Writing and power

One of the things I like most about Frankenstein is its complicated structure — the way there are narratives nestled in other narratives and every part of it is either a letter or a story told by one character to another. We start off with Robert Walton writing a letter to his sister Margaret Saville. Then Walton meets Frankenstein, who tells him his story, which Walton records in his letters to his sister. Then Frankenstein tells Walton the story of how he re-encounters the creature after losing touch with him for several years (I try not to call him the monster, although it’s the word that comes most easily to mind — “monster” reflects Frankenstein’s loathing of him, but “creature” is a little less hateful and recognizes that he had the potential for goodness). During this meeting, the creature recounts his life up to that point in a long narrative that Frankenstein reports to Walton word-for-word — a little implausibly — and that Walton records word-for-word in his letters to his sister — also implausibly.

After the creature’s narrative, Frankenstein returns as storyteller, and then the novel closes with Walton again, so the structure of listeners/readers and writers/speakers goes like this: Margaret, Walton, Frankenstein, Creature, Frankenstein, Walton, Margaret. Or Walton to Margaret; Frankenstein to Walton to Margaret; Creature to Frankenstein to Walton to Margaret; Frankenstein to Walton to Margaret; Walton to Margaret. It’s interesting that Margaret is the receiver of all these stories but we never find out much about her and she never speaks herself.

In addition to all this, there are letters embedded in the narratives, so we hear other voices as well, most importantly the voices of Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s love interesting, and Frankenstein’s father, who both write to Frankenstein expressing their worry about his secretiveness.

And, making this already very textual novel even more so, there are literary allusions and quotations all over the place, including lines from Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Paradise Lost. Shelley finds ways to show off all the learning I wrote about the other day. This is a very inclusive novel, really, bringing in as much literature and as many voices and as much complexity as it possibly can.

All of this only emphasizes the loneliness of the creature; I just finished reading the creature’s narrative, and, in spite of the fact that he’s a murderer and that he sets out to make Frankenstein miserable, he’s really quite sympathetic. The story of how he lives in a hovel adjoining a small family’s home, how he watches them and learns from them and begins to care for them, how he shows the goodness of his heart by secretly chopping firewood for them, and how he is cruelly rejected by them when they first lay eyes on him is heartbreaking. Shelley makes clear that if only someone, even one person, had shown kindness to the creature, he would not have become the wretch that he is.

The creature’s narrative is nestled in the middle of this novel, passed on from character to character and finally to the reader, to me, but he himself is kept out of this web of communication. Every person who lays eyes on him is revolted, reacting with uncontrollable horror. The only people who will listen to the creature are a blind man who cannot perceive his horrifying body and Frankenstein who is threatened by the creature’s potential for violence and who therefore feels compelled to listen. It seems like the only reasonable conclusion to reach is that I, too, would react with horror if I saw the creature, in spite of my sympathetic feelings after reading his story. There’s something saving, then, in the ability to write to people from a distance, to write without the body being present, for it’s only this way that the creature’s message gets heard.

If only he could use words all by themselves with no traces of the physical, he could make people understand him, but the creature never actively enters this world of writing, or storytelling from a distance; his story gets passed along because Frankenstein chooses to recount it to Walton and Walton chooses to tell the story to his sister. Although his story is at the center of the novel, literally and metaphorically, he ultimately has no control over it and, left powerless to make people understand him, he lashes out in violence in response. The power that Frankenstein wields when he creates life is impressive, but the power that a writer wields is even more so; being left out of web of communication created by writing is another of the creature’s undeserved punishments.


Filed under Books, Fiction

11 responses to “Writing and power

  1. Where was this post when I first read Frankenstein?! It makes me want to read the novel all over again. I’d like to read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner first before rereading the novel. I also remember feeling very sympathetic towards the monster/creature, but I’m sure I’d have been terrified upon seeing him, soo. Everyone only saw the hideousness of the exterior, except the blind man of course. If only we could all “see” like that.


  2. Cam

    I’ve never read Frankenstein, but this makes me want to. I like the symmetry of the embedded narratives; from what you describe, it sounds like an unfolding of nestled stories, then a closure of each of the narrative frameworks. Neat.


  3. What an interesting way to look at this novel. I never thought of all of that before. Very cool. Makes the creature even more lonely and sympathetic. But if I saw him I don’t know that I would not be horrified either.


  4. Wow, you’ve triggered so many thoughts (not the least of which is “must read FRANKENSTEIN again”), I don’t even know where to begin. Until I read this, I’d never once made the connection between King’s CUJO and this book, but it’s now there. It was another horror story that I also found so sad, the rabid dog terrifying people, but so sympathetic in his confusion over what’s wrong with him, like Shelly’s creature (I like the fact you refer to him that way instead of as a monster). I like the way you point out, no matter how sympathetic the reader might be to him, most of us would be terrified of him were we to see him peering in through our windows., say. And then you made me make a connection between this and DRACULA, which also has all those different narratives (journals, letters, etc.). Finally, I’m intrigued by this notion of writing without traces of the physical as it relates to blogs, which are a different sort of writing, aren’t they, a place where people can, at times, feel comfortable baring their souls? Are we all freed in some way through this medium, because we can be judged as the sympathetic, very real and human people we are rather than being judged by all the superficial physical attributes by which we all judge and are judged every day? And soul-baring is often sad, but sometimes it can be horrific, too.

    “I wish I were in her class,” once again, the one jealous of all her students thinks.


  5. Danielle — you’re right about the way we “see” — our vision so often limits us from really seeing things. Reading The Ancient Mariner before Frankenstein makes sense, and so does reading Paradise Lost, although that’s quite a large undertaking!

    Cam — that’s exactly it, narratives enclosed in one another. I think you’d enjoy it if you ever decide to read it!

    Stefanie — there’s something so horrifying in the intense loathing Frankenstein feels for the creature; it really makes you wonder what he looks like. I think part of Frankenstein’s loathing has to do with his guilt, but even other characters react horribly when they see him.

    Emily — interesting connection with Cujo, a book I’ve never read, and an interesting connection with Dracula too. It’s curious that these horror/gothic novels are so interested in texts.

    About blogs, I was thinking along those lines as I wrote my post, although I decided not to write about it — I think you’re right that leaving the body behind does free us up in a way. Maybe that’s why blog writing can be so compelling, because people are exploring the freedom it offers.


  6. Wonderful analysis, Dorothy! I feel I learned so much about the novel from this post!


  7. verbivore

    This is immensely helpful to have read before I tuck into Frankenstein sometime later this year. And what you wrote about the outward being holding such a powerful sway over the inward being makes me think about both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as Dorian Gray.


  8. verbivore

    I left a comment here yesterday but it never appeared! Here I go for a second try 🙂

    I am really looking forward to reading Frankenstein one of these days – my only experience with the story comes from the films (and after reading your wonderful essay here I see they are quite different). This notion that the exterior being somehow reveals/represents the interior being reminds me of both Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – and we’re still fascinated with the idea, even today I think.


  9. Have you read “Melmoth the Wanderer”, written a couple years later? The structure is even more complex, so complex that one (not me) could argue that Maturin botches the whole thing – virtually every plot thread is left dangling.


  10. Sorry about that Verbivore! I need to spend some time looking at the films — I bet I’ll be shocked when I do. I’m glad I’m teaching Dr. Jekyll this semester, as it will make such a nice pairing with Frankenstein, won’t it?

    Amateur Reader — I haven’t read Melmoth yet, but I’ll have to make a point of doing so!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s