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Literature Study GuidesFrankensteinVolume 1 Chapter 3 Summary

Frankenstein | Study Guide

Mary Shelley

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Volume 1: Chapter 3

Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Volume 1: Chapter 3 of Mary Shelley's book Frankenstein (1818).

Frankenstein | Volume 1, Chapter 3 | Summary



For two years Victor was a dedicated and determined chemistry student, working hard and making speedy progress. He says, "In M. Waldman I found a true friend." He didn't return home, even for visits, because he was "engaged, heart and soul, in the pursuit of some discoveries." He did indeed make some significant discoveries relating to "the improvement of [laboratory] instruments," which brought him fame and respect among his professors and classmates, and he considered going home to Geneva.

Victor was especially interested in studying the human body and the question of from "whence ... did the principle of life proceed?" To that end, he dug up corpses from the cemetery and removed bodies from morgues to experiment upon. After much hard work, he had a breakthrough, "discovering the cause of generation of life." As he tells Walton, "I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter." He hoped that soon he would be able to bring dead bodies back to life.

But Victor realized that acquiring such knowledge is extremely dangerous. His unbounded ambition has cost him his happiness, and he cautions his audience, Walton, to beware of "becoming greater than [your] nature will allow." Nonetheless, Victor says, he started to build a giant man-shaped creature, about eight feet tall, from various scavenged body parts. He was sure that this new species would celebrate him as its creator and look upon him as a father; he set a long-term goal of "renew[ing] life" in the dead. He spent the entire summer at work, ignoring everyone at school and the beauty of nature, becoming ill, and not even answering letters from his family back home in Geneva.


Victor Frankenstein's realization that he has overstepped his bounds parallels the story of Faust, a famous literary figure. Faust was a brilliant scholar who made a pact with the Devil, trading his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly delights. In some versions, Faust goes to hell; in others, Faust is saved. The Faust legend has come to symbolize someone who foolishly and disastrously gives up his or her integrity and morality to gain power and success. This is what happens to Victor, because in assuming the power of creating life, the power that belongs only to God, Victor will cause disasters for his family and closest friend. Victor uses his intelligence in a way that results in evil rather than for good, and tragedy ensues. All this lies ahead, of course. For the present, Victor tells Walton that he will not reveal the secret of reanimation that he discovered, hinting at dark and tragic events that he will relate later in his tale, building suspense for what will follow.

In his flashback, Victor is arrogant about his power, too, another sin. He believes that the new species he creates will be grateful to him and others will celebrate him as well. In effect, Victor is setting himself up as a god. Since this entire section is a flashback, Victor is speaking on Walton's ship. He is close to death, which he realizes. Therefore, he is able to look back on his life and realize his error and its consequences. That is why Victor warns Walton not to make the same mistake that he did, not to acquire too much knowledge and become "greater than his nature will allow." Too much knowledge is dangerous, Mary Shelley suggests.

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