Contents Index

Narratives of Seduction and the Seductions of Narrative: The Frame Structure of Frankenstein

Beth Newman

In English Literary History [ELH], 53 (1986), 141-61; repr. in Frankenstein/Mary Shelley, ed. Fred Botting (New York: St. Martin's, 1995), pp. 166-90

{141} The unnamed narrator of Conrad's Heart of Darkness offers a well-known cautionary metaphor for reading narratives -- particularly frame narratives, fictions like Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights and The Turn of the Screw (as well as Heart of Darkness itself) that contain a story within a story. The narrator tells us that for Marlow the meaning of a story "was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze. . . ."1 Conrad does not define precisely what "inside" and "outside" are, which leaves considerable leeway for the reader. But he does extend the metaphor, restating it by figuring it in the formal structure of the text. He offers us Marlow's story not by itself, but embedded in another -- enclosed in a frame that completes it and is completed by it, "as a glow brings out a haze." By tracing the narrator's conversion in the frame from a complacent faith in the superiority of the West to Marlow's anti-imperialism, Heart of Darkness makes meaning something that happens on the margins, along the edges of a narrative, as much as something that we discover within it. We cannot hope to extract a single "kernel" of meaning from Marlow's story, nor from those of Frankenstein, Nelly Dean, or James's governess, but must attend instead to the relations between {167} the stories in the centre and those in the frame, and listen to the dialogue between the voices that speak them.

If we consider Marlow's story by itself, it directs insistently back to the frame that completes it. First, its imagery repeats and complicates the metaphor of absent (or hazy and spectral) centers suggested by the frame narrator. The jungle in which Marlow's quest takes place, like the objects it contains (a bottomless bucket, the broken-down steamer that Marlow commands), is riddled with holes, trenches randomly dug and abandoned in the name of 'progress'. At the dramatic center of the story is Kurtz, himself an enigma, whom we come to know more by what is revealed about him in his absence than through anything he says or does when he {142} finally appears in his own person. Even in the few scenes where he is present in the narrative, he is just barely there: physically he has dwindled to a mere specter, a skeleton barely capable of casting a shadow; spiritually he is "hollow at the core." Yet he retains some of his power: "'Kurtz discoursed. A voice! A voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart.'"2 Kurtz's voice again directs us back to the frame, where Marlow too is reduced to a voice: "It had become so pitch dark," the nameless narrator recalls, "that we listeners could hardly see one another. For a long time already [Marlow], sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice."3 These descriptions of Kurtz and Marlow are unsettling because they suggest voice without body, language without a source, discourse uttered without a human subject. In so describing his characters, Conrad raises some of the issues latent in narrative framing, a device that tends at once to emphasize and to annul the individuality of the various tellers it presents. Furthermore, by drawing our attention to the voices of Kurtz and Marlow, he calls our attention as well to another issue involved in narrative framing, the issue of textual voice.

Heart of Darkness, then, is a paradigmatic example of the frame narrative, a conventional narrative structure that had lain in disuse for some time before Conrad disinterred it and breathed new life into it. Because Conrad's famous novella comes close to making explicit many of the issues that framing involves, it serves usefully to frame an inquiry into the structure of Frankenstein, the novel that concerns me here. The image that Heart of Darkness presents of a disembodied voice telling a story serves almost as a metaphor for what Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, and many other frame narratives suggest about storytelling: that a story can be cut off from its origin in a particular speaker and tell itself in other speakers, who to some extent are shaped by it instead of shaping it. Such a conception of the narrative act contradicts one of the central tenets of most approaches to narrative theory, the idea that no story exists apart from a shaping human intelligence, and that every story bears the mark of this shaping intelligence.4 The paradox of frame narratives like Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights is that they present first person narrators whose singular and even bizarre stories suggest highly individualized tellers, but they ask us to believe that the stories {143} they contain are repeated virtually word for word by other, quite different tellers; and in the process they efface a particular set of markers in the text that would permit us to distinguish the individual tellers, those tonal markers and indices of character inscribed in the narration itself, markers often loosely called 'voice'.

In my reading of Frankenstein I will argue that within what one might call the framework of the text, story and character turn out to be separable, even opposing elements, which do not fuse in the creation of narrative discourse. That is, Frankenstein does not offer us multiple narrators in order to provide multiple points of view, each of which expresses the unique psychology of the character who tells a given story. Nevertheless this is the approach generally taken by critics who set out to explain the complex narrative structure of Wuthering Heights, an approach which leads in turn to the questions of unreliability that surface repeatedly in the criticism. The problem with reading either Frankenstein or Wuthering Heights along these lines is that both of these novels, being firmly rooted in a Gothic tradition, represent character differently than do later works of nineteenth-century realism. Both Shelley and Brontë represent human personality in terms of abstractions, in terms of general qualities or states of mind that are often rendered symbolically and obliquely, rather than through the kind of careful and explicit analysis of individual psychology that realistic novels offer. Consequently they are less concerned with the motivations in individual psychology for the telling of a given story than with general tendencies in the nature of narrative itself. Even James, who is equally interested in both these aspects of fiction, is more coy than usual about the reliability of the governess in Turn of the Screw, so that it is finally impossible to determine whether the ghosts are real or a figment of an overheated, neurotic imagination. So while James's fictional oeuvre represents the perfection of points of view as a fictional device, and his prefaces create the poetic that accounts for its effects, Turn of the Screw nevertheless bears instructive similarities to Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights. While Shelley and Brontë do not specifically ask us to be suspicious of the reliability of their narrators, they do cast suspicion on the stories they tell, though in another way, one common as well to Turn of the Screw. In all three works storytelling itself is suspect: narrative has become, in these novels, a form of seduction. It serves both as a way of seducing a listener, and as a means {144} of displacing and sublimating desire that cannot be satisfied directly. As spoken narratives that get written down only by another teller, the stories in these fictions, from Shelley to Conrad and James, cast suspicion as well on the medium through which their tellers pursue their aims of seduction -- the speaking voice.5

