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.