The frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein featured the first visual depiction of Frankenstein and the Creature. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

“A map of the icy sea in which the several communications with the land waters and other new discoveries are exhibited,” from Gentleman’s magazine, v.30, June 1760. NYPL’s geospatial librarian Matt Knutzen observes: “One of the really cool things about this map of the North Pole is the Arctic hadn’t really been explored to any great degree, and yet there was still a lot of optimism about an ice-free Northwest Passage. You can see here that there is a great north sea that appears. It's very interesting because the land masses are not very well known; you can see that Greenland is connected to the Northwestern Continent and there is no passage between Baffin Bay and the North Sea. This is an interesting map that shows a kind of speculative cartography. In the later part of the 18th century though, speculation becomes less prominent in maps as information from explorers fills in the blank areas with known discoveries. This map still indicates the idea that maybe there is a Northwest Passage and perhaps we could explore it. This map is a nice incentive for that exploration. It’s also a beautiful, cheerfully colored, and interesting little round format map. Such a map projection is unusual for maps outside of the polar regions because it’s the only way to cogently depict the poles.” NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

Lake Geneva and its environs in Switzerland, as depicted in Johann Heinrich Weiss’s Atlas Suisse (1786–1802). Commenting on Weiss’s atlas, NYPL’s geospatial librarian Matt Knutzen observes: “It represents a landmark in alpine cartography. If you look closely, you can see the map was made using a method called Hachuring. Using this technique, the cartographer introduces an artificial light source, typically from the northwest, that represents slope, with small lines accumulating to create the illusion of light and shadow playing on the sides of mountains. The hachures, as the lines are called, run perpendicular to the elevation contours typically seen on topographic maps today. (For example, if you dropped a ball from the top of the mountain and it rolled down, the ball’s path would represent the general direction of the hachure lines.) In that way, they beautifully represent the topographic nuances and intricacies of the mountains and do a very nice job of differentiating among flat land, walled and fortified cities, villages, small castles, and the landed estates of the nobility. The atlas is a spectacular work of cartographic art. The multiple pages, each roughly two feet by three feet, are meant to be removed from the binding and put back together as a composite map to create a grand cartographic tapestry of Switzerland. Just about the only place such an expansive map could fit would be on the walls of a castle — which also suggests the audience for this map.” NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

Selections from Chapter IV, Vol. 1, of the 1818 Frankenstein edition, in which Frankenstein animates the Creature. NYPL, Heiskell Library

An engraving by J. Bower of Europe circa 1814, from Carey’s general atlas, improved and enlarged: being a collection of maps of the world and quarters, their principal empires, kingdoms, &c., published by Matthew Carey (1760–1839). NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

Selections from Chapter III, Vol. 2, of the 1818 Frankenstein edition, in which the Creature describes finding the De Laceys. NYPL, Heiskell Library

NYPL’s geospatial librarian Matt Knutzen observes: “Hienrich Keller’s Reichcarte Der Suisse, a tourist map of Switzerland, was published in 1819 and kept in a lovely slip case for protection; its folding pattern is such that it will fold up nicely to the size of a pocket, unlike many pocket maps we have today. Colorful outlines indicate the boundaries of the provinces, and all of the local and regional roads — which are important since that’s the primary way people got around — are clearly delineated. It was designed in a practical, built-to-last format in which each panel was mounted on a muslin backing; the cartographers who invented this type of map knew very well that paper folding on itself doesn’t pass the test of time. This type of map is important to the study of historical geography. When compared to a contemporary map of the same place, a user can see that many of the names have changed or become obsolete. Primary roads on an old map might now be just dusty, old back roads that have been superseded by interstate highways and autobahns that offer faster (though less scenic) routes through the countryside. Reichcarte Der Suisse is a wonderful example of a map that not only satisfied the needs of the 19th-century tourist, but also remained in good enough condition to meet the needs of the 21st-century historical geographer.” NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

Selections from Chapter IV, Vol. 2, of the 1818 Frankenstein edition, in which the Creature learns to read and write. NYPL, Heiskell Library

Selections from Chapter VII, Vol. 2, of the 1818 Frankenstein edition, in which the Creature discovers Paradise Lost and meets the De Laceys. NYPL, Heiskell Library

Selections from Chapter VIII, Vol. 2, of the 1818 Frankenstein edition, in which the Creature demands Frankenstein make him a woman. NYPL, Heiskell Library