Frankenstein, the reader will recall, contains an elaborate series of frames. Working from the outside in we start with an epistolary narrative, the letters of a Captain Walton to his sister Mrs. Saville, who remains safely at home in England while he seeks fame, glory and the North Pole. His letters announce the discovery and rescue of a stranger -- Frankenstein -- who tells his bizarre story to Walton, who then includes it in his letters home. Frankenstein's story contains yet another, the confessions of the monstrous creature he has created and abandoned; and the Monster includes within his own narrative the story of the De Laceys, the family of exiles he tries pathetically and unsuccessfully to adopt as his own. As we pass from teller to teller, peeling back one story to discover another as though peeling an onion, we progress not only through time but also toward some goal that seems the more powerful and important for being so palpably within; it is as though we were moving toward the kernel that Marlow's tales refuse us. Put another way, this series of narratives creates the same kinds of expectations as those set in motion by what Roland Barthes has called the "hermeneutic code,"6 but instead of being encoded in words alone -- in the "lexia" -- the presence of some enigma is signalled by the layering of stories, by the system of frames.

Though we receive this Chinese box of stories-within-stories in the form of writing, the packet of letters that Walton sends his sister, most of what we read is Walton's transcription of two oral narratives. In this respect Frankenstein, with its roots in the novels and romances of the previous century, takes a hackneyed convention and turns it nearly inside out. Instead of an editor producing a (supposedly) found manuscript, an already written document, Walton turns oral narratives into writing. Unlike the narratives he transcribes, Walton's letters to his sister are addressed to someone absent from the narrative situation, someone removed in time and place. This is only another way of saying that they are written, not spoken, but it reveals something important about how the outermost layer of narration differs from the others: Mrs. {145} Saville, safe at home in England, is cut off from the chain of narratives and the dangers they pose. But what are their dangers, and what do they have to do with the opposition of speech and writing? As we shall see, the dangers are in the seductiveness of narrative, particularly narratives that are literally given voice.

When Frankenstein first boards Walton's ship, the cold, hunger and exhaustion he has suffered in his search for the Monster have deprived him of speech, but as he regains this faculty he begins to insinuate himself very quickly into Walton's heart. In a letter to his sister Walton praises Frankenstein's gentleness and wisdom, but what impresses him most is something else: "When he speaks, although his words are culled with the choicest art, yet they flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence" (27).7 Frankenstein's fluency as a speaker makes him almost divine in Walton's eyes (210), and Walton is not alone in being moved by Frankenstein's powers of oratory: "Even the sailors feel the power of his eloquence; when he speaks, they no longer despair: he rouses their energies, and while they hear his voice they believe these vast mountains of ice are mole-hills which will vanish before the resolutions of man" (213). But Walton suggests that Frankenstein's eloquence -- his fluency with words and his ability to manipulate language -- is only part of what makes him persuasive; its effects upon his men last only "while they hear his voice." There is something spellbinding in that alone; as long as Frankenstein speaks, Walton and his crew cannot choose but hear.8 Its effects are even more profound upon Walton, who imagines that he can hear Frankenstein's "full-toned voice swell[ing] in my ears" long after it has ceased, and that his sister, when she reads his transcription of Frankenstein's story, will not be moved as much as he, "who hear[s] it from his own lips" (31). Like the Ancient Mariner's glittering eye, Frankenstein's voice compels attention -- but it does so without seeming to compel, wooing its listeners to receptivity through its richness and resonance.

Frankenstein raises the issue of the human voice in order to complicate it, and to call our attention to the differences between reading a story and hearing one spoken aloud. It insists on a difference between the voice of Frankenstein and that of the Monster, which "though harsh, had nothing terrible in it" (132), but that difference is inaccessible to us as we read. We are more apt to be struck by the similarities in the way the Monster and Frankenstein {146} express themselves, since they both use the same kind of heightened language, and since both speak with an eloquence more expressive of a shared Romantic ethos than of differences in character. In fact, Walton's voice, the other significant voice in the text, is scarcely different. The novel fails to provide significant differences in tone, diction and sentence structure that alone can serve, in a written text, to represent individual human voices, and so blurs the distinction that it asks us to make between the voices of its characters.

Such differences in tone, diction and sentence structure have to do with another kind of voice than that with which we began; instead of voice in the physiological sense we are here concerned with voice in a textual sense. So conceived, voice is no longer the sensible medium of expression that lingers in Walton's ears but something more abstract. As a quasi-technical term often used to refer to properties of writing, voice is a metaphor that invokes precisely what is absent in the discourse to which it applies: the sounds produced by the organs of speech. Frame narratives, by giving the words of one speaker over to another, often force us to confront voice in this textual sense. Through an extended ventriloquism, a word-for-word repetition of another speaker's discourse, Frankenstein further blurs the distinctions between the voices of its narrators. That is, by transferring a given narrative from teller to teller, it complicates the question that most theories of narrative -- particularly those that stress point of view -- begin by asking: who is speaking?

Frankenstein, by juxtaposing three tendentious narratives, seems to encourage a point-of-view approach. It presents confessional first-person narrators whose stories sound the note of self-justification so loudly that they immediately invite suspicion, the kind of suspicion that point-of-view criticism teaches us to entertain. Each story is then transferred to a new teller who repeats it as an event in his own tale, which now serves as a frame. Putting such stories in someone else's mouth might seem to be a way of distancing the reader from a narrator so that we can see through the story he tells; framing might seem to provide a perspective that heightens the distance. That is, it might seem that the purpose of a narrative technique that transfers a story from teller to teller is to direct the reader to questions of point of view, and more specifically to questions of reliability and unreliability. But {147} each teller in the chain of narrative embeddings accepts the story he hears without question, and repeats it unchanged. As a result, we are given no new perspective; we are instead offered a series of stories that corroborate one another, in a sameness of voice that blurs the distinctions between tellers instead of heightening them. The frame structure of Frankenstein thus suggests that "point of view" is not the point at all. In fact, the logic of Frankenstein violates the main premise of point-of-view criticism by suggesting that its narratives are not expressions of individual human psyches. In other words, a story is emphatically separable from the character who first tells it; once a narrative has been uttered, it exists as a verbal structure with its own integrity, and can, like myth, think itself in the minds of men (and women). Being infinitely repeatable in new contexts, it has achieved autonomy; it now functions as a text, having been severed from its own origins, divested of its originating voice. The mark of this severance is the frame itself.9

