Sunday, 2 June 2013

A2 English Literature: Narrative Structure of Frankenstein

Frankenstein is comprised of three narrators - Walton, Victor and the creature. The story itself is told through what is referred to as a 'pyramid' or 'Russian doll' structure:

Walton > Victor > Creature > Victor > Walton

This focused structure is arguably one of the most organised aspects of the novel. In a story with vastly ambitious ideas, a huge geographical range and important moral questions and dilemmas, the structure seems to keep all of these ideas and themes well-knit.

The novel opens with an epistolary form (told through the use of letters). And, in a sense, this continues for the entire novel. It is easy to forget that everything in the novel is told through Walton's letters to his sister. Victor tells him of his own misery and also relates the creature's tale to Walton. This shows how Shelley makes use of embedded narratives in the novel - both Victor's story and the creature's story are embedded within Walton's letters.

So this sets Walton up as our main narrator and source of information throughout the novel. He's an interesting character, and arguably very similar to Victor. I mention this in more detail in my post about gothic doubling in Frankenstein.

Furthermore, as we get deeper and deeper into the embedded narratives, we distance ourselves from the original word of Walton, even though he is still guiding the entire novel. By the time we are at the heart of the novel, and the creature is giving us its tale, we are right in the middle of all the embedded narratives. This narrative distancing may be reflective of other 'distances' in the novel; it may reflect the geographical distance and how all three characters are isolated in their own ways, it may reflect the moral distance between Victor and his fellow men or it may reflect Shelley's desire to be distanced from  any sort of female voice in the novel - perhaps in fear that a female voice would be seen to reflect her own views and beliefs, which would arguably be frowned upon at the time of writing. By escaping into the multi-layered narratives of three male characters, Shelley is able to tell her tale without fear of discrimination, perhaps?

It is also interesting to note that, as I said before, the creature's narrative is at the heart of the novel. It is at the very centre. This could be suggestive of many things. Perhaps by having the creature's tale at the heart of the story, Shelley is suggesting that the creature is an integral 'part' of all of us - that everyone is made up of different layers but eventually we come down to a collection of base desires (or, as Godwin would say, "universal benevolence"). Perhaps Shelley is suggesting that the creature reflects the other two characters, and serves as a 'mirror' being slotted in between Victor and Walton's narratives.

The three narratives are also very similar - they all warn of certain dangers such as over-reaching ambition, and they all appear to highlight male dominance and quests whereas women are pushed to the side. Walton uses the woman in his story - his sister - as his audience. Similarly, Victor relegates Elizabeth to be a correspondent rather than a companion. And the creature yearns for a female companion that he is never given. Considering that Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an advocate of feminist philosophy, it seems odd that Shelley has mistreated women in such a way in her novel, a theme that is echoed throughout all three narratives. But you could interpret the absence of women as one of the reasons why the males have tragic stories - perhaps men are too hung up on their own ambitions and desires for power. Furthermore, Victor's tale is strangely feminist; it subverts the female role and presents Victor as a warped mother figure.

The narrative structure of Frankenstein also arguably suspends the reader's disbelief at the seriously unlikely events of the novel. By using embedded narratives and employing these narratives so carefully and delicately, Shelley is able to bridge a significant gap between what is believable and what is not. If this story was told from one long narrative perspective, it wouldn't be long before we start to think 'this is just ridiculous'. But by putting the unbelievable character of the creature against Victor and putting Victor's unbelievable situation against the believable character of Walton, each narrative seems to ease the reader into appreciating what is essentially a hard to believe story.

And so once we reach the end of the novel, we have Walton reflecting on what he has been told:

"You have read this strange and terrific story, Margaret; and do you feel your blood congealed with horror, like that which even now curdles mines. Sometimes, seized with sudden agony, he could not continue his tale, at others his voice broken, yet piercing, uttered with difficulty the words so replete with agony."

The narrative structure strengthens themes, reflects situations and suspends our disbelief.


  1. Absolutely love your notes! You do all the same courses as me and for some reason your notes seem to fill all the little gaps in mine! Haha. Thankyou so much for sharing them!Xxxx

    1. hey, thanks very much! I'm glad they've helped :) best of luck x

  2. Before becoming a student of any A Level English literature course, it is important to know what English Literature is. It includes essay and novel composing. Clear construction of ideas throughout writing adds richness to the literature, thus helping a book reader in understanding the suggested message without much obstacle. Your narrative structure is quite inspiring.
    Selby A Level English Literature

  3. Well done on this fab piece of writing as you put it together very professionally and it sounds quite inspiring and it helped my on my English homework. Good luck and thank you. x :)

  4. Thanks a lot!!! It was everything that i need to understand the novel!