Chapter 1

Synopsis of Volume 1 Chapter 1

Victor Frankenstein comes from Geneva, the son of a distinguished public servant; he enjoys a happy childhood in the company of his cousin Elizabeth and his friend Henry Clerval.

He becomes interested in natural science and reads books that arouse in him a fascination with the origins of life. He begins to observe natural phenomena and develops an interest in electricity.

His father arranges for him to attend some lectures, but Frankenstein finds that he dislikes studying chemistry and instead devotes himself to mathematics, ancient and modern languages and the education of his two much younger brothers.

Commentary on Volume 1 Chapter 1

by birth a Genevese … that Republic: Victor comes from Switzerland, which at the time in which the novel is set, was a confederation of independent cantons or republics, of which the city of Geneva was one.

More on Switzerland as the setting:

There are a number of reasons why Mary Shelley might have chosen Switzerland as a setting for Frankenstein:

  • it was a country that she knew from her visits in 1814
  • it was a setting used in a number of Gothic novels (see Critical approaches: Reception of Frankenstein context)
  • its landscape of mountains and lakes made it suitable as a backdrop to several dramatic scenes in the novel.

syndics: the name given to law-makers in Geneva; this detail makes it clear that Frankenstein comes from a well-established and respected family.

plain work: plain or straightforward sewing.

a vacancy … imaginations of her own: Mary Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was very critical of the limited education available to women (see Author section).

Orlando, Robin Hood, Amadis and St. George: all four characters named are to be found in legends or romances. More on these characters?

Natural philosophy: the usual eighteenth-century term for the natural sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, botany and zoology.

Cornelius Agrippa … Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus: authors who wrote about various aspects of natural science; Agrippa and Paracelsus were drawn to alchemy and the occult, while Magnus, a Dominican monk wrote on both mathematics and the physical and natural sciences. More on these authors?

the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life: The search for these was the main goal of those who practised alchemy.

More on alchemy:

These references are further examples of how Mary Shelley suggeststo the reader the nature of Frankenstein's interest in science:

  • It was believed that there existed a substance that could be used to turn base or comparatively valueless metal into gold, and this was known as the philosopher's stone
  • In the course of their fruitless search for this stone alchemists added a great deal to the knowledge and understanding of chemistry
  • The search for the elixir of life was also pursued by alchemists and was closely linked to the philosopher's stone. It was believed that this elixir could prolong life indefinitely

Distillation and the wonderful effects of steam … an air-pump: the 18th saw remarkable advances in the application of steam power, particularly in the manufacturing processes developed as the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum. The air pump, which could be used to create vacuums, was used in scientific experiments and also in public displays demonstrating the potential of new scientific techniques.

‘Electricity' … that fluid from the clouds: A reference to the fact that electricity can be obtained by harbouring the power of flashes of lightning. More on contemporary understanding of electricity?

Pliny and Buffon: two more writers on science, Pliny in the classical period, and Buffon in the eighteenth century.

More on Pliny and Buffon:

Yet more information is given about Victor's scientific education:

  • Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) was a Roman soldier and administrator who in the last ten years of his life worked on his Natural History, an encyclopaedic work covering every aspect of the natural sciences, including geography, geology, anthropology, botany, biology, physiology, medicine and magic. He died in the destruction of Pompeii following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pliny the Younger (63-c.113 CE), also a natural philosopher as well as a lawyer and politician, was his nephew.
  • George Louis Leclerc, Count Buffon (1707-1778). A brilliant mathematician and physicist, he later turned to the study of botany and other natural sciences. He believed that life had been created through natural causes and not by the intervention of God.

Investigating Volume 1 Chapter 1
  • Think about Victor's childhood companionship with Elizabeth and Henry and his early scientific reading:
    • On what kind of reading do they base their games?
    • What aspects of science most excite Victor?
  • In what ways do the details about reading and science prepare us for the way in which the plot of the novel will develop?
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