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Framing the Frame: Embedded Narratives, Enabling Texts, and Frankenstein

  • Gregory O’Dea

…plus d’informations

  • Gregory O’Dea
    University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Corps de l’article


Prevalent ideas of “frame narrative” often proceed from a reduced metaphoric conception. When used to describe stories containing other stories, the term evokes the image of the picture frame, a border enclosing items of distinct power. Thus, we speak of Conrad’s narrator in Heart of Darkness as “framing” Marlow’s tale about his journey toward Kurtz, or of Lockwood’s journal in Wuthering Heights as the “frame” for Nelly Dean’s account of the Earnshaws and the Lintons. A picture frame serves to ease attention toward the picture, providing separation and transition between outer and inner, the observer’s world and the world contained by the frame. [1] Jonathan Culler sees frames as devices of “naturalization” that bring the essential unfamiliarity of a text “into relation with a type of discourse or model which is already, in some sense, natural and legible” (138). Menakhem Perry conceives a “set of frames” that form “the reading process on the basis of models with which the reader is familiar” (36). The frame narrative metaphor therefore implies that the outermost narrative occupies this marginal space, and that its purpose is both distinctive and transitional: to distinguish our own experience in the world of real things from that represented in the framed narrative, and to move us toward that framed, (hypo)diegetic experience through a narrative space that is neither the reader’s world nor the world of the framed story. As Christine Brooke-Rose has it, “a frame [. . .] concentrates, and so intensifies, all that is explicitly within it, and leaves implicit all that is without” (164). [2]

This much is overtly expressed by the picture-frame metaphor, and to this point it seems a plausible descriptive image. But the metaphor does not describe a narrative construct (stories within stories) so much as a reading process in which the reader moves from exterior to interior. In other words, the picture-frame metaphor represents readerly approaches to and departures from the central, hypodiegetic level(s), but it does not clarify the structure of the narrative complex itself: it does not explain the frame’s significant (as opposed to functional) relationship to the narratives it encloses, despite the fact that critical consideration of frame narrative consistently assumes that significant relationship. Neither does the metaphor account for the particular representation of the contained and containing narratives. In short, conceiving the frame as a distinguishing, facilitating, or liminal device does not go very far toward clarifying the narrative construct, nor toward explaining the existence of the frames themselves.

We might supply such deficiencies by a different consideration of frame narrative as a descriptive term. We have thus far been concerned with the “frame” as an external bordering device—a point of entry to and exit from the internal work—but other senses of the term should enter into our thinking about narrative shapes. The Oxford English Dictionary (version 3.0) offers no fewer than twenty-six significations of the word “frame,” and the American Heritage Dictionary (fourth edition) lists sixteen. After some careful pruning and grouping, we might arrive at these major senses:

  1. Frame as border: (verb) to enclose, encircle, or edge; or, (noun) an object which contains, sets off, or emphasizes another object.

  2. Frame as creation: (verb) to construct from parts, to arrange or adjust, to compose; or, (noun) something composed from parts; a structure.

  3. Frame of reference or frame of mind: (noun) a set or system of ideas and attitudes, in terms of which other ideas, situations and attitudes are interpreted or assigned meaning.

  4. Frame-work: (noun) a supporting or defining structure, as a skeletal support, arrangement, form, or system; a design. [3]

The last two senses propose a striking contrast to the image of the bordering picture frame and provide tools for discovering an etiology of framed and framing narratives. In these senses a frame may be an internal, cognitive structure, a “frame-work” of narrative shaping meaning from systems of signifying references. The inner frame-work is the shaping core upon which outer forms are hung or built—not an external, bordering picture frame, but an internal, shaping skeletal frame; I borrow the metaphor not from painting, but from architecture. [4] The frame-work metaphor re-orders our common conception of the literary work’s diegetic levels. Here we begin at the inner-most level and conceive each narrative layer not as a distinguishing or liminal device—not as a container or delimiter of what is within—but as a determining matrix, creating and giving form to what is without. The frame-work is the Jamesian “figure in the carpet,” re-orienting critical conception from the path of the reader’s approach (external toward internal) to the direction of the artist’s fundamental shaping vision (internal toward external). [5] The picture-frame image describes preliminary experience, how we first “come at” and “move off from” the work, proceeding toward and away from its essential matter. [6] The frame-work metaphor adds a more considered experience, describing the core of significant structure straining outward and reshaping itself toward the perceiver.

