Exploring Frankenstein

The discussion points and guiding questions for our reading of Frankenstein.

The Letters

The novel opens with a series of letters that Robert Walton is writing to his sister. In these, he describes the events of the ocean journey he has set himself upon. By the end of the fourth letter, the stage is set for Victor Frankenstein to tell his tale to Robert Walton who plans to write it down so he can reflect on it in the years to come.

Task: respond to the questions below on your blog.

  • Describe Robert Walton- his personality, desires and narrative voice.
  • Record your initial impressions of Victor Frankenstein.
  • What parallels can you draw between the two characters thus far?

Notable Quotes:

  • “There is something work in my soul which I do not understand.”– Walton
  • “…success shall crown my endeavors.”– Walton
  • “What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?“- Walton
  • “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought.”– Walton
  • “Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draft? Hear me…and you will dash the cup from your lips!”– Victor Frankenstein

Volume One

Chapters 1- 4

These chapters cover the background to the incident that the story actually covers. They serve as an introduction to Victor Frankenstein and offer us the opportunity to get to know him and therefore judge him for ourselves. The bond created in these opening chapters is always shadowed by his continual reference to this dark destiny or the fate that has been determined for him. The fact that this section of the novel is told from his own point of view allows us a unique and intimate insight into our main character.

Task: respond to the questions below on your blog. Use at least one quotation to support your observations.

  • Consider Victor Frankenstein’s childhood and relationship with his parents. Reflect on what kind of father you would expect him to become because of the early experiences that he has.
  • The idea of knowledge and exploration is frequently discussed in these chapters. How is the theme of the seductive power of knowledge and discovery developed in these early chapters? What, if any, new dimensions are added to it?
  • Define the term ‘God complex’. Once you have an understanding of this phrase, reflect on it may apply to the character of Victor Frankenstein.
  • Discuss the overall tone that is built in these chapters. Consider how foreshadowing is used to assist this.

Notable Quotes

  • “…their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot was in their hands to direct happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me. With this deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life…”
  • …with all my ardour, I was capable of a more intense application and was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge.”
  • “It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn.”
  • “…I also record those events which led, by insensible steps to my tale of misery: for when I would account to myself for the birth of that passion, which afterwards ruled my destiny, I find it arise, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources: but swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course, has swept away all my hopes and joys.”
  • “…but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death.”
  • “Learn from me…how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow.”

Chapter Five- It’s Alive!

The creature is bought to life on a ‘dreary night of November’ and instead of accepting it as his child, Frankenstein runs away in horror. He is appalled by what he has created. We discussed the role of family and what influence society has on who a person becomes. The concept of nature vs. nurture was discussed and we considered how the experiences of an individual can impact on the person they turn into.

As we read chapter five, we reflected on Victor Frankenstein’s childhood and how that should have set him up to be a loving and considerate father.

Notable Quotes

  • “I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…”
  • “Like one, on a lonesome road who, Doth walk in fear and dread, And, having once turned round, walks on, And turns no more his head; Because he knows a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread.”

    This comes from the Ancient Mariner which is quoted several times throughout the novel. For an interesting discussion on the parallels between the two texts, check out this blog post.

Chapters 6-8

Frankenstein recovers from his mental and physical breakdown only to find out that his younger brother, William, has been murdered. He begins the journey home and becomes aware that possibly the creature is responsible for the death of William. Although he has no evidence for this, he believes it absolutely. Justine, a girl who is connected to the family, is accused of William’s death. Victor fails to present his idea and it results in Justine’s death.

Task: consider the questions below. You may want to make written notes so that you are prepared for our discussion. Ensure you have quotations from the text that support your observations.

  • What impact does the final line of chapter six have on the story thus far?
  • What sort of man is Victor’s father? Why is he important in the novel?
  • How does Shelley make the re-appearance of the creature dramatic?
  • How does the landscape and weather reflect Victor’s state of mind?
  • Why doesn’t Victor tell anyone about the creature?
  • Justine could be seen as an ironic name for a character who suffers such injustice. Consider the significance of other names in the novel; how are they important?
  • Is Victor the true ‘murderer’?
  • Do you sympathise with Victor in this chapter? Why / why not?

