What is the purpose/effect of the narrative structure used by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein?
Hi, I'm looking for someone to bounce ideas off for an essay I have coming up. Shelley uses the epistolary style and I think one of the main benefits of this is that we have an identified reader (Walton's sister) who, in many ways, reflects the powerlessness of the reader. The structure facilitates Shelley's desire to have differing accounts of the same period in time and juxtaposes them in order to accentuate the extent to which their "world's" differ. The manner in which the story is 'relayed' to Walton emphasises the role listening plays in the novel and at a point in Chapter 4, for instance, we see Victor interject and move into the present tense as if to demonstrate to us that there is a identified listener. I'm intrigued by the role of the listener in the differing accounts we are exposed to. How is Victor's account influenced by the fact Walton is the one he is talking to? Perhaps the psychological repercussions are somewhat distorted in order to achieve a desired effect. We also acquire a sense that Victor is a very self-consumed character, yet his words to Walton appear to be selfless and well motivated. Clearly his abandonment of his family is undeniable and clearly identifies an attempt to compartmentalise his 'lives', though I'm not sure how we can interpret his apparent selfishness at Justine's trial, for instance, where he appears consumed in his own plight to a greater extent than that of the accused?
You mention a number of very apt and effective ideas related to the epistolary form of the novel. One more occurs to me: the revelation of information through the letters suggests the importance of mystery and secrecy in the novel, and revelation of the unexpected and unexplored. Some readings of the novel discuss the presence of the "monster" as being a symbol or metaphorical expression of the protagonist's darker side, or even of his latent homosexuality (an interesting reading when one considers lines of dialogue like "I will be with you on your wedding night."). Whether the monster is a symbol of sexuality or some other hidden impulse, the use of letters to relay narrative action creates a satisfying sense of distance and introspection that allows for a more effective element of surprise.
There are two major benefits to Shelley as an author in her use of the frame story. First of all, with the letters from Walton, Shelley creates a foil to Victor Frankenstein, thus making Victor more believable since other men, too, have the same wish to challenge the limits of life, to "satiate [an]ardent curiosity with ...a part of the world never before visited." Because Victor's story becomes more credible through Walton's narration, the Creature's story that follows is also more readily accepted as told by Walton because he, like the Creature, is lonely and without friends.
Secondly, with Walton as a narrator in his letters to his sister, Shelley creates another voice added to the two narratives of Victor and the Creature, respectively. This use of multiple voices creates echoes of ghost stories as attention is drawn to the storyteller rather than just the plot. As readers become aware of these changes in perspective, they become more drawn to the story as they become involved in the process of interpretation of the narrative. In addition, the use of Walton as the final narrator affords the Creature the opportunity to speak again and be perceived another time as more human than his master when he begs Victor to pardon him because "a frightful selfishness hurried me on, while my heart was poisoned with remorse."