Contents Index

The Letters of Frankenstein

Mary A. Favret

Genre, 20 (Spring 1987), 3-24

I knew my silence disquieted them, and I well remembered the words of my father: "I know that while you are pleased with yourself you will think of us with affection, and we shall hear regularly from you. You must pardon me if I regard any interruption in your correspondence as a proof that your other duties are equally neglected."
Victor Frankenstein, in Frankenstein (50)

Correspondence: . . . 1. The action or fact of corresponding, or answering to each other in fitness or mutual adaptation; congruity, harmony, agreement. 2. Relation of agreement, similarity, or analogy. 3. Concordant or sympathetic response. 4. Relation between persons or communities . . . 5. Intercourse, communication (between persons). 6. Intercourse or communication by letters.

Oxford English Dictionary, 1971
{3} In an age when letters were a primary form of social and political discourse, the structure of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein seems not altogether revolutionary. That Mary Shelley chose to frame her first novel with letters from an arctic adventurer, Robert Walton, to his England-rooted sister, Margaret Saville, seems consistent with literary trends in a society anxious for connections and continuity, for human correspondence in an age of instability and incertitude. By the end of the eighteenth century, the epistolary form had gained a legitimate identity. The letter in literature had become conventional -- almost conservative -- and eminently appropriate for a young woman writing.1 Letters, as Victor Frankenstein's Genevois father hints, were elements of a Rousseauian social contract; they were proof of civilization. In Frankenstein, however, the conventional letter fails: Victor never writes his family, Walton's missive never ends, and something monstrous escapes. The novel rips open the envelope of form, so to speak, and its letters produce something illegitimate, without formal identity. At the same time, this novel performs what the now stagnant epistolary form once {4} promised. Frankenstein invites us to maintain correspondence even as it forces us to accept deformity, to dismiss authority, and to listen to the voices of destruction. Ultimately it asks us to understand what Mikhail Bakhtin has called the "dialogic discourse of the novel."

With her first novel, Mary Shelley transfers the explicit form of correspondence into the inner dynamic of the novel itself. The idea of correspondence -- the movement of letters -- "in-forms" the work. At issue in this novel is "the communication of life," as Shelley indicates in her Introduction: Victor Frankenstein's method of "communicating life" [Introduction 10] will oppose, but finally cede to that of the novelist. Unlike its protagonist, and unlike the great epistolary novels which precede it, -- such as Pamela, Clarissa, Werther, Julie or Evelina -- Frankenstein is not involved in communicating a life per se, the history or "progress" of a single individual. This novel works to show the limits of that individuality and to replace the individual voice with a network of voices. The principle of life is not individual, nor does it proceed in a straight line. Rather, life becomes, in the novelist's hands, a production of multiple correspondences, always over-lapping, revealing connections, moving backward and forward in time: as do letters. In spite of its title, Frankenstein refuses to be solely Victor Frankenstein's story. The novel has a new task, which requires combination and confusion of identity. Like Frankenstein's monster, the novel is a representation of human life which exceeds the dimensions of any one individual. "Of component parts animated" [Introduction 9] it communicates life with a variety of voices. These voices may threaten destruction of all formal relations, but only if we refuse to listen for them.

We see the move from individual to multiple, competing voices in the structure of Frankenstein. The conventional letter form dissolves in this novel. Walton keeps writing, as he moves from letters to a letter journal. But Victor Frankenstein intrudes and Walton's journal becomes confessional autobiography. When the monster subsequently invades his master's narrative, civilized and formal authority gives way to the illegitimate and the violently novel. Finally, when Walton resumes his letters, he abandons the formalities of dating and address; we read no proper valediction or closing signature as the book ends. The letter surrenders its defining role.

The voice that resonates at the end of Frankenstein is a novel voice, a disruptive, unsettling, bastard monster. Throughout the intricately structured narrative, a wide-ranging revision of literary form takes place. {5} Formal correspondence relies on prepared packages of isolated experience and expression, which define the boundaries of each character in a group of correspondents. In Frankenstein, when Victor and the monster enter, echoes and repetitions, parallel stories and mirror images obscure the boundaries of individualism. Communication in Frankenstein -- verbal communication as well as the generative "communication of life" itself -- has been deformed.

The epistolary novel could not contain that deformity figured in the monster, or in Walton's fractured letter. Yet, at the very edge of civilization, on the brink of dissolution, both the novel and the monster beg for a response. If we examine the structures of this novel -- its narratives, languages, even its geography -- we will find that the function of the letter, if not its form, remains essential to the function of the novel.

The Author, Victor and Narrative Authority

If we look at the narrative structure of Frankenstein, questions of narrative authority immediately confront us. The text itself tangles the story line, and questions of valid authorship emerge even before the reader can articulate them.3 Because of the triple narrative (Walton's, Victor's, the monster's) and an elaborate series of parallel personalities and events, we wonder whose story we are hearing, after all. Is the monster's tale only a demonic projection of Frankenstein's tormented psyche? Is Frankenstein only a bizarre secret sharer concocted by a lonely seafarer, wandering on the outer limits of sanity? Is the whole story only a drama of Mary Shelley's adolescent mind, the dream-work fabricated by a troubled girl? The text offers no clear answer.

The author anticipates our questions. She writes her introduction in order to "give a general answer to the question so very frequently asked me -- how I, then a young girl, came to think of, and dilate upon so very hideous an idea" [Introduction 1]. She begins to defend herself: "It is not singular . . ." (222). Yet she insists it is her own work: "I certainly did not owe one train of feeling to my husband" (229). Notwithstanding this assertion, Mary Shelley traces the conception of her "progeny" [Introduction 12] to one summer's exchange of ghost stories, to a group contest, and to a conversation {5} between Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, "to which I was a devout, but nearly silent listener" (227). The responsibility for the singularity is shared. Without her husband's "incitement" [Introduction 12] Frankenstein "would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world . . . Its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation when I was not alone" (229). If we ask to whom the story of Frankenstein belongs, we get a very "general answer" [Introduction 1] indeed, filled with family relationships, literary links, and overheard conversations. This novel is the offspring of correspondence. As the stories within stories overlap, we agree that it "is not singular," at all; and its lack of singularity makes it monstrous.

