Narrative Techniques in Frankenstein
The complex structure of Frankenstein involves framed or embedded narratives, which has been called a Chinese box structure of stories within stories. In the outermost frame narrative of four letters, Walton writes to his sister, Mrs. Saville. At this stage, we have an epistolary narrative. This is dropped, however, as we move to an embedded narrative: Victor’s account of his life. Victor’s narrative then serves in turn to frame the creature’s embedded narrative, where he recounts his tale, and that of the De Lacey family, to Victor, who in tur recounts it to Walton. The narrative then returns to Frankenstein until the end, when Walton takes over, and we return to the frame narrative for the conclusion of the story. The anarchic energy of the text, says Glenni’s Byron, is formally restrained by this tight structure, and in this sense may be profitably compared with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, another nineteenth-century novel with a similarly complicated and tight narrative structure enclosing the anarchic rebellions of the characters against the established order.
Chinese Box Analogy
The problem with using the Chinese box analogy to describe the narrative structure of Frankenstein is that this term tends to suggest that each story is separate, complete in itself. The narratives are not linear or complete however, we are not taken directly from the beginning of one narrator’s tale to the end and then move to the next narrator’s tale. To give an example, Walton’s initial narrative provides us with an account of Victor’s predicament that would, in a linear narrative, come near the end of Victor’s narration. The narratives, rather than being complete and whole in themselves, are (Frame Narrative) interrelated and independent.
The convention of frame narrative is that we accept that the stories contained within the frame work are remembered and transcribed virtually word for word by the frame narrator. We might, then ask to what degree differences in voice are effaced by this process, if voice is considered in its admittedly rather vague sense of the features of tone and style. Is the voice in the monster‘s narrative all that distinct from that in Walton’s or Victor’s? Are there discernible differences which help to express unique personalities or are the markers which would allow us to distinguish between narrators effaced by the frame narrator’s recounting of the other stories? Some critics have suggested that, since all the narratives come to us from the frame narrator, distinctions between voices are blurred and the question basic to most narrative theories, who is speaking, becomes problematised. Frankenstein, is written in the first person narrative, but do we have one or three first person narrators?
Effect of Each Story
The structure also draws attention to the presence of a listener or narratee for each narrator, encouraging the reader to consider what purpose each narrator has in speaking, what influence he is attempting to exert over the narratee. Their stories, at least in the case of Victor and the monster, are clearly told in a way designed to achieve a specific effect.
The monsters narrative is an attempt to persuade Victor to assume his responsibilities towards his creation and to construct a mate for him. What strategies does the monster use? How does he emphasize his point about the need for companionship and love? Victor similarly has specific aims in telling his tale to Walton: he may begin by claiming to use his fate as a warning to Walton, but by the time his narrative concludes, his real purpose has become clear. As the monster uses his eloquence to make him promise him a mate, so Victor promised to take over his quest to destroy the monster.
We might also consider how reliable the narrators are, both in their assessment of themselves and in their interpretation of other characters and situations. When Victor compares his feelings to those of Justine, condemned to be executed, and assures us that the “tortures of the accused did not equal mine”, do we perhaps feel a little self-absorbed to be the best interpreter of other people’s feelings? Does Victor even really understand his own fears? He tells us he does not want to rush into marriage with Elizabeth because he first has to deal with the problem of the monster, but his dreams suggest that there is more to it than this, that he would rather dabble with test tubes than procreate in the normal way.
Echoes and Parallels
The narrative style additionally serves to invite us to look for echoes and parallels which link the stories together and simultaneously to identify differences between the three characters Walton’s ambitions, for example, make him a potential Frankenstein, and too is isolated and alienated from the domestic world. However, Watson truly seems to long for the affection and companionship that Victor spurns, and in this sense he is more closely linked to the monster. In addition, no matter how alienated Walton may feel in the icy wastes of the Arctic, he has his crew, a community of sorts who prevent him from indulging in the kind of rampant individualism that destroys Victor.
Finally, we need to consider whether there is closure or if the novel remains open-ended. As it is so difficult to fix one meaning or message to Frankenstein, then on the level of the interpretation there is no closure. Although we seem to come to a decisive end with the death of Victor and Walton’s decision to return home, there is actually no real closure on the level of the plot either. The monster vows to immolate himself. As Fred Botting points out in Making Monsters, however, “From the textual evidence the reader can never know what happens to the monster”. This ending is for us forever deferred, something projected in the future, and Mary Shelley leaves the reader, like the monster, “lost in darkness and distance”.
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