Contents Index

Narrative Distance in Frankenstein

Richard J. Dunn

Studies in the Novel, 6 (1974), 408-17

{408} As one of the first commentators on Frankenstein, Shelley claimed that his wife had written it for amusement and "as an expedient for exercising any untried resources of mind." To avoid "the enervating effects of the novels of the present day" she set her mind to oppose fiction's often superficial "exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue."1 As L. J. Swingle has recently argued, the novel uses doctrines to examine barriers between different centers of consciousness, but few other modern readers have noted how uniquely its narrative form is itself an expression of key romantic concerns.2 Several critics have complimented the subtlety of its concentric narration, "strangely wrought . . . with reality on the outside and horror at the core."3 Lowry Nelson, Jr., in a brief study of Gothic fiction, and Robert Kiely, in a recent book on the English romantic novel, have mentioned the general relationship between structure and theme that distinguishes Frankenstein from more conventional and sometimes enervating fiction. Nelson observes that the story demonstrates the "seeming impossibility of communicating deep feeling to someone who cares," and Kiely says that Mary's novel reveals her personal situation of "genius observed and admired but not shared."4 Whereas more conventional novels assumed communal sharing, both among characters ultimately linked in the resolution of domestic plots and also between narrator and reader in a harmonious fictional world, Frankenstein structurally dramatizes the failure of human community and implicitly challenges the reductive inclusiveness of more conventional fictional forms.

The ideal of community is distinctly stated but usually held at a distance in Frankenstein. At the heart of the story, motivating the Creature's desire for a mate and provoking his plea, "My virtues will neces- {409} sarily arise when I live in communion with an equal," is the domestic idyll of the DeLacey family -- material fit for a potentially enervating novel had it appeared in a different context (p. 147). Moving outward through Victor Frankenstein's narrative, we find him expressing frequent hopes for filial, fraternal, and conjugal unions. And in Walton's frame story there is reference to distant domestic harmony. At the beginning he mentions a ship captain who had remained single to permit his beloved to marry another man. Walton regards such sacrifice the act of an uneducated mind, of a man commanding little interest or sympathy (p. 21). Yet at the end of his story, when Walton contrasts his own disillusioned solitude with his sister's joy in husband and children, he becomes less scornful of domestic affections. Thus holding the ideals of the novels of manners at a distance, Frankenstein questions the attainability without attacking the concepts of domestic virtue. Rather than conclude with a conventional resolution that in a providential plot structure would have the effect of reducing complex personalities to stage presences, Frankenstein instead portrays the yearning for deep communication that the romantic imagination held necessarily antecedent to any meaningful human community.

It is difficult to determine how deeply Walton is affected by the tales he repeats, but I think his story gives him less present understanding than potential for future reflection about his experience. As frame narrator he is less complex and not so immediately involved as Conrad's Marlow, but he is not as psychologically distant from what he hears as Emily Bronte's Lockwood. Outwardly, his seeking after adventure and personal glory parallels Victor Frankenstein's more intense searchings, and the external course of his life changes after his encounters with the Doctor and the Creature. He begins with a restless ambition, determined to discover a Northwest Passage. He acknowledges some vague force at work in his soul and admits that he does not understand himself (p. 21). He seems soon to find a friend to whom he can relate and from whom he may learn the need to surrender ambition, but at no time does he claim comprehension of his own depths. Several elements in the frame story suggest that he remains an incomplete being who returns to England with the vain hope of finding sustenance in a strange story bearing a personal relevance he can convey only superficially. He remains more fascinated than deeply informed and definitely realizes the difficulty of describing his experiences. Deciding to commit his thoughts to paper, he declares the written word "a poor medium for the communication of feeling" (p. 19). He tells the sister to whom he directs his letters and journals that he has made notes about Victor's tale because he believes it will offer her "the greatest pleasure," and he hastens to add that "to me, who know him, and who {410} hear it from his own lips, with what interest and sympathy shall I read it in some future day!" (p. 31). Like both the Creature and Frankenstein, Walton seeks an audience and occasion for his narration, and like each of them he addresses himself to a person too distant to comprehend the story's full impact. As we discover the novel's repeated patterns of thwarted domestic relationships, it becomes highly ironic that these tales have been preserved ostensibly for the amusement of an English lady comfortable with husband and family.

