Published Title: 

Setting the Scene

Section type: 

In her preface to the 1831 edition, Mary Shelley famously tells of the summer of 1816, when, as the 18-year-old companion of Percy Bysshe Shelley, she was present for a ghost story challenge issued by their friend Lord Byron which led her to compose a tale that “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.” One night, with “moonlight struggling through” the window, the idea of Frankenstein was born.

The novel begins with a frame-within-a-frame structure, first narrated by Captain Robert Walton, who has rescued Victor Frankenstein during an Arctic expedition and writes about the encounter to his sister. Frankenstein, though “nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering,” is to Walton a “divine wanderer,” a potential friend of merit and intellect. Frankenstein, believing Walton might learn from his tale, decides to recount the story of his doomed history and destiny. He is now waiting “but for one event, and then I shall repose in peace.”

Chapter 1 commences in Frankenstein’s voice as he describes his birth as a Genevese (Genevan) to a family of distinction, while also introducing his honorable father, his gentle cousin Elizabeth, and his gallant friend Henry Clerval. Early on, Frankenstein says, he developed a predilection for natural philosophy and science, particularly taken with the prospect of “raising of ghosts or devils.”

Frankenstein recounts toiling away at the University of Ingolstadt, enticed by the infinite potential of science. He zeroes in on the “causes of life”: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.” Frankenstein describes “a resistless, and almost frantic, impulse” urging him forward.