The Structure of Shelley’s Frankenstein

During our discussion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) at our November meeting, most of us agreed that it was a more interesting novel from a literary perspective than we had anticipated. This assessment is amplified by the realization that Shelley wrote this first novel when she was only 18 years old.

On aspect of the book that I found particularly interesting is its structure. All of the facts and events that are revealed to us in the novel are filtered through many levels of indirection before they get to us.

Consider for example the following bit of information we learn about the character Justine:

“One by one, her brothers and sisters died”

And next consider how many layers that information was filtered through before it got to us:

  1. Elizabeth knew about these events, some first hand and others through gossip.
  2. She writes about them in a letter to Victor.
  3. Victor in turn describes the the contents of the letter to Walton.
  4. Walton in turn, writes about what he has learned in a letter addressed to his sister Margaret.
  5. Finally, we read the novel composed of the information revealed to Margaret.

The entire novel is built on this layered structure. By modern standards, Shelley’s use of a layered structure is not done in a particularly sophisticated manner. For example, while we are reading about events that are several layers deep, they are described in too much detail and vividness to be plausible as having first traveled up all of the layers where we are encountering them (In Walton’s letters to Margaret).

Nevertheless, Shelley used this structure consistently, and for a purpose. It allowed her to incorporate many different genre’s into the novel. Some sections of the novel are written from what could properly be labeled as a Gothic Horror genre that is embedded within a Religious Allegory. That is the aspect of the novel that I think most of us expected to encounter when we embarked on reading Frankenstein.  However, other sections of the novel could be aptly classified as Travelogue and still others provide a Social Justice Commentary about societies shortcomings.

For me, the most striking aspect of this structure was the way it allows the novel to be read as a Morality Play. Specific parallels are drawn between the similarities in the motivational states that characterize Victor Frankenstein and Captain Walton. Frankenstein was obsessed with the goal of using science to create a human life form. In the course of doing so, he ends up taking on the (unwilling) role of Creator (God), and his monster that of Adam and/or a Fallen Angel. Shelly’s novel delivers the moral lesson that this quest is fraught with danger. That moral lesson, by itself, would probably not be considered particularly controversial — Who would argue against the proposition that trying to create a human life form is a potentially dangerous endeavor?

However, the structure of the novel allows this moral lesson to be expanded to a much broader domain, the  dangers inherent in the pursuit of science and technology in general. Captain Walton is involved in a much less controversial pursuit than creating life — He simply wants to lead an expedition to the North Pole. Isn’t that an uncontroversial lofty goal? — To use the tools of science and technology to explore where mankind has not gone before. Of course there is always some amount of risk associated with pursuits of knowledge into the unknown. But Walton informs us, in the outer layer of the novel’s structure, that he thinks this is an acceptable risk.

“One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought”

The story told in the inner layers of the novel’s structure provide the cautionary tale about this way of thinking. Victor Frankenstein makes explicit why he feels he needs to tell his story to Walton, and ultimately to us, the readers of the novel:

 “when I reflect that you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral from my tale”

 Ron Boothe

About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2014 Selections, Frankenstein and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Structure of Shelley’s Frankenstein

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    The following quote comes from an article in today’s New York Times:

    “Beyond the practicalities, many people view the idea of geoengineering as abhorrent — a last-gasp, Frankenstein-like approach to climate change that would distract the world from the goal of eliminating the emissions that are causing the problem in the first place. The climate is a vastly complex system, so manipulating temperatures may also have consequences, like changes in rainfall, that could be catastrophic or benefit one region at the expense of another.”

    As a lifelong working scientist, I found the Ethical Issues raised in Frankenstein to be as relevant today as they were when Shelley first wrote the novel. Science is a two edged sword, undeniably leading to civilization and progress in terms of our standards of living compared to previous generations, but also sometimes leading to unintended consequences, including monsters, both real and metaphorical.

  2. Sophia xx says:

    I’m currently reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the second time. It is absolutely one of my favourite books, it explores issues such as playing God with science. I myself do not find science enthralling at all so I was surprised to find that I loved this book so much, I’ll let you into a secret, it was the first book to ever make me cry. I mean proper distraught tears. I think Shelley’s work is pure genius also if you haven’t watched the stage play I’d thoroughly reccomended it. If you have a spare minute please take a look at my blog.
    Sophia xx

    • Ron Boothe says:

      While reading this book, I felt mostly sadness for Frankenstein’s “monster”. Having only seen film versions of the story and not having read the book previously, I did not realize the extent to which the “monster” Frankenstein created was actually a sensitive, smart, empathetic creature on the inside. It was only the reaction to his outside appearance, and the inability of anyone to get beyond that outward appearance to see what was inside that doomed him.

      Earlier this year I read a book with my daughter and grandchildren that has a similar theme, although with a happier ending:

      R. J. Palacio, Wonder (2012), Random House Children’s Books, 315 pages.

      Although targeted as a children’s book, it is a written in a manner that makes it a very good read for adults also. While reading it, the four of us could hardly wait, although sometimes with trepidation, to see what was going to happen in the next chapter. It is about a boy born with a genetic disorder that makes him look like a “monster” on the outside. You are introduced to the boy at first from inside his own head, and see him only as a smart, sensitive little boy. Later chapters are written from the points of view of others who see him from the outside, and other than his immediate family, most are so shocked/sickened by the way he looks that they can not even bring themselves to look at him, much less come near him. Many passages in this book are so moving that they brought tears to my own eyes, as well as my daughter and grandchildren. We were taking turns reading it aloud, and it was hard to read some passages without becoming choked up. But if you can make it to the end, it has a happy ending. I highly recommend it to anyone, adults and (school age) children alike.

      • Sophia xx says:

        I love the book so much, people often find it peculiar for someone my age to read it over and over again.I found it particularly confusing that the start was actually the ending however I found that the ending was left open.

  3. Ron Boothe says:

    Another “Frankenstein” reference in the New York Times today. In his column about our involvement in the Middle East, Thomas Friedman writes:
    “David Kilcullen, the Australian counterinsurgency expert who served with the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me: ‘Just like there is a spark of life in a physical body, there has to be a spark of legitimacy and coherence in a body politic. And, if it is not there, trying to substitute for it is like putting a cadaver on a slab and harnessing a lightning bolt to it to bring it back to life. You end up with Dr. Frankenstein. You can animate a corpse and make it walk and talk, but sooner or later it’s going to go rogue.’ “

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