At the outset Walton also admits that he may some day discover a meaning that lurks in his tale, for in the process of narrative recreation he is again fascinated by Victor. "Even now, as I commence my task, his full-toned voice swells in my ears; his lustrous eyes dwell on me with all their melancholy sweetness; I see his thin hand raised in animation, while the lineaments of his face are irradiated by the soul within. Strange and harrowing must be his story; frightful the story which embraced the gallant vessel on its course, and wrecked it -- thus!" (p. 31). Earlier Walton had likened himself to Coleridge's Mariner and had dreaded returning from his adventures as "worn and woeful" as had that archetypal voyager, but here at the beginning of his narrative he sounds more like the Wedding Guest who could not choose but hear the eerie tale. Even Frankenstein's "thin hand" and "lustrous eyes" recall the "skinny hand" and "glittering eye" which spellbound the Wedding Guest. Relinquishing the Mariner's position of narrative authority, Walton becomes a passive reporter, compelled by the figure he meets but ultimately more stunned than educated by his experience.

Just as Walton seeks an audience whose taste he misjudges at the conclusion of his adventures, so had he initially sought to impress Victor with his earlier history. Frankenstein, taking his partial knowledge of Walton as the basis for discouraging him from potential monomania, proceeds to narrate a story sufficiently horrible to eclipse Walton's more conventional history. To both Walton and readers yet unaware of the details of Victor's story, the Doctor's announced narrative purpose seems honorable. Walton quickly judges him as "not so utterly occupied by his own misery, but that he interests himself deeply in the projects of others" (p. 27). So far we seem embarked upon a conventional tale of moral instruction. Walton goes on to praise Frankenstein as elevated "immeasurably above any other person I ever knew" and as seeming to possess "a quick but never-failing power of judgment, a penetration into the causes of things, unequalled for clearness and precision" (p. 29). At this time there is little reason to challenge Walton's impressions, but as Frankenstein tells his story, the superficiality of Walton's judgments emerges. He is right about Frankenstein's "facility of expression" and {411} intonations that seem to provide "soul-subduing music," but the Doctor's narrative is plainly one of failed judgment and ignorance about others, however able he may be in discerning "the causes of things" (p. 29).

The early discussion Walton and Frankenstein have about the value of friendship further demonstrates Walton's inability to evaluate his strange visitor. He mentions his long yearning for "a more intimate sympathy with a fellow mind," and Frankenstein understandably agrees about the value of such relationships: "We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves -- such a friend ought to be -- do not lend his aid to perfectionate our weak and faulty natures" (p. 28). Yet the subsequent tale makes obvious Frankenstein's repeated denials of the Creature, the one friend who might have complemented his being, and here lamenting the loss of Clerval, Frankenstein totally ignores the prior claims of friendship that the Creature so forcibly argues. Ironically, the Creature proves himself wiser and better than Frankenstein, yet (perhaps because he seems but "half made up") he is the being Frankenstein cannot bring himself to hold dear. Nonetheless, to Walton the outsider, Frankenstein himself seems not only a complete but a superior man, one who appears to contain a sustaining force. Walton speculates that when his visitor "has retired into himself he will be like a celestial spirit, that has a halo around him, within whose circle no grief or folly ventures" (p. 29). Walton could not be more inaccurate. Frankenstein's story describes the progress of folly and grief from acts of ego which drove him from all normal friendships. His entire personal history alternates between moods of lettered grief when he is with others -- the final instance being his last hours on Walton's ship -- and miseries of reflection as he repeatedly finds himself unable to share in communal relationships of friendship and love.

