|Title page from 1818 edition,|
Volume I begins with a series of letters from Robert Walton, an explorer, to his married sister. He explains his plans for polar expedition. In his fourth letter, now in the far north, Walton tells his sister about a “being” of “gigantic stature” that he glimpsed out on the ice—and then recounts the later rescue of a wretched man, whom Walton subsequently takes aboard his ice-bound ship and befriends. The wretched man is Victor Frankenstein. Greatly weakened by his ordeal in the icy wilderness, Victor tells his long story to Walton, who, later, each night in his own quarters, writes down (for us!) what he has heard.
Victor tells about his boyhood in Geneva, Switzerland. He has two younger brothers—Ernest and William. Also living with their prosperous family is his first cousin Elizabeth Lavenza. Joining the household later is Justine Moritz, an orphan girl, who becomes a servant. And we also meet Henry Clerval, Victor’s longtime friend. Victor becomes interested in science—and, specifically, in the science of life—and begins conducting primitive experiments. When Victor is seventeen, he goes to the university at Ingolstadt, Germany, where he studies chemistry. And he makes a discovery: the chemical origin of life.
In Chapter IV comes one of the most famous moments in literary history: Victor brings his creature to life. But he is horrified by what he has created. Assembled from parts of cadavers, the creature is eight feet tall. Victor leaves his rooms in a feverish disgust. His friend Clerval, who has come to Ingolstadt to visit, takes Victor in and nurses him to health. When Victor later returns to his own residence, he sees the creature has disappeared.
Time passes—more than a year and a half. And then Victor gets a horrifying letter from home: His little brother William has been murdered. A distraught Victor heads for home, and in a storm sees his creature, but before he can pursue it, it swiftly scales a mountain and disappears. When Victor arrives home, he sees that cousin Elizabeth has become a lovely young woman—and discovers, to his horror, that the authorities have charged Justine, the maid, with William’s murder. She’s innocent, of course; we know who’s done the deed. But Justine—terrified and counseled by a priest—confesses, and Volume I ends with the imminent execution of Justine.
Volume II begins with more of Victor’s depression. His father urges all to go to nearby Chamonix, a lovely alpine valley and community featuring what was (in pre-global warming days) one of Europe’s most formidable glaciers. Exploring the glacier alone one day, Victor sees his creature again, who this time approaches Victor and begs him to listen to his story. Victor consents, and the creature’s tale consumes the rest of Volume II. The creature, by the way, is extraordinarily articulate. “I ought to be thy Adam,” he says; “but I am rather the fallen angel …. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
The creature recalls how he found ill-fitting clothing in Victor’s place and fled into the countryside, where he found a large cloak. People ran from him, drove him away. He found a hovel attached to a cottage where he concealed himself and began aiding the poor resident family (without their knowledge). Helping the situation: The old man living there was blind. Spying on these people, the creature learned languages; he learned to read (and manages all of Paradise Lost); he learned about social classes and conventions. He resolved to join the family, thinking he could first endear himself to the blind man, but when he did so, the others returned unexpectedly, were horrified, and drove him away. In a rage he burned their cottage, then decided to find Victor in Geneva. But he came across William first, who screamed; the creature, attempting to silence him, choked the little boy to death, then planted evidence on sleeping Justine to frame her. The creature tells Victor now—out on the glacier—that he wants Victor to make a mate for him. Then he will be happy and will fly the society of people. Victor reluctantly agrees.
Volume III commences in Geneva, some weeks later, and Victor has still not begun to fulfill his promise. There is talk of a marriage to his cousin Elizabeth. He agrees, happily, but knows he must first go back and create a mate for the creature. He travels with his friend Clerval into England, then, alone to the Orkney Islands (off the northern coast of Scotland). There, he begins the creation of the mate but soon has doubts: He fears they will produce a “race of devils … who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.” And so he tears his creation to pieces.
Outside, watching, out of Victor’s sight and knowledge, his original creature, is now fully enraged with what he’s witnessed. He confronts and curses Victor, warning him: “I will be with you on your wedding-night.” Back in England, authorities show Victor the body of Clerval, murdered by the creature. Victor’s father comes to England to journey with his grieving son back to Geneva.
The night of the wedding, Victor prowls around outside, just to make sure. He hears a scream inside. He rushes in, finds his bride lying dead, the creature grinning at the window. He rushes back to tell his father, who promptly suffers a stroke and dies a few days later. Victor vows to pursue, find, and destroy his creature. And so begins the long chase that culminates with the scene on the ice that began the book.
In another series of letters we learn that Victor is dying. When he does so, the creature enters the ship’s cabin and talks with Robert Walton. “Am I to be thought the only criminal,” he asks, “when all human kind sinned against me?” He vows to flee civilization and destroy himself in a fire. The last we see of him he is on an ice-floe. “He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance”—these, the final words of the novel.