Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often described by modern scholars as the first example of a science fiction novel. More importantly, however, from a literary analysis perspective, it is one of the key texts of early gothic and cements many of the traits and techniques which would later come to typify the genre. In the late nineteenth century, gothic reemerged as a dominant literary genre among the fin de siècle writers, and most of the repeated motifs, concerns, and approaches in these stories can be traced back to Shelley. Thus, in Frankenstein there is a concern with duality and doppelgangers which is then utilized by Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray) and Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). It also makes use of an epistolary style which recurs in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and a frame narrative—a story within a story—which forces the reader to question the reliability of each narrator in turn, as later utilized by Henry James in The Turn of the Screw. Shelley’s Frankenstein also sets into motion questions about the ethics of science, and the potential abuse of science, which resurface in H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau, among others. It has repeatedly been suggested that gothic literature identifies the social concerns of society at a point in time and then reflects those concerns through metaphor. It is interesting, then, to compare Shelley’s Frankenstein to stories written sixty years later and track the progress of social anxiety about such elements as the rise of science and the duality of man, while many of Shelley’s techniques still provide the vehicles through which these concerns are interrogated.
The framing devices Shelley uses in Frankenstein are particularly intricate and therefore particularly illuminating. The creature itself sits at the very core of the novel, with two layers of expression—that of his creator, Victor Frankenstein, and that of the supposedly detached observer, Walton—enclosing it. Arguably, Walton, the sailor, is intended to represent a mouthpiece character, one with whom the reader might identify. The fact that his narration is composed of letters, dated to give a sense of verisimilitude, may lead us to believe that he is reliable; he lends legitimacy to Victor Frankenstein’s story, which he introduces, supposedly to his sister. However, it is at the same time very clear that Walton is not an objective observer of Victor Frankenstein. On the contrary, there is a deep sense of something missing in Walton, a craving for a “friend,” which causes him to see Frankenstein as a kindred spirit, someone who might finally understand him. The two men can readily be compared and contrasted: both are ambitious, believing themselves to be worthy of a “niche in the temple” occupied by such greats as Shakespeare and Homer. Both are seeking to push the boundaries of their fields beyond what has previously been achieved. But by placing Walton’s narrative around that of Frankenstein, Shelley also invites us to observe the differences between them. Where Frankenstein, having achieved what he set out to do, ultimately destroys himself, Walton is able to pull himself back from the brink.
Still more interesting is Shelley’s decision to allow the creature his own voice, enveloped within the section of the story narrated by Victor Frankenstein. The creature’s erudite and soulful expression gives the lie to Frankenstein’s own descriptions of him and forces the reader to question how far Frankenstein can be trusted. Can this creature really be the gruesome, monstrous, and “evil” being Frankenstein believes him to be? Assuming that he truly has committed the violent acts that Frankenstein claims—and Walton’s concluding section of narrative lends veracity to this—can he truly be blamed for his behavior? How far should we be willing to accept Frankenstein’s apology, and which, after all, is truly the monster? It is particularly notable that the narrative...
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