Frankenstein: Structure and Aesthetics

It is a striking feature of Frankenstein that the story it contains is actually told by three different narrators. What is more, these narratives sit inside one another like Russian dolls. In the middle, we have the story told to Frankenstein by the being he creates. Before and after that, we have a record of Frankenstein’s version of events as they are told to the explorer Walton. Finally, encompassing both and constituting the beginning and the end of the novel, we read the letters Walton sends to his sister.

Schematically, then, the novel is structured like this:

{ ( [ ] ) }

One of the consequences of the novel’s use of three narrators to tell its story, and of the organisation of their narratives one within the other, is that it highlights the connections that exist between the three narrators as characters. They are all, for instance, males who are cut off from human society and they are all explorers in search of knowledge, whether about the world around them or about themselves. At the same time, they each of them tell what is ostensibly the same story in different ways, especially Frankenstein and his creation. On the one hand, this might draw our attention to their unreliability as narrators. We might take heed, for instance, of Frankenstein’s and Walton’s shared concern that the being’s eloquence could actually be a tool with which to deceive them – and accordingly treat what he says with a great deal of suspicion and scepticism ourselves. As Walton remarks when he listens to this being at the end of the novel:

I was at first touched by the expressions of his misery; yet, when I called to mind what Frankenstein had said of his powers of eloquence and persuasion, and when I again cast my eyes on the lifeless form of my friend, indignation was rekindled within me. (188)

Why, though, does Walton not apply the same scepticism to the story Frankenstein tells him? Instead, he remarks to his sister:

His tale is connected and told with an appearance of the simplest truth, yet I own to you that the letters of Felix and Safie, which he showed me, and the apparition of the monster seen from our ship, brought to me a greater conviction of the truth of his narrative than his asseverations, however earnest and connected. Such a monster has, then, really existence! I cannot doubt it, yet I am lost in surprise and admiration. (178)

If we bear it in mind that not one of the narrators by themselves may be entirely reliable and that we can only piece together anything like a full version of what happened by taking note of where they overlap, we can see that what Frankenstein the novel offers is a theory of knowledge that is the opposite of that presupposed by Victor Frankenstein himself. Whereas Victor Frankenstein, in other words, seeks truth and understanding through isolation, what the novel arguably shows us – both in terms of its content and through the way in which it is written – is that truth and understanding are more likely to come through co-operation and through an ability to take on board different people, different approaches and different perspectives all at once.

Could this, in fact, be one of the messages of Frankenstein? After all, it is only after he has heard both Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s creation tell their stories that Walton abandons his Arctic ambitions and, not least out of consideration for the plight of his men, sets sail for home and his sister.

Aesthetics

Mary Shelley herself drew a comparison between the being Frankenstein creates and the novel Frankenstein she herself created: “now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper” (197). How far, though, should we take this analogy? Her novel too consists of the narratives of Walton, Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s creation all stitched together and, as we outline here in the case of Paradise Lost, there are other works of literature woven into the fabric as well (including, amongst others, quotations of poems by William Wordsworth and Mary Shelley’s husband Percy Shelley). Do we look upon the result as a “monster” and something “ugly,” or is there something more satisfying and aesthetically pleasing about this book than there is about the being it portrays? If so, wherein does the difference between the aesthetic (and moral) value of these two compositions (lit. ‘things placed together’) lie?