It’s almost Halloween, and you know what that means: Tis the season to crack open Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein!
Like Bram Stoker and his Dracula, Shelley decides that the most thrilling of narrative perspectives in which to relate the terrifying and immediate details of her horror story is… a series of letters, written by a man named Walton to his sister Margaret whilst on a cold and snowy scientific expedition to the North Pole. Oh boy. These letters start out fairly standard until Walton’s ship gets stuck in the ice and his men see a giant sort of man stalking around outside. The next day, they see a different man, half-dead on a dogsled with only one dog left. They try to rescue the man, but he refuses help until he knows where they’re going first. A sensible sort of fellow. Victor (the name of our weary traveler) soon grows attached to Walton because he senses a kindred scientific spirit, and he decides to explain to Walton how he is related to the tall man they saw before and why Walton should stop pursuing science. (Why do our narrators always attract the weirdos?)
He starts, of course, at the beginning with his father’s marriage. Oh man, this is going to be a long story. His father had become best friends with a poor old man who eventually died and left an orphaned daughter, Caroline, in his care. He ships her off to a relative and marries her two years later. Soon enough they have a son, Victor. It turns out Caroline is fond of collecting babies. While wandering the countryside, she adopts a blond-haired blue-eyed baby girl from a pack of dark haired peasants. It’s not really kidnapping – the baby is actually the daughter of a dead Milanese nobleman and a dead German woman, so surely none of the peasants will mind. Victor’s dad comes home, a little surprised to see a new addition to the family, but they keep her anyway and call her Elizabeth Lavenza. Caroline gives Victor his new baby sister as a present. Victor, of course, takes this literally, and from now on claims Elizabeth as his. Eventually their parents have another son, who will not get a name for many pages, and the family settles down in Geneva.
Victor is a studious child and soon becomes obsessed over discovering the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Meanwhile, his best friend Clerval is trying to figure out the nature of morality. You know how little boys are. Elizabeth, for her part, is sympathetic and loving and good and boring the way most leading ladies of this time are. One day on a family outing, Victor finds a book on Agrippa and his father calls it trash. Like every other 13-year-old, he automatically decides it’s worth reading (mainly because his father didn’t clarify that it was actually outdated garbage, rather than a naughty thing that boys shouldn’t be looking at). This, of course, leads Victor to a whole mess of archaic books and, like any modern day scholar picking up a book on phrenology, he decides that since someone wrote it down, it must be true. He goes on to teach himself all there is to know about the occult until one day a lightning bolt hits a tree. He realizes he’s never going to understand everything about the universe so he takes up math instead. Just before he goes away to school, Elizabeth catches scarlet fever but somehow manages to survive. To maintain the cosmic balance, their mother catches it and dies instead. Before she does, though, she tells Victor and Elizabeth that it’s her dying wish that they get married. On that slightly incestuous note, Victor goes off to school.
Victor’s natural philosophy teacher, Krempe, informs him that his precious occult philosophers are a waste of time. Victor feels insulted and goes to another professor, Waldman, who has the charm and enthusiasm of Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson combined and makes science seem like the raddest thing ever. Victor Frankenstein is hooked and decides, naturally, his mission in life is to solve all the mysteries of the universe, starting with the question of where life comes from. To study life he decides to study death, and spends his days watching things die and decay. He must have been a really popular guy at school.
One day, he makes a breakthrough in discovering how to create life after “days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue.” Mothers and pregnant people everywhere yawn. He doesn’t share his life-creating method with us – no, that would be far too interesting. Instead, he just skips over that bit and goes on to finding something to animate. Of course, Victor doesn’t aim low: his first project is going to be building another human being. He figures that even if it doesn’t work out so great the first time, it’ll at least improve the shot for the next go-around. He works on his project for a few years, neglecting little things like family and social contact, until he turns into a slightly paranoid crazy man.
One rainy November night, a full-grown son is born unto him, with the loveliest dull yellow eyes any proud dad has ever seen. Well, not this dad. While the rest of his bundle of joy is perfect, Victor is freaked out by the eyes and flees the room. (Honestly, I think you could probably change the eyes. He’s not necessarily attached to them yet). He has a couple of nightmares, and wakes up to find his creation watching him sleep. Didn’t anyone ever tell this guy not to leave a newborn alone in the room? Victor runs away again, becoming yet another depressing deadbeat dad statistic.
Victor runs to town, and straight into his friend Clerval, whose troubles are a good deal more mundane. It takes Clerval awhile to realize Victor has his crazy science face on and tries to get him to rest. Instead, Victor has an immediate breakdown in health and probably sanity and Clerval becomes his nurse.
