Summary: Chapter 3
I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.
At the age of seventeen, Victor leaves his family in Geneva to attend the university at Ingolstadt. Just before Victor departs, his mother catches scarlet fever from Elizabeth, whom she has been nursing back to health, and dies. On her deathbed, she begs Elizabeth and Victor to marry. Several weeks later, still grieving, Victor goes off to Ingolstadt.
Arriving at the university, he finds quarters in the town and sets up a meeting with a professor of natural philosophy, M. Krempe. Krempe tells Victor that all the time that Victor has spent studying the alchemists has been wasted, further souring Victor on the study of natural philosophy. He then attends a lecture in chemistry by a professor named Waldman. This lecture, along with a subsequent meeting with the professor, convinces Victor to pursue his studies in the sciences.
Summary: Chapter 4
Victor attacks his studies with enthusiasm and, ignoring his social life and his family far away in Geneva, makes rapid progress. Fascinated by the mystery of the creation of life, he begins to study how the human body is built (anatomy) and how it falls apart (death and decay). After several years of tireless work, he masters all that his professors have to teach him, and he goes one step further: discovering the secret of life.
Privately, hidden away in his apartment where no one can see him work, he decides to begin the construction of an animate creature, envisioning the creation of a new race of wonderful beings. Zealously devoting himself to this labor, he neglects everything else—family, friends, studies, and social life—and grows increasingly pale, lonely, and obsessed.
Summary: Chapter 5
One stormy night, after months of labor, Victor completes his creation. But when he brings it to life, its awful appearance horrifies him. He rushes to the next room and tries to sleep, but he is troubled by nightmares about Elizabeth and his mother’s corpse. He wakes to discover the monster looming over his bed with a grotesque smile and rushes out of the house. He spends the night pacing in his courtyard. The next morning, he goes walking in the town of Ingolstadt, frantically avoiding a return to his now-haunted apartment.
As he walks by the town inn, Victor comes across his friend Henry Clerval, who has just arrived to begin studying at the university. Delighted to see Henry—a breath of fresh air and a reminder of his family after so many months of isolation and ill health—he brings him back to his apartment. Victor enters first and is relieved to find no sign of the monster. But, weakened by months of work and shock at the horrific being he has created, he immediately falls ill with a nervous fever that lasts several months. Henry nurses him back to health and, when Victor has recovered, gives him a letter from Elizabeth that had arrived during his illness.
Analysis: Chapters 3–5
Whereas the first two chapters give the reader a mere sense of impending doom, these chapters depict Victor irrevocably on the way to tragedy. The creation of the monster is a grotesque act, far removed from the triumph of scientific knowledge for which Victor had hoped. His nightmares reflect his horror at what he has done and also serve to foreshadow future events in the novel. The images of Elizabeth “livid with the hue of death” prepare the reader for Elizabeth’s eventual death and connect it, however indirectly, to the creation of the monster.
Victor’s pursuit of scientific knowledge reveals a great deal about his perceptions of science in general. He views science as the only true route to new knowledge: “In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.” Walton’s journey to the North Pole is likewise a search for “food for discovery and wonder,” a step into the tantalizing, dark unknown.
The symbol of light, introduced in Walton’s first letter (“What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?”), appears again in Victor’s narrative, this time in a scientific context. “From the midst of this darkness,” Victor says when describing his discovery of the secret of life, “a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous.” Light reveals, illuminates, clarifies; it is essential for seeing, and seeing is the way to knowledge. Just as light can illuminate, however, so can it blind; pleasantly warm at moderate levels, it ignites dangerous flames at higher ones. Immediately after his first metaphorical use of light as a symbol of knowledge, Victor retreats into secrecy and warns Walton of “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” Thus, light is balanced always by fire, the promise of new discovery by the danger of unpredictable—and perhaps tragic—consequences.
The theme of secrecy manifests itself in these chapters, as Victor’s studies draw him farther and farther away from those who love and advise him. He conducts his experiments alone, following the example of the ancient alchemists, who jealously guarded their secrets, and rejecting the openness of the new sciences. Victor displays an unhealthy obsession with all of his endeavors, and the labor of creating the monster takes its toll on him. It drags him into charnel houses in search of old body parts and, even more important, isolates him from the world of open social institutions. Though Henry’s presence makes Victor become conscious of his gradual loss of touch with humanity, Victor is nonetheless unwilling to tell Henry anything about the monster. The theme of secrecy transforms itself, now linked to Victor’s shame and regret for having ever hoped to create a new life.
Victor’s reaction to his creation initiates a haunting theme that persists throughout the novel—the sense that the monster is inescapable, ever present, liable to appear at any moment and wreak havoc. When Victor arrives at his apartment with Henry, he opens the door “as children are accustomed to do when they expect a specter to stand in waiting for them on the other side,” a seeming echo of the tension-filled German ghost stories read by Mary Shelley and her vacationing companions.
As in the first three chapters, Victor repeatedly addresses Walton, his immediate audience, reminding the reader of the frame narrative and of the multiple layers of storytellers and listeners. Structuring comments such as “I fear, my friend, that I shall render myself tedious by dwelling on these preliminary circumstances” both remind the reader of the target audience (Walton) and help indicate the relative importance of each passage.
Shelley employs other literary devices from time to time, including apostrophe, in which the speaker addresses an inanimate object, absent person, or abstract idea. Victor occasionally addresses some of the figures from his past as if they were with him on board Walton’s ship. “Excellent friend!” he exclaims, referring to Henry. “How sincerely did you love me, and endeavor to elevate my mind, until it was on a level with your own.” Apostrophe was a favorite of Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who used it often in his poetry; its occurrence here might reflect some degree of Percy’s influence on Mary’s writing.