The mutual independence of story and character becomes visible and problematic in Frankenstein in an episode that seems otherwise marginal, even digressive. This is the story of Justine, the young woman who (like Elizabeth Lavenza, Frankenstein's sister-bride) was adopted into the Frankenstein household while still a child. In terms of plot, Justine is merely functional, introduced only to be quickly killed off. We hear of her for the first time in a letter Frankenstein receives from Elizabeth after he has created the Monster and long after he has finished describing his family life. Elizabeth spends four paragraphs reminding Frankenstein who Justine is. To a lengthy summary of Justine's life story Elizabeth appends a significant non sequitur about "darling William," the baby of the Frankenstein clan, and closes her letter with a spate of gossipy details, a whole can of red herrings served up to distract us from the fishy digression the narrative has just taken. The importance to the plot of this apparent digression eventually becomes clear: Mary Shelley is setting up the first of the monster's murders -- the murder of William -- for which Justine will soon be found guilty. But as we read this, the narrative machinery itself begins to creak and groan; we sense that it is making itself ready for an event that hasn't yet been prepared. This hitch in the works is doubly marked, not only by the way the narrative changes direction here, but also by Elizabeth's being forced, briefly, into the {148} unidiomatic (if theoretically possible) voice of second-person narration: "'Justine, you may remember, was a great favourite of yours'" she writes (65).10 Curiously, just as the coherence of Frankenstein threatens to dissolve into a peculiar narrative ineptness it is preparing us for Justine's trial, an episode about narratives that fail to cohere. Moreover, by dispersing the story of Justine's innocence across multiple voices, the novel enacts the division of voice and character that is suggested by its frames.

In a sense, narrative itself is implicated in Justine's troubles. In the first place, the evidence that links Justine to the murder is circumstantial, which means that it assumes a narrative form: a series of apparently related events is distributed into a pattern of cause and effect, and so into a single, coherent plot; this plot, being narratable, is plausible, and being plausible begins to seem true. Thus the discovery upon Justine of a miniature stolen from the murdered William tells a story that ends in Justine's guilt. Further, what finally condemns Justine is precisely her inability to counter that story with a coherent narrative of her own. From the first, the only account she can give of herself is "confused and unintelligible" (82). When she is called to the witness stand in her own defence, she refuses to plead her case with studied eloquence, with careful rhetoric: "'I do not pretend that my protestations should acquit me; I rest my innocence on a plain and simple explanation of the facts which have been adduced against me'" (82). But is precisely because she cannot explain these facts -- that is, because they remain from her point of view, unnarratable -- that she is found guilty.

Justine is not content simply to admit her fatal inability to compose a coherent narrative. She incriminates herself further by rejecting the very arguments which might have exonerated her:

I know . . . how heavily and fatally this one circumstance [of the miniature] weighs against me, but I have no power of explaining it; and when I have expressed my utter ignorance, I am only left to conjecture concerning the probabilities by which it might have been placed in my pocket. But here I am also checked. I believe that I have no enemy on earth and none surely would have been so wicked as to destroy me wantonly. Did the murderer place it there? I know of no opportunity afforded him for so doing; or if I had, why should he have stolen the jewel, to part with it again so soon? (83-4)
{149} Realizing that she can offer no alternative to the story that seems to have shaped itself around her, Justine makes the only appeal that remains to her. She appeals in the name of character. As she begins her plea in self-defence she says, "I hope the character I have always borne will incline my judges to a favourable interpretation, where any circumstance appears doubtful or suspicious" (83). Against the force of a story that seems to assemble itself from diverse pieces of evidence and to tell against her, she offers the argument of character, the hope that however incoherent her own explanation, she will be judged a reliable narrator. But the story proves far more eloquent and persuasive to its hearers than does the innocent victim, Justine, who has no story to tell.

In appealing to character, Justine is anticipating the way many twentieth-century critics will read novels like Frankenstein -- and more problematically, like Wuthering Heights, with its supposedly "unreliable" or "incompetent" narrators. At the same time, the judge and the courtroom mob use against Justine the reverse of her own argument, showing that the knife cuts both ways. We'll judge your character on the basis of your narrative, they say, using the kind of logic that, in its extreme form, can turn Nelly Dean into a villain.11 But the court is as wrong about Justine's character as Justine is inept as a narrator. The episode of Justine's trial thus implicitly challenges the habit of reading all narratives primarily as expressions of character, and figures the separability of character and narrative by opposing them to one another. Justine really is innocent, though her testimony fails to explain effects in terms of causes, and so is it itself guilty of breaking the most basic law of narrative. Her character bears no relation to the incriminating evidence of her own testimony, to the story she inadvertently tells about herself.

If character is not implicated in Frankenstein's narratives, gender is; for like Elizabeth, who narrates unidiomatically (though not quite ungrammatically), Justine is a woman. Gender may determine another of Justine's problems as a narrator as well: she speaks "in an audible although variable voice" (83). Lacking the recognisable consistency of the Monster's voice which "though harsh, had nothing terrible in it" (132) and the authority of Frankenstein's resonant, "full-toned voice" (31), Justine's "variable voice" adds to the pall of unreliability cast by her incoherent narrative. In fact, her "variable voice" exacerbates the incoherence of {150} her story, for coherence depends on the very self-consistency that her voice, like the story it tries to tell, lacks. But Justine's story really does cohere -- {175} though only in being completed by other voices. Begun in Elizabeth's letter, continued in the letter from Frankenstein's father and in Frankenstein's account of the trial, it is concluded only much later, by the Monster's voice.

The Monster is the one circumstance of which judge, jury and Justine are alike ignorant, the missing cause that would make Justine's story hold together. As we eventually discover, it is of course he who strangles William in a fit of rage and orchestrates Justine's condemnation by planting the miniature, which he took from William, upon her. His narrative expertise, which later exercises its effects on Frankenstein, reveals itself here in another way: he tells a persuasive story (this time, a fictional one) not discursively but in figures, using William's corpse, the stolen miniature and the body of Justine. The story that seemed to assemble itself of its own accord and to end in Justine's guilt thus turns out to have a narrator after all.

