‘Frankenstein: an analysis’ by Nalini Haynes
This analysis of Frankenstein was written to comply with an assignment brief for the subject Writing Fiction, part of the associate degree of Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT University.
When writing Frankenstein Mary Shelley used a Russian doll to change point of view while usually retaining the first person point of view (‘I’).
Hart says point of view addresses three issues: through whose eyes the story is told, from what direction and from what distance the story is told. The person telling the story is not necessarily the person who is the focal point of the story (p.43, 2011). In the case of Frankenstein, the story is primarily Frankenstein and his monster’s although the narrator changes.
Largely written in the first person but from varying points of view, Frankenstein begins in Robert Walton’s persona, writing to his sister – telling her a number of things she already knew as well as some she didn’t – to set the scene.
Walton rescues Victor Frankenstein. Walton tells his sister he’ll include Frankenstein’s story with his letters, thus shedding the letter format with his persona and assuming Frankenstein’s voice (‘Walton’ writes in the first person as Frankenstein).
At one point Frankenstein relays a conversation with his monster, enabling the narrative to shift to the monster’s first person perspective. In turn the monster tells his protectors’ story; this is the only time the narrative strays into pure third person point of view. Then the movement in the Russian doll is reversed: firstly the monster returning to his own story, then Frankenstein, then Walton resume narration.
In On Writing (2000), Stephen King talks about point of view, largely discounting the unusual use of second person narrator while clearly favouring the third person. Shelley avoids second person point of view, using primarily first and, to a lesser extent, third person point of view.
Wood (2008) talks at length about free indirect style being used when the narrator is supposedly a character. Wood seems to refer to a third person point of view where the narrator is figuratively sitting on a character’s shoulder rather than presenting a first person point of view.
Free indirect style includes use of language not necessarily that of the character, melding the author’s voice with a character’s voice, either adding depth or creating dissonance within the text. This also applies when characters’ voices within one novel are inappropriately similar, as with Frankenstein. All the narrators – Walton, Frankenstein and the monster – appear to have upper class mores and values. Even the monster, who learnt only French through a knot-hole in a wall, seems fluent in highfalutin’ language like his creator. Thus Shelley varnishes her work like an artist creating a consistent patina on a disparate whole.
According to Mullan, free indirect speech is coupling the narrator’s enhanced knowledge with the character’s point of view (p.45, 2006). Mullan (2006) says,
“first-person narration has been the means of drawing a reader into some disturbing sympathy with a character’s misdeeds… Such a narrative engages us… by opening a gap between the ‘I’ who tells the story and the ‘I’ who is the past self.”
Never is this truer than in Frankenstein with its many-layered narrative and its various villains. The reader is torn between seeking to identify with the narrators and seeking justice.
Every story must be told from one or a few points of view. I loathe second person PoV so the dilemma for me is choosing between first and third as well as choosing the angle of the story. Should I tell the story from the central character’s point of view? Fly-on-the-wall? From a side-kick’s point of view?
I’m not generally a fan of first person PoV, especially when narration changes hands. The one novel I’ve read in recent years where this was handled brilliantly was Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2013). Although the narrator for each chapter was not overtly declared, the narrator was obvious either from the epigraph or the first sentence or two of each chapter. I have no pretensions to Joyce’s masterful characterisation so I’ll stick to either one ‘I’ or to third person.
If I rename my workshop fiction’s character Maria (as in ‘What to do about a problem like Maria?’), I could continue her story from the point of view of those around her. Never stepping into Maria’s shoes, never telling her story directly, treating Maria like a problem to be diagnosed and fixed – like an engine that needs a service – thus Maria serves as an analogy for all victims of domestic violence.
Point of View is crucial to storytelling as it grounds the reader, informing while providing clues as to authenticity and limitations of the narrative. Shelley chose first person PoV to engage the reader’s sympathy for misdeeds, mistakes and struggles. Ilsa Evans has written – comedically, with pathos and with passion – about characters who have survived domestic violence. For task three I might intentionally distance readers from the victim to parody society.
Shelley, M 1831, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, ebook, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, viewed 7 February 2014, http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/shelley/mary/s53f/index.html.
Evans, I 2007, Broken, PanMacmillan, Sydney.
Evans, I 2004, Drip Dry, PanMacmillan, Sydney.
Evans, I 2005, Odd Socks, PanMacmillan, Sydney.
Evans, I 2002, Spin Cycle, PanMacmillan, Sydney.
Hart, J 2011, Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Joyce, G 2013, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Gollancz, Sydney.
King, S 2000, On Writing: a memoir of the craft, Hodder & Stoughton, London.
Mullan, J 2006, How Novels Work, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Prose, F 2006, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, HarperCollins, New York, New York.
Wood, J 2008, How Fiction Works, Random House, London.