But of what does that determining core consist, and how does its straining outward shape narrative? I will consider these questions, particularly the latter, by examining frame narrative in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818; 1831), an especially concentric narrative with an unusually focused and influential core: Milton’s Paradise Lost. I will try to show that Milton’s epic acts as the central, enabling, and shaping text for the narrative process of Frankenstein. This is to say more than that Paradise Lost is a constant source of Shelley’s allusion and imagery, or that Shelley re-enacts fundamental Miltonic themes of creation, duty, prohibition, and transgression; these points seem plain, and we need only consult Shelley’s epigraph for evidence of thematic connection. [7] Rather, I want to suggest that while Paradise Lost is certainly a powerful external influence on Shelley’s formulation and our reading of Frankenstein, it is also situated as a catalytic influence on the internal world of the tale, as that tale determines and shapes itself through a series of enabling and activating narratives. In short, Paradise Lost is the matrix (or “frame-work”) upon which Shelley builds (or “frames”) the characters, motivations, actions, and readings of Frankenstein (its “frames of reference”) and which enables the concentric structure (or “framing”) of the narratives. In order to describe this structure I will first discuss the general architecture of frame sequences in Frankenstein, and then examine the narrative frame sequence in particular.


Frankenstein’s narrative architecture comprises three separate frame sequences, each enabled and directed by a different narrator: the reading sequence provided by Robert Walton, the action sequence constructed by Victor Frankenstein, and, of greatest concern because it ultimately allows the other sequences, the narrative sequence initiated by Frankenstein’s Creature.

The reading sequence is the preliminary process by which readers move through a series of “picture-frame” narratives, as Walton’s letters frame (or enclose) Frankenstein’s history, which in turn frames (or encloses) the Creature’s tale. [8] Our experience of the reading sequence moves us from exterior to interior, but also from the most recent narrative (Walton’s letters) to the earliest (the Creature’s tale), all of which are recorded by and related through Walton. Our position during the reading sequence approximates that of Walton’s sister, Margaret Saville, in reading her brother’s letters; we experience the narratives as a set of texts arranged not according to the chronology of actions they represent, nor the order in which the narratives were originally related, but instead as they were received and came to have situational meaning to the perceiver (in this case, Walton). The reading sequence thus suggests the “picture-frame” metaphor by providing transitional spaces, introducing Shelley’s readers to increasingly alien narrators and situations as we move from Walton to Frankenstein to the Creature: from the margins of reality to the center of alterity.

The action sequence is the series of narrated events reconstructed as they occurred chronologically. In Shelley’s novel this sequence is directed by Frankenstein, who relates the earliest events in the story (his parents’ courtship and marriage, his own upbringing and education, and so forth). By interpolating the Creature’s narrative within his own, Frankenstein supplies information to the action sequence that would otherwise be unavailable or inaccessible (the Creature’s education, his murder of William and implication of Justine Moritz, and so on). Frankenstein’s action sequence requires a separate level of engagement from the reader, as we must reconstruct the events by transforming the reading sequence into the action sequence in a second cognitive operation; we must, for example, re-order the events of Walton’s narrative to come after the events of Frankenstein’s, as we must relocate the events related by the Creature within earlier portions of Frankenstein’s narrative.

