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Three Branches of Narrative in Shelley’s Frankenstein

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the novel is formed of three interlinked but ultimately separate narratives. The outer frame for the narrative takes the form of Walton’s letters to his sister Margaret. It is through this conduit that Victor’s story is recounted as Walton retells it in Victor’s words. Similarly, the story of the monster is told to Walton by Victor, in the monster’s own words. These three segments of narration are closely interlinked by several common key themes.

A major theme shared by all three narratives is isolation, and in turn loneliness. This theme of loneliness in conveyed initially through Walton, and through him it is embedded in the framework for the monster’s and Victor’s narratives. This is important because it establishes isolation as a tone which then overshadows the entire novel. Walton is a character who suffers two types of isolation, physical and emotional. The physical isolation is the most obvious, as his expedition leaves him stranded in the lonely and cold Arctic desert. George Levine supports this as he argues that these snowy settings “are the landscape of isolation from community”[1]. Indeed, this landscape reflects the lonely tone of Walton’s narrative, but also serves as a prelude to the isolation suffered by both Frankenstein and his monster. It is also evident that Walton identifies with and finds comfort with the lonely surroundings, as he says “I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight”[2]. This suggests that Walton is as lonely as the arctic wasteland, and therefore finds comfort in the familiar. In addition to his physical isolation, he also feels emotionally distant from others. Jennifer Richards supports this as she argues that “Walton…feels isolated even though he is surrounded by his crew in the little commonwealth of his ship”[3]. Indeed, even within the desolate arctic landscape, he still has people around him for potential company. In spite of this, Walton is still lonely and distant from them, choosing instead to confide in his sister via a series of letters. It is these letters that serve as the epistolary form of Walton’s narrative, and it is this use of epistolary form that further helps to emphasize Walton’s status as a lonely character. He tells the details of his expedition to an absent family member, writing his thoughts down on paper rather than sharing them verbally. This emphasizes how far Walton lacks actual human contact, although it is by his own will that he has isolated himself from the world in favour of pursuing knowledge. The theme of loneliness carries through in Victor’s narration as Walton recounts the story Victor tells him. Like Walton, Victor suffers from physical isolation in his bid for scientific knowledge. While Walton confines himself to an Arctic bound ship, Victor confines himself to a laboratory. Whilst Walton is without friends from the start, Victor pushes his friends away in favour of self-imposed isolation. It is clear that Victor thrives in isolated conditions as he states early on that it is his “temper to avoid a crowd” (36). Victor tells how creating the monster lead him to “forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom [he] had not seen for so long a time” (53), which suggests that human company comes second to scientific experimentation for him.

It is tempting to argue that this theme of self-imposed isolation does not appear in the monsters segment of narration, as he is desperate for company and acceptance, rather than willing himself to the fringes of society like Walton and Victor. However, the monster’s narration does contain the running theme of isolation, although it is of a different kind to that found in Walton’s and Victor’s sections. While the isolation conveyed by Victor and Walton is largely self-imposed, the monster is a victim of externally enforced loneliness. Graham Allen supports this as he notes “how dissimilar such positions of willed isolation are to the enforced isolation of the creature”[4]. Indeed, the monster is rejected by society due to his monstrous appearance, leading him to yearn for acceptance, and ultimately to murderous revenge. He refers to himself as being “solitary and abhorred” (127). In contrast to Victor, who pushes his love Elizabeth away, the creature longs for a chance at love as he despairs how “no Eve soothed [his] sorrows nor shared [his] thoughts; [he] was alone” (127). The monster is very much a victim of social alienation. Despite their isolation being largely self-willed, Victor and Walton’s recounts also contain the theme of social alienation to a degree. Unlike the monster, who is outcast due to appearance, Walton and Victor feel detached from humanity because of their withdrawn demeanours and their shared “thirst for knowledge” (36). It is clear that Walton’s isolation is not entirely self-willed as he tells his sister Margaret how he “bitterly feel[s] the want of a friend” (17). His curiosity has clearly left him an outcast as he tells of how it “hurries [him] out of the common pathways of men, even to the wild sea and unvisited regions” (20). On meeting Victor he sees a potential companion in him, which reflects the monster’s later desire for a mate. In this sense, another common theme between the narrations is friendship, or more precisely lack of friendship. Victor pushes his friends away and indirectly causes their deaths, while the monster and Walton long for a chance at even having a friend to begin with.

Another theme which runs through all three narrations is the pursuit of knowledge. For both Victor and Walton the purpose of this knowledge is self-achievement and recognition. Jen Hill supports this as she states that “Walton and Victor share the radical, disinterested individuality Shelley associates with Victor’s quest for scientific knowledge”[5]. Indeed, both seem willing to put their pursuit of knowledge above all else. This is evident for Victor as he describes himself as “having been embued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature” (39), and for Walton as he talks of his “attachment to… passionate enthusiasm for, the dangerous mysteries of ocean” (19). Unlike Walton and Victor, whose search for knowledge is largely based on uncovering the secrets of nature, the creature aims only to uncover the secrets of himself. The monster’s narration is heavy with the theme of pursuing knowledge, but it is based around self-understanding. He wants to know why he was made, and how he can find a place in society. He desperately asks Victor “Why did you form a monster so hideous that even YOU turned from me in disgust” (126). In addition to a theme of the pursuit of knowledge, there is also a running theme of forbidden knowledge. In the case of the narratives given by Victor and the monster, this theme of forbidden knowledge takes on a somewhat Biblical role as the monster compares himself to Victor’s “Adam” (126). The monster seems to reflect the human desire to learn of our origins. For Walton and Victor the theme of forbidden knowledge in their narratives is based on their compulsion to investigate “the secrets of nature” (39). Victor touches on the controversial issue of playing God, as he talks about his interest in “The raising of ghosts or devils” (40), and ultimately creates new life. Anne Kostelanetz Mellor supports this idea as she argues that “[Victor] denies the unique power of God to create organic life….Victor Frankenstein has blasphemed against the natural order of things”[6]. Ultimately, his creation destroys him, showing the consequences of indulging in the forbidden. Similarly, on learning of Victors selfish reasons for creating him, the monster is driven to murder. In addition to the theme of forbidden knowledge, there is a running theme of consequences when this forbidden knowledge is pursued. In Walton’s narrative letters to his sister, he expresses a desire to investigate nature, much like Victor before him. Victor’s narrative to Walton has the purpose of warning Walton against pursuing forbidden knowledge. Therefore, both narratives contain the theme of forbidden knowledge, with Walton expressing desire to pursue it, and Victor expressing the consequences of doing so. Harold Bloom supports this as he argues that “Victor admits that he has suffered grave consequences in his pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, and expresses a wish that Walton will not meet the same fate”[7]. There are further Biblical connotations as Victor tells Walton how he “ardently hope[s] that the gratification of [his] wishes may not be a serpent to sting” (28). This makes reference to the serpent which tricked the curious Eve into eating the apple and disobeying God.