We must begin to read Frankenstein more as a well-wrought "baggy monster" of correspondences, and less as a singular, alien phenomenon. If we read it as an interactive combination of tales, rather than one linear narrative, we can refrain from casting the novelist into the narrow role of a "young girl" with "so very hideous an idea." Frankenstein is Mary Shelley's novel; it is no more her story than Walton's, Victor's or the monster's. Within the text, the various narrators slide from their own stories into the histories of others, and with each movement, we are asked to extend our "willing suspension of disbelief." As the novel multiplies its story-tellers and listeners, it renews the problem of narrative authority. Whose story do we believe? -- the novel defuses such a question. The fantastic nature of the stories preclude rational explanation or judgment, and we do not, finally, ask for reasonable proof. Rather, the listener must establish a sort of correspondence among the various narrators, a "relation of agreement, similarity or analogy" which will support a sort of "blind faith" in the tale -- an unreasonable, but perhaps inescapable demand.

Victor Frankenstein, scientist and story-teller, traps himself within the conflicting demands of certified authority and negotiated correspondence. To introduce his own hideous tale, he must appeal to some sort of relationship with Walton. He relies upon his listener's parallel circumstances to render the unnatural believable:

". . . when I reflect that you are pursuing the same cause, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral from my tale . . . Were we among the tamer scenes of nature, I might fear to encounter your unbelief, perhaps your ridicule; but many things will appear possible in these wild and mysterious regions . . ." (232)
{7} Even as he calls upon Walton's sympathetic and imaginative response, however, Frankenstein reveals that he does not fully trust this response. The scientist reinforces his narrative with a gesture toward verifiable "truth":
". . . nor can I doubt but that my tale conveys in its series internal evidence of the truth of which it is composed." (233, my emphasis)
Victor Frankenstein wants to establish, irrefutably, his authority in the text. He diverts his listener away from the intrinsic parallelism of the tales -- "the relation of agreement, similarity or analogy" between them. Instead, he invites the reader to follow the "series" of his tale to its "internal evidence of the truth." We can follow this single narrative line, or series, but as we track the story inward to its heart, we enter the monster's narrative. There we discover no originating truth, no guarantee. A seemingly infinite series extends back into more tales as the monster invokes Goethe, Milton, and Plutarch. Indeed, authority for the narrative seems lost, receding further and further from sight, into the impenetrable caverns of the Alps, or "toward the very heart of non-meaning, toward the lifeless pole" (Brooks 214). The scientist has no evidence; Victor's narrative line leads to no original, "internal" authority. It leads to the monster.

But to end there at "the very heart of non-meaning" requires that our reading follow Victor's criteria for authority, that we accept his "line" and repudiate the monster. Peter Brooks, for example, denounces the "truth" conveyed by Frankenstein as monstrosity itself, or language as "monstrous." He reads the stories within stories as an infinite regress, as the "metonymic sliding" of the monster's "miserable series of being" (218). According to this Barthesian analysis, Frankenstein demonstrates a one-way movement in language, accompanied by inescapable contamination.

There is no transcendent signified because the fact of monsterism is never either justified or overcome, but it is simply passed along the chain, finally come to inhabit the reader himself who, as animator of the text, is left with the contamination of monsterism . . . the text remains as indelible record of the monstrous, emblem of language's murderous lack of transcendent reference. (Brooks 220)
But I think we ignore the essential, informing structure of Mary Shelley's novel if we accept this one-way, fatal movement in language, if we shudder at our inability to "justify" or "overcome" the novel. If we {8} fail to read the correspondences between the stories, the two- and three-way dialogue of the text itself, we fail to see the epistolary dynamic of the novel. A reader can follow the successive narratives along a temporal chain, a series of being, that leads, ultimately, to death and loss. Such a reading would only replicate Frankenstein's own fatalistic quest: ". . . nothing can alter my destiny; listen to my history and you will perceive how irrevocably it is determined" [Letter 4.9]. Brooks' interpretation traps itself into a sequential determinism that the structure of the novel denies. The movement of Frankenstein is not one-way, but back and forth between over-lapping stories, one always revising or translating the others. Temporal sequence throws itself into the kaleidoscope of mirroring narratives, until the three major tales seem to stand side by side. They present themselves not as successors to one another, but as three versions of the same tale, one commenting upon and responding to the other two. It is a technique which recurs in various guises in the nineteenth-century novel: in the historical novels of Walter Scott, in the intricate plots of Dickens' masterpieces, in George Eliot's Middlemarch and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.

Frankenstein is not, then, an example of fiction and subsequent repetition, with an Ancient Mariner contaminating the joys of a youthful Wedding Guest. In Frankenstein, the listener does not just walk away sadder and wiser: he responds, he translates, he adds his own story.4 Mutual authority extends over a common field of reference, overwhelming any one-way reading. Brooks is forced to contradict himself by describing the one-dimensional signifying chain as a "system . . . in which everything is mutually interrelated and interdependent" (Brooks 220). He wants to stratify the connections into a temporal sequence rather than accept the multidimensional structure of the text.