Mary Shelley pronounced Lake Geneva’s water as “blue as the heavens which it reflects.” NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

Selections from Chapter III, Vol. 3, of the 1818 Frankenstein edition, in which Frankenstein destroys his female creation. NYPL, Heiskell Library

An engraving of Germany circa 1814, from Carey’s general atlas, improved and enlarged: being a collection of maps of the world and quarters, their principal empires, kingdoms, &c., published by Matthew Carey (1760–1839). NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

The sea-coasts of France from Calais to the River Seine (ca. 1702–1707), by Samuel Thornton. NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

NYPL’s geospatial librarian Matt Knutzen observes: “This nautical chart of the English Channel, published in 1818 by Steele & Company is a massive work, roughly 3’ x 6’ when pieced together. It is a redraft; they made multiple editions of these, adding relevant bathymetric information to each subsequent release. This map really serves the purposes of navigating through the channel, that is, it is a highly practical document. Most of this map’s information is waterside and below sea level map information, an indicator of both its audience an its use. It tells you where the major banks are and where there are rocks that might potentially run aground on. The latest depth sounding and information are on here for the navigator to use so it’s purpose, again, is highly practical. On the land side the most important qualities are those that describe coastal features like cities and rivers and different geographic features that can be seen from a ship. Also highly useful on this map are the coastal profile views, an aid to the mariner. Rendering coastal profiles next to nautical charts is a tradition that stretches back much further than the publication of this map in the 19th century, well into the 16th century and probably earlier. These little views are designed to show what an approach would look like from a ship so mariners know they are in the right place and won’t run aground. Notice the cartographer places the views well on the dry land, obscuring any dry land features which might have made the cut reinforcing this as a purely nautical chart.” NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

“An accurate map of England and Wales with the principal roads from the best authorities,” circa 1814, from Carey’s general atlas, improved and enlarged: being a collection of maps of the world and quarters, their principal empires, kingdoms, &c., published by Matthew Carey (1760–1839). NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

“Scotland with the principal roads, from the best authorities,” circa 1814, from Carey’s general atlas, improved and enlarged: being a collection of maps of the world and quarters, their principal empires, kingdoms, &c., published by Matthew Carey (1760–1839). NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

A map of the Orkney Islands, circa 1822, by John Thomson & Co. NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

“A map of Ireland according to the best authorities,” circa 1814, from Carey’s general atlas, improved and enlarged: being a collection of maps of the world and quarters, their principal empires, kingdoms, &c., published by Matthew Carey (1760–1839). NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

“A Chart of the British Channel, on Mercator’s Projection,” circa 1812, by Steele & Co. NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

A new map of the upper part of Italy, containing ye principality of Piemont ye Dutchies of Savoy, Milan, Parma, Mantua, Modena, Tuscany, the dominions of ye Pope &c., the Republiques of Venice, Genoa, Lucca &c. (ca. 1736), by cartographer Herman Molld (d. 1732) and bookseller Thomas Bowles (1694–1773). NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

Selections from the final set of letters by Capt. Walton to his sister, from the 1818 Frankenstein edition. NYPL, Heiskell Library

A new chart of the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, by Samuel Thornton (ca. 1702–1707). NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

A period map of St. Petersburg, from where Frankenstein continued his pursuit of the Creature northward. NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

Map of the North Polar Region (ca. 1882), printed by Van Campen & Johnson. NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division   More information

A Synopsis and Dramatic Reading of Frankenstein



Setting the Scene

The Awakening

“Hear My Tale”

Paradise Lost

“You Must Create a Female”

“An End to My Slavery”

Fall Angel/Malignant Devil; or, Poisoned with Remorse

Plenty of people today think they know the story of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, one of the most frequently adapted works of the 19th century. The book is no longer widely taught in schools, however, and audiences might be surprised to learn that scenes frequently associated with the story — an angelic little girl whom the Creature accidentally kills, an angry mob of villagers intent on avenging her death, a hunchbacked lab assistant who makes a key mistake — actually date to more recent retellings. Moreover, modern readers might find Shelley’s horror story — thick with suspense and a brooding atmosphere, its long passages depicting the power of nature through extensive travels — at odds with today’s popular culture, saturated with graphic depictions of violence and full of fast-moving action.