Frankenstein is nonetheless spellbinding to Walton, whose assumptions are strongly prejudiced by the yearning for friendship. And at the outset Frankenstein professes interest in Walton by fearing that unless checked his future course may lead to misery. But his humanitarian interest diminishes as, immersed in the telling of his adventures, Frankenstein finally considers whether to urge Walton to continue pursuit of the Creature. He compromises, thinking it "selfish" to send Walton into the chase, but he does beg Walton to kill the Creature should it appear (p. 208). Although Frankenstein urges Walton to forego ambition and seek tranquility, Victor cannot bring himself to accept his host's offer of a friendship that Walton hopes might "reconcile him to life" (p. 211). Thus rejected, yet possessed by his memory of Victor's appearance and eloquence, Walton turns to the task of communicating his experience. He begins with the familiar epistolary method and the professed hope of {412} entertaining his distant sister. But as he proceeds he turns to the more private form of a journal. At the end he simply stops and weakly remarks that he may attempt oral conclusion when he gets home. Unlike the Ancient Mariner, he has no moral summation to add as the story terminates with fragmenting abruptness. In his actions Walton is admittedly less self-centered. He heeds his crew's desires to return to England, and he displays intuitive sympathy for the Creature who appears to mourn Frankenstein's death. Nonetheless, like the Wedding Guest, he remains largely "of sense forlorn" and essentially alone. He makes no final mention that he has either comprehended or is even yet puzzled by active forces within his soul. He hastens back to the world where his sister has been sheltered, but he has nothing to say of what he expects to do there. The strongest impression of terminal solitude comes through an aside in which he contrasts his desolation with the happiness his sister enjoys with her husband and lovely children (p. 213). And in his final mention of himself, Walton asserts that while "wafted toward England" and his sister he "will not despond" (p. 215). But he cannot posit the specific hope of a tranquil domestic state, and for all we know the home toward which he points may be as desolate as the waste into which the Creature plunges. Fittingly, because Walton is the principal narrator of a story designed to combat "exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection" as ordinarily portrayed in fiction, he terminates abruptly without finding haven within the arms of a loved one.

Walton's abortive effort to entertain his sister, his inability to probe his own consciousness, and his failure to communicate deeply with Frankenstein should alert readers to his value as a distancing narrator. Unlike Conrad's Marlow, who often raises epistemological issues about his distance from his subjects, Walton never becomes ponderous to the point of obstructing his tales. Nor, on the other hand, does he fall into such self-defensive summations as Nelly Dean often supplies in her narration of Wuthering Heights. For the reader willing to share Walton's vague fascination with Frankenstein, his narrative function is well executed, for the increasing emotional intensity, unaccompanied by a narrator's potentially digressive self-discoveries, implies an intuitive sympathy of narrator with material. Certainly the lack of extensive reflective commentary by Walton adds forcefulness to the Doctor's and Creature's stories. The lack of conclusiveness of Walton's tale may even suggest the inherent failure of language that Robert Kiely mentions as romantic action's "sign not of vacuity or of imaginative limitation, but of the singular immeasurable nature of great experience."5

Although vague, Walton's experience is one of increasing sympathy for others, but the tale Dr. Frankenstein narrates is one of consumptive {413} egoism. He has sought various unions with others -- Creature, family, friend, and wife -- but has persistently placed egoistic restrictions upon these relationships. He expects his Creature to bless him; "many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me," he presumes when he gives the Creature life (p. 54). But he is so repulsed by the physical appearance of his creation that he seeks to sever all connections with him and eventually denies him the right to kinship even with fellow monsters. Understandably the Creature then becomes a threat to Frankenstein, for denied a mate, he turns upon his creator with the intention of frustrating the Doctor's further efforts to establish normal ties of love and friendship.

Frankenstein's narration contains numerous rationalizations for his pursuit of normal human relationships after having once withdrawn from communal life to pursue "secrets of heaven and earth" (p. 37). So long as the Creature maintains even vicarious connections with others he does not bother Victor, who in the meantime attempts to return to society from the isolation of laboratory and charnel house. The Doctor tries to forget his past, and later when the Creature has begun to assert his hideous claims, the need for forgetfulness increases. Stating his reasons for defying the Creature and proceeding with the forbidden marriage, Frankenstein speaks of the delusion of "calm forgetfulness" while the Creature is intent upon destroying all that Doctor Frankenstein holds dear. What the Doctor, in the enormity of his ego, does not realize is that the Creature is asserting a claim for sympathy that must precede individual happiness. Ultimately the Creature leads him on a treadmill chase, taunting him, even sustaining him to increase the pleasure of pursuit. This tense union of pursued and pursuer ends only with Victor's human exhaustion. Union of brothers, of friends, of man and wife thus yields to the Creature's claim of the ties between himself and Frankenstein. Seeking a superhuman relationship, then choosing from physical repulsion to deny his Creature human sympathy, the Doctor suffers the loss of all human relationships.

