Frankenstein Frame Story Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
The epistolary structure of the frame story of Mary Shelley's 1817 novel ''Frankenstein'' grounds the fantastic narrative with a plausible connection to the everyday. It introduces the themes of nature, science, and humanity's engagement with both.

Exploring Nature in the Early Nineteenth Century

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were a time of intense research, and rapid scientific advancement. The opportunities - and dangers - of exploring nature's potential form one of the main themes of the work, and this is foregrounded in the novel's frame narrative. This takes the form of letters written by Robert Walton, a young English explorer, to his sister Margaret. Robert works in the cutting-edge field of magnetism, and is bound for the North Pole. His expedition, and his attitude towards it, parallel the work and attitudes of Dr. Frankenstein.

Nature, Science, and Hubris

Although Margaret is worried about the dangers of his undertaking, Robert couldn't be more thrilled. Finally, he's going to the North Pole! No one knows anything about it! It might be awesome! Robert is convinced that he's going to discover the laws of nature. To judge by his first letter to Margaret, he's prepared for his journey more by training himself than by studying science. He hopes the North Pole might be warm, since the sun shines there all the time. It's not surprising that Robert got his start in science by reading poetry. Ominously, the poem that most inspired him was about a doomed sea-voyage.

Because of his hard work, Robert's convinced that he deserves success. This optimism is not just the attitude of a spoiled child who wants a gold star on every homework assignment. It borders on hubris, excessive pride that invites retribution from fate. Robert sees even the stars existing as 'witnesses and testimonies of my triumph.' This is a triumph that he hasn't had yet, and his attitude is dangerously self-centered. Rhetorically, Robert poses a question that is central to the book: 'What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?'

Shipwreck... and Friendship

There is just one drawback to Robert's current state as he sees it: he doesn't have a friend. Having another person to confide in, to be emotionally close to, he muses to Margaret, is an essential part of being human. This idea is central to the novel. As Robert and his crew get closer to the North Pole, they become surrounded by ice. Over the ice, to their surprise, they see a sledge, driven by 'a being which had the shape of a man.' Robert assumes that this being must be 'a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island.'

After the ice breaks up, they find, to their surprise, another sledge, floating. One of the dogs is dead. The driver is exhausted, half-frozen, and half-starved... and he insists on knowing where Robert's ship is headed before agreeing to come on board. All that he will tell Robert is that he is seeking someone who ran away from him (the other sledge-driver). Robert is absolutely fascinated. Starved for companionship, he all but falls in love with the stranger, whom he praises as noble and wise. Robert ends up enthusing to the mysterious man about his own goals, and his determination to achieve them, whatever the cost. At this, the man bursts into tears. Recovering, he says that he must tell Robert his own story, in order to stop the younger man's foolishness. His story forms the body of the novel, for the stranger is in fact Victor Frankenstein.

Frankenstein and His Creature

Frankenstein himself tells his story in grief and remorse. At its conclusion, Robert describes him as 'infinitely miserable.' Also, however, Robert continues to speak of him with great admiration, failing to take warning from the parallels between Frankenstein's temperament and his own. He even wants to know how Frankenstein made his creature. Understandably, Frankenstein refuses, rebuking him. All that Frankenstein has to live for, in his own estimation, is his duty to kill the creature he made in the first place.

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