Readers like Brooks may have been seduced by Frankenstein's "entitled" voice, that of the scientist who tells a story. His narrative method subtly copies his scientific method, a step by step examination designed to discover "the cause of generation and life," within "the structure of the human frame" (46-47). Just as the "internal evidence" of the storyteller points to the lost end of an infinite series, so does the "cause" sought by the scientist lead to obsessive, incessant research:

None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder . . . and I, who continually sought the {9} attainment of one object of pursuit, and was solely wrapt up in this, improved . . . rapidly. (45-46)
"The more fully I entered into the science, the more exclusively I pursued it for its own sake" [1.3.1] Victor tells Walton: we wonder if he has made a "scientific pursuit" of story-telling. In any case, the product of his research, the creature of the novel, ends Victor's story by parodically satisfying Victor's scientific ideal: the pursuit of this "one object" never ends. During the bizarre chase scene at the Arctic, the monster will not allow Victor to cease his singular pursuit; the monster provides "continual food for discovery and wonder," continual food to nourish his creator. This ironic literalization of Frankenstein's method reveals the futility of that method. It reveals the story-teller's lack of control over his story line as well as the scientist's lack of control over the object of his research. The "internal evidence" betrays Victor, because it always moves beyond him.

The deformed nature of the novel also moves beyond the obsession of its main protagonist. Victor's narrative authority depends upon a secret he refuses to communicate, that is, the "cause of generation and life." As long as the secret remains secret and in his possession, Victor can dictate to his listener: "[Y]ou expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be; listen patiently to the end of my story," he warns Walton (52). Victor's story has authority and significance because, he assures us, only he is "capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter." But the scientist's boast betrays him as a mere storyteller -- one among many -- creating stories, animating lifeless matter, with no verifiable authority. The creature he animates has no single origin; it is a composite being: a fiction. The patchwork monster with its visible seams and borrowed language subverts Victor's secret by exhibiting "the fictional history of its own production."5 No wonder Victor begs Walton not to listen to the monster's voice, not to respond to an alternative version: "He is eloquent and persuasive . . . , but trust him not . . . hear him not!" (198-199). Victor must insist that only one, secret truth exists in life -- and he alone holds it.

Call it "truth," "internal evidence," or "the cause of generation and life," the form of the novel refutes it, and the action of the novel condemns it. If we patiently follow Frankenstein's tale for "evidence" of some prima causa, we place our faith in a seductive, but impotent authority. Though he claims the power to create life unassisted, ultimately Frankenstein creates nothing new: his method is seductive, not {10} productive. Persuasive and adept, Victor narrates with all the markings of what Julia Kristeva calls "rhetorical discourse:"

The rhetorician [as opposed to the stylist] does not invent a language; fascinated by the symbolic function of paternal discourse, he seduces it . . . he "leads it astray" . . . but not to the point of leaving cover.6
The secret, with its claims to authority and its denial of correspondence, destroys life as effectively as the monster. Frankenstein betrays his own intentions, not only as a narrator, but as a member of a family and community. What truly horrifies Victor is the possibility that his story is not singular and exclusive, that it depends upon -- indeed relates to -- other stories. The idea of interdependence, -- of life communicated through physical human intercourse or through heterogeneous verbal exchange -- such an idea appears monstrous and threatening to Victor Frankenstein. By withholding his own voice in order to protect his secret, Frankenstein -- not the monster -- brings about Justine's death. Similar betrayal awaits Victor's fiancée. In the one letter Victor does send, he still resists open communication: he brandishes his secret to ward off human connection. To his fiancée he writes,
"I have one secret, Elizabeth, a dreadful one: when revealed to you, it will chill your frame with horror, . . . I will confide this tale of misery and terror to you the day after our marriage takes place, for, my sweet cousin, there must be perfect confidence between us. But until then, I conjure you, do not mention or allude to it." (187)
The secret -- the myth of paternal power, of exclusive, vital authority -- becomes Victor's weapon against his greatest fear: human intercourse. For him, intercourse is one more type of correspondence, explosive with creative potential, but "dreadful," "horrible," terrifying. The secret stands between his authorial status -- as sole parent of "a new species [that] would bless me as its creator and source" [1.3.6] -- and the confession that his Word, his story, has no meaning or life without human connection. The secret cuts like a knife: Elizabeth's and Justine's deaths demonstrate that as long as the mystery remains veiled and unshared, the singular story will end in death.

Walton, Letters and Correspondence

As we have seen, the novel's narrative structure, as much as the events {11} of the novel, upsets Victor's logic. Monstrous intrusions tangle the narrative line and challenge the terms of authority Victor seeks to establish. We are given more evidence than the scientist is willing to accept. Other story-tellers find other listeners, propose different terms, and follow different methods in this novel. Robert Walton, for example, is not held bound to Victor's word forever. Walton does hear the monster's version, and his sister, the recipient of the letters, hears his version of both Frankenstein's and the monster's versions. As Mary Poovey notes, "Walton's epistolary journal literally contains and mediates the voices of the other two narrators, and so he may be said to have the last -- if not the definitive -- word" (131). Truly Walton's voice mediates, but it is in turn mediated by an awareness of his audience: he speaks a language to which his sister will respond; it is shaped by experiences and feelings they both have shared. His voice is guided by the connections which bind them.

Like Victor, Walton must appeal to some relationship or correspondence in order to alleviate his reader's doubts: "Do you understand this feeling?" he asks at the outset (19). He offers the possibility of shared experience to substantiate his own -- and Frankenstein's -- words: "Will you smile at the enthusiasm I express concerning this divine wanderer? You would not if you saw him" (232). Unlike Victor, however, the letter-writer proffers no hope of verifying evidence. Walton simply trusts that his sister's reaction will correspond with his own. At the other end of the correspondence, Walton's sister -- and reader -- posit a sort of blind faith in the letter, believing without seeing and asking for no proof. Letters always call out for this blind faith, yet even when Walton's letters dissolve the appeal remains. When the monster tells his tale to the blind man, DeLacey; and when he covers Victor's eyes to ensure that Victor will listen, we spot the vestiges of epistolary technique in this novel. Understanding shifts from the realm of visual evidence to that of aural sympathy. From the "blind faith" and distance required by the letter form emerges the possibility of a language that mediates difference and communicates life.