The narrative sequence in Frankenstein is yet a deeper structural arrangement: it is the chronological order in which the narrative acts take place. As I shall argue, the narrative sequence actually enables and shapes the reading and action sequences in Shelley’s work. Let us say provisionally that the narrative sequence is initiated and directed by the Creature (a claim I will modify later), whose narrative is chronologically the first significant, detailed and revealing narrative by a character in the story. All before has been silence (on Frankenstein’s part) or half-understood allusion to events that the Creature will later make clear (such as Justine Moritz’s account of the night of William’s murder). Indeed, Frankenstein’s silence—his failure to narrate his life at Ingolstadt in letters to his family, and his refusal to articulate his belief that the Creature is William’s murderer—is one source of his culpability. [9] The Creature’s narrative enables its train of audiences (Frankenstein, Walton, and Margaret Saville-Shelley’s reader) to understand those obscured events rightly. From this primary speaking position, the Creature’s narrative sets in motion events, revelations, and conceived dialectics of protagonism/antagonism, authority/submission, and creator/creature—all of which eventually lead to the physical situation and conceptual form that enable Frankenstein’s narrative to Walton. Frankenstein’s narrative, of course, then enables and prompts the conceptual form of Walton’s narrative to his sister (and thus to Shelley’s reader). In this way, the Creature’s narrative—his own creature, so to speak—is the creator of the tale we read. [10]

The necessity of distinguishing between reading, action, and narrative frame sequences becomes plain with this last claim, which I shall elaborate for the balance of this essay. The reading and action sequences are structured as texts by Walton’s and Frankenstein’s artificial dispositions of story elements according to their own experiences and perceptions of those elements as significant: that is, according to their particular frames of reference. [11] Because it determines and shapes the other sequences, the narrative sequence sets out the source and pattern of those experiential and perceptual dispositions. In this view, we might say that Frankenstein offers a kind of reverse mise en abyme, in which the outset narratives reflect and refigure the enabling and shaping inset narratives. [12]Rhetorical refiguring of an inset narrative takes place on the level of language as the narrator of a superior level adopts words and phrases from a previous (embedded) narrative. In elemental refiguring, the embedded narrative influences the superior narrator’s decisions about which story elements to include in his own narrative; that is, what events make the superior narrator’s story significant as a narrative. Intentional refiguring occurs as a superior narrator derives his purpose—the intended effect of his narrative act—from influential aspects of the embedded narrative. In the presence of such narrative refiguring, embedded narratives assume a crucial position: they become enabling texts[13]


Above, I made the provisional claim that Frankenstein’s Creature originates and directs the narrative sequence of Shelley’s tale. I should like now to revise that claim, for in truth the Creature’s narrative is itself enabled and patterned by the deeper frame-work of Paradise Lost. Like the Creature himself, his tale is a refiguration of parts belonging to others. Shelley herself remarks on such deeply-situated “origins” in her “Author’s Introduction” to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein: “Every thing must have a beginning,” she writes,

[. . .] and that beginning must be linked to something that went before [. . .]. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself [. . .]. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.


Narrative refiguring—rhetorical, elemental, and intentional—is the process by which the core of significant structure in Frankenstein strains outward and reshapes itself toward the perceiver through a sequence of framing narratives, moving from interior alterity (the Creature’s narrative) to exterior familiarity (Walton’s letters).

The narrative sequence of Frankenstein begins with the Creature’s adoption of Paradise Lost as his essential frame of reference, and so we turn to the portmanteau of books that the Creature discovers in chapter 15 of the novel. Though these books do not make up his earliest experience, they do provide a frame of reference that structures and shapes that experience. The Creature reads each of these works as “true history” (129), and during and after his reading he attempts to fit his own experience into the framing contexts these works seem to provide. Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther offers a frame of reference for the Creature’s uncontextualized feelings and sensibilities. As he says, he was “unformed in mind,” but in Goethe “the lofty sentiments and feelings, which had for their object something out of self, accorded well with my experience [. . .] and with the wants which were forever alive in my own bosom. [. . .] As I read [. . .] I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition” (128). This Ur-frame of feeling enables the Creature’s self-questioning, a necessary location of self in a context of defined and expressed emotional references: “What did this mean?” he asks; “Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?” (128). Plutarch’s Parallel Lives “had a far different effect” on the Creature: “Plutarch taught me high thoughts; he elevated me above the wretched sphere of my own reflections, to admire and love the heroes of past ages” (128-29). Here the Creature adopts a frame of reference beyond self, a social frame in which self is defined in relationship to others.