Notable Quotes

  • “…the fangs of remorse tore my bosom and would not forego their hold.”
  • “torn by remorse, horror and despair, I beheld those I loved spend vain sorrow upon the graves of William and Justine, the first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts.”

Volume Two

Chapter Two- The Reunion

“We, are never ever ever, getting back together….” or so it seems for Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. In this chapter, the two central characters of the novel have their first-ever conversation, two years after the fateful night when Frankenstein bestowed life on his creation.

On your blog, write an answer to the following:

  • Describe the reunion- summarize the action.
  • Reflect on how you currently view Frankenstein and The Creature. Who is ‘in the right’?
  • Explain what Frankenstein means when he says, “If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst and desire, we might nearly be free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us.”

Notable Quotes

  • “Alas! why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute…If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst and desire, we might nearly be free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us.”
  • “All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things.”
  • “Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me and I will defend it.”
  • “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam but I am rather the fallen angel.”
  • “Everywhere I see bliss, from which I am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good, misery made me a fiend.”

The rest of this volume is told from the perspective of the Creature, who reveals that humanity has completely mistreated him, over and over again. The change of narrator is pivotal to our understanding of one the central ideas of the text: we are what we are made. It also ensures that Shelley achieves her purpose with the novel- we feel a huge amount of sympathy for the Creature and come to understand his course of action.

In order to be prepared for our class discussion, form a response to the following questions:

  • Summarize the beginning of the Creature’s life, as told from his point of view. Explain what else might experience this and consider the purpose behind the inclusion of this part of the story (what is Shelley trying to achieve).
  • Before he is very old, the Creature has two negative encounters with humans. Describe each of these encounters and find one quote that highlights the reactions the Creature experiences. Reflect on how these early experiences appear to position the Creature in relation to future encounters with humans.
  • There is a moment when the Creature seeks out his reflection in a mirror (pool of water) and he tells us, “I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers- their grace, beauty and delicate complexions: but how I was terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first, I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was, in reality, the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest of sensations of despondence and mortification.” Reflect on the connection between ‘being a monster’ and appearance. Do you agree with the idea that we, as humans, form many of our perceptions based on appearance? What are the pros and cons of this tendency?
  • Comment on your response to the De Lacey family’s reaction when the Creature makes himself known to them.
  • Victor agrees to the Creature’s demands and we hear his decision to create another creature in order to save his family. Is this the right thing to do? Why/why not? What other choices did he have?

Notable Quotes:

  • “A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses.”
  • “No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused.”
  • “I reflected on this; and by touching various branches, I discovered the cause, and busied myself in collecting a great quantity of wood, that I might dry it and have a plentiful supply of fire.”
  • “He turned on hearing a noise; and perceiving me, shrieked loudly, and quitting the hut, ran across the fields with a speed of which his debilitated form hardly appeared capable.”
  • “…I had hardly placed my foot within the door before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted. The whole village was roused; some fled, some attacked me, until, grievously bruised by stones and many other kinds of missile weapons, I escaped to the open country and fearfully took refuge in a low hovel.”
  • “I saw the figure of a man at a distance, and I remembered too well my treatment the night before, to trust myself in his power.”
  • “I longed to join them but dared not.”
  • I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers- their grace, beauty and delicate complexions: but how I was terrified, when, I viewed myself in a transparent pool…I became fully convinced that I was, in reality, the monster that I am…”
  • “When I looked around I saw and heard none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot on the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?”
  • “Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock.””I was like a wild beast that had broken the toils, destroying the objects that obstructed me and ranging through the wood with a staglike swiftness.”

Volume Three

A lot is covered in this volume and things move at a faster pace than they have done during the rest of the book. I have summarized the high points of the action below.