He gets a letter from his sister/fiancée, who prattles on about an old servant, Justine, who has tragically lost her entire family and returned to working at their place. Elizabeth mentions Ernest, the sixteen-year-old brother that Victor never talks about, and also mentions little William, who is – wait, he’s also the brother that Victor never talks about. Since when did Victor have two brothers?! After writing a reply, he introduces Clerval to his professors, despite the fact that Victor now hates science. Instead, he and Clerval both start learning Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit and end up writing passionate stories and speaking poetry at each other.
They would probably go on with this sappy nonsense ad nauseum, except Victor’s father writes to tell him that his little brother William is dead. He says that Ernest was unable to find William after a game of Hide-and-Seek, making William the ultimate champion and Ernest a loser who is probably far too old for that game. They later found the little boy strangled to death, and Elizabeth declared that she was the kid’s murderer.
She fainted (of course) and they had to rouse her again so she could explain that she just said that to make it sound like an unexpected and exciting plot twist – it turns out she didn’t really kill him, she just lent him a valuable picture of his mother which must have been stolen by the actual murderer. How disappointing. Victor’s father urges Victor to come home and console the family. Victor heads for Geneva, and Clerval follows him there, lamenting over poor dead William and his poor living family. Victor ditches him as soon as possible.
Victor gets home in the middle of the storm and sees his “daemon” in a flash of lightning. Of course, he assumes it must have somehow found the way to his house (presumably it looked him up in the phone book?) to strangle his little brother (because surely no human would want to hurt the little cherub). He meets up with his family back at the house and they inform him that the murderer is that new maid, Justine Moritz, who happened to have the missing picture in her pocket. Fortunately her trial is today, so we can witness it firsthand (well, thirdhand, as Victor is telling this to Walton, who is putting it in a letter to his sister). Justine almost has an alibi, but can’t account for the portrait, and even though the entire family dramatically proclaims her innocence, she confesses to the murder and goes off to her death the next morning.
Everyone mopes around for awhile until Frankenstein can no longer stand it. He does the logical thing and hires a mule for a journey up a rugged path, through castle ruins, and into a glacial valley in the Alps. He gets so inspired by the scenery that he calls out to wandering spirits, only to have his daemon leap over icy crevices toward him. Frankenstein calls the poor guy lots of awful names, to which the horrific daemon replies calmly: “I expected this reception.”
This is one of the most hilariously unexpected opening lines I have ever read in literature and I’m now 100% Team Creature. The creature makes some pretty good points about his creator shirking his duty as a dad, and then calmly offers his conditions for peace and happiness. Frankenstein throws a fit, calls him some more names, and tries to shoo him off. The creature just wants to tell him a story, so they set up a campfire and roast s’mores. The creature relates the tale of how he discovered food, drink, and fire, and eventually terrified some villagers in his hunt for more. He stalked a girl, Agatha, her brother, Felix, and their dad, watching them through the window and collecting wood for them so they didn’t have to work. From listening at the window, he learned to talk and write as the cottagers gave lessons to Safie, an Arabian woman who turns out to be Felix’s girlfriend. The creature listened to history lessons along with Safie from a very politically incorrect book before they all moved on to manuals about human life and the reproduction cycles. Why they felt this was critical to Safie’s education, I’m not sure.
The creature eventually found a trunk and some books – notably Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter, which I guess is better than stumbling on Agrippa. He spent several months working up the courage to introduce himself to his cottagers, waiting until the blind old man was alone and politely knocking on the door. The old man invited him in, and they had a nice little chat about the creature’s stalking habits and desire to befriend them. Of course, as soon as the young people got home, there was much fainting and violence, and the creature fled howling into the woods and declaring everlasting war on the human race and his creator. As one does.
He soon forgot his vow, saving a little girl from drowning and getting a bullet in return. He wandered coincidentally to the Frankenstein house (It’s a small world after all), where he tried to educate an innocent little boy by grabbing him and squeezing him when he struggled. The little boy (William, in fact) started calling him names in true Frankensteinian fashion. The monster is delighted that his first victim was related to his creator, since he’s been hoping to cause him some grief. He saw the picture of the boy’s mother and found her quite lovely. Then he remembered that he was supposed to be evil and planted it on a random sleeping girl while whispering sweet nothings into her ear, ultimately condemning her to death.
As he finishes up his story to Frankenstein, the creature states his one demand: he wants a girlfriend. When Frankenstein refuses, the creature re-swears his hatred and revenge. Frankenstein finally gives in to his pleading, so long as the creature promises to go to America with his female. (America’s a big place – I’m sure they won’t mind). The creature thanks him and runs off with only the mildly alarming threat that he’ll keep an eye on his progress.