The last and most affecting text in the portmanteau is Paradise Lost, which “moved every feeling of wonder and awe that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting” (129). While it is enabled by Goethe (the Ur-frame of self) and Plutarch (the Ur-frame of other), this text becomes the Creature’s defining frame of reference, as it comprises both self and other and extends those Ur-frames outward (to a cosmic level) and inward (to a psychic level). While reading Paradise Lost, the Creature says, “I often referred the several situations as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence [. . .]. Many times I considered Satan the fitter emblem of my condition” (129). His reading of Milton gives the Creature a suitably clear and complex frame of reference: clear because in the Adam-Satan dichotomy the Creature sees a double structure of potential, a shaping figure of the world and the previously “unformed” self; complex because the potential of that dichotomy is necessarily ambivalent, and the Creature’s narrative proves him capable of sliding easily between the poles of Adam (benevolence) and Satan (malevolence).

The rhetoric of the Creature’s narrative is the most overt indication that Paradise Lost acts as a referential frame. Most instances in which the Creature alludes to Paradise Lost are well known: he remarks that the De Laceys’ cottage seemed “as exquisite and divine a retreat as Pandaemonium appeared to the daemons of hell after their sufferings in the lake of fire” (106); describing his loneliness, he says that “no Eve soothed my sorrows, nor shared my thoughts [. . .] I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me [. . .]” (131); and later he says that “Evil thenceforth became my good” (220). Other rhetorical allusions, of course, abound. [14] Milton’s poem thus supplies the Creature with a discourse, a source of descriptive metaphor that shapes his view of the world and allows him to express that view according to the supplied discourse. Even more significant is what the Miltonic rhetoric suggests about the role of Paradise Lost in the narrative sequence of Frankenstein. The Creature’s adoption of Milton as his experiential frame leads naturally to its adoption as a narrative frame-work, an enabling text, without which the Creature’s narrative would not be what it is, rhetorically, elementally, or intentionally.

The Creature’s elemental refiguration of Paradise Lost is essential to any understanding of Shelley’s work, for here we see in its deepest form the degree to which Milton’s epic has become both a perceptual and cognitive frame of reference for the Creature, and that frame will reproduce itself in the narratives enabled by the Creature’s text. The matrix for this elemental frame is the ambivalent Adam-Satan dichotomy that the Creature uses as a locus for self. He seems to slide between identifications with Adam and Satan, but gradually assumes the identity of Adam-turned-Satan: “I ought to be thy Adam,” he tells Frankenstein, “but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed [. . .]. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend” (100). These identifications—the Creature’s consistent appropriation of Paradise Lost as a metaphor for self, other, and world—determine which elements of his experience he will narrate; his perception of experience is shaped by the degree to which that experience can be given context by Paradise Lost. This is not to say (necessarily) that the Creature consciously acts out scenes from Milton’s epic, but rather (at least) that he views his past experience through the frame that Paradise Lost provides. Though his earlier experiences occur long before his exposure to Milton, his narrative act takes place after adopting Paradise Lost as his context, and thus even those early experiences are defined, selected, and narrated by reference to Milton’s enabling text.

