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Frankenstein | Chapter 1 (Volume 1, Chapter 1) | Summary

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Summary

Here Victor Frankenstein begins his story and takes over the narration. He recounts his early years. Victor traces his family background, birth, and childhood, explaining that his ancestors and father were active, distinguished members of the community in Geneva, Switzerland. Victor's father, Alphonse, helped a merchant friend of his, Beaufort, who had fallen on hard times. When Beaufort died, Alphonse helped his daughter Caroline. Although Alphonse was considerably older than Caroline, they married two years after Beaufort's death. Their union was happy, and Victor was their first child.

When Victor was four, the Frankensteins took in Elizabeth Lavenza, the daughter of Alphonse's deceased sister, and adopted her as their own child. She and Victor grew up as close friends. Mrs. Frankenstein decided that Elizabeth and Victor should marry when they reach adulthood.

Victor and Elizabeth had a delightful childhood, adored by their loving, intelligent, indulgent parents. Even from childhood, Victor showed a scientific curiosity. When he was nine, Victor met Henry Clerval, a schoolmate. Although Henry was outgoing and interested in chivalry and romance, while Victor was introspective and interested in science, the two boys soon bonded and became lifelong best friends. Victor had two brothers; Ernest is six years younger than Victor, and William was an infant when Victor reached 15. "Such was our domestic circle," Victor says, "from which care and pain seemed for ever banished," a strong hint that these happy times are about to end.

Victor started reading the works of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus when he was 13. This reading sparked his deep love of learning. Two years later, at 15, he saw an electrical storm, which develops his interest in electricity

Analysis

As Victor narrates the story of his childhood, he introduces some of the novel's most important concerns:

  • One is the role of women in the early 19th century. Caroline Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza are both passive figures, taken care of by men. Alphonse rescues Caroline, an orphan, from poverty and loneliness, and the husband and wife later do the same for Elizabeth. Given Mary Shelley's background as the daughter of the foremost feminist of the era, this portrait of passive women who must be cared for by men is surprising. In contrast, her acute awareness of the pain of a child losing a parent colors these plot points. The two women's circumstances also introduce the tenuousness of human connections, which can be quickly lost through death, another issue that connects the Monster to the human characters.
  • The chapter highlights the importance of education. Alphonse saw to the education of his children and exposed Victor to many disciplines and to the works of established, renowned authors. Victor thus learned as Mary Shelley had done, largely in the library of his father. Later, the Monster will also absorb knowledge by reading a treasure trove of books, and as we saw in the first letters, Walton is self-taught as well. Victor notes that his father did not give him much guidance in his learning, though, and suggests that this lack of supervision or discussion helped lead him to make his later mistake of making the Monster.

This chapter also lays the groundwork for Frankenstein's creation of the Monster, making his invention of the Monster seem logical and even possible. Shelley does this by having Victor read the work of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. These were alchemists, ancient scientists who tried to find the "philosopher's stone," a substance that would turn inexpensive compounds such as mercury into gold or silver, extend life, create life, and achieve immortality. Obviously, their alchemical work has long been discredited.

Victor also notes that he reads books that concern "the raising of ghosts or devils," a possibility that excites him. Finally, Victor's interest in electricity foreshadows the way he will bring the Monster to life. These details also make Victor's later obsession with his creation understandable.

That Victor's mother wanted him to marry Elizabeth, a cousin in this edition, is not so unusual for the time. It may seem strange that two children raised as siblings would marry, but they did not, of course, share the same parents. Elizabeth was adopted. It is notable, though, that Mary Shelley changed Elizabeth's status in the 1831 edition, making her no relation to Alphonse Frankenstein when she is taken into the home. This might have been meant to blunt any possible criticism that could be leveled at their relationship.

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