Why does the monster tell this story? Before he puts the miniature in the pocket of Justine's dress, he finds that the picture of Frankenstein's mother arouses his desire, a desire that he transfers to the living woman he discovers sleeping on some straw at his feet. Bending over Justine, he whispers "'Awake, fairest, thy lover is near'" (143). This scene has been described as a perverse fantasy of rape, but the Monster's language expresses tenderness rather than violence, and a desire to use not force, but more subtle forms of persuasion. He envisions not a rape but a seduction, at least until he perceives that this attempt to seduce must fail. He then plants the picture upon Justine, knowing precisely the story it will tell: "'the murder I have committed because I am for ever robbed of all that she could give me, she shall atone'" (144). As a substitute for a seduction that can never succeed and a sexual union that can never take place, he engineers the fiction of Justine's guilt -- and so offers himself the consolation of revenge. But this time he does not seek revenge by engaging in violence directly, as he has a few moments before in strangling William. Rather, this act of revenge takes the form of a narrative which, like the abortive seduction it displaces, serves to discharge pentup, frustrated desire. Again like the seduction, the narrative takes as its object the body of a woman, Justine.

The story the Monster tells about Justine is thus an act of sublimation, the rewriting of a grotesque would-be love story as a {151} murder mystery. It forges a link between acts of narration and acts of seduction, which are related here not through equivalence, but through displacement and transformation.12 In a somewhat different manner, the frame structure will reiterate this link between narration and seduction. The Monster's story about Justine is not the only place in Frankenstein where a scene of seduction is revised into something new, or an act of storytelling displaces -- or even becomes -- an attempt to seduce. We can detect a scene of seduction transformed at the center of the novel's many frames, in the Monster's account of his ill-fated desire to befriend the De Laceys. In this case the story under revision comes from another novel: it rewrites the scene that sets up Ambrosio's seduction in M. G. Lewis's The Monk.13

The parallels are subtle but significant. At the beginning of the scene, Ambrosio, the monk of the title, considers the perils of his role as the confessor of "the fairest and noblest dames of Madrid": "I must accustom my eyes to objects of temptation, and expose myself to the seduction of luxury and desire."14 Ambrosio must make himself, in other words, as good as blind to the charms of physical beauty, just as De Lacey is blind to the horrors of physical monstrosity. But he fails: a beautiful woman has already begun to work her arts of seduction upon him by disguising herself as a young man, the novice Rosario, who becomes Ambrosio's most devoted follower. As the scene unfolds, Rosario plaintively tells Ambrosio the story of his sorrows, just as De Lacey briefly becomes the Monster's confidant in Frankenstein. Their stories are strikingly similar. "'I have no relation or friend upon earth,'" the Monster tells De Lacey (133); Rosario's complaint is much the same: "'I have no friend! The whole wide world cannot furnish an heart that is willing to participate in the sorrows of mine'" (80). Both the Monster and Rosario seek to manipulate their confidants by playing on their sympathies, and to that end both tell stories about themselves that dissemble the truth by displacing it onto other characters. Rosario offers a story about his sister Matilda and the Monster tells De Lacey about "a French family" who educated him. Finally, both Rosario and the Monster reveal the true identities of the characters in their tales:

"Do not fly me!" she cried. "Leave me not abandoned to the impulse of despair! . . . I acknowledge my sister's story to be my own! I am Matilda; you are her beloved." (81)
"[S]ave and protect me! You and your family are the friends whom I seek. Do not desert me in the hour of trial!" (135)
Thus the Monster tries to win De Lacey by a ruse very similar to Matilda's (that is, Rosario's), and like Matilda, ends by throwing himself at the mercy of his listener. But Mary Shelley doesn't simply adapt this scene to her own purposes; she offers a revision that is meaningful for what it suggests about the anxieties of gender. Matilda in The Monk is not telling the whole truth at her moment of truth; she turns out later to be the Devil, or least one of his emissaries. If Matilda's/Rosario's confession ("I am a woman") becomes, later on in The Monk, "I am a Devil," it is revised in Frankenstein to something different: "I am a Monster."15 Perhaps this is why the Monster's discursive narratives, like those of Elizabeth and Justine, ultimately fail. In the final analysis, one that considers the role of gender in Frankenstein, the Monster's stories become tales told by a woman in a novel by a woman who feared that such tales -- like her own -- would be understood as signifying nothing.

The Monster's failure to win De Lacey, followed by the failure of his pathetic attempt to win Justine, brings him to tell his story once again, more fully and less obliquely, to Frankenstein. This retelling is the entire confessional narrative embedded in Frankenstein's own, which introduces it and serves as its frame. Though it too will fail, the Monster's story affects Frankenstein forcibly, as it must, for it is a story with a purpose. Its end (that is, its purpose) is also one of the most conventional endings (that is, closures) of literary plots: a sexual union. The Monster concludes his story with the following demand:

"We may not part until you have promised to comply with my requisition. I am alone, and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me . . . This being you must create." (144)
Once more an act of narration in Frankenstein takes the form of a displaced seduction. Though Frankenstein is himself the object of the Monster's rhetoric, its aim is still the satisfaction of desire, a sexual consummation. But this time, the link between narrative and seduction defines a relation between distinct parts of the {153} novel -- that is, between one of its extended acts of storytelling and the narrative situation that serves as its frame.

From a rhetorical standpoint, the Monster's story is exceedingly well shaped. William Labov's studies of so-called "natural narratives" suggest that for a story to be successful, it must forestall the most withering critique of all: the response, "So what?"16 {178} Storytellers, then, continually employ various strategies for warding off the "so what"; that is, successful narrators manage things so that their stories have "point." Because we think of texts as bounded objects, framed and delimited, we have learned to seek the point of a narrative within the story itself. But the Monster's story (like the one Marlow tells in Heart of Darkness) makes meaning -- narrowly construed, the point -- something that happens on the outside. The point of his narrative leads outside the story itself, to its (fictive) audience, breaking through the self-enclosed structure of a story with a beginning, middle and end. At the moment of its conclusion it reaches outside itself with its demand, producing not a structure with closure but an opening into further discourse, implicating its own listener, violating its own frame.

