Frankenstein
Mary Shelley
Contributed by Jerrold Mcmenamin
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Chapters 1–2
Summary

Summary: Chapter 1

The reader soon learns that the stranger is Victor Frankenstein as he begins his narration. He describes his family background, birth, and early childhood, telling Walton about his father, Alphonse, and his mother, Caroline. Alphonse took Caroline under his care when her father, Alphonse’s longtime friend Beaufort, died in poverty. The duo married two years later, and Victor was born soon after. Frankenstein then narrates how Elizabeth Lavenza, his childhood companion, entered his family. It is here that the original (1818) and revised (1831) versions of Frankenstein diverge in the narrative.

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. When Caroline comes to know 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. At the moment of Elizabeth's adoption, Victor’s mother decides that she and Victor should marry someday.

Summary: Chapter 2

Victor and Elizabeth grow up together as best friends. Victor’s friendship with Henry Chervil, a schoolmate and the only child of his parents, grows strong and he spends his childhood happily in this close circle. Teenaged Victor is fascinated by the mysteries of the natural world. By chance, he lays his hands on a book by Cornelius Agrippa, a 16th century scholar of the occult sciences, and becomes interested in natural philosophy. He goes through the outdated findings of the alchemists Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. During a raging storm, he witnesses the destructive power of nature as lightning destroys a tree near his house. A natural philosopher accompanying the Frankenstein family explains Victor the power of electricity. Enlightened, Victor thinks of the ideas of the alchemists as outdated and worthless. In the 1818 version, a demonstration of electricity by his father convinces Victor of the alchemists’ outdated concepts and theories.

Analysis

Victor draws an idyllic picture of his childhood. He mentions of some losses like the poverty of Beaufort and the orphaning of Elizabeth but the presence of a close, loving family more than makes up for it. However, even in these early passages the reader can sense that the happy family is about to face some big trouble. The stability and comfort of family is about to explode. Victor’s narration of a happy childhood and an eccentric adolescence gives a faint hint of the great tragedy that will strike the family soon. The women in the novel Frankenstein basically fit into three roles. The sacrificial mother, the innocent child and the confused lover. Throughout the novel, they are all passive, demanding action from the men around them only when there are extreme situations. Victor's language to describe the relationship between his mother and father supports this image of women’s passivity. He says that his father “came as a protecting spirit to the poor girl, who committed herself to his care". Elizabeth, Justine Moritz and Caroline Beaufort all fit into this mould. Various meta-narrative comments (remarks that pertain not to the content of the narrative but rather to the telling of the narrative) are a reminder that Victor’s narrative is contained within Walton’s. Victor interrupts his story to relate how Elizabeth became a part of his family. He prefaces the digression with the comment, “But before I continue my narrative, I must record an incident.” Such guiding remarks structure Victor’s narrative and remind the reader that Victor is telling his story to Walton. Throughout the novel, foreshadowing is a ubiquitous feature to build up the mood for the coming events.

Even Walton’s letters give hints for the tragic events that Victor will narrate. Victor constantly alludes to his imminent doom. He calls his interest in natural philosophy “the genius that has regulated my fate” and “the fatal impulse that led to my ruin". Victor’s narrative is full of nostalgia for a happier time. He recalls the fuzzy memories of his blissful childhood with Elizabeth, his parents and Henry Clerval. Still, he cannot ignore the signs of the tragedy in his imminent future. Each event, for instance the death of his mother, is nothing but “an omen, as it were, of his future misery".

The excessive use of foreshadowing has a dual effect. On the one hand, it adds to the suspense of the novel, leaving the reader thinking about the tragedy that has caused Victor grief. On the other hand, it kills some of the suspense. The reader clearly knows that Victor is doomed. Words like “fate", “fatal" and “omen” confirm the inevitability of Victor’s tragedy. They also imply a sense of resignation and an attempt by Victor to deny responsibility for his misfortune. Describing his decision to pursue chemistry, he says, “Thus ended a day memorable to me; it decided my future destiny.”

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