Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus” (1818) combines Gothic horror and science fiction. The story follows Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss natural science student, who creates a human-like creature from body parts and brings it to life.
At first, the monster seeks love and acceptance, but people react with fear and hatred towards it. The monster becomes bitter and angry, turning against its creator, who meets a tragic end.
You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.
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Table of Contents
A polar explorer tells a strange tale: a scientist created a hideous monster who, after being rejected by everyone he met, became a murderer, drove his creator to his death, and went off to kill himself.
Four Letters To Mrs. Saville
A polar explorer, Robert Walton, writes four letters to his sister in England, Mrs. Margaret Saville, about his ambition to see a land that no one has ever visited and to discover a northern route to the Pacific.
For six years he has prepared for this expedition, and he admits to his sister that he is lonely, that it would be reassuring to have a friend with him who might: share in his triumphs and defeats. In his fourth letter, while icebound on his ship in the Arctic, north of Russia, he reports having sighted a gigantic, monstrous being, shaped like a man, speeding northward on a sled pulled by dogs.
The next morning, Walton’s crew members help rescue a traveler, weak and exhausted, who has drifted to Walton’s ship on a large ice floe. For two days, Walton and his crew devote themselves to the welfare of this man, and when Walton asks him why he has come to this frozen place, the stranger replies that he has come “to seek one who fled from me.”
When Walton describes the monstrous creature he saw a few days earlier, the man immediately shows interest and asks questions about this “demon.” As Walton’s affection for the stranger grows, the man, Victor Frankenstein, agrees to tell Walton his unhappy story.
Frankenstein tells of his happy childhood as the eldest son of a prominent Swiss family. His father, Alphonse Frankenstein, married the sweet and caring Caroline Beaufort, and after she gave birth to Victor, they adopted an orphan girl, Elizabeth Lavenza, who was slightly younger than he and who had noble ancestors.
Two years later, a second son, Ernest, was born, followed much later by another son, William. Though Victor was an unsocial boy at his school in Geneva, he became best friends with Henry Clerval, who, like Victor, was interested in “the moral relations of things.” Frankenstein developed an early fascination with science, and when he was 17 he enrolled at the University of Ingolstadt.
After a delay caused by the death of his mother—whose dying wish was that Victor and Elizabeth would eventually marry—Victor reached the university, feeling sad and alone without Elizabeth and his dear friend Henry Clerval.
There, he met the kindly M. Waldman, a professor of chemistry who would eventually inspire in Victor a dream of unfolding the secrets of nature. After two years of intense study in anatomy, physiology, and chemistry, Frankenstein became obsessed with the question “Whence … did the principle of life proceed?”
After discovering “the cause of generation and life,” he reached the conclusion that he was “capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” Working in secret, he obtained anatomical parts from graveyards and slaughterhouses and, despite moments when he loathed his occupation, he pursued his obsession with a passion.
One “dreary night of November,” after laboring for two years on his creation, Victor finally beheld the results of his toil. He was suddenly filled with “horror and disgust” at the sight of the hideous being he had created: “his yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.”
Bitterly disappointed, he fell asleep, but wild dreams caused him to awake in a sweat, only to find the monster standing next to his bed, grinning at him. Victor, stricken with fear, rushed out of the house and spent the night in the rain.
The next day, he walked aimlessly about town, not daring to go back to his room. He was reminded of Coleridge’s poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” with its themes of loneliness and alienation. Before long, he was delighted to see the arrival in town of his friend Clerval, who had come to study Oriental languages.
Upon returning to his room, he discovered that the monster had disappeared. Instead of being alarmed, Frankenstein was overjoyed, but then collapsed and was nursed through a serious illness by Clerval.
Just as he was beginning to feel better, he received a letter from his father in which he learned of the murder of his brother, little William. Returning to Geneva, Frankenstein became convinced that the monster was the murderer, but found that Justine Moritz, the family’s servant, had been accused.
Justine confessed and was found guilty, but privately told Elizabeth and Frankenstein that she had confessed only under pressure from a priest. She had spent the night of the murder in a barn, having returned from a trip after the gates of Geneva had been locked for the night. She could not explain how the miniature of Frankenstein’s mother, which William had been wearing around his neck, came to be in her pocket.
She was hanged, and Frankenstein was plunged into remorse; he hated and feared his monster, who was now responsible for the deaths of two loved ones. To soothe his frenzied mind, he wandered alone toward the mountains, but as he crossed a glacier he saw the monster approaching.
The giant told him that he was wretchedly unhappy, and asked Frankenstein to accompany him to a hut on the glacier, where he would tell Victor his story.
After leaving Frankenstein’s room at the college, the monster had wandered about, discovering food and fire, but feeling lonely and rejected by his creator. He came upon a small hut, and when he entered it, the man inside shrieked with horror and fled.
