What is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?

Much like the popular comic-movie franchise League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Penny Dreadful features its own versions of characters from classic literature. In the end of the first episode, we discover that the arrogant doctor’s name is Victor Frankenstein, and that he has finally fulfilled his dream of bringing someone back from the dead. Victor was originally the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s gothic horror novel Frankenstein, and is played by Harry Treadaway on Penny Dreadful. There are many differences between the two Victors–and between their creations, too. If you haven’t read Shelley’s classic, here’s a short summary to get you up to speed.

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  • The book is told in the form of a letter from Captain Robert Walton and his wife. Walton is on a ship exploring the North Pole when he rescues a man out on the ice. The man is nursed back to health aboard the ship, and gives his name as Frankenstein.
  • Frankenstein detects impatience and ambition in Walton, and begins to tell him the sorry story of his life as a cautionary tale.
  • Born to a wealthy family in Geneva, Switzerland, Frankenstein became obsessed with lightning after seeing its effects on a tree. He uses it in countless experiments at college, including one regarding the reanimation of dead tissue.
  • Eventually, Frankenstein attempts to reanimate an entire body’s worth of tissue. There are complications, however, which force him to alter the body’s composition. When completed, the creature stands over eight feet tall, has yellow eyes, and its skin is thinly stretched over its bones and muscles.
  • When his creation is brought to life during one of Frankenstein’s experiments, Frankenstein looks at what he’s made and finds it hideous. The doctor flees his home, and the creature vanishes. He does not receive a name, as he does in Penny Dreadful episode 2.
  • Frankenstein gets sick and turns to his friend Henry Clervel to help him heal. Upon returning home four months later, he discovers that his brother William has been murdered, and William’s nanny Justine hanged for the crime. Frankenstein sees “the Creature” at the scene of the crime, leading him to believe his creation is the murderer.
  • Feeling horrifically guilty, Frankenstein flees once again into the mountains of Switzerland. The monster pursues him and eventually catches up. To his shock, Frankenstein discovers the monster is capable of intelligent speech.
  • The monster explains that he spent some time living near a country cottage. He learned to speak by imitating the voices he heard each day, and found a sack of books so he could learn to read. When he tried to befriend the family in the cottage, however, they ran out of fear for his appearance. The monster then burned down their house in a fit of rage.
  • Frankenstein is taken aback by the creature’s next request: that he make a female monster as well. The creature promises that he will take his bride to South America and hide in the jungle forever. The doctor reluctantly agrees.
  • While traveling and working on his new project, Frankenstein begins to have misgivings. He fears that the two creatures will breed somehow and create a monstrous new lineage of humanity. Frankenstein sees his creature watching him through a window, and destroys the female creation while the monster watches.
  • The monster confronts Frankenstein, saying that he will be with the doctor and his fiancee, Elizabeth, on their wedding night. He then kills Clerval, who came with Frankenstein to help, and vanishes again.
  • Briefly accused of Clerval’s murder, Frankenstein returns to Geneva and marries Elizabeth. That night, Frankenstein goes searching for the creature for their final battle, leaving Elizabeth alone. The monster takes the opportunity to kill Elizabeth and taunt Frankenstein with her limp body.
  • Frankenstein’s father dies from grief, and the doctor is filled with fury. He chases his creation to the North Pole, seeking revenge, but ultimately cannot kill it.
  • Walton takes over the narration here, describing how inclement weather and ice forced the ship to turn back. Frankenstein dies soon after, and the creature appears that night next to his body to express his remorse. The creature has had his revenge on his loveless creator, but it does not make him happy. Overcome by the weight of his crimes, the creature vows to kill himself to atone. In the book’s final scene, Walton sees the creature sitting on a chunk of ice, drifting off into the night, never to be seen again.
  • Frankenstein was written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley when she was just 18. Its subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus,” references the myth about a man who steals fire from the heavens and is punished for his ambition.
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