The particular correspondence between Walton and his sister exemplifies the process of communication which lies at the heart of Julia Kristeva's essay, "De L'Un L'Autre" (translated as "From One Identity to an Other"). Two divergent discourses, according to Kristeva, can "maintain a presence within the discourse of the other" (134). The sister, the silent but omnipresent Other, performs a function as vital as that of {12} the brother, the speaking subject or "ego-cogito."7 We have no idea who of this pair came first: although he seems to initiate the correspondence, she is already situated before the letter. The novel begins, "To Mrs. Saville, England" [Letter 1.1]: already the brother's directive unlocks the sister's presence within the text. This interlocutory relationship, maintained by Walton's words and Margaret Saville's position beyond his words, corresponds well to Kristeva's description of the symbolic and the semiotic in language.8 As the signifying function travels from one identity to the other -- the writer appealing, the reader responding -- the authority of origins, systems, identities disappears. To which party does a letter belong? Kristeva's model of the novel depends upon just such an identity in flux: like letter-writing, the novel places its faith not in a definite presence, but in perpetual movement; on relative -- not absolute -- understanding: "Do you understand this feeling?" Novelistic discourse depends upon an audience reading -- and listening -- between, within, and beyond the lines.

Walton's signature does not close his letters, it does not close the novel. Instead, the novel takes up the epistolary movement. Frankenstein works not to place significance in the tales themselves, but to "maintain a presence" of each within the others. "The internal evidence of the truth" moves in the letters that pass between parties. Accordingly, the monster substantiates his narrative with the letters of Felix and Safie. Written from one culture to another, translated from the language of the East to the language of the West, and copied again by the monster, the lover's letters "will prove the truth of my tale" (119). These criss-crossed love letters, taken from the heart of the novel, do survive, but not the laboratory journal of Frankenstein's experiment. "That series of disgusting circumstances," as the monster dubs the journal, has been abandoned [2.7.4].9 Walton likewise chooses the letters over his friend's tale to anchor his own belief:

His [Victor's] tale is connected and told with an appearance of the simplest truth, yet I own to you that the letters of Felix and Safie, which he showed me, and the apparition of the monster seen from our ship, brought me to a greater conviction of his narrative than his asserverations, however earnest and connected. (207)
We, the readers, of course, never see these love letters, just as we never really "see" the monster; we only hear of them, and trust in their existence. Both the novel and the narrator urge us to read not linearly, {13} not for the "simplest truth" of a connected sequence; but rather to read through correspondence, to look beyond the composition and respond with blind faith.

The importance given to letters travels from the external frame to the inmost lesson of living language. The translation or exchange of languages in dialogue guarantees the life of the utterance; not necessarily in its original form of expression, but in its multiple possibilities. Frankenstein explodes not just with the complicity of language which Victor fears, but also with the prolific power of discourse. To speak in a novel, and to speak especially in this novel, is to speak in context; every utterance establishes a new language as it refracts existing languages. We have the neat model of Safie's and Felix's cross-cultural exchange. But we also have the monster's challenge. The reassuring love letters fall into the hands of a deformed and destructive monster, just as the epistolary novel itself surrendered to the Jacobin novel, the gothic novel and the historical novel of the late eighteenth, and early-nineteenth centuries. Like the "hideous progeny" [Introduction 12] the creature with no sister or lover, the bastard novel confronts us with a form which challenges the very possibility of relation, intercourse or correspondence. The creature's voice, however, insists on relating: "Listen to my tale . . . listen to me. . . . Hear my tale . . ." (98). The visible evidence of the monster -- his deformed, threatening form -- gives way to the emerging voices of his context.

I want to stress the novelistic traits of Shelley's monster. His narrative shifts from his story to the DeLaceys' and back, disturbing any single, narrative line. His story, like his body, moves constantly, delving into one text after another, just as he himself pops in and out of Victor's dwellings. He reaches into these texts and dwellings not to steal or even defile authority, but rather to search for analogues, correspondents in language, human intercourse. His voice intrudes and interrupts, but it also sets off echoes within and without the novel: Milton, Goethe, Plutarch, Byron, both Shelleys, as well as Victor himself, the DeLaceys, Satan, Adam, Eve. The monster's voice speaks relationship with every listener: the voices which echo in our voices speak in the monster's -- we hear our world in him. In this sense, the monster demands a level of correspondence beyond Walton's. Less secure than Walton's letters (to his closest relative), less stabilized (to a married sister, with a family, in a home, in England), less formalized (in an envelope, in letter form, dated and signed), the novel voice nonetheless finds an audience. The monster {14} abandons all hope for a formal mate and turns against all structure. Yet despite his destruction of form, his challenges to authority, his rage and his violence -- and, perhaps, because of them -- his voice resonates through all the layers of verbal exchange in Frankenstein.

