(Monday, 15th – Sunday, 21st)
Well, we’ve finished the first several chapters, what are you thinking so far?
The stranger, who the reader soon learns is Victor Frankenstein, begins his narration. He starts with his family background, birth, and early childhood, telling Walton about his father, Alphonse, and his mother, Caroline. Alphonse became Caroline’s protector when her father, Alphonse’s longtime friend Beaufort, died in poverty. They married two years later, and Victor was born soon after.
Frankenstein then describes how his childhood companion, Elizabeth Lavenza, entered his family. At this point in the narrative, the original (1818) and revised (1831) versions of Frankenstein diverge. In the original version, Elizabeth is Victor’s cousin, the daughter of Alphonse’s sister; when Victor is four years old, Elizabeth’s mother dies and Elizabeth is adopted into the Frankenstein family. In the revised version, Elizabeth is discovered by Caroline, on a trip to Italy, when Victor is about five years old. While visiting a poor Italian family, Caroline notices a beautiful blonde girl among the dark-haired Italian children; upon discovering that Elizabeth is the orphaned daughter of a Milanese nobleman and a German woman and that the Italian family can barely afford to feed her, Caroline adopts Elizabeth and brings her back to Geneva. Victor’s mother decides at the moment of the adoption that Elizabeth and Victor should someday marry.
Elizabeth and Victor grow up together as best friends. Victor’s friendship with Henry Clerval, a schoolmate and only child, flourishes as well, and he spends his childhood happily surrounded by this close domestic circle. As a teenager, Victor becomes increasingly fascinated by the mysteries of the natural world. He chances upon a book by Cornelius Agrippa, a sixteenth-century scholar of the occult sciences, and becomes interested in natural philosophy. He studies the outdated findings of the alchemists Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus with enthusiasm. He witnesses the destructive power of nature when, during a raging storm, lightning destroys a tree near his house. A modern natural philosopher accompanying the Frankenstein family explains to Victor the workings of electricity, making the ideas of the alchemists seem outdated and worthless. (In the 1818 version, a demonstration of electricity by his father convinces Victor of the alchemists’ mistakenness.)
–Chapters 3, 4 & 5–
Whereas the first two chapters give the reader a mere sense of impending doom, these chapters depict Victor irrevocably on the way to tragedy. The creation of the monster is a grotesque act, far removed from the triumph of scientific knowledge for which Victor had hoped. His nightmares reflect his horror at what he has done and also serve to foreshadow future events in the novel. The images of Elizabeth “livid with the hue of death” prepare the reader for Elizabeth’s eventual death and connect it, however indirectly, to the creation of the monster.
Victor’s pursuit of scientific knowledge reveals a great deal about his perceptions of science in general. He views science as the only true route to new knowledge: “In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.” Walton’s journey to the North Pole is likewise a search for “food for discovery and wonder,” a step into the tantalizing, dark unknown.
The symbol of light, introduced in Walton’s first letter (“What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?”), appears again in Victor’s narrative, this time in a scientific context. “From the midst of this darkness,” Victor says when describing his discovery of the secret of life, “a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous.” Light reveals, illuminates, clarifies; it is essential for seeing, and seeing is the way to knowledge. Just as light can illuminate, however, so can it blind; pleasantly warm at moderate levels, it ignites dangerous flames at higher ones. Immediately after his first metaphorical use of light as a symbol of knowledge, Victor retreats into secrecy and warns Walton of “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” Thus, light is balanced always by fire, the promise of new discovery by the danger of unpredictable—and perhaps tragic—consequences.
The theme of secrecy manifests itself in these chapters, as Victor’s studies draw him farther and farther away from those who love and advise him. He conducts his experiments alone, following the example of the ancient alchemists, who jealously guarded their secrets, and rejecting the openness of the new sciences. Victor displays an unhealthy obsession with all of his endeavors, and the labor of creating the monster takes its toll on him. It drags him into charnel houses in search of old body parts and, even more important, isolates him from the world of open social institutions. Though Henry’s presence makes Victor become conscious of his gradual loss of touch with humanity, Victor is nonetheless unwilling to tell Henry anything about the monster. The theme of secrecy transforms itself, now linked to Victor’s shame and regret for having ever hoped to create a new life.
Victor’s reaction to his creation initiates a haunting theme that persists throughout the novel—the sense that the monster is inescapable, ever present, liable to appear at any moment and wreak havoc. When Victor arrives at his apartment with Henry, he opens the door “as children are accustomed to do when they expect a specter to stand in waiting for them on the other side,” a seeming echo of the tension-filled German ghost stories read by Mary Shelley and her vacationing companions.
As in the first three chapters, Victor repeatedly addresses Walton, his immediate audience, reminding the reader of the frame narrative and of the multiple layers of storytellers and listeners. Structuring comments such as “I fear, my friend, that I shall render myself tedious by dwelling on these preliminary circumstances” both remind the reader of the target audience (Walton) and help indicate the relative importance of each passage.
–Chapters 6 & 7–
Elizabeth’s letter expresses her concern about Victor’s illness and entreats him to write to his family in Geneva as soon as he can. She also tells him that Justine Moritz, a girl who used to live with the Frankenstein family, has returned to their house following her mother’s death.
After Victor has recovered, he introduces Henry, who is studying Oriental languages, to the professors at the university. The task is painful, however, since the sight of any chemical instrument worsens Victor’s symptoms; even speaking to his professors torments him. He decides to return to Geneva and awaits a letter from his father specifying the date of his departure. Meanwhile, he and Henry take a walking tour through the country, uplifting their spirits with the beauties of nature.