The ending of the Monster's narrative calls our attention to something else, to a particular linguistic utterance on which all of Frankenstein turns. As a rhetorical act, his story has an immediate purpose: to bind Frankenstein to a promise. The danger of the Monster's eloquence, the danger that Frankenstein warns Walton against, is precisely its ability to bind his listener to a promise, and so to make the effects of his eloquence outlast the duration of its own utterance, the time during which it is given voice. Yet this is equally what Frankenstein tries to do at the end of his long confession, and equally the purpose behind the telling of his own story. In the same speech in which he warns Walton of the Monster's eloquence, Frankenstein, soaring to new rhetorical heights of his own, attempts to elicit a promise from his interlocutor:

Oh! When will my guiding spirit, in conducting me to the demon, allow me the rest I so much desire; or must I die, and he yet live? If I do, swear to me, Walton, that he shall not escape, that you will seek him, and satisfy my vengeance in his death. (208)
Frankenstein promised Walton a didactic story, a tale from which {154} he might 'deduce an apt moral' (30) about the perils of seeking glory in death-defying acts of bravery and ambition. Ambivalent himself about the moral he would have Walton draw, he reveals that his real point, his true narrative purpose, is neither to instruct nor to delight, but to exact a promise. Frankenstein's "hideous narration" thus repeats the gesture of the monstrous narrative it frames: in his attempt to bind Walton to some future action, he generates a chain of contracts, a chain of narratives whose "points" lie outside of the stories themselves. And yet each of these narratives is embedded in another, is framed. The syntactic placement of these narratives (one inside the other) moves the reader inward, setting up a pulsion toward a center, creating a spatial image for narrative as something closed, finite, contained by its own borders -- a middle set off from the rest of language by a beginning and an end. And yet the rhetorical strategy of the narrative chain moves continually outward, implicating through each narration someone outside the tale. Contradictory though this may seem, there is really nothing surprising about it; we are confronting a fresh instance of framing's double logic, the tendency of the frame simultaneously to establish boundaries and to announce, even to invite, their violation.17

More surprising is the persistence of the promise in each of the novel's laminations. If Frankenstein's confession tells the story of his promise to the Monster, Walton's letters tell the story of his promise to his crew. This story begins with the rumblings of mutiny, so fearful are his sailors of the mountains of ice that surround the ship and threaten to crush it. His men approach him to make "a requisition which, in justice, I could not refuse" (2l4):

They insisted . . . that I should engage with a solemn promise, that if the vessel should be freed I would instantly direct my course southward. (2l4)
Walton consents. Unlike Frankenstein, he keeps his promise, perhaps having drawing an "apt moral" from Frankenstein's story after all. Nevertheless, Walton disregards the oath with which Frankenstein attempted to bind him. Given the opportunity, he does not destroy the Monster.

Promises kept and promises broken -- this pattern repeats itself elsewhere, at the very beginning of the novel and at the heart of the Monster's narrative.18 It gives point to a story Walton tells his {155} sister, a digression which, taken by itself, leaves us with a Labovian "So what?" The central character of this digression is Walton's master-at-arms, who never appears in the novel in propria persona. After acquiring a respectable fortune in prize money from his conquests at sea, he had fallen in love with "a young Russian lady of moderate fortune," and now had enough money and property to win the consent of the woman's father. But he soon discovered that the woman loved someone else, though her father would not consent to their marriage because the man was too poor. In an extravagantly self-denying gesture, Walton's master-at-arms presented his prize money and his farm to his rival and pressed the woman's father to consent to the new match. The father, feeling bound in honour, refused to break his promise until the master-at-arms forced his hand by leaving the country. Walton's immediate reason for telling this story is to demonstrate how sorely he needs a friend, for though his ship's master is a model of kindliness and even a "noble fellow," he is no companion for someone who admires eloquence and loves a good story as much as Walton does. The problem, as Walton puts it, is that he is "as silent as a Turk" (21).19

This quaint simile directs us to the real point of this story which, again, lies partly outside of its own bounds.20 At the geometrical centre of Frankenstein in the Monster's story-within-Frankenstein's story-within-Walton's story, the story of the De Laceys once more tells about a promise of a daughter's hand. But whereas the father of the Russian lady keeps his promise, this time the promise is treacherously broken. The villain is Safie's father, who is responsible for the De Laceys' poverty and exile, and who compounds this injury by offering his daughter to Felix in marriage only to renege. The story of the master-at-arms now becomes meaningful as a story in which a promise is scrupulously, almost stubbornly kept. Thus a story on the outside of Frankenstein, a brief digression in the outermost of the novel's many narrative frames, illuminates the story at the centre of these frames. And the story in the centre sheds some light on the strange simile with which Walton dismisses the master-at-arms, for Safie's father, though not particularly silent, is a Turk.

One problem with this pattern of promises is that Frankenstein's promise -- which in a sense grounds all the other promises, making them meaningful by analogy to itself -- is really a promise manqué. For Frankenstein never actually utters the words "I {156} promise," though the Monster's conditions are that he "'promise . . . to comply with my requisition'" (144). Indeed, it is the Monster who makes all of the promises on that misty afternoon atop Montanvert: "'I swear to you, by the earth which I inhabit, and by you that made me, that with the companion you bestow, I will quit the neighbourhood of man  . . .'" The monster's narrative, with its concluding "proposition" (147), begins to take a familiar shape. He speaks forcibly and persuasively; he makes extravagant promises, binding himself to another for all eternity; he swears "by the fire of love that burns in [his] heart" (148), and he wins consent from someone who yields gradually and reluctantly. The whole narrative has the structure of an elaborate seduction.