The Novelist's Language and the Landscape of the Novel

The monster's story does not exclude the story of his maker, nor does Walton's tale displace the other two. Rather, the voices intersect with each other, creating new utterances from their juxtapositions. We can picture the novel, therefore, as a common plane upon which many stories, many languages intersect, regardless of internal contradiction. In his essay, "Discourse in the Novel," Mikhail Bakhtin explains this distinctive "heteroglossia" of the novel:
. . . All languages of heteroglossia, whatever the principle underlying them and making each unique, are specific points of view on the world, forms for conceptualizing the world in words, specific world views, each characterized by its own objects, meanings and values. As such they all may be juxtaposed to each one another, contradict one another, and be interrelated dialogically. As such they encounter one another and coexist in the consciousness of real people -- first and foremost in the creative consciousness of people who write novels. (Bakhtin 292)
Bakhtin's characterization of novelistic discourse corresponds to the composition of Frankenstein. The authorial voice sounds as one among many, without intrinsic authority or precedence:
Authorial speech, the speech of narrators, inherited genres, the speech of characters are merely those fundamental compositional unities with whose help heteroglossia enters the novel; each of them permits a multiplicity of social voices and a wide variety of their links and interrelationships (always more or less dialogized). (Bakhtin 263)
Similarly, authorial intent retreats into a proliferation of intentions. What we read is not Mary Shelley's submerged polemic against an array of repressive figures (father, mother, husband, self), but an on-going dialogue between many voices, many languages; an encounter of all prior forms on a common plane.
The author is not to be found in the language of the narrator, not in the normal literary language to which the story opposes itself (although a given {15} story may be closer to a given language) -- but rather, the author utilizes now one language, now another, in order to avoid giving himself up wholly to either of them; he makes use of this verbal give-and-take, this dialogue of languages at every point of his work, in order that he himself might remain, as it were, neutral with regard to language, a third party in a quarrel between two people (although he might be a biased third party). (Bakhtin 314)
Bakhtin's description reminds us of Mary Shelley's introduction to Frankenstein, wherein the author presents herself as a third party attendant upon the conversations between two literary figures. Lord Byron's and Percy Shelley's discussion, "to which I was a devout, but nearly silent listener" (my emphasis) [Introduction 9], questioned the very purpose of novelistic discourse: "The nature of life and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated" (again, my emphasis) [Introduction 9]. The discovery belongs to Victor Frankenstein: "I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life," Victor tells Walton; and he boasts: "nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter" (51). Discovery is one step, animation another; but neither guarantees the widespread communication of life. He may talk as much as he likes, but Victor, unlike Mary Shelley, entertains no conversation. The nature of Victor's discovery ironically disproves his method, as we have seen; the discourse of the novel communicates a sense of life which does inform the listener.

The novelist, listening to the conversation between poets, communicates her own mode of literary discourse. Not by spontaneous generation "would life be given" [Introduction 9] to her creation. Rather, the remains of earlier forms "would be re-animated," -- perhaps, in a novel; "perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth" (Author's Introduction 227). The novelist makes use of what Bakhtin calls the "verbal give-and-take" of the poets, but she also allows their dialogue to comment upon her novel, as well as Frankenstein's activities. The novel's component parts refract each other, become "dialogized," as we watch the poet's dialogue refract the author's intentions and her strategies refract the scientist's efforts.

So we find the author placing herself at a remove from the languages of the novel, yet implicated in them. Like Margaret Walton Saville, a "nearly silent" reader, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley speaks through, but not in language. The continual refraction of authorial intent frees her from a unitary and single language. It also frees her from a single literary {16} tradition. Evidence of many literary languages exists within the text: the epistolary, the journalistic, the lyric (93-94), the sentimental, and the epic are only the most explicit. A study by Lee Sterrenburg locates in Frankenstein the language and rhetoric of popular discourse as well: the radical-conservative debate over Godwin's Utopianism, carried on in the journals of the day; contemporary writings on the Revolution in France, especially Burke's Reflections and Wollstonecraft's reply, as well as the psychological confession-biography popular at the time -- used by George Walker, Hannah More and William Godwin. Sterrenburg reads Mary Shelley's use of contemporary political language as a move "beyond ideology," and cites her for "animating" what "had hardened into stereotype and rhetoric" (171). But the "animation" occurs not only in the use of political language, but in all the languages which inform the text -- from the stereotypes and rhetoric of gothic fiction to that of the Christian epic to that of the Bible. Even the orientalism popular in the literature of this period enters the novel; enunciated by Clerval and represented by Safie, the language of the East broadens our perspective on the Western tradition. Her novel gives Mary Shelley the status of a "stylist," in Kristeva's terms. Unlike Frankenstein, the rhetorician, the stylist

no longer needs to seduce the father by rhetorical affectations . . . [I]n place of the father, [the stylist] may assume a different discourse; neither imaginary discourse of the self, nor discourse of transcendental knowledge, but a permanent go-between from one to the other . . . (Kristeva 139)
The novel functions as Shelley's go-between, her world among worlds, her voice among voices.

The critical questions of Frankenstein concern not the sources or objectives of Mary Shelley's language as much as the form itself, the composition of the novel through which, but not in which, she speaks. By opening the letter within the context of the novel, Shelley verifies the intrinsic, on-going dialogism of language. By involving so many languages in the refraction of her own intentions, Shelley remains free of the conventions, while refusing to cancel the voice of any one tradition. At the same time that she includes conventional forms, however, she opens them, like so many boxes for Pandora. The inherited forms which the novel employs

. . . open up the possibility of never having to define oneself in language, the possibility of translating one's own intentions from one linguistic system to {17} another, . . . of saying "I am me" in someone else's language, and in my own, "I am other." (Bakhtin 315)
Novelistic discourse provides possibilities truly monstrous, not because they are alien to conventional discourse, but because they comprehend and yet escape all discourse. The monster, as novel, rises as "component parts animated," and masters the languages of his culture. We fear to look at the monster precisely because he does embody all the component parts of his world, an unmanageable whole. The linguistic bagginess of this monster (Is he speaking French or English or German? Is he reading English, German and Latin in translation?) poses a challenge to language itself, a challenge not unlike that of Moby Dick's or Mont Blanc's infinity of significance. These symbols deny our locating an end to meaning or an origin of truth. But in the face of such infinity, we are allowed to move up and down, back and forth, weaving correspondences. Bakhtin and Kristeva have given us a model of the "literary word" as "an intersection of textual surfaces rather than a point (a fixed meaning), as a dialogue among several writings . . . Diachrony is transformed into synchrony . . . linear history [or 'story'] appears as an abstraction" (Kristeva 65).