Frankenstein thus starts work on a female, dragging it out as long as possible. He spends a lot of time rowing on the lake until his dad shows up and encourages him to marry his sister. Like, right away. He manages to put this off by running away to England, leaving his family at the mercy of the creature. He picks up Clerval along the way, who is as cheerful as a puppy with its head out the window of a moving car. Alas, even Clerval barely dents Frankenstein’s ennui with his antics as they tour what seems to be the entire United Kingdom.
When he finally splits from his friend, Frankenstein takes up a little hut in Scotland and builds a new laboratory. He realizes that the female he is creating might actually have opinions of her own and won’t want to hang out with the creature she was made for. She might ditch him for someone hotter or worse – they might end up loving each other and make lots of little baby creatures. (As a surgeon, I don’t think you realize how easy it is to fix that, Frankenstein.) He sees the creature watching, snaps, and destroys the female creature right in front of him. The creature, of course, shows up at his bedside that night and talks about revenge some more. Then he lets Frankenstein know he’ll be with him on his wedding night and runs off. Nothing to worry about, I’m sure.
He puts the body parts of his half-made she-creature into a basket, thinking he probably shouldn’t leave them lying around for peasants to find (a smart move) and tosses them into the sea. He falls asleep on his boat and somehow ends up in Ireland, which is full of hostile people. They’re only hostile because they found a hot guy on the beach all strangled. Frankenstein realizes this MO sounds familiar, but it’s too late – the body turns out to be his good buddy Clerval. Frankenstein goes into a feverish fit and mad ravings for several months after that. He is eventually cleared of suspicion on the murder of his best friend, but doesn’t look forward to the ride home, even after his sister/fiancée writes him a letter reminding him of her love, which mostly just reminds him of the monster’s threat to be there on his wedding night. Frankenstein assumes that the monster is going to kill him then, despite the fact that he’s had so many chances already. (If he were paying attention at all, Frankenstein would realize the monster enjoys watching him suffer, and he might connect that with the fact that the last cruel thing he did was rip up the monster’s girlfriend, and possibly put two and two together, but… nah.)
Frankenstein marries Elizabeth and they set sail on their honeymoon. That night, Frankenstein keeps an eye out for the creature with a pistol in his shirt and a paranoid gleam in his eye. To protect his wife, he sends her off to bed alone. It’s all very romantic.
Of course, then he hears the scream. He finds her dead body on the bed and a grinning monster at the window. He returns home as soon as possible to make sure his father isn’t killed (because he’s done such a great job at that already). To his great luck, his dad is still alive! Not for long, though, because telling him what happened to Elizabeth makes him wither away and die in Frankenstein’s arms a few days later. Great job, genius. Nothing is mentioned about his remaining brother, who is probably happy to be forgotten this time around.
Frankenstein decides to tell the magistrate everything so they can find the killer, but the magistrate doesn’t really believe him, stating in a very diplomatic way that it sounds like this creature is awfully powerful. (And implying that Frankenstein sounds awfully crazy.) To prove his sanity, Frankenstein shuffles into a graveyard talking to himself before he takes to wandering the world, playing hide and seek with the creature. The creature, for his part, enjoys leaving little encouraging signs on trees that say things like “My reign is not yet over” and “Dress warm! We’re going to see Santa!” (the last one is paraphrased.) Frankenstein accumulates some dogs, and like every other inexperienced sledder, manages to lose them pretty quickly.
This is basically where our narrator came in. Frankenstein asks Walton to kill the creature immediately if he happens to see him, just so he won’t be swayed by its eloquently reasoned arguments. He also wants to see Walton’s notes on their conversations, and starts editing them like a nosy busybody. He becomes melodramatic about dying, about his potential genius and drastic downfall, and about the loss of the best friends in the world.
Before Frankenstein gets around to dying, however, a bunch of sailors burst into his room and demand that Walton take them home. Frankenstein calls them all cowards for not benefiting mankind with the knowledge they were going to discover. Despite the grand speech, Walton agrees to turn around and go home to England without completing his life’s mission. Frankenstein is stubborn, however, and tries to get out of bed so he can stay on the ice or die. Probably the latter.
Frankenstein tells Walton not to aim high in life, and then dies. Worst motivational speaker ever. Later, Walton comes into the room to find the creature standing over Frankenstein’s coffin (wait, where’d they find a coffin on the ship in the middle of the frozen ocean?). The creature laments over his final victim, and Walton chides him for being a naughty boy. The creature expresses his great remorse at killing people, and decides to go burn himself alive at the North Pole. I’m sure Santa will appreciate that.
Thus ends the dramatic tale of Frankenstein and his enormous ugly bitter baby. I’m not sure about you, but if I were Walton’s sister, I would ask him to write a shorter letter next time. Let’s keep it under a hundred pages, shall we?