All three narrarives share the theme of communication. Although the narratives are each told for a different purpose, all three narratives share the common purpose of communicating with another character. For Walton, this comes in the form of his letters to Margaret, as he tells her the events of his expedition. The theme of communication is crucial for Walton as it provides him with an outlet for his thoughts as well as a form of human contact. Meanwhile, Victor’s narration consists of him retelling his tragic story to Walton in the hopes of stopping him from making the same mistakes. He implores Walton to “”Learn from [him] . . . how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (52). Indeed, Victor’s communication takes the form of a warning to a man who shares his inherent “thirst for knowledge” (36). The monster’s narrative, on the other hand, comes in the form of a plea to be understood, as he says “I am malicious because I am miserable” (141). It then becomes a more sinister warning, as he threatens to “work at [Victor’s] destruction” (141) unless he creates him a mate. Essaka Joshua highlights the monsters attempt at communication as he says “The creature’s narrative is told to Victor in an attempt to win sympathy, and a possible female companion, from his creator”[8]. Joshua also argues that “to some extent, all three narratives appeal to the sympathies of the readers or hearers; the first person perspective of each narration is a powerful and persuasive device”[9]. Indeed, in addition to all three narratives sharing a theme of communication, they also share a theme of communicating their sorrows and misfortunes in an attempt to win sympathy. The monster tries to justify his murderous actions by telling Victor that he “was once benevolent and good; misery made [him] a fiend” (135). Similarly, Victor also attempts to justify his creation of the monster to Walton by blaming his endeavours on his “thirst for knowledge” (36) and making clear the misery he has suffered as a consequence. Walton defends his treacherous expedition by seeking sympathy for his loneliness, as he tells Margaret that he “desire[s] the company of a man who could sympathize with [him]” (17).

In conclusion, the three interlinked but separate narratives which comprise Frankenstein do indeed share several major themes. This is partly because, as Essaka Joshua argues “their narratives overlap, each at some point covering the same time period”[10]. In other words, the aspects of the story are often the same, but are told from different points of view. The running themes of forbidden knowledge, and the pursuit of such knowledge, are clearly present in all three narratives. This is evident as Walton and Victor tell of their endeavours to explore the unexplored, and the monster tells of his need to understand the nature of his own creation. This creates a novel with an overall message warning against selfish and careless scientific experimentation. The themes of isolation and a need for communication also run through all three narration segments, as the monster and Walton long for a friend and Victor pushes his existing ones away. In particular, the theme of alienation is a predominant theme throughout, with even the opening setting of the Artic desert serving to set a lonely and isolated tone and to foreshadow the loneliness of the three narrators.

Bibliography

ALLEN, Graham (2008) Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bodmin, Bloomsbury Publishing

BLOOM, Harold (2007) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, New York, InfoBase Publishing HILL, Jen (2009) White Horizon: The Arctic in the Nineteenth-Century British Imagination, New York, SUNY Press

JOSUHUA, Essaka (2007) Mary Shelley: ‘Frankenstein’, London, Humanities EBooks, Kindle Edition

LEVINE, George (1983) The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley, Chicago, University of Chicago Press

MELLOR, Anne Kostelanetz (1998) Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, New York. Psychology Press

RICHARDS, Jennifer (2007) Rhetoric, Oxon, Routledge

SHELLEY, Mary (1818 2007) Frankenstein, Delhi, Pearson Education

[1] George Levine, The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterly (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1983), 25 [2] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein [1818] (Delhi; Pearson Education, 2007), 13. Subsequent references in parenthesis are to this edition. [3] Jennifer Richards, Rhetoric (Oxon; Routledge, 2007), 100 [4] Graham Allen, Shelley’s Frankenstein (Bodmin; Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008), 38 [5] Jen Hill, White Horizon: The Arctic in the Nineteenth-Century British Imagination (New York; SUNY Press, 2009), 61 [6] Anne Kostelanetz Mellor, Mary Shelley: He Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York; Psychology Press, 1998), 101 [7] Harold Bloom, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (New York; InfoBase Publishing, 2007), 30 [8] Essaka Joshua, Mary Shelley: ‘Frankenstein’ (London; Humanities E-books, 2007), Kindle Edition, 32 [9] Essaka Joshua, Mary Shelley: ‘Frankenstein’ (London; Humanities E-books, 2007), Kindle Edition, 32 [10] Essaka Joshua, Mary Shelley: ‘Frankenstein’ (London; Humanities E-books, 2007), Kindle Edition, 32

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