book by Mary Shelley
annotation by Wendy Dutwin
“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?” —Paradise Lost by John Milton
These are lines on the title page of Frankenstein and which also appear in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, referenced repeatedly in Mary Shelley’s novel about a creator with an obsessive thirst for knowledge and the monstrous creation that results from this. One can argue the bigger monstrous creation is Victor Frankenstein himself and not the actual creature he creates. This rhetorical quote at the beginning of both texts is rooted in Adam’s cries to God after his fallen condition, where he has no other choice but to compare himself to Satan. It sums up Adam’s feelings, as well as Victor Frankenstein’s monster’s views of their creators. Resentment, anger and vengeance all rise up in the presence of a profound abandonment by such creators, especially when they are left to fend for themselves in a cruel world where they are forced to carry the burden of ugliness and evil.
Mary Shelley has not just written a scary ghost story, which her husband Percy Shelley claims was her only endeavor when crafting this masterpiece. There is depth in her exploration of women and how passivity renders them victims in every scenario, in the rich subjects of monstrosity, the danger of too much knowledge, secrecy, even abortion. Shelley does this under the umbrella of a complex structure that is almost stitched together from various sources like the monster himself, rooted in the oral tradition of storytelling around the campfire, where texts were orally handed down from one generation to another.
Robert Walton, an explorer on a quest for his own knowledge and discovery in the North Pole, writes a series of letters to his sister about Victor Frankenstein, who has been traveling there in search of the monster he created. Weakened by the cold, Walton takes him aboard his ship and listens as Frankenstein recounts the story of how he created a monster. This sets up a series of perspectives through which this story is told. Walton is one of many voices who take over the story. The letters he writes are the main frame in which the story can live, but the main narrative is told through Frankenstein himself. And within Frankenstein’s narrative live the narratives of others, including the monster himself. I love this structure because it brings a consciousness to the storytelling, a complexity to the structure itself that exists in the story and its characters. The reader listens with Walton to Frankenstein, as does Walton’s sister, bringing it back to that oral tradition of storytelling where the reader must focus on the storyteller. As readers, we are constantly reminded of different narrators, perspective shifts and the eerie presence of others, much the way the monster lurks over Frankenstein and the village.
Walton himself is introduced through the letters he writes his sister and the reader can see the parallels between him and Frankenstein. Both feel a sense of loss and loneliness and through that pain, seek to remedy that through their ambitions. The danger of too much knowledge is a prevalent theme that emerges through Walton’s letters. We see the path he is on in his search for it and the results of too much knowledge in Frankenstein’s life. The allusions to Adam and Eve and the desire for dangerous knowledge comes through and the monster even references it directly as he begins to gain his own knowledge through reading and learning to speak intelligently and through reading texts like Paradise Lost.
The idea of monstrosity and what makes a monster is a fascinating and complex subject where Mary Shelley does what Chekov was quoted as saying- she doesn’t necessarily have all the answers but sets up the questions effectively. One can say that Frankenstein is more the monster than the creature he created, as he possessed the dangerous knowledge and used it in a way that served his ambition. Shrouded in secrecy and shame, he tries to abandon his creation, even destroy the mate he created for him. The monster retaliates, killing those who mean the most to the Frankenstein. While this is cruel and embodies a sense of evil, one cannot help but trace the end results back to their root causes. The monster is rejected by society and his own creator. What makes a monster in this case? Frankenstein’s motives, ambitions, secrets, lies and knowledge create within him the very same monster. And things come full circle back to the quote that opens the story. The monster didn’t ask to be there, but he was. When Frankenstein fails to see that and take responsibility for the ramifications of his creation, the real evil and darkness of the story reveals itself.
The way Shelley structured her story was very helpful to me as a writer. The epistolary framework in which she presents the story allows her to hold and withhold information in such a way that an organic tension is created. It also creates a sense of trust for the reader as they are getting the story through an objective party who has read or has at least heard the letters. I also found Shelley’s weaving of classic texts like Paradise Lost into her narrative an effective device that gave poignancy to her exploration of themes like alienation, nature vs. nature and loneliness.
As a result of reading this novel, I’ve begun experimenting with an epistolary framework for one of the short stories I’m currently writing, as well as incorporating a classic text to illuminate the main character’s experience. I don’t believe these are two devices I would have explored in my own work without first reading a masterful execution of both in Frankenstein.
I learned so much from Shelley, through her use of poetic prose, bringing in the classic text of Paradise Lost to help tell her story, the daring and courageous explorations of deep subjects under the guise of a scary story and finally, her deft skill with structuring the story in a way that organically mirrors the narration and characters. I have much to learn from Mary Shelley and have been returning to Frankenstein as a literary textbook ever since.