever doubted any part of the story Victor presented, none remained vanished in the next moment. He walked in and found the monster grieving over his creator, a creator that he both loved and hated. He carried with him the guilt of the murders he committed yet he found himself powerless to prevent their commission. Now he must finish it with one last death: his own. He will build his own pyre and exterminate the last vestiges of his hideous form so that no one comes across it and conceives to create another such as he. At that he sprang through the cabin window and was seen no more.

? Lester L. Noll

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