Frankenstein is presented as a frame tale, told by Captain Walton while on an expedition to the North Pole, where he finds Frankenstein. Frankenstein is a scientist who created a monstrous human-like Creature. The Creature tried to explain his murders to Frankenstein, claiming that people rejected and feared him, begging Frankenstein to make him a mate. Frankenstein first agrees then destroys the mate. The enraged Creature kills Frankenstein's wife, fleeing to the North Pole. After Frankenstein dies, Walton sees the Creature mourning as he floats away on a raft.
In the first chapter, the narration shifts to the first-person viewpoint of the stranger, whose name is still unknown to us. He begins his life story by saying he was born to a distinguished Genevese family. His father was respected and honored, and spent his time as a young man on business affairs having to do with his country. One of his father's closest friends, Beaufort, fell from wealth to poverty, and died leaving a daughter, Caroline Beaufort, penniless and alone. The stranger's father took Caroline into his care, and then married her in Geneva.
Despite a large difference in their ages, the stranger's parents were unusually devoted and loving to one another. The stranger was born while his parents were traveling in Naples. For several years he was their only child, though his mother had always wanted a daughter. When the stranger was five years old, he went with Caroline to a poor family's cottage where they found a family of dark peasants and one beautiful golden-haired little girl. The peasant family had found the girl, named Elizabeth Lavenza, impoverished and orphaned and they took her in during better times. Caroline adopted Elizabeth, and she became the stranger's companion.
Here we see the stranger's name for the first time. Caroline presented Elizabeth as a kind of gift to her Victor. Victor was proud of her beauty and sweetness. Victor and Elizabeth affectionately called each other cousin.
In this first chapter, the narration shifts from Robert Walton writing letters to his sister, to the first-person viewpoint of the stranger, whose name is still unknown to us. He begins his life story by saying he was born to a distinguished Genevese family. His father, Alphonse, was respected and honored, and spent his time as a young man on business affairs having to do with his country. He married when he was an older man, and the stranger feels compelled to tell the story of Alphonse's marriage.
One of his father's closest friends, Beaufort, fell from wealth to poverty and was too proud to remain in the country that had once revered him. Thus, he moved to the town of Lucerne with his daughter, and hid himself away to live in wretchedness. The stranger's father, feeling great sympathy and affection for Beaufort, went looking for him in hopes of helping Beaufort and drawing him out of reclusion. While the stranger's father searched for his friend, Beaufort spent his time grief-stricken and nearly motionless. Despair took over his mind and body, so that he was deeply ill and could hardly move.
His daughter, Caroline Beaufort, tenderly took care of her father and also found ways to earn money enough to just support the two of them when Beaufort's funds were depleted. Months passed this way, and Caroline's opportunities for work decreased until her father died in her arms, leaving her penniless and alone. She was weeping bitterly over her Beaufort's coffin when the stranger's father finally found Beaufort's home. He took Caroline into his protection and care, brought her to Geneva, and married her two years later.
Despite a large difference in their ages, the stranger's parents were unusually devoted and loving to one another. His father worshipped and doted upon his mother. They moved to Italy so that Caroline could recuperate from the trauma of losing her father. The two visited Germany and France together, and ultimately the stranger was born in Naples. His parents were just as warmly loving and affectionate with him as they were to each other. The stranger tells how deeply conscious they were of what they owed towards the being which they had given life, and how they felt it their duty to bring up their helpless, heavenly son to do good. For several years, he was their only child, though his mother had always wanted a daughter.
Caroline often visited the poor, believing that because she had once been in their position, it was her responsibility to act as their guardian angel. When the stranger was five years old, he went with her to a poor family's cottage, consisting of two hard-working peasant parents, four dark and scrawny children and one beautiful golden-haired little girl. The peasant woman explained to Caroline that the angelic-looking girl's mother had died at birth, and her Italian father was nowhere to be found. The peasant family found her impoverished and orphaned and they took her in. The family was wealthier then. Her name was Elizabeth Lavenza and she was radiant and celestial. Caroline adopted Elizabeth, and she became the stranger's more than sister the beautiful and adored companion with whom he played.
Here we see the stranger's name for the first time. The night before Elizabeth came to live at the stranger's family's villa, Caroline said to him, I have a pretty present for my Victor tomorrow he shall have it. From the moment he saw her, Victor claimed Elizabeth as his own to care for, protect, and keep. He was proud of her, and received the praise she regularly heard as if it were given to him. Victor and Elizabeth affectionately called each other cousin.
In Victor's first chapter narrating his story, he tells of an extremely tranquil and pleasant beginning to his life. His childhood was happy and safe. Even though his mother struggled with poverty and the loss of her parents, she ultimately found great joy in the cozy home she made with her husband, Alphonse. Victor's descriptions of his childhood are as sweet as can be. It is possible that, looking back on his past, it seems rosier than it may have been, due to the misery he claims he suffered when he left his warm home.
This foreshadowing of a horrible, life-crushing experience to come constantly prepares the reader for certain doom in Victor's life. It creates a sense of dreadful anticipation to find out exactly what kind of sadness befalls Victor, yet it also decreases the element of surprise. The reader knows quite well that Victor is destined for gloom and suffering. During his telling of his joy-filled youth, Victor will consistently allude to his impending misfortune, perhaps in order to highlight how very, very good he once had it, and also to show what he essentially threw it all away.
The theme of poverty and wealth was a strong focal point for Mary Shelley. She believed society would be better if those with money would help those without money. This is exemplified in both Alphonse's decision to take in Caroline when she is orphaned and penniless, and in Caroline's insistence on visiting peasant families. Her adoption of Elizabeth is another example of this. Elizabeth ultimately grows up to be just as generous, selfless and kindhearted as her adoptive mother. Shelley's own mother died giving birth to Mary, and she didn't have a very close relationship with her stepmother. Caroline is perhaps Mary's projected view of what a mother should be.
The female characters in Frankenstein are largely based on a kind of Virgin Mary ideal. Caroline, Elizabeth, and later Justine Moritz are all sweet, passive, domestic, contented with their lot, and cheerful to others even when they themselves are not feeling cheerful. This isn't to say they aren't important characters or that they are dismissed--Caroline is extremely important to Victor, and is Alphonse's best companion. Elizabeth is consistently referred to in angelic terms. The family regards her as perfect, flawless and integral to the family structure. Still, both she and Caroline give of themselves so much that their own senses of self are secondary to everything else.