The story now passes back to Victor Frankenstein’s narration and we hear of his inner struggle to fulfil his promise to create a female creature. Gone are the crazed passionate hours that he spent constructing the Creature at the beginning of the book. Noe, Frankenstein looks at the task with loathing and disgust. He isolates himself on a small island off the coast of Scotland where he reluctantly sets about the task of creating the companion creature. Towards the end of the process, he reflects on the selfish act he is engaged in. He weighs his family’s safety against the safety of future generations and makes a decision for the ‘greater good’. Destroying the body of the companion creature, he is caught in a storm at sea and blown onto the coast of Ireland where he is met with the news that Henry Clerval is dead. Frankenstein is accused and slips, once again, into insanity and illness. Things move quickly from here. When Frankenstein returns to his senses, he is taken home by his father, marries Elizabeth (who is then killed by the Creature as promised) which triggers the final chase across the Arctic. The story is then picked up by Walton again, writing to his sister to relay the details. Eventually, Frankenstein dies of his physical weakness and the Creature arrives hours later. On meeting the Creature, Walton wishes to complete Frankenstein’s mission however he is convinced to listen to the Creature express remorse for his actions. It is then made clear that the Creature plans to end his own life and the story ends with him departing into the darkness.

Form a response to the following questions in preparation for our discussion in class:

  • Consider the quote “so blind is the existence of man” and reflect on how it could be argued that this is the foundational concept of the novel.
  • Think about the feelings of isolation- physical and mental- that are developed in this chapter. Discuss why Shelley has set this section of the novel in some of the most remote corners of the world.
  • There is almost a sense of ‘justice’ served when Victor is accused and convicted of murdering Henry Clerval. He even states that “I called myself the murderer of William, of Justine and of Clerval” when he is in his ‘mad fever’. Why is this stint in prison just? Even though he did not physically kill anyone, what would we consider his crime to be?
  • Victor decides that he should act ‘for the greater good’. Do you agree with his decision not to create another creature? Explain your answer.
  • There is a distinct lack of passion in this section of the text. Even the Creature seems to run out of emotional energy. What do you think this says about our ability to reason when passion is high.
  • At no point in the text is the Creature given a name. Comment on the significance of this.
  • Walton makes the decision to turn back from his voyage. Why? Do you think this was an ethical choice? What does Walton do that Victor could not?
  • Describe your reaction to the way the text ended. Was it the ‘right’ way for this story to finish? Why/why not?

Notable Quotes

  • “revenge and hatred filled my bosom, and I did not strive to control them; but allowing myself to be borne away by the stream, I bent my mind towards injury and death.” – The Creature
  • “…I was unable to overcome my repugnance to the task which was enjoined me…I clung to every pretence of delay.” Victor Frankenstein
  • “I am alone, and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species, and have the same defects. This being you must create.”– The Creature
  • “I am malicious because I am miserable.”-The Creature
  • “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.”-The Creature
  • “His word had a strange effect upon me. I compassionated him and sometimes felt a wish to console him; but when I looked upon him, when I saw he filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred.” – Robert Walton
  • “I, a miserable wretch, haunted by a curse that shut up every avenue to enjoyment.”– Victor Frankenstein
  • I now also began to collect the materials necessary for my new creation, and this was to me like the torture of single drops of water continually falling on the head.”– Victor Frankenstein
  • “During my first experiment, a kind of enthusiastic frenzy had blinded m to the horror of my employment…I went to it in cold blood and my heart often sickened at the work of my hands.”– Victor Frankenstein
  • “Had I a right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?” – Victor Frankenstein
  • “…trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged.” – Victor Frankenstein
  • “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful. I will watch with the wiliness of a snake, that I may sting with its venom.”– The Creature

From this point, the narration of the novel is picked up by Robert Walton again. In his letters to his sister, he details the rest of the story to us, including Frankenstein’s death and the arrival of the Creature, who appears to repent. The final image that Walton leaves us with is the creature moving off across the ice to end his own life.

Posted by Renee Plunkett

Teacher of English at Mount Aspiring College, Wanaka, New Zealand.

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