I am reading the Frankenstein novel (a French edition), and in the first chapter where Victor Frankenstein starts to tell his story, he says:

"Je suis né à Genève et ma famille est l'une des plus distinguées de cette république." ("I was born in Geneva [...].")

But two pages later, he says:

"Après l'Italie, ils visitèrent l'Allemagne et la France. Moi-même, leur premier enfant, je naquis à Naples [...]." ("I was born in Naples [...].")

So where was he really born? Is this a bad translation from the original English novel? Why this contradiction?


According to this edition hosted at Project Gutenberg:

I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic.


From Italy they visited Germany and France. I, their eldest child, was born at Naples, and as an infant accompanied them in their rambles.

It could be a bit confusing, but the choice of words of the original English text seems to imply that Victor Frankenstein was physically born in Naples, even if he is by birth a Genevese, meaning that his family was native to Geneve.

  • 3
    Thank you for your answer. It seems indeed to be two different things, and that he is physically born in Naples. What's confusing is the french text where "Je suis né à Genève" specifically means he's born in Geneva. Maybe it's this translation, I'll try to find another french edition to find out. – asmoth Mar 24 '18 at 16:32

In the original, the opening sentence of the first chapter indeed states that Victor is Genevese:

I AM by birth a Genevese; and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic. ~Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley - Chapter 1

What Victor means here that his family is from Geneva. Apparently, the Frankensteins were a renown family in that area until Victor gave their family name an entirely different fame.

Later in the chapter, Victor states that his actual birthplace is Naples:

From Italy they visited Germany and France. I, their eldest child, was born in Naples, and as an infant accompanied them in their rambles. (ibid)

While his parents travelled a lot and he was born in Naples, Victor identifies as a person from Geneva, partly because of his family background and partly because he was raised there.

  • Thank you, indeed I better understand now. It's probably the french edition that I have which is confusing, the english text is clearer on the question. – asmoth Mar 24 '18 at 16:34

I may add that the time period that Frankenstein happens in should be considered.

As I remember, one of the characters returns to Geneva too late in the day and finds the city gates are locked for the night and they can't get in.

The fortifications of Geneva were demolished starting in 1849.


Victor Frankenstein studies medicine at the famed University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria.

A university that was relocated from Ingolstadt to Landshut in 1800.



I may add that the frame story which tells how a polar explorer encounters both the monster and Victor Frankenstein, and Victor tells his story, the bulk of the novel, to the explorer, has a partial date.

17__, if I remember correctly. So all of Victor Frankenstein's previous life and relationship with the monster happen before he meets the explorer in the Arctic, in the year 17__.

These events could be happening during the French Revolutionary Wars starting in 1792, but so far as I remember there is no mention of any wars during the events. Thus Victor Frankenstein probably goes from Geneva to study at the University of Ingolstadt, Electorate of Bavaria, and returns to Geneva at a time when Switzerland and southern Germany are experiencing peace.

Thus Frankenstein happens during the 18th century, and during a time of apparent peace between the numerous 18th century wars, so probably before 1792. But considering the relatively advanced ideas mentioned during the novel, it probably doesn't happen many years before 1792.

Geneva was a city state in the Kingdom of Arles or Burgundy in the Holy Roman Empire and allied with some of the states in the Old Swiss Confederation. As such the Republic of Geneva was a small semi independent realm such as was common in Europe in those days. This was before the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, so a person's sense of ethnic identity was not necessarily that of a broad linguistic nationality. The citizens, subjects, and inhabitants of small semi independent or fully independent states considered their identity to be citizens of those small states even if there were millions of persons outside of their small states who spoke the same languages.

When Victor Frankenstein says:

I AM by birth a Genevese; and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic.

He means that he was born a Genevese citizen as a child of two Genevese citizens, no matter where he was physically born. Just as today an American citizen born when his parents were working in, for example, Germany, would say that he was born an American citizen despite being born in Germany.

In short, Victor Frankenstein was stating his nationality and citizenship, and by saying "by birth" in that sentence he merely means that he didn't emigrate to Geneva and become a nationalized citizen but was a citizen by right of his ancestry at the moment of his birth.

  • Thanks for the historical precisions. Indeed the novel takes place, according to the preface I have, between 1792 and 1799, during the french revolutionary period. But my question was not on the english phrase (I admit I did not look up the original text before asking the question) but the french one, which states he is born in Geneva. – asmoth Mar 24 '18 at 18:55
  • 1
    @asmoth - I can't help you with the decisions the translator into French made. But two other answers give what seems to be the original English text - it is a long time since I read it - clearly stating 1) that he was a Genovese by birth and 2) he was born in Naples. Since the original English text seems to have no contradictions, the suspicion is that the translation into French was not good enough to express that 1) was a statement of nationality and 2) a statement of the geographical birthplace. – M. A. Golding Mar 24 '18 at 19:13
  • That's what I understand too. – asmoth Mar 24 '18 at 19:38

Others have answered the question, but the "problem" was due to the french text I have. So to add some more information, I checked several french editions in a store to see if there was some differences in translations (only french readers will be interested by this details, I guess...)

These are some of the main translators for the french edition of Frankenstein :

  • Germain d'Hangest (first published in 1922, La Renaissance du Livre)
  • Eugène Rocard and George Cuvelier (first published in 1945, Éditions La Boétie)
  • Hannah Betjeman (first published in 1947, Éditions du Rocher)
  • Joe Ceuvorst (first published in 1964, Marabout)
  • Raymonde de Gans (first published in 1969, Éditions de l'Érable)
  • Paul Couturiau (first published in 1988, Éditions du Rocher)

The one I have (from Pocket editor) is the translation by Eugène Rocard and George Cuvelier, and chapter 1 begins with :

Je suis né à Genève et ma famille est l'une des plus distinguées de cette république.

The one by Germain d'Hangest says :

Je suis né à Genève ; et ma famille est l'une des plus distinguées de cette république.

And the text by Joe Ceuvorst begins with :

Je suis genevois de naissance, et ma famille est l'une des plus distinguées de ladite république.

(I don't know for the other ones.)

So, for this sentence at least, the more faithful translation seems to be the one by Joe Ceuvorst, where Victor Frankenstein says he is born a Genevese, and not in Geneva.

Problem solved!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.