The narrative structure of "Frankenstein". The Modern Prometheus and its effect

Seminar Paper 2013 16 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


1. Introduction

The Gothic novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus is the result of Mary Shelley's travels to Geneva, Switzerland, with her future husband Percy Bryce Shelley, Dr. John Polidori and Lord Byron, themselves famous authors, and an entertaining contest between those friends about who could write the best horror story. Conceived of a nightmare after reading German ghost stories by the fire and conversing about Darwinism, occult ideas, galvanism and science, the only nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley put this piece of art down on paper and published it anonymously in 1818.

Frankenstein is a novel with a complex narrative structure. In the core of the novel the Creature's story is presented to us framed by Victor Frankenstein's story which itself is enframed by Robert Walton's epistolary narrative. The overall structure of the novel is symmetrical: it begins with the letters of Walton, shifts to Victor's tale, then to the Creature's narration, so as to switch to Victor again and end with the records of Walton. In this manner the reader gets different versions of the same story from different perspectives. Mary Shelley's rather atypical approach not to stick to only one narrator and one defined narrative situation throughout the book creates various impressions on the reader of the novel.

The narrative situation of a text describes the structure of how the content, plot, characters and events are being mediated to the reader and is often referred to as the point of view. The narrative situation is one of the main categories in literary analysis. One of the most important academics who concerned himself with the systematisation of narrative structures since the 1950s is the Austrian literary theorist Dr. Franz Karl Stanzel (*1923). There is strong competition by the typology of Gérard Genette since the 1990s, however, Stanzel's theory is being taught to date, which is why it is used in the following analysis of the narrative structure in Frankenstein and its effect on the reader.

2. Typical Narrative Situations In Novels By Franz K. Stanzel

Dr. Franz K. Stanzel grappled with the achievements of other academics of literary studies like K. Friedemann, R. Petsch, J. Petersen or W. Kayser; and published his own theory of mediacy in novels. This theory relates to a narrator with whom the reader identifies and therefore constructs sort of a bridge between the fictional story and the real reader. The manner in which 'mediacy' (Mittelbarkeit) takes place in a novel is called 'narrative situation' (Erzähl- situation).1 The aim is always to create the illusion of truth and reality: “Alle Erzähltechnik läuft auf nichts anderes hinaus als auf ein Glaubhaftmachen des Erzählten.”2 Only a successful mediacy can seduce the reader to accept the fictional world under their actual realm of experience. Thus, when it comes to novel interpretations, according to Stanzel, the main focus of attention should not be on the story itself, namely the content of the narrative text, but on the discourse as the structure and narrative transmission of the text; that is to say on how the plot and characters are mediated and how the narration persuades the reader of the presented reality. The given narrative situation in a novel affects the mediacy of the picture to be conveyed, as well as the readers' expectation of illusion created by the narration, which the author, and narrator respectively, has to measure up to in some degree.3 Therefore Stanzel developed narrative conventions of some sort for each narrative situation.

Stanzel distinguishes three typical types of narrative situations in novels: first-person, authorial and figural. They can be characterized by three basic elements: mode (narrator ↔ reflector), person (first person ↔ third person) and perspective (internal perspective ↔ external perspective). One of the poles of the three oppositions is dominant in each narrative situation, e.g. the figural narrative situation is built up of third person narration by a reflector figure with internal perspective.4

Aside from these properties, the figural narrator reports mostly in scenic presentation (rather showing, than telling) and defines the time and space for the readers' orientation. The figural narration is able to elaborately present the consciousness of a character, e.g. in a stream of consciousness technique (which is, however, more characteristic for the first-person narration). The narrator recedes far into the background, so that his transmission of the narration is hardly noticeable any more. In addition, the figural narrator acts through a reflector figure, a medium involved in the story, who's internal processes and subjective impressions are what the reader sees through the eyes of one of the characters, rather than being told by an individualised narrator.5

The first-person narrative situation constantly renews the illusion of the same identity of the narrator and a character involved in the story by using the pronoun 'I'. Generally a 'narrating I' relates a certain amount of time later retrospectively to events that happened to the 'experiencing I' and reflects and comments on them6, this is not the rule though. The narrating I does not necessarily reveal themselves as the narrator by reflecting, commenting or addressing the reader. Often the narrating I describes the events in a scenic manner by using a lot of direct speech, so that the reader's attention is drawn to the experiencing I. Furthermore, the first-person narrator is not always the main character of the plot. They can impersonate the protagonist ('I-as-protagonist') or a minor character ('I-as-witness').7

Another version of a first-person narrative situation is the epistolary novel. Writing letters as the narrating I is synonymous with narrating the events directly. However, there seems to be less distance between the experiencing and narrating I in epistolary novels, since each event is being told right after happening or sometimes even during, instead of at some distant point later in time.8 In addition, letters create an illusion of authenticity and thereby convince the reader of the truthfulness of the narration.