But there’s little surprise why Frankenstein has endured and continues to inspire. As of early 2012, for instance, multiple new films and at least one television drama are in the works. The story’s suspenseful, brooding atmosphere is only the beginning. The larger themes that Shelley explores resonate with the same power for us as do the ancient myths, including: What makes a person good or bad? What is just treatment of societal outcasts? What is the relationship between and rights of a creator and his creation (even in remix culture, for what is Frankenstein's monster if not the original remix?)? What is the danger of knowledge and technology run amok?

For readers seeking a summary of the book, or for those who simply want a refresher, the editors of Biblion have formulated the following plot synopsis based on Shelley’s revised 1831 edition. You may listen to audio recordings of key passages from the book’s 1818 edition, read by actor and voiceover artist AJ Stetson, recorded at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library’s Audio Book Studio. You can also explore maps — from NYPL’s Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division — rendered at the time Shelley was writing, of locations in the novel, supplemented by technical notes from NYPL’s geospatial librarian Matthew Knutzen.

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.

After two years’ work, the moment arrives. The Creature comes to life: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” It is a shock: ”I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! — Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

The monster disappears. Overcome with “nervous fever,” Frankenstein is nursed by his friend Clerval. Then comes news of the brutal murder of his young brother, William. Traveling home, he sees the monster illuminated by lightning and realizes “he was the murderer!” Horrors continue as former servant and family friend Justine Moritz — framed by the Creature — is executed for the murder. Frankenstein considers himself “the true murderer.”

Seeking solace in nature, Frankenstein ascends Montanvert, near Mont Blanc. Just as he feels “something like joy,” he sees the Creature, bounding over the ice, “advancing towards me with superhuman speed.” The Creature speaks: "Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity: but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow-creatures, who owe me nothing? they spurn and hate me…. Yet it is in your power to recompense me, and deliver them from an evil which it only remains for you to make so great."

“Abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve,” says the Creature, introducing the key question of justice due an outcast. “But hear me. The guilty are allowed, by human laws, bloody as they are, to speak in their own defense. ... You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!” With trepidation, Frankenstein agrees to listen: “I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were.”

Chapter 11 marks the beginning of what was originally published as Volume II in the 1818 edition of Frankenstein; the “three-volume novel” was standard for works in the 19th century. This chapter also marks the beginning of the story as told in the Creature’s voice. He begins by recanting his confused early memories of light and dark, of hunger and thirst, and seeking shade and refuge in the forest near Ingolstadt.

The Creature discovers fire. He also discovers what it is like to be shunned: “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, quite bare.” The hovel is behind a cottage.

Inhabiting the cottage are a blind old man, De Lacey, of “silver hair and benevolent countenance”; his “ever-gentle” daughter Agatha; and his “sorrowful” son Felix. The Creature discovers much: their many kindnesses and acts of love and sacrifice for each other — and that he can contribute, too, by secretly gathering firewood for them during the night — and “one of the causes of the uneasiness of this amiable family: it was poverty; and they suffered that evil in a very distressing degree.”

He also discovers language, and that, as much as he longs to make himself known to and join them, “I ought not to make the attempt until I had first become master of their language; which knowledge might enable me to make them overlook the deformity of my figure.” Their judgment will be critical: “I looked upon them as superior beings, who would be the arbiters of my future destiny.”

The arrival of Safie, Felix’s “sweet Arabian” beloved, speeds the Creature’s acquisition of language as he follows along with the family’s attempts to teach Safie their French. With language, the Creature learns about people, power, property, and more. Felix’s attempts to save Safie’sTurkish father from local French authorities had resulted in the De Laceys’ losing everything.

With language, the world of knowledge opens up for the Creature. In the forest, he discovers an abandoned suitcase filled with books. He devours Milton’s Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and Goethe’s The Sorrows of [Young] Werter. Of these, Paradise Lost has the greatest effect on him: “It moved every feeling of wonder and awe that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but... he had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”

The danger of seeking knowledge, which Frankenstein tells Walton can become “a serpent to sting you,” has been a theme from the start. Still, however, the Creature believes in the cottagers’ charity and he spends months preparing to reveal himself to them. When the day comes, he enters the cottage when only the blind De Lacey is there, telling him he seeks the protection of friends. But, just as De Lacey offers the first kind words ever spoken to the Creature — who pleads “You and your family are the friends whom I seek. Do not you desert me in the hour of trial!” — the rest of the family bursts in. Agatha faints. Felix attacks him. The Creature, “overcome by pain and anguish... quitted the cottage and in the general tumult escaped.”

