Frankenstein is written in the mode of the epistolary novel, a form
popularized in the eighteenth century by Samuel Richardson in his novels
Pamela (1741) and
Clarissa (1748) and
expanded across class and social demarcations by Tobias Smollett in The
Expedition of Humphrey Clinker. By the nineteenth century the
epistolary form was something of an antique, its dynamics having largely
been subsumed by other first-person narrative modes that allowed their
authors greater flexibility. Mary Shelley's novel, which overtly
advertises its modernity in a subtitle, is curiously, then, the last major
example of the form in English fiction. The epistolary mode inherently
stresses communication and process, major thematic concerns of the novel,
and it accentuates a reliance on a variety of self-conscious narrators who
are not easily subject to interrogation by one another nor the reader.
Mary Shelley's stress on individual perspective and on its resulting
narrative indeterminacy are conspicuous features of her novel.
It is interesting to contemplate the fact that a principal account of
William Parry's Arctic expedition of 1819, Letters Written during the Late Voyage
of Discovery in the Western Arctic Sea (1821), is also couched in an
epistolary form. This might indicate some of the same thematic
associations, structurally speaking, that the form held for Mary Shelley,
or, more immediately, it could reveal her sudden and striking influence on
subsequent travel narratives into inaccessible reaches of the globe.
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