The most helpful illustration of this almost topographical dynamic in language may be found in the topography of the novel itself. The landscape of Frankenstein offers a special correlative to its narrative structure. One crucial encounter will demonstrate how the novelistic form we are discussing informs even the scenery of Frankenstein. Let us return to the image of the common plane as an alternative to the pointed object of Victor's search, and perhaps we will glimpse that "magic scene . . . opened" [1.3.4] that he dismisses.10

After Justine's trial, Victor Frankenstein removes himself from his family and journeys in the Alps. What seems to appeal to Victor in this escape is the isolation it affords him. The sights and sounds of the lower world tumble down the mountain side, and Victor wakes to find himself alone on the bare glacier, "elevated" to "the solemn silence of this glorious presence -- chamber of imperial nature" (249). But the lyric language should not fool us: when Victor Frankenstein speaks of "imperial nature," we hear his imperial voice, and his alone. The presence-chamber and the imperial silence belong to the emperor-narrator at the moment of his achieved ascendancy. He rests, "waited on and ministered to by the assemblance of grand shapes which I had contemplated" (249). He continues onward and upward in a vertical line, "without a {18} guide," for ". . . the presence of another would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene" [2.2.1]. As he seeks the most desolate, barren peak, Frankenstein seeks to establish his own solitary grandeur; yet every step towards isolation invites a greater intrusion from his surroundings.11. The individual path cannot remove itself from intersecting influences, and silence threatens to invite noisy destruction:

The path, as you ascend higher, is intersected by ravines of snow, down which stones continually roll from above; one of them is particularly dangerous, as the slightest sound, such as even speaking in a loud voice, produces a concussion of air sufficient to draw destruction upon the head of the speaker. (92)
There is no escape from intersection, from the voices that surround a man. In the mind of a man such as Frankenstein, however, intersection and interdependency constitute a threat. It is the effort to escape into silence, to gain ascendancy and singularity, to stand atop the silent peak and command the elements, that, perversely, renders one's own position dangerous, renders one's own voice lethal.

So it is with pointed irony that Mary Shelley chooses to level Victor Frankenstein as he reaches the imposing heights of his "bare, perpendicular rock" [2.2.3].12 Just as he commands the "wandering spirits" of the Alps to accept him as one more "icy and glittering" [2.2.3] peak, to drive away from him his humanity and the "joys of life" [2.2.3]: just at this point, Frankenstein's exposed, supervital self comes rushing at him with all the power and pathos of human relation. The creature confronts his maker on what Frank Randel, in a recent article, calls "the first thoroughly humanized mountain in the book and, arguably, in the [Romantic] tradition" (Randel 527).

For an instant, Frankenstein persists in his delusion of power-in-isolation and orders silence: has he not achieved a position that allows him to dismiss the inadmissible from his presence-chamber? "Devil, . . . how dare you approach me? And do you not fear the fierce vengeance of my arm . . . ? Begone, vile insect! Or rather stay, that I may trample you to dust!" (94). The rhetorical questions invite an inescapably unsettling answer. They expose the true impotence of the speaker. Victor Frankenstein is knocked off his imperial heights in the face of his creation; even if he closes his eyes -- or if the monster closes them -- he cannot escape into silence. "Listen to my tale, . . . hear me . . . listen to me Frankenstein . . . Hear my tale" [2.2.6] -- the creature, his story, beg Frankenstein to {19} accept the relation. At this point, the monster begins his narration. Having reached the end point of its vertical climb, the linear narrative, threatened with annihilation, begins to open inwardly and outwardly in an expanding web of people and events.13 We can understand -- almost visually -- Julia Kristeva's words on the novel form: "If there is a model for poetic language, it no longer involves lines and surfaces, but rather, spaces and infinity" (88).14

We can also see that Shelley has deliberately de-centered the central mountain episode, so crucial to the poetic tradition of her time, and created a novel without a central point. Structurally, the mountains of poetic tradition will not provide the underpinnings of this novel. Nor, for similar reasons, will the titans of the literary canon justify or even minister to the voice of Frankenstein. A new day dawns and the spirits of the mountains, those "mighty friends" have retreated. Frankenstein will never be included among the company of those "icy and glittering" peaks; instead he must listen to the excessively human voice of the monster, of the novel. Even its protagonist's poetic aspirations lead Frankenstein to its novel voice.

Frank Randel almost rests on the easy conclusion that Mary Shelley practiced literary one-upmanship with her male models, in a contest of literary mountain-climbing; but he looks again at the novel and observes that "the mountainous center" of the novel is balanced by other "equally generative locales" (529). This balance, on second glance, however, becomes quite unsettling. Each "generative locale" in the topography of the novel is a potential volcano. Frankenstein's birthplace, the workshop, the DeLacey home: every hearth seems to explode or implode with monstrous inevitability. Even as we search for a thematic center (Is it the Mary Shelley dream vision? Or the De Lacey episode? Or . . . ?), the book offers no geographical -- or structural -- point of rest.

Attention to the specific character of this novel leads us back to the structural and geographical instability of the letter form. Literary correspondence must be able to function with no central position, without even two fixed and balanced points. The center removed, there yet exists an entire field of play between two mobile points, no matter how far and wide each point moves. In place of a focused point, the novel reveals a vast, ever-expanding plane of intersections.15 We are left, at last, with neither the comfortable home, nor the glittering peaks. Instead we face the Arctic expanse. Like nature's own "tabula rasa," the Arctic scene offers everything and nothing -- depending on our response.

