Literary Devices in Frankenstein
Frame story: A frame story is a literary technique in which an introductory or main narrative provides the foundation for another story to emerge. It is sometimes referred to as a story within a story. In Frankenstein, the frame story begins with Captain Walton, an English sailor headed for the North Pole. He encounters a stranger floating on the ice who eventually introduces himself as Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein then tells Walton the story of his life. The majority of the novel takes place within Frankenstein’s story, but Walton’s frame gives the story a plausible place to start.
Epistolary: An epistolary is a literary work that is written as a series of documents, such as letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, etc. The epistolary form of this novel comes from the frame story: Captain Walton writes letters to his sister Margaret during his journey to the North Pole. The epistolary form can add realism to a story because it mimics real-life interactions. In this novel, the epistolary form is essential because it adds credence to a supernatural story that would be easy to dismiss as unrealistic.
Unreliable Narrator: Frankenstein unfolds through a series of narrators. It begins with Walton’s letters to his sister and then relates Frankenstein’s story as Walton hears it. Chapters XI-XVI are Frankenstein’s recreation of the creature’s narrating his own story. These layers of narration should remind readers that each story is the character’s account of what happened. It is therefore colored by perspective and therefore unreliable.
Literary Devices Examples in Frankenstein:
"LETTER I..." See in text (Letter I)
Shelley combines the epistolary form with another technique called the frame story. This involves the telling of stories within a story. In Frankenstein, Robert Walton is the most external narrator. Robert Walton meets Victor Frankenstein, who begins to tell him the story of his life and his invention of the creature. This establishes a story within a story. Deeper still, within Frankenstein’s story, the creature also narrates his own version of events. As such, the narrative actually includes three levels of storytelling or ‘frames.’
"LETTER I ..." See in text (Letter I)
Shelley begins the novel with a series of letters; this technique is called epistolary writing. Eventually, Shelley combines this technique with another called a frame tale, or story within a story, in order to invite readers into the stories of the main characters from a variety of perspectives. This leads to questions of how reliable the characters are as narrators.
"I am going to unexplored regions, to “the land of mist and snow;” but I shall kill no albatross; ..." See in text (Letter II)
This is a direct reference to Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a lengthy poem considered to be one of the first of the romantics. The main character of that poem, also a sea captain exploring the Arctic (“the land of mist and snow”), encounters misfortune, including a ruined ship and starved crew, after killing an albatross. Similarly to Frankenstein, the mariner’s story is a frame story, where the mariner recounts his story to a narrator. In referencing it, Walton shows that he is well read, despite his worries of self-education—and that he seeks to reassure his sister that a similar fate will not befall him.
"On the evening previous to her being brought to my home, my mother had said playfully,—“I have a pretty present for my Victor—to-morrow he shall have it...." See in text (Chapter I)
Notice the strange role Frankenstein’s mother plays in his love life. She gives Elizabeth to Victor as if she were a toy or an inanimate object. This has been read by some scholars through a Freudian lens in which Elizabeth comes to stand for Victor’s obsession with his mother. If nothing else, the strange involvement of his mother and sense of possessive ownership that Victor has over Elizabeth creates an unsettling tone for their relationship over the novel.
"sublime..." See in text (Chapter II)
In aesthetic theory, the sublime is something which inspires great awe, wonder, or ecstasy, beyond the limits of human description. These feelings of awe and appreciation of aesthetic beauty are often mixed with a deep sense of terror. For many romantics, the most sublime object was nature itself, capable of inspiring great depth of feeling. Throughout her narrative, Shelley frequently links nature and the sublime, demonstrating nature as a beautiful and powerful entity through the encounters her characters have with their natural environments.
"My own spirits were high, and I bounded along with feelings of unbridled joy and hilarity...." See in text (Chapter VI)
The tone of this chapter starkly contrasts the grotesque description and mood of the previous chapter. Victor’s levity and joy after the dark mood he expressed in the previous chapter might surprise the reader. This chapter marks a moment in the novel in which Victor tries to block out the creature’s creation. This chapter takes place in an almost dreamlike, or unreal space in which Victor neglects the consequences of his actions.
