The novel is written in epistolary form, documenting a correspondence between Captain Robert Walton and his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. Walton is a failed writer who sets out to explore the North Pole and expand his scientific knowledge in hopes of achieving fame. During the voyage, the crew spots a dog sled mastered by a gigantic figure. A few hours later, the crew rescues a nearly frozen and emaciated man named Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein has been in pursuit of the gigantic man observed by Walton's crew. Frankenstein starts to recover from his exertion; he sees in Walton the same over-ambitiousness and recounts a story of his life's miseries to Walton as a warning.
Victor begins by telling of his childhood. Born into a wealthy family in Geneva, he is encouraged to seek a greater understanding of the world around him through science. He grows up in a safe environment, surrounded by loving family and friends. When he is around four years old, his parents adopt Elizabeth Lavenza, an orphan whose mother has just died (she is Victor's biological cousin in the first edition, but an adopted child with no blood relation in the 1831 edition). Victor has a possessive infatuation with Elizabeth. He has two younger brothers: Ernest and William.
As a young boy, Victor is obsessed with studying outdated theories of science that focus on achieving natural wonders. He plans to attend the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. Weeks before his planned departure, his mother dies of scarlet fever. At university, he excels at chemistry and other sciences, and he develops a secret technique to imbue inanimate bodies with life.
The details of the monster's construction are left ambiguous, but Frankenstein finds himself forced to make the creature roughly eight feet tall because of the difficulty in replicating the minute parts of the human body. His creation, which he has hoped would be beautiful, is instead hideous, with dull yellow eyes and a withered, translucent, yellowish skin that barely conceals the muscular system and blood vessels. After bringing his creation to life, Victor is repulsed by his work; he flees the room, and the monster disappears.
Victor becomes ill from the experience. He is nursed back to health by his childhood friend, Henry Clerval. After a four-month recovery, he determines that he should return home when his brother William is found murdered. Upon arriving in Geneva, he sees the monster near the site of the murder and becomes certain it is the killer. William's nanny, Justine, is hanged for the murder based on the discovery of William's locket in her pocket. Victor, though certain the monster is responsible, doubts anyone would believe him and does not intervene.
Ravaged by his grief and self-reproach, Victor retreats into the mountains to find peace. The monster approaches him, ignoring his threats and pleading with Victor to hear its tale. Intelligent and articulate, it tells Victor of its encounters with people, and how it had become afraid of them and spent a year living near a cottage, observing the DeLacey family living there and growing fond of them. Through observing the De Lacey family, the monster became educated and self-aware. It also discovered a lost satchel of books and learned to read. Seeing its reflection in a pool, it realized that its physical appearance is hideous compared to the humans it watches. Though it eventually approached the family with hope of becoming their fellow, they were frightened by its appearance and drove it off, and they then left the residence permanently. The creature, in a fit of rage, burned the cottage and left.
In its travels some time later, the monster saw a young girl tumble into a stream and rescued her from drowning. A man, seeing it with the child in its arms, pursued it and fired a gun, wounding it. Travelling to Geneva, it met a little boy — Victor's brother William — in the woods outside the town of Plainpalais. The monster hoped the boy was too young to fear deformity, but upon its approach, William cried out, threatening the monster with the weight of his family — the Frankenstein's. The creature grabbed the boy by the throat to silence him, and strangled him. It is unclear from the text whether this was an accident on the monster's part or a deliberate murder, but in either case, the monster took this as its first act of vengeance against its creator. It removed a locket from the boy's body and placed it in the folds of the dress of a young woman — William's nanny, Justine — who had been sleeping in a barn nearby, assuming she would be accused of the murder.
The monster concludes its story with a demand that Frankenstein create for it a female companion like itself. It argues that as a living thing, it has a right to happiness and that Victor, as its creator, has a duty to obey it, with the chilling words, "You are my creator, but I am your master. Obey!" It promises that if Victor grants its request, it and its mate will vanish into the wilderness of South America uninhabited by man, never to reappear.
Fearing for his family, Victor reluctantly agrees and travels to England to do his work. He is accompanied by Clerval, but they separate in Scotland. Through their travels, Victor suspects that the monster is following him. Working on a second being on the Orkney Islands, he is plagued by premonitions of what his work might wreak, particularly as creating a mate for the creature might lead to the breeding of an entire race of monsters that could plague mankind. He destroys the unfinished example after he sees the monster looking through the window. The monster witnesses this and, confronting Victor, vows to be with Victor on his upcoming wedding night. The monster murders Clerval and leaves the corpse on an Irish beach, where Victor lands upon leaving the island. Victor is imprisoned for the murder of Clerval, and becomes seriously ill, suffering another mental breakdown in prison. After being acquitted, and with his health renewed, he returns home with his father.
Once home, Victor marries his cousin Elizabeth and prepares for a fight to the death with the monster. Wrongly believing the monster's vowed revenge was for his own life, he asks Elizabeth to retire to her room for the night while he goes looking for the fiend. He searches the house and grounds, but the creature murders the secluded Elizabeth instead. Victor sees the monster at the window pointing at the corpse. Grief-stricken by the deaths of William, Justine, Clerval, and now Elizabeth, Victor's father dies. Victor vows to pursue the monster until one of them annihilates the other. After months of pursuit, the two end up in the Arctic Circle, near the North Pole.
At the end of Victor's narrative, Captain Walton resumes the telling of the story. A few days after the vanishing of the creature, the ship becomes entombed in ice and Walton's crew insists on returning south once they are freed. In spite of a passionate speech from Frankenstein, encouraging the crew to push further north, Walton realizes that he must relent to his men's demands and agrees to head for home. Frankenstein dies shortly thereafter, not before imploring Captain Walton to carry his mission of vengeance to its completion. "The task of his destruction was mine, but I have failed. When actuated by selfish and vicious motives, I asked you to take up my unfinished work; and I renew this request now, when I am only induced by reason and virtue."
Walton discovers the monster on his ship, mourning over Frankenstein's body. Walton hears the monster's adamant justification for its vengeance as well as expressions of remorse. Frankenstein's death has not brought it peace. Rather, its crimes have increased its misery and alienation; it has found only its own emotional ruin in the destruction of its creator. It vows to exterminate itself on its own funeral pyre so that no others will ever know of its existence. Walton watches as it drifts away on an ice raft that is soon lost in darkness.
- Victor Frankenstein and his creation live in a different land and are not natives of the Enchanted Forest.
- The "creature" is Victor's brother.
- Victor created a second monster by bringing back Daniel.
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