We don't ordinarily think of the promise as basic to seduction. The essence of seduction might seem rather to be in its etymology: "to lead astray." But Robert Meister, a student of seductions literary and otherwise, denies this altogether. He observes that

In order to arrive at a satisfactory definition of seduction, it is essential to dismiss the notion that seduction is equivalent to leading astray; its possibilities are so promising that it cannot be defined in one equation.20
One is reluctant to speculate about these promising possibilities, but Shoshana Felman, whose much more interesting book about seduction celebrates and exploits such verbal coincidences, might observe that promising is rather one of the conditions of the possibility of seduction. Exploring the seductions of various Don Juans and of J. L. Austin's speech-act theory, Felman argues that "[t]he rhetoric of seduction may he summarised by the performative utterance par excellence: 'I promise'."21 Unlike Meister, she does hazard "one equation" with which to define seduction: "to seduce is to produce felicitous language" (28).

In its general, non-technical sense, felicitous might aptly (felicitously?) describe the Monster's discourse, for his oratorical flair, his studied use of the many tropes at the rhetorician's disposal,22 he has "a special ability for suitable manner or expression" -- which is how the dictionary defines felicitous. But the word has a technical meaning as well. It has been used by Austin to describe certain performative speech acts, that is, utterances such as "I promise," which neither inform nor describe but instead constitute an action in their own utterance. These cannot be logically true or false, but Austin argues that they can either succeed or misfire. For example, the utterance that declares two people {157} married can either be legal and binding, if it is uttered by the right person under the right circumstances, or else it can have no force at all -- for example, during a rehearsal or in a play.23 Only in the first case is the utterance 'felicitous'.

To seduce, then, is to produce language that hits the mark, that succeeds in its aim. But by this definition, the Monster's narrative, for all its resemblance to the seductions of Don Juan, fails miserably. Whereas Don Juan's speech acts never fail to end in sex acts, the Monster's language in this respect is stubbornly infelicitous, his efforts to seduce inevitably misfiring. For Frankenstein ultimately breaks his promise, denying the Monster the mate he desires, even though he had agreed upon the mate as "the justice due both to him and my fellow creatures" (148). In the last analysis narration itself -- the Monster's medium of seduction -- fails, as it had earlier failed Justine, though not for the same reasons.

The price of failure is high. The results are violence and death, which Frankenstein seems to suggest, lie somewhere beyond narration, as though narrative were a means of staving them off. Had the Monster succeeded in his narrative task, had his persuasiveness outlasted his giving it voice, he would not have visited upon Frankenstein the chain of deaths that culminates finally in Frankenstein's own.24 At the same time, death is the very stuff of narrative in Frankenstein, the set of events that compose the plot. In a sense, death generates narrative as surely as it is the origin of the Monster himself, who was assembled from bits and pieces taken from charnel houses. For Frankenstein's desire to create new life -- the precondition of the whole series of monstrous events that form his 'hideous narration' -- is largely a response to the death of his mother, which he calls "the first misfortune of my life" (42). It is his desire to reverse the most basic plot of all, the ending of life in death, that engenders his scientific discoveries and the horror story they bring about: "I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time . . . renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption" (54). Frankenstein suggests a morphology of narrative texts that makes death the beginning instead of the end.

Death is only one conventional solution to narrative's need for closure and a sense of an ending. Though nineteenth-century realism will often strenuously deny it or admit it only with a resigned and world-weary irony, there is still at least the narrative possibility of living happily ever after, the ending offered by countless folk tales and suggested by comedy and romance. Domestic {158} tranquillity serves as a fit ending to literary plots because it represents repose and stability, even stasis; it is what gets disrupted so that narrative can be {183} produced. In many respects, narrative and domesticity are opposed to one another, each coming into being only at the expense of the other. (It remains for nineteenth-century realism, particularly Jane Austen's novels of manners, to show how they might co-exist.) Such an opposition is an organizing principle of romance, whose episodic plots spin out, with untiring narrative vigour, story after story of heightened experience that takes place far from the hearth.25

In the many stories within Frankenstein, marital/sexual contentment and the repose of domesticity are promised repeatedly, and repeatedly disrupted. To the broken promises we have already seen we may add other images of domestic paradises lost: not only the marriage of Frankenstein and Elizabeth, violently ended by Elizabeth's murder on their wedding night, but also the destruction of the Frankenstein family, which begins with the mother's death and ends only when there is no one left. But the novel's most poignant vision of domestic tranquillity is not the short, happy picture of family life with which it begins; nor does it occur, as in Wuthering Heights, at the end of the novel as its consummation. Rather, it occupies the center of the novel, in the story of the De Laceys, whose benevolence and kindness toward one another in adversity provide the Monster with his sentimental education. Significantly, theirs is the most radically disrupted story of the many embedded narratives Frankenstein contains. Just as the De Laceys are beginning, in their humble way, to prosper (Felix and Safie having been reunited, and material conditions being less austere), the Monster invades. The novel offers no suggestion of how their story ends; they simply flee, abandoning their cottage forever. Frankenstein makes domestic tranquillity an unattainable ideal, a state that can never, in the world it represents, be achieved. Its impossibility is symbolized by the De Laceys, the Monster's only "family," who live in perpetual exile not only from their native land but finally from the novel as well.26

Not only is domestic tranquillity disrupted at the center of the novel, but it is also excluded at the margins, in the frame. Walton directs the entire package of letters, including his transcription of Frankenstein's narrative, home to "dear England" and his sister, Mrs. Saville. With her "husband, and lovely children" (213), the absent Mrs. Saville provides a final image of domesticity, but it lies wholly without the novel, outside of its many frames, beyond all of its narratives and hopelessly unconnected to any of them.

But since the framing of Frankenstein's and the Monster's stories serves to implicate something exterior to themselves, why is Mrs. Saville not likewise implicated by the act of reading Walton's narrative; why is she not seduced by it? She is kept safely outside the scheme of the novel precisely because she is reading, because what she confronts is the written word. The novel's logic suggests that Walton, by offering her a transcription of the stories he hears, exposes her merely to a simulacrum, a representation of a monstrous story in a different medium. Deprived of the speaking voice, severed from its origins, the story can no longer exercise its seductive hold, its ability to exact promises. Thus transformed, the monstrous narrative is domesticated; Mrs. Saville can read the story without any danger to herself. It may, as Walton fears, make her blood "congeal with horror" (209), but it poses her no real threat. Like Medusa's head in Perseus's mirror, what she reads is only an image of monstrosity; it therefore loses its power and its danger.