The Creature’s earliest experiences are selected and cast in his narrative for their resemblance to the formative, self-defining experiences of Milton’s Adam and Eve, as recounted in books 4 and 8 of Paradise Lost. Like Adam, who admits to Raphael that “‘For Man to tell how human Life began / Is hard; for who himself beginning knew?’” (PL 8.250-51), the Creature wakes into being alone and has trouble recalling the event clearly: “It is with considerable difficulty,” he tells Frankenstein, “that I remember the original era of my being: all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct” (102). Nevertheless, he can offer some account of his early days, comparable to Adam’s in shape and structure but pointedly contrastive in emotional content. To Adam, for example, the sun is a godlike, beneficent presence, but to the Creature it is “oppressive” and “wearying” (102); Adam eats “the fairest Fruit, that Hung to the Eye / Tempting” (PL 8.307-08), while the Creature is “tormented by hunger and thirst” (103). In light of his claims of “considerable difficulty” in recalling “the original era of [his] being,” the Creature’s selection and arrangement of these experiences indicate that he remembers them only because they are analogous to the events described by Adam; indeed, we might wonder if he has not confused his own early experience with that of Milton’s hero. In a similar moment of selection, the Creature makes a special point of representing his first glimpse of himself in a “transparent pool,” an event he remembers as he does because it is later reinforced by his reading of Eve’s encounter with her own reflection in “‘the clear / Smooth Lake’“ (PL 4.458-59). Eve’s is a scene of naive self adoration in which she and her reflection exchange “‘answering looks / Of sympathy and love’” (PL 4.464-65), while the Creature’s own experience is physically similar but emotionally inverted; he is “terrified” by his own image (114).

The Creature’s later experiences—those following his rejection by the De Laceys—are selected and cast in his narrative for their resemblance to Satan’s descriptions of suffering and vengeance following his expulsion from Heaven. Recounting the evening of William’s murder, the Creature says that he exclaimed, “‘I, too, can create desolation; my enemy [Frankenstein] is not invulnerable; this death will carry despair to him [. . .]’” (143). As described by Beelzebub, Satan’s plan for vengeance against God is built upon a similar equation of death and despair: “‘To waste his whole Creation [. . .]. This would surpass / Common revenge, and interrupt his joy / In our Confusion’” (PL 2.365-72). Like Satan, the Creature claims to prefer a less violent course of action, but feels he is left no choice: “I am malicious because I am miserable,” he insists; “[. . .] if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear; and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred” (145). Satan’s claims to innocence undoubtedly provide models for the Creature’s rationalizations.

The Creature’s elemental selections, then, demonstrate a “slide” between the poles of the Adam-Satan dichotomy. He constructs his narrative text upon the frame of reference provided by Milton’s epic, and so represents himself as Adam-turned-Satan—or more precisely, as Adam manqué-turned-Satan (“I ought to be your Adam [. . .]” [100; emphasis added]). But these elemental selections are not necessarily unconscious, for the Creature also designs his narrative to serve a clear purpose, the exact nature of which is not revealed until the narrative’s conclusion: to persuade Frankenstein to fashion a female companion. This narrative intention, of course, is suggested by Adam’s similar complaint to God (PL 8.357-451), but unlike Adam’s speech, the Creature’s narrative is also an attempt at persuasion, an argument of logos, pathos, and ethos designed to “seduce” (or tempt) Frankenstein into cooperation with the Creature’s desires. The narrative intention is thus also enabled by Satan’s temptation of Eve (PL 9.532-732). Once again, the Adam-Satan dichotomy frames the text of the Creature’s narrative: his Satanic attempt at persuasion argues that he is Adam manqué in need of a companion, and that if he were given an Eve, he would revert to a true Adamic state. [15]


These same levels of refiguration shape the outset narratives of Frankenstein and Walton. Just as the Creature’s narrative refigures Paradise Lost rhetorically, elementally, and intentionally, so Frankenstein’s narrative refigures the Creature’s, as the latter becomes the enabling text of the former. It is important to keep in mind that we are tracing the narrative sequence of Shelley’s tale, in which Frankenstein’s narrative act follows (and thus may be formally and significantly enabled by) the Creature’s narrative. It matters not at all that many of the events narrated by Frankenstein precede the Creature’s narrative, or even his existence; we are concerned instead with a sequence of narrative acts and, from that sequence, attempting to trace the threads of their serial influence.

