Many have identified Frankenstein as a book of science fiction—indeed, as even the first of that genre in the English language. In the preface, Mary Shelley writes, “The even on which the interest of the story depends … was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it develops; and, however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions.” What is she suggesting about the relationship between science fiction and truth? Do you agree with her? Why or why not?
Why has Mary included the letters Captain Walton writes to his sister, Margaret? Do they help you understand the scientific context in which Victor (and Mary) operate? The social context? In which ways is Captain Walton like Victor? In what ways is he different? Do your views of him change from the beginning to the end of the novel?
In the last of the letters, Victor slips into the language of fate and predetermination. In what ways is his future fated, and in what ways is it of his own making? Why is he here using the language of fate?
What do we learn about Victor, his family, and his friends from this opening chapter of Mary’s narrative? Would you call Victor’s childhood “Edenic”? What are the implications of identifying it as such?
How did the young Victor approach reading, learning, and science? What kind of things impressed him or failed to impress him?
When Victor goes off to the University of Ingolstadt, he has become a “mother-less child,” believing himself “totally unfitted for the company of strangers” (here). How does this view of himself influence the way he approaches his studies? Have you ever felt this way when you have gone off to school or camp or elsewhere? If so, how did it affect the way you approached your tasks?
Have you ever had a teacher accuse you of reading “nonsense,” as M. Krempe does of Victor? If so, how did you react? How is M. Krempe correct or incorrect in his assessment of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus?
Who might be on the reading lists that M. Krempe and M. Waldman provide Victor (roughly around 1790)? M. Waldman shows Victor the machines in his laboratory. What might those machines have been? What did a laboratory of the late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century look like?
How does Victor approach his studies at the University of Ingolstadt? How is this approach different from your approach to your studies? How does Victor choose a mentor? Do you have a mentor? How would your studies be different if your mentoring situation were different?
How does Victor learn about “the principle of life” (here)? In what venues do his inquiries take place? Are his inquiries limited to the laboratory? In what ways does contemporary research span laboratory research and research outside the laboratory?
What biological materials are used in a modern university? What rules govern the their use? How did these rules come about? Are rules different for human biological materials and nonhuman materials? Should they be?
Has discovering something about the natural world ever made you unhappy? Has learning something new in any endeavor ever made you unhappy? In either case, did you decide in the end that it was better to know or not to know? What other stories, fact or fiction, can you think of about knowledge causing unhappiness?
Why does Victor choose not to reveal his discovery to anyone or to consult with anyone about his determination to animate a creature based on his discovery? Is it right to keep discoveries secret? Are there examples of discoveries that have been kept secret, at least for a time? Should they have been kept secret?
Have you ever neglected other duties—your friends or family, your other classes, sports or art or entertainment—because of your commitment to a scientific or creative endeavor? How did it feel while you were doing this? How did it feel afterward?
Why is Mary’s description of the laboratory context of the “instruments of life” (here) so vague? Compare this scene to the many film reenactments of it (especially the Edison Studios film in 1910, the Universal Pictures film directed by James Whale in 1931, and the TriStar Pictures film directed by Kenneth Branagh in 1994). How are they different? How are they the same? Do the different media give you different ideas about what the science is like? What the ethics are like?
Does Victor use both human and animal material in making his creature? What is the textual evidence, one way or the other? Does it matter to your understanding of the creature’s status if it has animal as well as human parts? Does it matter to your understanding of contemporary human beings if doctors repair their hearts with valves from pigs or transplant baboon hearts into their chests? What about plastic valves, metal joints, or artificial hearts? What about artificial brains?
Some (feminist) critiques of Frankenstein point out that Victor succeeds in creating a motherless creature. Would a female creator have behaved differently toward her creature? Could a woman have done what Victor did in his day? Can a female scientist do what a male scientist can do today? Would a female scientist have made the creature? Do women do different science or do science differently than men?
Victor “conceived a violent antipathy even to the name of natural philosophy” (here). Is there any extent to which he might be right in blaming the entire field of study or its overall perspective? Are there fields of inquiry to which you have an “antipathy,” if not a violent one? What is that hostility based on? Is it moral? Is it metaphysical?
Parenthood can be emotionally challenging, as exemplified by the prevalence of postpartum depression among new mothers. Victor also falls ill in the wake of his animation of the creature, and his friend Henry Clerval nurses him back to health. Why in this period, which goes on for many months, does Victor completely ignore the creature’s disappearance? What is his emotional state during this time, and in what ways is he like or unlike a parent?
Upon returning to Geneva following William’s death and seeing his creature there, illuminated by a flash of lightning, Victor states that “[t]he mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact” (here) that the creature was the murderer. Have you ever had such leaps of intuition that you immediately knew they were true, even without evidence or investigation? Is that the kind of understanding you associate with a scientist?
Justine is convicted in a murder trial largely on the basis of circumstantial evidence. She was found in possession of the locket that had been on the murdered boy William and could not provide an alibi. How is the use of knowledge different in the law and in science? Are the stakes different? Should knowledge in law and science be identical? Should justice always be predicated on truth?
Why do you think Elizabeth’s testimony has no influence on the jury?
How does religion influence the creation of knowledge in Justine’s trial? How does it influence Victor’s and Elizabeth’s response to the execution of Justine? Why does Justine confess to a crime she did not commit and does not even understand, whereas Victor refuses to provide evidence about which he is certain?