This week we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Or The Modern Prometheus) in the Fantasy and Science Fiction course on Coursera. If you aren’t familiar, it is written as a frame story, told by a traveller who encounters Victor Frankenstein, who then shares his tale. Here’s my essay on the work:
Frankenstein leaves open the possibility that virtually none of the events of the novel actually transpired (even in the fictional world in which it is set). The structure, language, and characters of the novel indicate that the entire tale may be an elaborate fantasy constructed by Robert Walton. A such, the story is less about Frankenstein and his monster (who may not exist), but about Walton himself and his overriding desires for glory and friendship.
The story is structured as letters written by Robert Walton to his sister. Portions of the tale (largely regarding the monster’s experiences) are further removed, being recorded by Walton, as allegedly told to him by Frankenstein, as allegedly told to him by the monster. At no point is any other party presented to corroborate any of the story – either Frankenstein’s or Walton’s.
The language of the story also suggests unreliability. The various characters all speak with similar vocabulary, tone, and style despite being of vastly different ages, classes, and educational levels. This includes Walton himself. Everyone in the story speaks with the same insufferable, pompous grandiosity.
The characters of Walton, Frankenstein, and even the monster also seem to be largely the same character. All see themselves as powerful figures able to accomplish some great purpose, while also doomed to solitude. Each of the three chooses power over friendship. The three characters are even in the same spot – trapped in ice – throughout the present of the story. In the present, no other character ever speaks to any of the three of them. The other shipmates, if they exist, are silent throughout.
The three characters share a single mind and a single purpose. They could, in fact, be a single character, Robert Walton, who may be a madman that concocts the tale to provide both of his greatest desires: Tremendous notoriety and eternal friendships.