"Excellent friend! how sincerely you did love me, and endeavour to elevate my mind until it was on a level with your own!..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Frankenstein’s emotional outbursts, such as this one, remind the audience that he is telling the story from a detached future perspective and knows what is going to happen. While the moment he narrates is serene or mundane, these outbursts foreshadow the danger, tragedy, and horror that is soon to come.
"she began to think that the deaths of her favourites was a judgement from heaven to chastise her partiality...." See in text (Chapter VI)
Justine’s reaction to the deaths of her family members underscores Frankenstein’s own beliefs later in the text. This story, while seemingly tangential, builds the idea that the deaths of one’s loved ones is god’s punishment for a person’s sins. Frankenstein should take this story as a lesson and make right the sin he has created. His failure to do so will cause him misery very similar to Justine’s.
"this is thy funeral, this thy dirge!”..." See in text (Chapter VII)
A dirge is a funeral lament, normally in the form of a song or a poem. Victor embraces the notion that the thunderstorm overhead is a dirge for William’s death. Once again, this description insinuates that nature is beholden to the affairs of humanity, and, more specifically, to the events of Victor’s life.
"dark melancholy clouded every thought...." See in text (Chapter X)
This sentence is an excellent example of the pathetic fallacy. Throughout Chapter X, Frankenstein’s inner state blends with and appears to influence his natural surroundings. When he awakens in a depression, it is expressed through meteorological metaphor: “dark melancholy clouded every thought.” It is no wonder that the weather proves to be as stormy outside his soul as it is inside.
"I since found that he read aloud, but at that time I knew nothing of the science of words or letters..." See in text (Chapter XI)
The creature reminds the reader that he was born not knowing human customs or language. Everything he tells Frankenstein is communicated from a future perspective with the knowledge that he acquired later. This establishes the De Lacey’s role as the creature’s primary educators.
"Happy, happy earth! fit habitation for gods, which, so short a time before, was bleak, damp, and unwholesome. My spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipations of joy.”..." See in text (Chapter XII)
Happy, happy earth! fit habitation for gods, which, so short a time before, was bleak, damp, and unwholesome. My spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipations of joy.
"allowing myself to be borne away by the stream, I bent my mind towards injury and death..." See in text (Chapter XVI)
In this metaphor, the creature compares his feelings to a stream. He lets himself be “borne away” by them, suggesting the idea that his feelings are as uncontrollable as nature.
"I saw an insurmountable barrier placed between me and my fellow-men..." See in text (Chapter XIX)
Clerval serves as a foil to Frankenstein, actively participating in society with the enthusiasm of a younger Frankenstein. However, we can see that guilt and obsession have taken over Frankenstein, and he now seeks isolation and barriers between himself and society, only engaging with others when necessary. This isolation deprives him of a support system, which only compounds his troubles.
"The night passed away,..." See in text (Chapter XX)
Shelley cleverly describes the dawn in deadly language: “the night passed away.” This mordant metaphor is fitting, considering that Frankenstein went to sleep fretting over the possibility that his creature might do harm to his beloved Elizabeth. In another instance of the pathetic fallacy, Frankenstein’s psychological state determines the description of the outer world.
"Soon, oh! very soon, will death extinguish these throbbings, and relieve me from the mighty weight of anguish that bears me to the dust; and, in executing the award of justice, I shall also sink to rest...." See in text (Chapter XXI)
Here, Frankenstein slips back into the present and interrupts his story. In remembering how he wished for death while he was imprisoned, he recognizes that in his present moment he is fulfilling the wish he had long ago; he is dying. This interjection reminds the reader of the frame story in which Frankenstein is talking: he relays his story to Walden from his deathbed on the sea.
"Could I behold this and live? Alas! life is obstinate and clings closest where it is most hated...." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
Notice that Frankenstein’s dramatic portrayal of his anguish suggests that in looking at Elizabeth’s corpse part of him died. He laments that he did not die with her. Elizabeth’s death marks the death of Victor’s normal life. Though most of his family and friends have been killed, Victor has held out hope that he can resume his life or build a new life with his love. With her death, all of his hope and innocence dies as well. He also touches on life clinging to where it is most hated, perhaps alluding to the miserable lives he and his creature lead as a result of each other.