The Creature, full of fury, realizes that it is only Frankenstein on whom he has “any claim for pity and redress, and from you I determined to seek that justice which I vainly attempted to gain from any other being.” But on his way to Geneva, his “sufferings [are] augmented” as he saves a girl from drowning, and is shot for it. He then comes upon William, and, infuriated to hear he is a Frankenstein, silences him by strangulation.

Nearby, the Creature sees the sleeping Justine, “blooming in the loveliness of youth and health.” Overcome by what he can never have, he decides she should suffer for his crime. He plants William’s pendant on her, framing her for the murder, and flees. His remaining, all-consuming passion can only be gratified by 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.”

Frankenstein is appalled, but the Creature reasons with him: “What I ask of you is reasonable and moderate; I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself; the gratification is small, but it is all that I can receive, and it shall content me. It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another. Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless, and free from the misery I now feel. Oh! my creator, make me happy; let me feel gratitude towards you for one benefit! Let me see that I excite the sympathy of some existing thing; do not deny me my request!”

His reasoning works. Frankenstein hears: “justice in his argument. His tale, and the feelings he now expressed, proved him to be a creature of fine sensations; and did I not as his maker, owe him all the portion of happiness that it was in my power to bestow?” They make a deal: the female creature will be made; the Creature promises they will go into exile, away from mankind.

Telling his father that he wishes to visit England, where he plans to carry out his “unearthly occupation,” Frankenstein embarks on a year’s travel with his friend Clerval. His plan is that, after a year or so, he will return — expecting that “my promise fulfilled, the monster would depart for ever” — and, freed from being the “slave of my creature,” marry his beloved Elizabeth.

Clerval and Frankenstein travel down the Rhine and cross by sea to England, traveling from London to Oxford and Edinburgh, partaking of much scenery and history, before finally parting ways so Frankenstein can repair to “one of the remotest of the Orkneys as the scene of my labours.” Frankenstein’s work advances, yet he is plagued by foreboding, fearing that the female monster might be “ten thousand times more malignant than her mate,” and “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth.”

One night Frankenstein looks up, and sees in the moonlight “the dæmon”: “I thought with a sensation of madness on my promise of creating another like to him, and trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged. The wretch saw me destroy the creature on whose future existence he depended for happiness, and, with a howl of devilish despair and revenge, withdrew.” Reminding Frankenstein “you are my creator, but I am your master,” the Creature vows revenge and that he will “be with you on your wedding-night.”

Clerval’s dead body washes ashore in Ireland and Frankenstein, also washing ashore there after a storm, is charged with the murder. His father rescues him and they return to Geneva. Having told Elizabeth he will share a dreadful secret with her the day after their marriage, Frankenstein weds her. He sends Elizabeth to bed first and is filled with dread. But the monster is not after him. Suddenly, Frankenstein hears “a shrill and dreadful scream”: “Great God! why did I not then expire! Why am I here to relate the destruction of the best hope, and the purest creature of earth? She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair. Every where I turn I see the same figure — her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the murderer on its bridal bier. Could I behold this, and live?”

Frankenstein’s father dies of a broken heart, and his son devotes himself to the monster’s destruction, pursuing him through the Mediterranean to Russia. They are both driven. The Creature leaves a message to prepare for “a journey where your sufferings will satisfy my everlasting hatred.” The chase moves to the Arctic, where Captain Walton’s crew finds Frankenstein.

Walton resumes the narrative through letters to his sister. In his dying breath, Frankenstein asks the Captain to kill the Creature: “That he should live to be an instrument of mischief disturbs me; in other respects, this hour, when I momentarily expect my release, is the only happy one which I have enjoyed for several years. ... Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.”

As Walton writes, he is interrupted: “Again; there is a sound as of a human voice, but hoarser; it comes from the cabin where the remains of Frankenstein still lie. I must arise, and examine.” It is the Creature, bent over his creator. He exclaims, “Oh, Frankenstein! generous and self-devoted being! What does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me?” Walton chides him for not showing repentance earlier, but the Creature tells of the great agony and remorse he has felt: “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and, when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change, without torture such as you cannot even imagine.”

Now, he says, he will sacrifice himself upon a funeral pile, so that his “remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch, who would create such another as I have been”: “Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.”


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