{20} Early readers of Frankenstein felt its challenging, unsettling effect. Percy Shelley, in his published "Remarks on Frankenstein," expressed awe at the novel's ability to compel the reader's sympathy and involvement, and, at the same time, to destroy all frame of reference. The simple line of connection explodes into an open field of correspondence and "astonishing combinations":

We debate within ourselves in wonder as we read it, what could have been the series of thoughts, . . . which conduced, in the author's mind, to the astonishing combinations of motives and incidents and the startling catastrophe, which compose this tale . . .
As Percy Shelley continues, the combinations do not remain within the author's mind, nor does the startling catastrophe remain contained within a single tale. At all points, the reader must enter the active world of the novel. Significantly, Percy describes a present, on-going, and shared experience, using "we" and the present tense. He too exploits the novel's topography:
We are led breathless with suspense and sympathy and the heaping of incident, and the working of passion out of passion. We cry, "Hold, hold, enough!" -- but there is something to come; and like the victim whose history it relates, we think we can bear no more, and yet more is to be borne. Pelion is heaped on Ossa, and Ossa on Olympus. We climb Alp after Alp, until the horizon is seen blank, vacant and limitless; and the head turns giddy, and the ground seems to fail under our feet.
The Quarterly Review, with less admiration, found a similar, unsettling open-ness in this novel. While it admits the powerful demand the novel makes upon its reader, the Review finds itself "revolted" by "this kind of writing":
. . . and the greater the ability with which it may be executed the worse it is -- it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners or morality; it cannot mend and it will not even amuse its readers . . . -- it fatigues the feelings without interesting the understanding; it gratuitously harasses the heart, and only adds to the store, already too great, of painful sensations. (316)
The overload of sensation, the lack of moral support accompanies, indeed defines the sense of "poetic language" (Kristeva's term) or "dialogism" (Bakhtin's term) found in the novel form. But it is also a vestige of the letter's ability to involve and overwhelm its reader. Because of its dialogism -- explicit in the letters, implicit in the discourse -- the novel {21} continually breaks the law by allowing the outlaw to speak. When letters in the novel free themselves from the formal demands of propriety and individual identity, as they do in Frankenstein, they enter "the very place where social code is destroyed and renewed . . ." (Kristeva 132). Novelistic discourse is
. . . an unsettling process -- when not an outright destruction -- of the identity of meaning and speaking subject, and, consequently, of transcendence . . . (Kristeva 125)
Even as it unsettles, however, the novel, like the monster, forces a dialogue. It invites our responses to its tales and invites itself into our stories. The movement back and forth of letters leads to the shifting stories and the dialogized language which establish a harmony amidst the rupture. Along with doubt in determined answers or identities, there emerges a blind faith in on-going correspondence. The power of the novel rides in Betweenness, in the spaces that open up between speakers, as between mountain peaks; in the cracks that appear between statements, as between ice floes; in the seams that emerge between stories, as between monstrous "component parts" [Introduction 9]. Dialogism in Frankenstein does elicit an unsettling ambivalence. As consequence of that ambivalence, "it posits its own process between sense and nonsense, between language and rhythm, between the symbolic and the semiotic" (Kristeva 135).16 The pronounced conventions of the epistle form yield to the disruptions implicit in that form. The line of rupture is, all the same, the line of juncture, as Kristeva notes. It is the distance and difference between correspondents that allow for letters and reveal dialogue.

That difference, suspended like a question mark, allows us to respond to Mary Shelley's "hideous progeny" [Introduction 12] from age to age: "Do you understand this feeling?" [Letter 1.2]. With this appeal to head and heart, the unfinished letter becomes novel for each reader. The numerous adaptations from the nineteenth century onward demonstrate how the novel speaks in so many different contexts -- political, ethical, aesthetic, scientific -- the list is endless, and cross-referential. Each age writes its own Frankenstein.

Like Walton, we never reach the pole -- not precisely. As letter-writers, we never quite get to the point; as readers, we may miss the point altogether. We have learned, nevertheless, from the exchange, from the verbal give-and-take. We have stepped into a new landscape between poles, a world that invites critics to look and listen yet again.

The path charted between poles of dialogue radically abolishes problems of {22} causality [or origin], finality [or ends], etcetera, from our philosophical arena. It suggests the importance of the dialogical principle for a space of thought much larger than that of the novel. More than binarism, dialogism may well become the basis of our time's intellectual structure. (Kristeva, "The Word, Dialogue and Novel" 90)


1. See Poovey's discussion of this "propriety."

2. For other recent approaches to Frankenstein, see Levine and Knoepflmacher. Essays in this collection that stress the radical themes of Frankenstein are "Thoughts On the Aggression of Daughters," by U. C. Knoepflmacher; "Monsters In The Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family," by Kate Ellis; "Vital Artifice: Mary, Percy And The Psychopolitical Integrity of Frankenstein," by Peter Dale Scott; and "Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts: Language, Nature and Monstrosity," by Peter Brooks. One critic whose questions about the novel's unsettling form echo my own is Rubenstein.

3. Readers who have skillfully articulated the question of authority in this text are Rubenstein and Poovey; and Randel.

4. Walton provides the response of the Wedding Guest to the Ancient Mariner's tale, which Coleridge's poem never gives: "Even now, as I commence my task, his full-toned voice swells in my ears; his lustrous eyes dwell on me . . . 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 . . ." (233).

5. Castle writes of the epistolary form in Clarissa reacting against the constraints and intentions of its author or "editor," and displaying the "fictional history of its own production." In the epistolary novel, according to Castle,

The reader can never really penetrate the textual surface, being constantly reminded of that activity of production, which supposedly, yet improbably, brings it into production. One cannot escape into a world of experience "beyond" the world of correspondence . . . [the epistolary form] confirms its own denatured status. This fact has disturbed some readers; particularly those whose critical lights lead them in a continual search after "Story" -- an experiential realm somewhere beyond, or in spite of textual surface. (156)
In one sense, I am arguing that the monster embodies the epistolary form, and runs away with it.

