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:
- Elizabeth knew about these events, some first hand and others through gossip.
- She writes about them in a letter to Victor.
- Victor in turn describes the the contents of the letter to Walton.
- Walton in turn, writes about what he has learned in a letter addressed to his sister Margaret.
- 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:
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“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”