This was the monster’s second painful experience with rejection. Within days he visited a village, but again was badly abused by the people and was finally chased away. Soon he located a cottage that had an adjoining shed, and discovered that by hiding in it, he could still see the cottagers—a young man, a young girl, and a blind old man.
Seeing their poverty, he gathered firewood for them and cleared snow from their path. By listening to them he was able to learn language. The young people were Felix and Agatha De Lacey; the old man was their father. The De Laceys were poor, but the monster saw that they loved one another:
The younger De Laceys sacrificed their food so that the old man could eat, and the monster was deeply moved by this kindness. Though they did not know he existed, the monster began to worship them as “superior beings.”
One spring day, Felix’s fiancée arrived, and though at first he called her his “Arabian” (her mother was a Christian Arab), Felix soon began referring to her as “sweet Safie.” Her father, a Turkish merchant who lived in Paris, had been a victim of injustice and Felix had helped him escape from jail; in return for this help, the Turk vowed to let Felix marry Safie, but then broke his promise.
Safie, nonetheless, escaped and made her way to the De Laceys, whose fortune and aristocratic status had been destroyed when the French government exiled them after Felix’s role in the Turk’s escape. The De Laceys were now living an impoverished existence in Germany.
The monster, having overheard them talk, was deeply moved by the story of Safie and the De Laceys, and when he saw this happy group of people joined together by love for each other, he felt sad that he had neither parents, nor friends or loved ones. But he began to love these people as if they were his own.
Felix began to teach Safie their language, geography, and history—and the monster, watching, learned along with her. He was enthralled by the human potential for good actions but shocked by the record of human evil. The monster found three books and soon learned to read. One day, he came upon some papers in his pocket and found that they were Frankenstein’s journal.
The monster became even more lonely and sad when he read that even his creator had loathed him. One day, he finally summoned the courage to reveal himself to his beloved De Laceys, but to his horror Felix attacked him, and the family fled from the cottage.
Feeling “rage and revenge,” the monster burned the structure, and set out toward Geneva to find Frankenstein. Coming upon a child (little William), he tried to appeal to his innocence, but the child called him “monster” and threatened punishment from his father, Mr. Frankenstein.
Seizing this opportunity for revenge, the monster killed William and, reasoning that the beautiful woman (Justine Moritz) whom he found sleeping in a nearby barn would reject him, he maliciously put the young boy’s locket in her pocket. At the end of his tale, the monster told Frankenstein that what he desired and needed more than anything else was a mate who would love him.
When the monster promised to go to the wilds of South America and live peacefully with his mate, Frankenstein reluctantly consented to create one for him.
He then set out for England to learn of new discoveries that would help him. Although he knew he was now the monster’s slave, he promised to marry Elizabeth when he returned. Joined by Clerval, he secretly collected his material in Oxford and went alone to a hut in the Orkneys.
Three years after the creation of his first monster, the second (to be the monster’s mate) was nearing completion. Suddenly Frankenstein reconsidered, thinking of the destruction that might result.
While the monster, grinning hideously, watched him work through a window, Frankenstein suddenly destroyed his new creation.
The monster swore revenge, threatening to carry it out on Frankenstein’s wedding night. A storm carried Frankenstein’s boat to Ireland, where he was accused of murder. In horror, he saw Clerval’s dead body.
After going to prison and falling ill, he was found innocent and returned to Geneva, determined to protect his loved ones. He and Elizabeth were married, and assuming that it was he—Frankenstein—that the monster would try to kill, Victor went in search of the monster, but it was to no avail.
Upon returning, however, he found Elizabeth lying dead and the monster pointing triumphantly at her. Not long afterward, Frankenstein’s father died of grief and shock. Vowing to get revenge, Frankenstein became a wanderer in search of his monster.
Following clues left by the creature, Frankenstein pursued him north to the polar sea—which brings his story to the point where, close to death, he was rescued by Walton’s crew and boarded the ship.
Five Letters To Mrs. Saville
Walton finishes the story by telling his sister of his great admiration for Frankenstein and of Frankenstein’s refusal to share the secret of creation with him. Due to Walton’s own ambition, his ship is in danger, lives have been lost, and the men, threatening mutiny, now demand that Walton give up his quest.
Frankenstein, very weak, makes a speech urging them to push on, but they refuse and he dies. Walton agrees to return, and the ice breaks up. The monster appears, grieving over Frankenstein’s dead body; he tells Walton that he was created for love and sympathy, but became a slave to revenge.
He will now build a fire and end his miserable life. Leaping out the cabin window, the monster is “borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”
Robert Walton: Arctic explorer; age 28. Ambitious, dreams of discovering new territory and northern passage to the Pacific. Loves poetry and the marvellous, hungry for glory rather than wealth. Longs to find a friend capable of sharing his feelings.