6. Those who place their belief in such a language place their belief in the One, the individual, the unique Truth. For them,

. . . language is always one system, perhaps even one 'structure,' always one meaning, and, therefore, it necessarily implies a subject . . . to bear witness to its history. [They consider] the signifying unit in itself . . . as an unanalyzable given . . . This signifying unit remains implicit within each description of law or text . . . : linear, unidimensional descriptions -- with no analysis of the sign's density, the logical problematic of reading, etc. -- but which, once technically completed, restore structural identity . . . or meaning.

[They express] an ideology that posits either the people or an exceptional individuals appropriating this structure or this meaning . . . [I]t does not lend itself to change {23} . . . to shifting from one law to another, from one structure to another, from one meaning to another, except by postulating the movement of becoming, that is, of history. (Kristeva 126-127)

Kristeva's critique of "phallogocentric language" places Victor Frankenstein in the company of such "exceptional individuals" as Blake's Urizen, or even Jay Gatsby, among other flawed witnesses to history.

7. Shelley's brothers and sisters in later tales contrast sharply with the pair in Frankenstein. In the later fiction, the sister-brother bond is either pedagogic or seductive-erotic, with the brother in the more powerful position. I am suggesting that the Walton-Saville correspondence relies on mutual trust and understanding between individuals. Frankenstein shows no signs that Walton patronizes his sister; nor that she "paternalizes" her brother. We do not even know which sibling is older. Similarly, the seductive-erotic element has been virtually erased by the fact that Margaret Saville is married and a mother. Walton expresses little that could be construed as seduction to incest. See especially the stories "The Brother and Sister: An Italian Story"; "The Pilgrims"; and "Euphrasia." An exceptional brother-sister exchange of equal power occurs in "The False Rhyme."

8. See Kristeva, pp. 130-140 in particular.

9. Rubenstein calls these letters "the emotional, not to say the geographical center of the novel" (169). Rubenstein explicitly relates the notebook account of the monster's origin with the love letters of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, written about the time of their daughter's conception. Rubenstein hypothesizes that the explicit eroticism and sexual references in her parents' correspondence would have disgusted the young Mary Shelley, had she read them. I would venture that the young wife and mother directed her disgust not at the lovers' letters, but rather at the more corrupt and unnatural account of conception written from the secluded "workshop of filthy creation" [1.3.6].

10. Just after he experiences "a light so brilliant and so wondrous that [he] became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect it illustrated" [1.3.3] Victor denies the experience -- and closes its broadening landscape: "Not that, like a magic scene, it all opened upon me at once . . . I was like the Arabian who had been buried with the dead and found a passage to life, aided by one glimmering and ineffectual light" (51).

11. In the 1818 version, Victor Frankenstein takes the journey with Elizabeth, his father and brother. Rieger's collation of the 1818 and 1831 texts, showing the many transitions from "we" to "I" in this scene, indicates Shelley's increased emphasis on isolation.

12. This mountain, like Frankenstein's monster, has no name, but stands "exactly opposite" to the fertile Montanvert, as "a bare, perpendicular rock" [2.2.3] Randel makes much of the verbal pun that connects Frankenstein to this "open or uncovered and auchfrichtig rock, a rock set upright or erect." He concludes, wittily: "It is an emblem of his high-mindedness but even more of the solitary and sterile existence which has become his" (526). Randel does not mention the peculiar vulnerability of such an "open rock." This translation of the protagonist's name seems to underscore the paradoxical nature of his position: seemingly solid and singular, yet exposed to infinite influences.

13. Randel makes the point that "our visually based stereotypes" -- like Frankenstein's -- "are challenged by [the monster's] own story told in his own words." He credits Shelley with "a brilliant appropriation of the conventional romantic transition from sight to sound amidst mountain scenery" (527).

14. Despite the adjective "poetic," Julia Kristeva is referring specifically to the language of the novel.

15. For Rubenstein as well, the novel's center is diffused and infinite, but he prefers to emphasize the psycho-sexual symbolism. "The entire novel . . . is a womb," he maintains. "The mother . . . seems to recede into the very design of the story" (178, 187).

16. See Stevick, pp. 221-239, for an excellent study of the nonsense behind the sense of Frankenstein, its rhythms beyond language, and "its mythic seriousness and uncomfortable laughter" [Stevick 222].

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: Texas UP, 1983.

Brooks, Peter. "Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts: Language, Nature and Monstrosity," in Levine.

Castle, Terry. Clarissa's Ciphers. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.

Levine, George and U.C. Knoepflmacher, eds. The Endurance of Frankenstein. Berkeley: UCP, 1979.

Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. Chicago: UCP, 1979.

Quarterly Review Jan. 1818, cited in R. Glynn Grylls, Mary Shelley: A Biography. London: Oxford UP, 1938.

Randel, Frank. "Frankenstein, Feminism and the Intertexuality of Mountains. " Studies in Romanticism 23 (1984), 515-23.

Rubenstein, Marc A. "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein." Studies in Romanticism 15 (1976), 165-94.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Ed. James Rieger. New York: The Bobbs Merrill Co., Inc., 1974.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Remarks on Frankenstein," in Shelley Literary and Philosophical Criticism. Ed. with intro. by John Shawcross. London: Henry Froude, 1909.

Sterrenburg, Lee. "Mary Shelley's Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein," in Levine, 143-71.

Stevick, Philip. "Frankenstein and Comedy," in Levine, 221-39.