On their return to the university, Victor finds a letter from his father telling him that Victor’s youngest brother, William, has been murdered. Saddened, shocked, and apprehensive, Victor departs immediately for Geneva. By the time he arrives, night has fallen and the gates of Geneva have been shut, so he spends the evening walking in the woods around the outskirts of the town. As he walks near the spot where his brother’s body was found, he spies the monster lurking and becomes convinced that his creation is responsible for killing William. The next day, however, when he returns home, Victor learns that Justine has been accused of the murder. After the discovery of the body, a servant had found in Justine’s pocket a picture of Caroline Frankenstein last seen in William’s possession. Victor proclaims Justine’s innocence, but the evidence against her seems irrefutable, and Victor refuses to explain himself for fear that he will be labeled insane.
This week we will continue the story and start the second volume.
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–Mary Shelley’s Life and Work–
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in 1797 into the most celebrated intellectual and literary marriage of the day. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was among the most influential Enlightenment radicals, and wrote passionately and persuasively for the rights of women, most famously in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Her father, William Godwin, was a celebrated philosopher and writer who believed in man’s individual perfection and ability to reason. His best-known work, The Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, was published in 1793.
Young Mary never knew her mother, who died of complications from her birth. Godwin, also raising Wollstonecraft’s other daughter, Fanny Imlay, needed a mother for his girls and found one in Mary Jane Clairmont, the unmarried mother of two. Clairmont was jealous of the attention paid to her notable stepdaughter and favored her own children, making life at home difficult for young Mary, who was often whipped for impertinence and found solace reading or taking her meals at her mother’s grave. Although she received no formal education, growing up in William Godwin’s house provided ample opportunities for learning, with its well-stocked library and frequent visits from the great minds of the time. When relations between his wife and daughter became intolerable, Godwin sent Mary to live with his friends the Baxters in Scotland in 1812, where she enjoyed her first taste of domestic harmony.
That year she briefly met the newly married Percy Bysshe Shelley, a noted young Romantic poet and ardent follower of Godwin’s philosophy. She returned to her father’s home in 1814, where Shelley was a frequent visitor. The two fell in love, and with Mary’s stepsister, Jane (later known as Claire) Clairmont, ran off to the Continent. The couple’s first child was born prematurely in 1815 and survived only a few weeks, and their second child was born in early 1816. Claire began an affair with another famous young poet, Lord Byron, and the four passed the unusually cold summer of 1816 together on the shores of Lake Geneva. They stayed by the fire talking and telling ghost stories, and Percy, Byron, and Mary decided to see who could write the most frightening tale. Mary’s tale became the basis for Frankenstein.
Percy’s wife, Harriet, drowned herself in November 1816, and Percy and Mary married in December. Mary published Frankenstein anonymously in 1818, but since Percy had written the Preface and the book was dedicated to his mentor William Godwin, he was suspected of being the book’s author. Tragedy followed the Shelleys as their third child, Clara, died in 1818 and their second child, William, died in 1819. Mary began writing her novel Mathilda in August 1819, and gave birth to her fourth child, Percy Florence, in November. She suffered a miscarriage in June 1822, and the following month Percy drowned when his boat sank in a storm in the Gulf of Spezia, near Genoa, leaving her a widow at the age of twenty-four.
Mary continued to write for the rest of her life. Her second novel, Valperga; or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, found success after it was published in 1823. Other works of fiction include The Last Man (1826), The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, a Romance (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner, a Novel (1837); Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal and Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France were published in 1835 and 1838, respectively. An account of her European travels with her surviving son in the 1840s was published in two volumes under the title Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (1844). She lived with her son and his family until she died, in 1851, at the age of fifty-three.
–Timeline of Mary Shelley’s Life–
1797: William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft marry on March 29. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin is born on August 30. Mary Wollstonecraft dies on September 10.
1801: William Godwin and Mary Jane Clairmont marry on December 21.
1808: Mary Godwin anonymously publishes her parody, Mounseer Nongtongpaw, with the Juvenile Library.
1812: Mary meets Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Harriet, at Mary’s home in November.
1814: Mary, her stepsister, Jane Clairmont, and Percy spend the summer traveling in Europe.
1815: Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley’s first child, a daughter, is born prematurely in February and dies in March.
1816: Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley’s son William is born in January. They travel to Switzerland to meet noted poet Lord Byron, and Mary begins work on Frankenstein. Mary’s half-sister commits suicide in October. Percy’s wife, Harriet, commits suicide in November. Percy and Mary are married in December.
1817: Mary and Percy’s daughter Clara is born in September. Mary and Percy publish their co-written History of a Six Weeks’ Tour in November.
1818: Frankenstein published. Clara dies in September.
1819: William Shelley dies in June. Mary begins work on Mathilda in August. Mary and Percy’s son Percy Florence is born in Florence in November.
1820: Mary writes mythological dramas Prosperine and Midas.
1822: Percy Shelley drowns in a shipwreck near Genoa in July.
1823: Mary Shelley’s novel Valperga; or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca is published in February. She returns to England in August.
1826: Mary publishes The Last Man in February.
1830: Mary publishes The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, a Romance in May.
1831: Mary publishes a revised edition of Frankenstein.
1835: Mary publishes Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, vol. I, in February, and Lodore in April.
1836: Mary’s father, William Godwin, dies in April.
1837: Mary publishes Falkner, a Novel in February.
1838: Mary publishes Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France, vol. II, in August.
1851: Mary dies on February 1.