We see again rhetorical refiguration as Frankenstein’s narrative adopts quasi-Miltonic terms, phrases, and identifiers. But Frankenstein’s narrative is not directly enabled by Paradise Lost; rather, it reshapes the Creature’s text, which has itself been shaped by Milton’s epic. [16] Thus, for example, Frankenstein may describe his guilt over Justine Moritz’s execution by telling Walton that “I bore a hell within me” (88), but that phrase would have been suggested to Frankenstein by the Creature’s use of it months earlier in his own narrative (“I, like the arch fiend,” says the Creature, “bore a hell within me” [136]). The telling point is that this particular phrase does not appear in Paradise Lost at all. We come close, perhaps, in Satan’s realization that “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (PL 4.75), or in Milton’s description of “the hot Hell that always in him [Satan] burns” (PL 9.467), but the Creature’s phrase is his own invention, a simile likening himself to Satan. Frankenstein’s appropriation of the phrase indicates the signal rhetorical influence of the Creature’s text on his own narrative—that this outset narrative has been enabled by the inset, preceding narrative frame.

In its elemental and intentional refiguration of the Creature’s narrative, Frankenstein’s tale introduces a system of ironic expansion and reversal. Just as the Creature identifies with Adam by inverting him (“I ought to have been thy Adam”), so Frankenstein, though less consciously, identifies with the Creature by a second inversion—by returning Adam to an upright position. If the Creature contextualizes himself in the Adam-Satan dichotomy, Frankenstein adopts and expands that suggested frame of reference, becoming first creature (Adam), then creator (God), and finally a vengeful demon (Satan). Speaking of his parents early on in his narrative, Frankenstein tells Walton that “I was their plaything and their idol [. . .] the being to which they had given life” (33-34) and that they “were not the tyrants to rule our lot according to their caprice, but the agents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed” (37). Influenced by the Creature’s tale, Frankenstein represents his parents as godlike beings who bestowed upon their Adam the “gift” of Elizabeth Lavenza, “the beautiful and adored companion of all my occupations and pleasures,” an Eve whom Frankenstein considered “mine—mine to protect, love, and cherish” (35-36). Finally, Frankenstein’s description of his youthful interests echoes Adam’s curiosity about the workings of creation in his conversations with Raphael (PL 7): “It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn,” Frankenstein tells Walton, “[. . .] my enquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world” (37). Indeed, Frankenstein’s lengthy narration of his studies in natural philosophy, and particularly his belief in the writings of alchemists, mirrors the Creature’s credulity when confronted with the “true histories” of the portmanteau texts. These particular story elements have been selected for narration by Frankenstein because they are indicated and activated by the principal concerns of the Creature’s narrative: the Miltonic themes of creation and duty which come to have situational meaning to Frankenstein as he relates his story to Walton. Looking back through the lens of events which have led him to the present, and particularly through the narrative frame provided by the Creature’s text, Frankenstein identifies his younger self with the Creature’s own ironically (un)Adamic existence. Frankenstein’s narrative intention, too, is enabled by the Creature’s apparent motives. Taking his cue from Adam, the Creature structures his narrative to elicit a sense of duty from Frankenstein by sharing his misery and making explicit his need for companionship.