The frames thus mark the exclusion of Mrs. Saville -- and the reader as well -- from the horror of the narratives they contain, and signal an immunity from the seductiveness of the voices that first utter them. At the same time, each frame that we pass through as we read makes the matter at the center seem more highly charged, more significant, more invested with power. We read Gothic novels like Frankenstein precisely because we want our blood to "congeal with horror," and the frames, by promising something powerfully horrifying at their center, heighten the effect; hence the affinity of frame structures for the Gothic. Just as frames in general serve at once to delimit and extend, so do the frames around Gothic and supernatural fictions signify at once something highly charged, even dangerous, and the barriers that protect us from it.

As though to protect his version of Romanticism from what might have seemed to him a monstrous perversion of it, Percy Bysshe Shelley appended to Frankenstein a frame of his own, a peculiarly defensive statement of supposedly authorial intention. The "chief concern" of the novelist, he asserted, "has been limited to . . . the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue."27 With these words, Shelley usurped the voice, domesticated (in every sense) a {160} powerful story, and greatly reduced its meaning, offering that meaning to use almost as a hard, smooth kernel, deftly extracted from the whole. He then went further, denying on behalf of Mary Shelley any implications "prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind." First representing Frankenstein as a story that exhibits precisely what it repeatedly disrupts and defers, he finally dismisses Mary Shelley's mythmaking altogether by assuring us that, after all, it signifies nothing. Perhaps he did so because Frankenstein casts doubt upon some tenets of the "philosophical doctrine" we call Romanticism, a doubt that is expressed at the very opening of the novel as a hope, or more precisely, as a promise. The first letter that Walton writes his sister invokes a "wind of promise," the "cold northern breeze" that he feels as he walks in the streets of St Petersburg. To quiet his sister's evil forebodings, he assures her that he feels "inspirited by this wind of promise" which "play[s] upon my cheeks, . . . braces my nerves, and fills me with delight" (15). As he embarks on his journey, Walton feels the promise of the "correspondent breeze," the gentle breeze that fans the cheek of Wordsworth as he begins the epic journey into his own mind, the wind that returns the Ancient Mariner to his "own countree," and the wind that eventually brings the twin promises of spring and revolution to Shelley. But Walton's wind blows from the cold, wintry north, not from the west; and the promise with which it frames the novel -- the promise of reward for seeking glory and honour in filial, Promethean rebellion -- like so many other promises in Frankenstein, is broken.


1. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough (New York: W.W. Norton, 1971), 5.

2. Conrad, 69.

3. Conrad, 28.

4. While this conclusion is certainly true in the sense that every narrative, fictional or otherwise, has an author behind it, it is another matter to extend this by regarding every fictional narrative as an expression of a fictional character who narrates it. For a cogent exposition of the assumptions behind this argument and the limitations of it, see Jonathan Culler, "Problems in the Theory of Fiction," Diacritics, 14 (Spring, 1984), 212. We might observe also that writers of fiction have deliberately and insistently developed techniques which aim to conceal or eliminate a particularised narrating subject, techniques like the so-called objective method sometimes employed by James and Hemingway, or the more radical effacements of narrating subject in the nouveau roman. No doubt students of narrative feel compelled to reiterate the credo that every narrative has a shaping intelligence behind it because the practice of so many writers -- and the experience of reading their fiction -- would deny it.

5. Though in Turn of the Screw, "the story's written," as Douglas announces, it is part of an exchange of oral stories (Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, ed. Robert Kimbrough [New York: W.W. Norton, 1966], 2). Moreover, Douglas addresses the story particularly to the unnamed narrator, and does so in a frankly seductive manner, as the narrator is well aware.

6. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974). See esp. 17.

7. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, ed. M.K. Joseph (London: Oxford Univ. Press,, 1969). Except where otherwise stated, all subsequent references are to this edition, which is based on the 1831 edition of the text. Frankenstein was originally published in 1818; when it was reissued in 1831, Mary Shelley made some significant revisions.

8. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner -- another frame narrative, we might observe -- is obviously an important precursor text whose relation to Frankenstein has often been remarked. Peter Brooks makes an analogy between the two texts similar to my own, except that he suggests that what is spellbinding in Frankenstein, instead of being a "glittering eye," is language itself. (See "Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts: Language, Nature and Monstrosity" in The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1974]). This is unquestionably so, but it seems to me that certain kinds of language seem more potent in Frankenstein than others. One of these is language put to narrative use; another, illustrated here, is language conveyed by the voice.

9. Germano Celant makes this the function of the frame in painting in "Framed: Innocent or Gilt?" Artforum, 20 (Summer, 1982), 49-55. In particular, he explains that every individual painting may be thought of as "a cutout portion," "a lesion, a wound, a tear, a slash, an action within the field of art . . . The result is a scar or thickening -- a frame -- which functions as a defence, constructing a barrier which wards off and repels the isolation imposed by the cut" into "art's body" (49).

10. Oddly enough, Mary Shelley revised this part of the novel to make it more, not less awkward, and to make Elizabeth's breach of narrative convention more salient. In the 1818 text, this paragraph begins: "After what I have said, I dare say you well remember the heroine of my little tale: for Justine was a great favourite of yours . . . ." See Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, ed. James Rieger (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974), 22.

11. See, for example, James Hafley, "The Villain in Wuthering Heights," Nineteenth Century Fiction, 13 (December, 1958), 199-215.

12. The idea that storytelling is often presented in fiction as a form of seduction is explored by Ross Chambers in Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984). Though he does not specifically discuss frame narratives (as such), his argument about why literary fictions, beginning with the nineteenth century, often present themselves as seductions hears some relation to framing in the broader sense of the term. He suggests that when literary texts began to undergo the process of reification, becoming specialized as art and autonomized as text, they ceased to have use value as conveyors of information and experience. To realize their own potential exchange value, Chambers argues, it became necessary for literary texts to exert powers of seduction to compensate for what they lost as direct acts of communication as they obtained their autonomy. (See esp. 11-12.) It is as though the seductiveness of the text were a result of the same process which, in Celant's argument, brought about pictorial framing. Perhaps that is one reason that frame narratives, in offering situational contexts for story-telling, often make seduction a crucial aspect of the situation.

