Get Agrippa! Thoughts on Chapters 1-7 of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus


No plot recaps: that would be tedious reading. For a summary of what happens in these chapters, click here. Instead, I offer what I noticed, what made me curious and what made me react.

Let me add that when I first read Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus I may have been in 7th or 8th grade, and as much as this type of literature can be a pain in the ass to a feckless tween boy in search of horror thrills, I fell head first into it and got through it smoothly. I loved it.


The novel begins with the epistolary framework of the letters by that Arctic explorer dude, Robert Walton, writing to his sister Mrs. Saville, relating his discovery of a shivering, haunted Victor Frankenstein on the ice floes. Romanticism is in this novel’s fabric, and Shelley is great at making you imagine how beautiful and awe-inspiring these Arctic vistas are. It’s 2018 and we may be soon losing them.

Then we’re introduced to some of our main characters. I have to say that the character of Elizabeth Lavenza bugged me on first impression. For a writer with such an influential feminist pedigree, Mary Shelley’s female characters … kind of suck? Elizabeth is an annoying Victorian pixie dream girl, brightening everything with her smiles and wondrous mirth and happiness, isn’t she wonderful, bla bla bla. Is there more to her than my ungracious snark will grant? The very funny literary guide Shmoop seemed to agree with me about ol’ Lizzie:

“Elizabeth is a tool—she’s “bought” by his mother and used by Mary Shelley to make a point. We tried, but we just couldn’t get too upset about her death. And, somehow, we suspect Victor wasn’t all that upset, either.”

We’re also introduced to Henry Clerval, the best friend, and towards the end of the novel what needs to be said dawned on me: the real love story rests with him, not Liz.

And then we have Victor Frankenstein himself. On the surface, he’s an awful human being: egotistical, gutless and incredibly manic. He’s touched by a Miltonian/Promethean brilliance that he can’t properly manage and that he doesn’t deserve.  But we should celebrate that. Shelley gave us a character.

The passages describing his creation of the monster are spectacular, all giddy arrogance and obsessive pride until he sees what he’s done. He created an ugly looking man-child and abandons it just because it looks ugly. It’s heartbreaking, and then Vic lapses into one of many “fevers” – i.e. epic drama queen nervous breakdowns.

The ‘brilliance’ I mentioned before? It’s the idea of unlocking and defying the secrets of nature, consequences be damned.  To do this, Vic mastered some junk science and occult philosophy, stuff that his teachers at the university of Ingolstadt rightly scoffed because the science doesn’t stand up:

  • Galvinism. Okay so making muscles twitch with an electric current isn’t junk science but Shelley and others took it to the extreme of theorizing that you could revive the dead through and electric current.
  • Cornelius Agrippa: scholar, soldier, polymath, occultist…this 1500s badass did it all, including writing tomes about magic and occultism. I’m not sure which parts of those fed into Frankenstein.
  • Paracelsus: How Victor must have envied these dudes who did it all. Paracelsus was a physician and scholar and metallurgist and introduced the concept of involving chemistry in the study of medicine. He was also apparently an alchemist and this idea of transmuting elements may have made Vic think he had a chance of creating life.
  • Albertus Magnus: more impressive resumes, and this guy can add official Catholic sainthood to his CV. Another devotee of astrology and alchemy.


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