Frankenstein’s narrative to Walton is shaped by similar forces, as Frankenstein attempts to make Walton see himself in the tale he tells: “Unhappy man!” he exclaims to Walton, “Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draft? Hear me,—let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!” (28). Frankenstein sees in Walton the same reckless ambition that has “blasted” his own life, an ambition that marks Walton as a companion of sorts, “pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am” (30). The Creature’s narrative, designed to demonstrate the necessity of companionship, thus exerts its influence over Frankenstein’s narrative as well. Both tales are confessional, but they are also directive, and again we see the pattern of ironic inversion: the Creature concludes by demanding that Frankenstein create a mate, while Frankenstein ends by insisting that Walton destroy the Creature: “swear to me Walton,” he says, “that he shall not escape; that you will seek him, and satisfy my vengeance in his death” (208). Even the details of this inverted parallel are surprisingly similar. The Creature tells Frankenstein that he will watch from afar as Frankenstein fashions a companion, and promises that “when you are ready I shall appear” (148). Likewise, Frankenstein tells Walton to be ready to “thrust your sword into his [the Creature’s] heart,” adding, “I will hover near, and direct the steel aright” (209). Just as the Creature refigures aspects of Paradise Lost for Frankenstein’s ears, so Frankenstein’s narrative is shaped by the frame-work of the Creature’s text and becomes a variation on the original theme. [17]

We reach the final stage in this sequence of enabling texts with Walton’s narrative to his sister, Margaret Saville, a complex that includes epistolary text recounting Walton’s own history, transcriptions of Frankenstein’s tale (interpolating, second hand, the Creature’s text), and Walton’s relation of Frankenstein’s death and the Creature’s final appearance. Walton’s narrative is perhaps least distinct of all, due partly to its embedding complexity, and partly to the changing contexts of Walton’s address. His narrative is fragmented formally, rhetorically, elementally, and intentionally. It begins as a series of separately-posted letters and then assumes a mock epistolarity when it becomes clear that Walton can no longer send his correspondence. The narrative then transforms into a formalized, edited autobiography complete with numbered chapter headings as Frankenstein’s narrative takes over, and finally appends a dated diary, now only nominally addressed to Margaret. Walton’s narrative is first intended as a travelogue, then becomes a vehicle for other narratives, and finally turns into a testimony to the truth of Frankenstein’s tale. Of the three major narratives, Walton’s is most evidently a refiguration of parts—as a text, it is the most monstrous of them all.

It is tempting to read the influence of Frankenstein’s narrative in Walton’s initial letters (those written before he meets Frankenstein), but such influence must obviously be dismissed. Instead, by posing a number of reading problems, the letters suggest the complex system of influences in the other narratives even as Shelley carefully divorces this part of Walton’s narrative from that system. If there is a true “picture-frame” text in Frankenstein, as opposed to a “frame-work” structure, the early portion of Walton’s narrative suggests it; the narratives of the Creature and Frankenstein cannot (yet) have enabled the shape of Walton’s initial letters, but these letters do serve as a separate, artificial border that is thematically (rather than effectually) linked to the embedded narratives. The letters thus give rise to a distinction that has not been evident until this stage of the narrative sequence: a distinction between Walton’s intention as narrator—to record his journey—and Shelley’s intention as author—to provide a liminal space that eases our attention toward the interiors of her novel. We read, for example, of Walton’s desire for companionship, for a friend “who could sympathise with me; whose eyes would reply to mine” (19). We read also of his ambition, similar to Frankenstein’s in the projected good of its effects, “the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation” (16). These sentiments, so human and familiar, will be transformed and heightened to a sublime alterity in the reading (rather than the narrative) sequence, as we move from Walton’s text to the narratives of Frankenstein and the Creature.

But even if these correspondences to Frankenstein and his Creature are not the result of their narrative influence, Walton’s initial letters do suggest other rhetorical, elemental and intentional influences, and so prepare Shelley’s reader for the sequence of enabling texts that will follow. For example, the combination of Walton’s youthful reading in maritime literature and his erstwhile poetic ambitions lead him naturally (if anachronistically) to cast Frankenstein in the role of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, to whom he alludes on several occasions. [18] Like the Mariner’s “glittering eye” (Coleridge, line 3), Frankenstein’s “eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even of madness” (25), and Frankenstein seizes upon Walton as a kind of wedding guest to whom he must tell his tale. After hearing Frankenstein’s story, Walton himself assumes the role of the Mariner in his address to Margaret. Though not an effect of the Milton-Creature-Frankenstein frame-work structure, Walton’s adoption of the Coleridgian frame of reference prefigures the enabling textual frames that will follow in the reading sequence of the novel, even as it post-figures those frames in the narrative sequence. Coleridge acts for Walton as an Ur-frame, preparing him for Frankenstein’s narrative in much the same way that Goethe and Plutarch provide frames for the Creature’s reading of Milton. In a kind of psychic prolepsis, Walton here anticipates Frankenstein and the tale he tells, conjuring a friend from his own desires. Walton-the-poet creates in his imagination what Walton-the-explorer cannot yet discover in the world:

