Frankenstein: Subjectivity and Ambiguity in Narrative

"Strange and harrowing must be his story, frightful the storm which embraced the gallant vessel on its course and wrecked it"(16). Thus writes adventurer Robert Walton to his sister, his letters serving as a prelude to the unusual story Dr. Victor Frankenstein is about to tell. The element of storytelling is unique in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein because she utilizes nested narrative in which three perspectives, each one leading directly to the next, compose the complete story. Each character tells one aspect of the story, each delves deeper into the mystique until finally, the truth, it seems, is unravelled at the core of the tale when the monster tells his story. This technique is significant because it reveals the strongly subjective and ambiguous nature of the tale.

After Walton's brief introductory letters, Victor commences his narrative, the first account the readers hear from the main participants in the tragedy. In telling the story, Victor at once seeks to justify his actions to Walton and the world, caution Walton against dangerous ambitions, and enlist Walton's aid in seeking vengeance. Victor begins his autobiography with descriptions of his idyllic, innocent childhood in which he has a "mother's tender caresses"(19), a "father's smile of benevolent pleasure"(19), and friends Elizabeth and Henry to "protect, love and cherish"(21). He then describes the complex process through which he has by degrees become "animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm"(36) and begun construction on his hideous creation. Everywhere Victor offers explanations of his actions. Because he wants to "explore unknown powers and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation"(33), he creates a creature he is not prepared to assume responsibility for. He fears the creature's ability to evade pursuit and the general public's reluctance in accepting his story, therefore he does not take action to alert his family of potential danger. He wonders if perhaps the companion the creature asks him to create would "delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness"(150), so he does not complete the second creature as promised. In his death bed, Victor does not find his past conduct blamable. In addition, Victor hopes that his story will serve as an example to Walton who is currently on a scientific venture of his own. "Do you share my madness?" Victor exclaims to Walton, "... Let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips"(12). Finally, at the end of his narrative, Victor begs Walton to "swear that [the creature] shall not triumph ... and add to the list of his dark crimes"(192).

Along with his success in gaining the trust and sympathy of Walton, Victor's narration reveals much about his personality and perspectives, including several inconsistencies. First, Victor's account is necessarily subjective and judgmental because of the tragedy his family has suffered at the hands of the creature. Naturally, Victor condemns the creature as an "full of treachery and fiendlike malice"(192). Secondly, Victor's conduct indicates that he perhaps still retains traces of madness and that he cannot be completely trusted. Walton comments that "his eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness"(11). Despite warning Walton against overzealousness in pursuit of science, it is Victor who addresses Walton's men with "lofty design and heroism"(198), urging them onward when their courage fails them. In retrospect, Victor recognizes that "in a fit of madness, [he had] created a rational creature"(198), and that as a creator, he owes his creation the guarantee of happiness and well being. However, Victor does not realize that he is morally wrong in deciding to play god. While he claims that his creation devotes "to destruction beings who possess exquisite sensations, happiness, and wisdom"(200), Victor's fallacy lies in his inability to realize that the creature possesses these qualities as well, a truth evident from the creature's narrative that Victor introduces.

Indeed when the creature tells of his journey from the moment of his conception to his descent into vice and hatred, he appeals not only to Victor's sense of duty as a creator but to his compassion as a human being as well. The creature's request is modest: he wishes to acquire a companion who will embrace him as who he is, to "feel the affections of a sensitive being and [become] linked to the chain of existence and events from which [he is] now excluded"(133). The creature's development from an infantile state to acquiring powers of reason and knowledge indeed proves that he had once been capable of love and gratitude. Though suffering initially from the "inclemency of the season" and "barbarity of man"(91), he learns morality and kindness from the family that he comes to surreptitiously live with. Emulating the examples of "benevolence and generosity"(112) displayed by the cottagers and enriching himself through books he stumbles upon, the creature learns to loathe vice and love virtue. For example, after dark he secretly deposits bundles of fire wood at the cottagers' doorstep. It is only when, in return for his well intentions and high hopes for acceptance, the creature is treated with abhorrence and horror that he turns against mankind. The cottagers violently drive him from their home, and the father of a young girl he has just saved from drowning fires at him with a rifle. Appealing to his own creator, the creature is crushed when eventually Victor destroys his hopes by breaking the promise of creating a companion for him. Despised by all mankind and with no one to turn to, the creature understandably directs his anger, grief, and frustration toward a sole purpose: revenge.

Any reader will agree that the creature's speech is potent in its eloquence and its ability to invoke sympathy. Even Victor agrees that the creature's testimony proves him to be "a creature of the sensations"(131). When the creature appeals to De Lacey, the blind man tells him, "I ... cannot judge of your countenance, but there is something in your words which persuades me that you are sincere"(119). Unfortunately, "a fatal prejudice clouds [men's] eyes, and where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster"(118). The creature clearly possesses the potential for kindness, morality, and intelligence; but wherever he ventures his hideous countenance invokes prejudice, horror, and abhorrence. Victor speaks of feeling sympathy for him, yet whenever he lays eyes on the creature's face, his heart "[sickens] and [his feelings are] altered to those of horror and hatred"(132). The creature's tale clearly touches Victors and others to a certain degree, but no one is willing to accept the creature's physical deformity.

"The hearts of men, when unprejudiced by any obvious self interest, are full of brother love and charity"(118), states De Lacey; ironically, just moments afterwards his family returns to find the repulsive monster and drags him away. No man, Mary Shelley seems to suggest, is completely free of such prejudice, and this is what makes the dilemma in Frankenstein eternally ambiguous. By nesting one contrasting narrative within another, Shelley first allows Victor to address Walton and persuade him to destroy the depraved creature. Walton, a civilized man brought up under similar circumstances as Victor's and a man with similar ambitions, sees Victor as being "noble and godlike in ruin"(194), listens attentively to Victor's subjective account of the story, and readily agrees that vengeance is needed, that the creature is ultimately in the wrong. However, using the same technique, Shelley then allows the creature to tell his story. Surprisingly eloquent and honest, he complicates the story because he challenges the validity of Victor's statements and in effect claims to be in the right instead of the wrong. Ironically, while the creature may not have succeeded in his goal of persuading Victor, his eloquent pleas have earned him sympathy from generations of readers. Shelley's storytelling technique is a success because it invites the reader deep into the ambivalent and subjective web of intricacies that surround Victor's creation. The ultimate judgment lies within the readers themselves.