The authorial narrator tends to tell the plot from an external, omnipresent, omniscient, third-person point of view, and is usually not one of the characters of the story. On these grounds they can include their own opinions and views by commenting on the characters and their actions or by addressing the reader directly. In the authorial narrative situation the author can tell the story, they can portray a pretend author or a fictional narrator not too connected to the characters or involved in the story, e.g. someone who found a diary with the narration or a publisher. That way the narrator can build a bridge to the reader, they will remain an outside observer though. The authorial narrator stands beyond the tale, aspires to be independent and hence create a distance between themselves and the pictured reality of the narration and arouses the claim to authenticity and truth.

However, Stanzel makes no claim for the three narrative situations to be completely separable. On the contrary, he emphasizes the fact that each narrative situation can intermingle with another. For instance, the authorial narrator can by all means narrate in the first-person perspective.9 The three narrative situations by Stanzel only constitute the dominant and typical narrative perspectives in novels, from which all other variations of narrative situations can be derived, as they also depend on the reader's individual interpretation.

Pursuant to diary entries and notes one can conclude that the author of a novel chooses the narrative situation knowing they would create a specific effect. In so doing the author equally determines the basic structure of their novel, which impacts the readers' perception greatly by applying a specific point of view, beginning, ending, chapter arrangement and perspective.10 The following chapter consists of an attempt to analyse the narrative situations given in Frankenstein with regard to Stanzel's typology, Mary Shelley's possible intentions and their effect on the reader.

3. Narrative Situations In Frankenstein And Their Effect

3.1. Frame Narrative

Working from the outside in, the story starts with the epistolary narrative by Robert Walton, the captain of an explorer ship, who writes letters about his endeavours to unravel unknown mysteries of the Arctic to his sister Margaret Saville in England. Walton tells his sister about his meeting a benevolent but curious man named Victor Frankenstein. Walton chronicles the incredible confessions of Frankenstein about a monster he created and abandoned in the letters to his sister, which later become “mock epistolarity”11 or rather diary entries dedicated to her, as Walton has no possibility to send the letters to England any more. This story-within-a-story contains yet another story. In the actual heart of the book is located the tale of the Creature itself in between the accounts of Victor. And even within this story lies the story about the DeLecays, a family of peasants the Creature observed for a long time. So each of the stories is framed by another one, thus the frame narrative structure in Frankenstein. From outward in, the stories become more significant, dangerous and powerful. The fact that Margaret, the addressee of Walton's letters, is cut off from the chain of narratives by the outermost frame and therefore not in any real danger of anything in the story also causes the reader to be more calm. This is not the most typical Gothic novel, since the person most scared is not the reader, but Victor.

The epistolary narration by Robert Walton somehow justifies why the story is being told at all, considering that his character is not vital for the plot. In addition, the “frame narrative appears to foreground the indeterminacy of the novel, rather than to provide us in Walton with a reader-substitute who can indirectly guide our own interpretation and response.”12 He does not offer any moral message after heaving heard Victor's story and the Creature's final confessions, as the reader might expect from a narrator concluding the book.

Walton's frame also foreshadows general key themes of the novel which will be developed further throughout the novel and so draws the reader's attention to the topics to come. In a way he sets the scene for the drama that is to come, e.g. by telling the reader that he “never saw a man in so wretched a condition”13 when he first meets Victor in the Arctic. In their conversation Victor foreshadows the miserable events that are about to happen by warning Walton that since he is about to pursue “the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral form my tale”14. During the first letter a lot of similarities between Victor Frankenstein and himself are established, which the reader will discover later on; for instance Walton's “ardent curiosity […] sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death”15 and the fact that he “preferred glory to every enticement that wealth placed in [his] path”16 match Victor's opinion that “Wealth was an inferior object, but what glory would attend the discovery”17.


1 Cf. Stanzel (1969:4 f.).

2 Petersen (1939:130).

3 Cf. Stanzel (1969:20).

4 See in Stanzel (1979).

5 Cf. Neumann/Nünning (2011:85 f.).

6 Cf. Stanzel (1969:61).

7 Cf. Ahrens (1995:314).

8 Cf. Stanzel (1969:67).

9 Cf. Stanzel (1969:24 f).

10 Cf. Stanzel (1969:7 f).

11 O'Dea (2003:22).

12 Graham (2008:32).

13 Shelley (1999: 21).

14 Shelley (1999: 24).

15 Shelley (1999:13).

16 Shelley (1999:14).

17 Shelley (1999:33).


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narrative structure frankenstein modern prometheus effect




Title: The narrative structure of "Frankenstein". The Modern Prometheus and its effect