Why does Mary Shelley begin Frankenstein with a letter? Is it an effective device?

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Mary Shelly had varied reasons to include letters at the beginning of Frankenstein. The author brought Walton into focus in order to provide an appropriate ending for the story. Walton as a character was important in telling the monster’s story after Victor’s death.

“And do you dream?” said the daemon; “do you think that I was then dead to agony and remorse?—He,” he continued, pointing to the corpse, “he suffered not in the consummation of the deed—Oh! not the ten-thousandth portion of the anguish that was mine during the lingering detail of its execution. A frightful selfishness hurried me on, while my heart was poisoned with remorse. Think you that the groans of Clerval were music to my ears?" –Monster to Walton

The letters in the beginning are also in keeping with the storytelling tradition from which the novel was developed.  Walton writes letters to his sister about his adventures, which include the contact with Victor and his story. The letters told the story to his sister, and they were meant to have the same effect on the reader. As a reader, one is not only reading but listening to the story as told by the character.

The letters also draw parallels between Walton and Victor’s life pursuits. Walton went on a voyage in uncharted parts of the North Pole in his attempt at discovery and exploration. He exposed his crew and himself to grave risks in the pursuit. On the other hand, Victor created a monster in an attempt to play God. Like Walton, Victor does not think of the consequences and is only focused on the results.

Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction. - Victor

Walton learned from Victor’s mistakes in pursuing the unnatural path and stopped his voyage. This also shaped the letters and the story to follow as a cautionary tale to warn readers of the dangers of pursuing the unnatural path.

The die is cast; I have consented to return if we are not destroyed. Thus are my hopes blasted by cowardice and indecision; I come back ignorant and disappointed. It requires more philosophy than I possess to bear this injustice with patience. - Walton

Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.

The author styles the story as a cautionary tale through the letters, and further develops the narrative of the story by introducing Walton, who would eventually provide an ending to the story. The strategy is useful because it does not give away the contents of Victor and the monster’s story. Instead, it lends credibility to the story about to be told.

The letters are an effective tool because they shape the reader’s perspective while developing the plot and the style of the story.

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