(Click the plot infographic to download.)
The story begins with Captain Robert Walton hanging out in St. Petersburg, Russia, probably near the end of the 18th century. He's waiting around for a ride to the port of Archangel, where he's going to hire some hardy Russians to go sailing off to the North Pole. Unfortunately, the boat gets stuck in impassible ice hundreds of miles from land. Boring! With nothing else to do, he writes letters to his sister back in England. His main complaint? He wants a male friend to keep him company. (What about that ship full of sailors? No, he means a worthy companion.)
Soon, Walton's despair is interrupted by the sight of —a man! On the ice! Riding a dog-sled! The man boards the ship, and it seems as if Walton's wish for a friend has come true. Except this new guy, Victor? Kind of nuts. Here's his story, as told to Walton:
Victor started out like any normal kid in Geneva, with his parents adopting a girl named Elizabeth for him to marry when he was older. You know, totally normal. At college, he decides to study natural philosophy (like a rudimentary physics) and chemistry, along with chemistry's evil twin, alchemy. In about two years, he figures out how to bring a body made of human corpse pieces to life. (We couldn't even manage to finish high school in two years.) Afterwards, he's horrified by his own creation (no…really?) and is sick for months while his friend Henry Clerval nurses him back to health.
Back in Geneva, Victor's younger brother, William, is murdered. The Frankenstein family servant, Justine, is accused of killing him. Victor magically intuits that his monster is the real killer, but thinking that no one would believe the "my monster did it" excuse, Victor is afraid to even propose his theory. Even when poor Justine is executed.
Victor, in grief, goes on a trip to the Swiss Alps for some much needed R&R. All too conveniently, he runs into the monster, who confesses to the crime and tells Victor this story (if you're keeping track, we're now in a story-within-a-story-within-a-story):
When Frankenstein fled, he found himself alone and hideous. No one accepted him (being a corpse-parts conglomeration can do that to you), except for one old blind man. He hoped that the blind man's family of cottagers would give him compassion, but even they drove him away. When he ran across William, he killed the boy out of revenge. In short, he's ticked off that his maker created him to be alone and miserable, and so would Frankenstein please make him a female companion?
After much persuading, Victor agrees. He drops off Henry in Scotland while he goes to an island in the Orkneys to work. But, just before he finishes, he destroys the second monster: he's afraid that the two will bring destruction to humanity rather than love each other harmlessly. The monster sees him do this and swears revenge … again. When Victor lands on a shore among Irish people, they accuse him of murdering Henry, who has been found dead. He's acquitted, but not before another long illness.
Victor returns to Geneva and prepares to marry Elizabeth, but he's a little worried: the monster has sworn to be with him on his wedding night. Eek! Victor thinks the monster is threatening him, but the night he and Elizabeth are married, the monster kills the bride instead. This causes Victor's father to pass away from grief (as he just lost a daughter-in-law and a daughter), so it's kind of a twofer for the monster.
Alone and bent on revenge, Victor chases the monster over all imaginable terrain until he is ragged and near death. (In fact, we can't really tell the two of them apart anymore except that the monster is taller and uglier.) And now we're back up the present: he finds Walton's ship, tells his story, and dies.
Story over? Not quite. Walton discovers the monster crying over Victor's dead body. We're not sure if he's crying because he's sad or because, as he says, he has nothing to live for anymore—but either way, he heads off into the Arctic to die. Alone. Yeah, it's not quite a Hollywood ending.