13. When Mary Shelley set out to write her "ghost story," according to her recollections in her 1831 Introduction, she found herself drawing a discouraging blank. It is likely that she mined her memories of earlier Gothic romances for inspiration, and Lewis would have loomed large in her mind. Both Shelleys had long been admirers of The Monk, which was published in 1796, when Lewis was only slightly older than Mary Shelley as she composed Frankenstein. We know that Mary Shelley read The Monk from the evidence of her journal (see Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones [Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1947], 16, 32); and Judith Wilt has argued that the name Mathilda, which occurs in P. B. Shelley's Zastrozzi and as the title of one of Mary Shelley's stories, looks backward to Lewis's beautiful, diabolical seductress. See "Frankenstein as Mystery Play" in The Endurance of Frankenstein (cited above, note 8), 34 n.

Moreover, Lewis was practically there on the spot as she wrote, visiting Byron at the Villa Diodati soon after the friendly competition to write the grisliest ghost story had begun. While he was there he entertained Byron and Shelley by telling them his own ghost stories and tales of Gothic horror, which Shelley then wrote down in Mary Shelley's journal. But Lewis never surpassed his earlier efforts, and according to one of Mary Shelley's biographers, "[b]oth Shelley and Mary knew that her idea was far more effective than [the] insubstantial horrors" with which he regaled the circle of friends at the Villa Diodati. (See Jane Dunn, Moon in Eclipse: A Life of Mary Shelley [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978], 142.) If Mary Shelley was indeed trying consciously to surpass the famous Monk Lewis, it's not surprising that she would rewrite a scene from the novel that literally made his name.

14. Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Monk (New York: Grove Press,, 1952), 65. All subsequent page numbers refer to this edition.

15. In expressing the idea that to be a woman is to be a monster, Mary Shelley is voicing an attitude about gender deeply rooted in Western culture, an idea underscored by some of the events in her own life from the time of Frankenstein's composition. One night at the Villa Diodati, Byron read Coleridge's "Christabel" aloud. Shelley ran from the room shrieking, and did not calm down for a long time. He later told Mary that he looked at her and imagined that she had eyes instead of nipples. See Dunn, 136-37.

For another view of the way "Christabel" is inscribed in Frankenstein, see Marc A. Rubinstein, "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism, 15 (1976), 184-6. Barbara Johnson offers an intriguing reading of the {189} relation between woman and monster in "My monster/Myself," Diacritics, 12 (Summer, 1982), 212.

16. William Labov, Language in the Inner City (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1972). 366.

17. This double logic operates in all framing. For different discussions of the way it works in painting, see Celant, cited above as well as Alfonso Procaccini, "Alberti and the "Framing" of Perspective," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 40, no. 1 (Fall, 1981), 29-39. Closer to home, Shoshana Felman finds a similar logic at work in Henry James's famous novella, which, she observes, "pulls the outside of the story into its inside by enclosing what is usually outside it: its own readers. But the frame at the same time does the very opposite, pulling the inside outside . . ." ("Turning the Screw of Interpretation," Yale French Studies, 55/56 [1977], 27). The most complicated analysis of the double logic of framing occurs in Jacques Derrida's discussion of "The Parergon" in La Vérité en peinture which has been lucidly summarised by Jonathan Culler in On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), 193-99.

18. In the context of the promise, a burlesque of Frankenstein that appeared on the London stage in 1824 offers some food for thought: it was called Frank in Steam, or the Modern Promise to Pay. Unfortunately history has not favoured us with a text of this play. It is mentioned by Christopher Small in Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary and Frankenstein (London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1972), 16.

19. This wording, too, exists only in the revised version of Frankenstein. The 1818 text puts it rather differently: the master 'has scarcely an idea beyond the rope and the shroud'. (A variant reading is "beyond the ship and the crew.") See Reiger, 15.

20. Robert Meister (ed.), A Literary Guide to Seduction (New York: Stein and Day, 1963), 15-16 (my emphasis). This is frankly an offensive book, an anthology dedicated to the proposition that "it will do a maiden little good to know what to do in bed if she was not properly bedded in the first place" (Afterword, 417).

21. Shoshana Felman, The Literary Speech-Act: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983), 30. Felman, using Don Juan as the exemplary seducer, bases the rhetoric of seduction on too narrow a sample. Flipping through Meister's selections one turns up seductions that do not rely on promises. But her conclusions are suggestive all the same for many seductions. We might note that Matilda, in seducing Ambrosio in The Monk, exacts a promise from him:

"Swear, that whatever be my secret, you will not oblige me to quit the monastery till my noviciate shall expire."

"I promise it faithfully." (85)

22. Peter Brooks discusses the Monster's use of the classical rhetorical tropes in "Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts," 206-7.

23. J. L. Austin's How to Do Things With Words, ed. I. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975); see esp. Lecture II (12-24).

24. In this connection see Tzvetan Todorov's remarks about narrative according to The Arabian Nights: "Narrative equals life; absence of narrative, death. If Scheherazade finds no more tales to tell, she will be beheaded . . . imperfect narrative also equals . . . death." See "Narrative-Men" in The Poetics of Prose, Richard Howard, trans. (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), 74-75.

25. Perhaps the conflict between domesticity and narrative is most clearly articulated in Charlotte Lennox's antiromance, The Female Quixote (New York, 1970, originally published 1752), where a young woman's readiness for marriage and domestic responsibility is signalled by her renouncing the desire to hear and to tell extravagant "histories."

26. This treatment of domestic life in Frankenstein has been read persuasively as a critique of the bourgeois family, an expression of a subversive attitude that Mary Shelley absorbed as she read and reread the works of her mother. See Kate Ellis, "Monsters in the Garden," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, cited above, note 8. When we consider that Mary Shelley read these books in her favourite spot, atop her mother's grave, the subversiveness is given a twist toward the nostalgic and sentimental, and is perhaps mitigated by a longing for the stability of the conventional family that life had so far deprived her of.

27. Preface to Frankenstein, 14.