Frankenstein, as Walton was quick to observe, is a fascinatingly articulate narrator, but he, too, lacks reflective powers. He tells about his past and what he has heard from the Creature, but try as he might, he remains grossly ignorant of the Creature's plight. From the eleventh through sixteenth chapters he repeats to Walton the long story the Creature told him in the remote Montanvert hut. The Creature presents a capsule tale of anthropological socialization that Frankenstein can hardly be expected to comprehend, because just as Walton's experience had differed in intensity from Frankenstein's, so does Victor's history differ in kind from the Creature's. Frankenstein's is a tale warning {414} against excesses of personal ambition while revealing the horrors of inordinate longings for power. And Walton's less detailed, more literal account of himself presents more superficial concerns for the perils of solitary adventure. In short, both he and Frankenstein grew anticommunal in their quests, but the Creature's is a quest for the solidarity of human community. He does not yearn for personally glorifying exploration but for socialization, and he idealistically reaches for a direct and simplified relationship with his neighbors, the peasants whose "virtue and good feelings . . . and amiable qualities" he admires (p. 112). As he watches these DeLaceys, he begins to form a sentimental attachment to them but to his sad amazement soon finds their idyllic life an exception in their age. Hearing their history of oppression, he learns "the strange system of human society" is based not upon such placid sympathies as this family's but upon "division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood" (p. 120). Nonetheless, he tries to establish a friendship with these exceptional people and is heartlessly repulsed because, as was Frankenstein, they are repulsed by his appearance. To the reader alerted by the prefatory admonition against novels exhibiting domestic ideals, this encounter of the Creature with the DeLaceys comes as a hideous parody of sentimental fiction's blissful domestic scenes. At the very heart of Frankenstein, in the tale told by the one narrator who attempts to reach inward and connect himself intimately with the story he tells, we have the motivating repulsion that produces the book's most terrifying events.

There are two immediate effects of the Creature's encounter with the DeLaceys. He develops self-contempt and curses his creator for producing a form "more horrid even from the very resemblance" it bears humankind (p. 130). Also the experience reinforces his desire for community, the fellowship of another monster if not of humans: "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. My companion must be of the same species, and have the same defects" (p. 144).

The novel's seventeenth chapter concerns Frankenstein's reactions to this plea and particularly points up the separation between him and the tale he has just heard from the Creature. He is at first touched by the arguments that the Creature will find happiness and virtue in communion with an equal. But he continues to be disgusted by the Creature's appearance and regards manufacture of a mate a "most abhorred task." In one of his most elaborate rationalizations, he claims to undertake his grim labors ostensibly to save his family from reprisals, but the personal pronouns of his language betray a more personal concern. "I felt as if I were {415} placed under a ban -- as if I had no right to claim their sympathies -- as if never more might I enjoy companionship with them. Yet even thus I loved them to adoration; and to save them, I resolved to dedicate myself to my most abhorred task" (p. 149). Thus in the name of preserving a humanity that he might enjoy, Frankenstein momentarily agrees to serve the Creature by providing him with a separate community. Were Frankenstein to succeed in this, the novel might well conclude with a conventional fictional insurance of continuing domestic felicity among ordinary mortals only slightly encumbered by their awareness of a growing nation of monsters elsewhere. But Frankenstein reconsiders his obligations to posterity and curiously forgets that he had begun the second monster for the purpose of saving his beloved contemporaries. He destroys the partially formed female and vows never to resume his labors. The contradiction of motives is open to many interpretations, but surely Frankenstein, bound ever by ego, pays only lip service in both instances to the claims of other people. Heedlessly, he defies the Creature's further threats and impulsively commits himself to the marriage against which he had been warned. It may be that this second creative effort became repulsive because Victor undertook it for radically different reasons from those for the initial experiment. He made the first Monster with the hope of rounding a new species that would glorify him; it was an effort of pure ego. But in the second instance, he undertook what he considered a commissioned work, acting, if not under the direction of a vengeful Monster, under the notion of a social obligation. The first work brought joyful expectation of pouring "a torrent of light into our dark world," but the decision to destroy the second experiment comes on a night when "as the moon was just rising from the sea" Frankenstein lacks sufficient light to see beyond the leering Creature at his window (pp. 165-66).

