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by Mary Shelley

Publishing DataPlot SummaryBackgroundNavigation GuideFurther Exploration
Publishing Data

Originally published 1818

Plot Summary

En route to the North Pole, explorer Robert Walton picks up the dying scientist Victor Frankenstein who relates to Walton the story of how his studies led him to create a monster out of dead matter. Frankenstein is repulsed by the Monster, who escapes only to be outcast by society.

Vowing vengeance on his creator, the Monster kills Frankenstein's younger brother and frames an innocent for the crime. The Monster then encounters Frankenstein, recounts his life since his escape, and demands that Frankenstein create a mate. When Frankenstein refuses, the Monster goes on a rampage of revenge.

Frankenstein vows vengeance and pursues the Monster to the Arctic where he relates his story to Walton, then dies. The Monster reappears for a last word with Walton before he disappears on the ice.


Saturn bulletOrigins
In the summer of 1816, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin were guests of Lord Byron in Geneva. At a reading of ghost stories Polidari, Byron's physician, suggested that everyone write a horror story.

Byron and Shelley soon discarded their attempts. Polidari completed a rambling account called The Vampire. Mary wrote the most famous horror story in the English language; she was 18 years old.

Saturn bulletPublishing History

  • 1818--first edition, published anonymously
  • 1823--unaltered second edition
  • 1831--revised edition with Mary Shelley's name; reprints in 1839 and 1849

Six more editions were published in England between 1851 (the year of Mary Shelley's death) and the present.

There have been at least 7 U.S. editions; the novel has also been translated into many European and Oriental languages

Frankenstein was the first novel in English to deal with the possibility that science will create a monster that can destroy science and possibly mankind.

Mary Shelley did not wish the story to be considered "supernatural" (Preface). She made the main character a scientist and his scientific efforts a focal point of the reader's attention.

In mood the novel is a tale of terror, in plot a laboratory experiment gone awry.The fusion of Gothic materials and science in this novel brought the tale of terror clearly into the stream of science fiction and also gave it a more credible base. If not the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein is at least the first novel that showed what a science fiction novel would be (James Gunn).

The novel is constructed of three concentric layers, one within the other:
  • outermost--Robert Walton's letters to his sister;
  • middle--Frankenstein's story as he tells it to Walton;
  • innermost--Monster's description to Frankenstein of the development of his mind at the deLaceys'.
                        bulletLiterary References
The novel is subtitled A Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was the son of a Titan; the name means "forethought." In the battle between Zeus and the Titans for control of Olympus he sided with Zeus and became his chief counselor. Later, over the question of how justly to apportion a sacrificial animal between the gods and man, he devised a scheme whereby man received the choicest parts.

Angered, Zeus denied man the gift of fire, fearing that its use for making tools and weapons would cause mortals to consider themselves equals of gods. Prometheus stole the fire and brought it to Earth. As punishment, Zeus ordered Prometheus chained to a rock on Mt. Caucasus where an eagle or vulture daily devoured his liver, which grew back each night. In another version of the story the fire stolen by Prometheus was also the fire of life with which he animated his men of clay.

The novel takes its epigraph from and makes many specific references to John Milton's Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost is John Milton's attempt to "justify the ways of God to man" by retelling of the story of Creation, the revolt of Lucifer and his fall from grace, and the story of Adam and Eve.

Frankenstein is a commentary on several concepts:
  • the pursuit of knowledge
  • the corrupting influence of civilization
  • the responsibility of a creator for his creation
Navigation Guide
How does the original novel differ from expectations garnered from your familiarity with the story through popular culture?
Characterize Frankenstein. What does the friendship with Clerval reveal about Victor? What prompts him to create the Monster?
What is Victor's reaction to his creation? What responsibilities toward it should he have undertaken at the outset? Why doesn't he do so?
What does the Monster learn from the deLaceys?
What does the Monster want? What is he willing to do to get it? Are his actions justified?
Is the Monster's request for a mate reasonable? Why does Victor deny him?
At what point, if any, does the Monster become unredeemable?
What is the relationship between Victor and the Monster?
Who is pursuing whom at the end of the novel? Who is worse off at the end of the novel, Victor or the Monster? Why does the Monster commit suicide?
Why does Shelley frame the novel with the story of Robert Walton?
What do Walton and Victor have in common? Is Victor's final advice to Walton sincere?
What, if anything, does Walton learn from Victor?
Further Exploration
Saturn bulletLinks
Frankenstein in the Media
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