Victor Frankenstein: Swiss scientist. From an early age, fascinated by the secrets of heaven and earth. Turns away from all other subjects to follow his quest for the principle of life; eventually sees himself almost as God. Wants revenge on the monster but is unable to achieve it because the monster is actually a part of himself. His pursuit of the monster leads only to his own death.
The Monster: Frankenstein’s creation; embodies Frankenstein’s ambition. Frighteningly hideous and outsized (eight feet tall), but loving and virtuous by nature. Capable of murderous rage and hatred when his dreams of being loved are thwarted. Sensitive to beauty in nature, literature, and human feelings. Desperately lonely. His most urgent need is for love and companionship. (Note: “Frankenstein” is the name of the scientist who created the monster, not the name of the monster itself; only in Hollywood films is “Frankenstein” the name of the monster.)
Elizabeth Lavenza: Frankenstein’s adopted sister, called “cousin” by him. Sweet, serene nature. She eventually marries him.
Henry Clerval: Frankenstein’s best friend. Loves nature, not attracted by Frankenstein’s scientific pursuits; is drawn to stories of heroic deeds. Becomes a student of Oriental languages.
Themes & Ideas
1. Overreaching Ambition
Both Walton’s and Frankenstein’s lives show that ambition can be followed to dangerous extremes and can have a dehumanizing effect. Walton pursues his quest to the point where his men threaten him with mutiny, even though his original intention was to confer an “inestimable benefit” on humankind by discovering a passage near the pole to those northern countries. Frankenstein’s creation results in the death of innocent people and in his early death. Both men had hoped to help humankind with their discoveries; both fail.
Like Faust, the legendary medieval figure who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power, Walton and Frankenstein have their own visions of grandeur. Frankenstein says, “It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn.” Yet, he comes to realize that his ambition has destroyed every meaningful human relationship in his life.
Because Frankenstein accepts responsibility for the creation of the monster, he blames himself for the deaths of William, Justine, Clerval, and Elizabeth. But he does not, except briefly (and when forced), accept the notion that he is responsible for the monster’s unhappiness. The greatest responsibility is that of the creation of new life, and Frankenstein is not equal to its demands.
Walton, similarly, is accused by his men of acting irresponsibly toward them. Fortunately, Walton can learn from Frankenstein’s experience before it is too late.
2. Humans and Nature
Frankenstein warns against the danger of humans losing touch with nature and thus losing part of their humanity. When he is working on his creation, he ignores the coming of spring, and only after the monster’s departure and the arrival of Clerval can he respond to natural beauty.
When the monster is still innocent, he finds comfort in nature; Clerval never loses touch with it. When Walton meets Frankenstein, he is impressed by Frankenstein’s ability, in his broken condition, to appreciate their natural surroundings.
The plot contains many examples of a failure of justice due to reliance on surface “evidence”: Justine’s conviction, Frankenstein’s imprisonment, and Safie’s father’s imprisonment.
Society is constantly unjust to the monster because it makes its judgments based on superficial appearances. Victims of injustice become unjust or cruel in their turn: Safie’s father breaks his promise to Felix; the monster kills the innocent and insists to the end that “all humankind” was unjust to him.
4. Friendship vs. Isolation
Frankenstein’s discovery isolates him from love and friendship; he cannot share his secret and his guilt with anyone and gradually loses all human ties until, near death, he forms a friendship with Walton.
The monster never has a friend or loved one and declares that he has become a criminal because of this lack. Walton, who longs for a friend on his voyage, finds Frankenstein and, because of their friendship, passes on his story, thus re-establishing communication.
Learning is shown to be both beneficial and destructive: Clerval’s study of human interaction and Oriental languages is contrasted with Frankenstein’s obsession with pushing scientific knowledge to extremes. Both Frankenstein and the monster suffer because of what they have learned.
Also, Mary Shelley, using the extreme case of the monster, traces the educational process from its beginnings and shows how evil is learned, not inborn: The monster first reads of evil actions, then experiences cruelty, and finally declares war on humankind.
6. Fate and Destiny
Frankenstein believes that he was under the control of his destiny when he began the course of study that led to the monster’s creation. Frankenstein and the monster become inextricably bound up in each other’s destiny: the monster says that his destiny is controlled by Frankenstein, and the monster becomes Frankenstein’s destiny.
An important question raised by the novelist is how much of our destiny is within our control. Many themes and symbols of the novel have dual aspects as the author suggests that characters have “other selves”: the monster can be the “other side” of Frankenstein (i.e., his potential for evil); Clerval can be Frankenstein’s innocent self; Walton can be seen as a Frankenstein who abandons his quest in time to save himself.
The monster’s aimless wandering on foot shows his loneliness and quest for love. Frankenstein’s relentless pursuit of the monster, by boat and by sledge, underlines the pointlessness of revenge and of Frankenstein’s attempt to stop the monster; it also shows the doomed nature of their relationship.