I have often attributed my attachment to, my passionate enthusiasm for, the dangerous mysteries of ocean, to that production of the most imaginative of modern poets [Coleridge]. There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand [. . .] a love for the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all my projects, which hurries me out of the common pathways of men [. . .].


Like Frankenstein’s anticipation of the being he will create, Walton’s wishes are ironically reversed in their fulfillment. He asks, “do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose?” and desires “that some encouraging voice would answer in the affirmative” (17), but Frankenstein will urge him instead to “dash the cup from [his] lips” (28). Walton’s narrative begins as an adventure story, only to be countered and transformed by Frankenstein’s (initially) cautionary tale. In another ironic reversal, though, Walton’s text becomes a cautionary tale that is again countered by Frankenstein, who in recounting his own story has refueled the flames of his own ambition—this time to destroy his creation. In chastising Walton’s men for turning aside from their mission, Frankenstein actually exhorts Walton to further action on his behalf:

“Are you then so easily turned from your design? [. . .] You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species; your names adored [. . .]. Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows. Return, as heroes who have fought and conquered, and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe.”


The counterpoint of intention and effect between Walton and Frankenstein contributes to the fragmented nature of Walton’s narrative.

The part of Walton’s text following Frankenstein’s narrative act, however, is certainly enabled by the narratives preceding it. The difficulty here is to ascertain just how much of the text belongs to Walton. Other voices obviously speak through his text, but Frankenstein has exerted some further authority over it, having “corrected” and “augmented” Walton’s notes, “giving life and spirit to the conversations he held with his enemy” (210). Frankenstein has again assembled a “creature,” this time a textual creation from the parts of Walton’s notes, and imbued that creature with “life and spirit.” At the same time, we cannot be certain how much of the text is “true”; though he is persuaded to believe it, Walton nevertheless calls Frankenstein’s story “the strangest tale that ever imagination formed” (210).

Walton’s narrative creates difficulties in reading the frame-work structure of Shelley’s novel largely because it has not yet been embedded within another narrative, and so has not yet become an enabling text. That embedding, if it is to occur, must happen outside the text of Shelley’s novel, which thus assumes an open form. Frankenstein, like any frame narrative, implicitly invites its own assimilation within other, subsequent narratives. After all, each of the major narratives in Frankenstein seeks to differentiate itself from the narrative which has enabled it and comes finally to encompass and exert authority over its “parent.” Here again the “frame-work” metaphor aptly describes these processes; each successive tale in the narrative sequence, while shaped by the text within, comes to cover that enabling text as a kind of façade with a texture of its own. Such matters of indeterminacy coincide with the “openness” of the novel’s themes, its structural ending, and indeed the “openness” of each of the major narratives that the novel contains. [19]

And where does this enabling and activating sequence end? At what point does the core of significant structure cease its straining outward, its reshaping of itself toward the perceiver? In theory, and in the practical case of Shelley’s work, it does not do so. Frame narratives, conceived as frame-works, clearly model a sequence of narrative and invite readers to continue the reshaping process. (Criticism, surely, is just such a response, an invitation accepted.) In this conception, perceivers are always potentially projectors who will assimilate, embed, and refigure the matter in their own ways, to their own ends. Frankenstein is an unusually heightened example, itself merely a fragment of what has become a much larger process in which the myth refashions and projects itself over and over, in fiction, on stage and screen, in comics, cartoons—and criticism.

Parties annexes