Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley was published in 1818, when Shelley was 21 years old (if you want to feel awful about your life accomplishments). Shelley began writing the book, about scientist Victor Frankenstein and his horrific science experiment, after a dream she had and as the result of a competition between her, her husband Percy Shelley, John Polidori, and Lord Byron to determine who could write the best horror story. Best. Contest. Ever.
Frankenstein is written in the epistolary form through letters from Captain Walton to his sister. Captain Walton is sailing around the North Pole in hopes of acheiving fame. One day, he and his crew see a giant figure commanding a dog sled, and a few hours later, discover a frozen and malnourished man named Victor Frankenstein. The crew bring him onboard the ship and he stays with Captain Walton as he recovers. Victor tells Walton the story of his life as a warning against being overly ambitious and doing dangerous things in pursuit of academic fame.
As a child growing up in Geneva, young Victor is fascinated by science — at a young age, he witnesses lightning split a massive oak tree in half and becomes fixated on the power of electricity. He has two younger brothers, Ernest and William, and his parents take in an orphan, Elizabeth Lavenza, with whom Victor falls in love. Victor begins to study the science of natural wonders, and as he prepares to go to Germany to attend the University of Ingolstadt, Victor’s mother dies of scarlet fever.
When he gets to the university, Victor begins his studies and embarks on the experiment to create life. He visits graveyards to collect body parts and creates a human body; though it is an oversized body, as he decides to make the body eight feet tall in order to compensate for the minute body parts that are difficult to work with. He is disappointed that his creature, which he envisioned to be beautiful, is actually hideous — after bringing the body to life, Victor is repulsed and horrified by it and runs from the room. When he returns to the room later, the monster has disappeared.
His fear of the monster and the realization of what he has done overwhelms him and Victor falls ill. His childhood friend, Henry Clerval, nurses him back to health. After a four month recovery period, Victor is summoned home when his younger brother, William, is found murdered. William’s nanny, Justine, is found with William’s locket and is found guilty of his murder, though she and Victor maintain her innocence — Victor is convinced that his creature killed William. Justine is hanged for William’s murder.
Victor blames himself for both William and Justine’s deaths, and he goes camping in the mountains to reflect and keep harm from others. The creature finds him in the mountains and tells him what has happened to him since Victor left him abandoned in the science room. Victor is surprised to find that the creature is articulate and well-spoken, which is from his observations of humans.
When he left the laboratory, the creature was afraid of humans and found an abandoned cottage secluded from the surrounding village. A family, the DeLaceys, lived in a neighboring cottage, and the creature was drawn to them and became obsessed with watching them. He listened to them speak and found books and taught himself to read and speak. He eventually works up the courage to speak to the DeLaceys and begins with the old man who is blind. He speaks with him and gains his trust, but when the younger DeLaceys see him, they are repulsed and chase him away. The creature sees a reflection of himself and realizes that he doesn’t look like other humans that he has seen and is, in fact, monstrous in appearance. So he burns down the DeLaceys’ house. As you do.
The creature tells Victor that, as he is responsible for the existence of the creature, he is responsible for his happiness. He demands that Victor make a companion for him, so that they may live together away from other people and be happy. He tells Victor that if he makes a female companion for him, that they will go to South America and never bother him again.
Victor agrees out of fear for himself and his family. One night, Victor has a dream that when he creates the female creature, they breed creatures that take over mankind. He creates the female creature, but destroys her after he catches a glimpse of the creature watching him through a window.
The creature channels his inner mob boss and tells Victor that he had better spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder and vowing that he will be there on his wedding night, and not to enjoy a piece of wedding cake. The creature leaves and Victor, understandably shaken, goes to visit Henry Clerval; when Victor arrives on the Irish beach, he discovers Henry’s corpse and is accused of Henry’s murder. Victor is imprisoned for the murder and when he is acquitted, his father takes him back to Geneva to recover from his mental breakdown.
Elizabeth, the Frankensteins’ ward, marries Victor when he returns home. That night, Victor tells Elizabeth to stay in their room while he goes out to confront the creature, but he can’t find it. He returns to the house when he hears Elizabeth scream and he realizes that the creature did not intend to murder Victor at all. He sees the creature through the window and, as he approaches the window, the creature points at Elizabeth’s lifeless body.
At the shock of Elizabeth’s death, as well as the deaths of William, Justine, and Henry, Victor’s father dies. Victor has now lost everyone close to him and vows to devote the rest of his life to finding and destroying the monster. He follows him to the North Pole, which is where he was rescued by Captain Walton.
Walton next writes that he believes Victor’s tale and wishes that he had known him in his better days, as he is now a wreck of a man. A few days later, the ship is trapped in ice. Victor dies right before the ship is to head back to England and Walton hears a strange noise coming from Victor’s room. Investigating the noise, Walton is startled to find the monster, as hideous as Victor had described, weeping over his dead creator’s body. The monster begins to tell him of all his sufferings. He says that he deeply regrets having become an instrument of evil and that, with his creator dead, he is ready to die. He leaves the ship and departs into the darkness.
There have been many interpretations as to the meaning of Shelley’s work — is Frankenstein a commentary on the dangers of science or the importance of parenting? Mary Shelley had experienced a difficult miscarriage before writing this book, and would experience life-threatening marriages after its publication. Her husband/baby daddy, Percy Shelley, was not very sympathetic to her maternal woes, especially as he had several affairs (including an affair on his first wife with Mary, oops), leading scholars to believe that the purpose of Frankenstein was to highlight the importance of raising the children/monsters that you sire. There is a responsibility of parents to make sure that their children and fed, clothed, and not terrorizing villagers and setting their houses on fire.
The most famous of the movie adaptations is arguably the 1931 Boris Karloff movie, as well as it’s subsequent sequels, spin-offs, and parodies. While it is loosely adapted (Victor’s name is changed to Henry, the monster is given a criminal brain due to the incompetence of his assistant, the monster goes on a killing spree, including killing a little girl who’s throwing flowers into a lake or something, I don’t know, just a lot of killing and villagers storming the laboratory with pitchforks), it is what the general public thinks of when they think of Frankenstein — greenish skin, bolts on the neck, flattop haircut, lots of grunting. Also part of the pop culture — referring to the monster as Frankenstein. It’s wrong and you shouldn’t do it. I mean, you can do it, but you might be mocked and/or thrown into a lake.