These stories of traveling are told on Walton’s icebound ship, where movement is impossible, forcing a reflection on the meaning of the journey. Similarly, Frankenstein is obliged to remain in his hut to hear the monster’s story, and the monster’s learning process takes place when he stays in the De Laceys’ shed.
2. Isolated Places
Represent the progressive alienation of characters from normal life into one of detachment from society. Frankenstein’s room in Ingolstadt, where he creates the monster, is paralleled by his hut in the Orkneys, much farther from his home, where he works on creating a mate for the monster.
The monster can relate to the De Laceys only by hiding in their shed and peeking at their activities through a hole; he tells his story to Frankenstein in a hut on a glacier. Frankenstein, accused of murder, spends months in a prison cell. Walton hears the story in another enclosed place but, in the end, returns to society.
3. Books and Reading
Represent the double potential of education: the monster values his books, but they also increase his sorrow by showing him how different he is from others. When he reads Frankenstein’s diary, he discovers that even his creator found him repulsive.
4. Snow and Ice
Symbolize the “coldness” of being obsessed with ambition and of the inhumanity and hatred that can result. The monster’s story is told on a glacier, and Frankenstein’s is told on a sea of ice.
A double symbol of life and death, of love and hate. The monster helps fuel the De Laceys’ fire; when they reject him, he burns their house, and at the end, plans to die by fire.
1. Insightful Narration
Mary Shelley used three characters to narrate the story, and I found this to be particularly effective. The chapters narrated by the creature provided insight into its thoughts and feelings, beyond just being a killing machine. It made me empathize with the monster, who craved love and acceptance, just like any human child. The way the creature became a monster was a reflection of the way children can become monsters if deprived of love and natural affection.
2. Poetic Interludes
As the wife of poet Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley included some of her husband’s poetry in the novel, adding a layer of depth and elegance. These poetic interludes were not only beautiful but also contributed to the mood and atmosphere of the book. It was a nice touch that added a literary dimension to the story.
3. Unique Storytelling
One thing that sets Frankenstein apart from other horror novels is its unique nested narrative structure. Shelley’s tale is a story within a story within a story, which makes the reading experience richer and more fulfilling. Unfortunately, many film adaptations have not done justice to the novel’s complexity and themes. So, reading the book is the only way to truly appreciate the depth of Shelley’s creation.
1. Uneven pacing and technical flaws
One issue with the book is that the pacing can be uneven. The story can be engrossing at times, but there are several pages that seem to drag on, making the pacing of the novel feel unbalanced. Additionally, it can be difficult to keep track of how much time has passed in the story. Sometimes, it seems like a long time has passed when only a few months have gone by, and vice versa. Finally, it can be challenging to keep track of Frankenstein’s age, which can make the story feel disjointed.
2. Philosophical and moralistic nature may not appeal to all readers
Frankenstein is not a horror story, as many people believe, but instead a philosophical and moralistic tale. The novel explores the nature of good and evil, life and death, and what we should or shouldn’t do if we have the power to do something. While these themes are compelling, they may not appeal to readers looking for a more action-packed or suspenseful read.
3. Unlikable main character
The novel’s main character, Victor Frankenstein, is not a likable character. He is narcissistic, whiny, and abandons the monster he created, which leads to the creature’s tragic fate. While the creature is often considered the villain of the story, many readers may find themselves sympathizing with him over Frankenstein. This shift in perspective may be off-putting to readers who prefer a more straightforward hero-villain dynamic.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic work of Gothic literature that is still relevant and thought-provoking today. With its intricate plot, memorable characters, and masterful use of the epistolary style, this novel is a fascinating exploration of themes such as ambition, responsibility, and the consequences of our actions.
While it may not conform to the Hollywood myth of a mad scientist and his monstrous creation, the novel’s complex portrayal of Victor Frankenstein and his creation offers a nuanced commentary on the human condition.
Whether you are a fan of Gothic literature or simply looking for a timeless tale that will challenge your thinking, Frankenstein is definitely worth a read.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851) was born in London. She is the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist writer, and William Godwin, a philosopher and a novelist.
In 1814, when Mary was barely 17, she eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), the English Romantic poet who was already married; caused a great scandal in England. The couple moved to Switzerland, where they spent many rainy evenings with their friend Lord Byron, another English Romantic poet (1788–1824), reading ghost stories in front of a blazing wood fire.
Byron suggested they each write a ghost story, so she began writing Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in the summer of 1816, at the age of 19. When Shelley’s wife Harriet committed suicide in December 1816, Mary and Shelley legally married. In 1822, Shelley drowned in a boating accident. Mary’s works include the novels Valperga (1823), The Last Man (1826), Lodore (1835), and a number of short stories.
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