The latter sections of Frankenstein's narrative chronicle the increasing irrationality that culminates in madness. Aware that he has incurred the Creature's curse, he returns to civilization with the comment, "how strange is that clinging love we have of life even in the excess of misery!" (p. 172). And later, finding his bride murdered, he remarks that "life is obstinate, and clings closest where it is most hated" (p. 195). He has by this time tried again to forget the deaths of his friend, Clerval, and his wife. The life he finds obstinate is solipsistic and noncommunicable. It is noncreative and quite removed from even the semblance of communal life toward which he had first responded in his decision to begin a second Creature.

All that is left Frankenstein is the frustration of the chase, which, serving as the emblem of his relationship with the Creature, becomes a mockery of communicative union. Monstrous in his own revenge, Frank- {416} enstein finds himself the object of a curious, Creature-was-here game. The "scoffing devil" leads him on, taunting but also expressing a need for the chase to continue indefinitely. "One inscription that he left was in these words: 'Prepare! your toils only begin: wrap yourself in furs, and provide food; for we shall soon enter upon a journey where your sufferings will satisfy my everlasting hatred'" (p. 205). This final chase incorporates the pains of human relationships that earlier events and narrative structure in Frankenstein reflect. Love and hate, self-preservation and self-destruction, community and solipsism are tensely bound. The chase across the waste, terminating with the grieving Creature's admitted need for Frankenstein, comes as the story's one spontaneous expression of the self-abnegation antecedent to human community. But in the context of Walton's own inconclusiveness, the Creature remains more desperate than purposeful, more suicidal than sacrificial. In anguish, Frankenstein's Creature cries out that even his worst deeds were motivated by desire for love and friendship, but now he can find no object either to love or to hate. He has nothing to do with Walton, whom he simply dismisses as "the last of humankind whom these eyes will ever behold," and after a lengthy monologue, culminating with his expressed desire to exult "in the agony of the torturing flames" of his funeral pyre, exits to become "lost in darkness and distance" (p. 223).

It may appear I have ignored the possibility that the Doctor's and Creature's narratives are but projections of Walton's subconscious that is tentatively repressed by the death of one of the interior narrators and the promised death of the other. But however interpreted, the distinct separation of narratives and the emphasis by both the Doctor and the Creature upon the need for various social relationships suggests that Frankenstein is concerned with a fragmenting society in which communication remains incomplete. Just as truly communicative union is difficult to attain in many of the novel's narrated incidents, so is it ultimately lacking among the three narrators. Walton indeed needs a friend. Victor needs siblings, parents, friends, and a wife. Preempting these claims, the Creature quite literally needs someone to talk to, but the only dialectic he establishes is one of conflict. Clearly, effective communication is pre-requisite to any human community. While one narrative of Frankenstein verbally includes another with increasing completeness of detail, there is very little reflective commentary by any of the narrators, and there are many instances of the narrators' misunderstanding one another. At the conclusion of the Creature's mountaintop meeting with Frankenstein, the Doctor confesses confusion and says, "even in my own heart I could give no expression to my sensations" (p. 149). Thenceforth his narrative is one of reaction to, not reflection upon, the Creature's acts. {417} And although Walton looks to the Doctor as a potential friend who may sympathize with him, Frankenstein regards him primarily as a host to whom he may direct a generally instructive tale.

Thus, while repeating one another's stories, which all focus on the need for human interrelationship, the narrators of Frankenstein remain half-strangers to one another. Walton admits a sympathy for both the Doctor and the Creature; the Creature finally declares the love he bears the Doctor, but at no juncture is there the communicative interchange that could sustain friendship and provide a basis for an optimistic social commentary. It may be argued that Mary Shelley was mainly interested in conveying the essence of a nightmare vision as forcefully and dramatically as possible and had no interest in developing the sense of ironic distance among her narrators. But whether the result of clumsiness or the product of design, these distances combine with the thematic issues to suggest a definite separation between intense personal experience and incommunicable narrative recollection that does much to challenge potentially enervating effects of more perfectly integrated stories.


1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 13-14. Subsequent parenthetical citation is to this edition.

2. L. J. Swingle, "Frankenstein's Monster and Its Romantic Relatives: Problems of Knowledge in English Romanticism," Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 15 (Spring 1973), 51-65.

3. Elizabeth Nitchie, Mary Shelley: Author of FRANKENSTEIN (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1953), p. 183.

4. Lowry Nelson, Jr., "Night Thoughts on the Gothic Novel," Yale Review, 53 (Winter 1963), 243; Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 167.

5. Kiely, p. 158.