Frame narratives can simply be understood through an illustration of an onion: a literary device that features a story within a story, at times within yet another story. Peeling the onion, one might say. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this structure in literature reaches out to the hearts of each individual character and their specific frame of the novel, echoing in search for something meaningful at the core of the plot. The principal frame of Shelly’s novel is Captain Walton’s letters to his sister Margaret, and it is within his writings that the two “sub-frames” told by Victor Frankenstein and his creature make an appearance. Shelley uses the frame narrative to give alternative perspectives and to highlight the correlations between Victor and Walton with their passions for science and isolation.
Captain Walton’s letters serve as a great asset to the ultimate frame narrative by being the first frame of the novel. It is in his letters that Victor Frankenstein and his creature tell their perspective stories and through which their stories gain relevance. The most prominent character in the novel, Victor Frankenstein, narrates the second frame and discusses his adversities in his decision to make such a Creature—who narrates the third frame. Frankenstein states that Walton “seeks for knowledge and wisdom just as I Victor did”, giving the two characters similar traits and motives while developing Walton to be a character that will listen and gain meaning from the inner framework stories of Frankenstein’s (Shelley 18). The similarities between Frankenstein and Walton connect the first two frames while the creature’s perspective story cuts the border between the ‘monstrous’ creature and that of his creator, Frankenstein, in the third frame where readers hear about its origins. The individual stories of these characters go hand-in-hand to create a greater narrative guided by the connections written in Walton’s letters.
The distinction linking the way in which Victor frames the end of his story and the last bit of spirit that Victor brings into Walton’s frame displays the power of the frame narrative technique in creating a complex reading of the novel’s components and the truth behind the characters. When Victor Frankenstein petitioned for the search and destruction of his creature, Victor declared to the public that he was responsible for “turning the monster loose upon society” and takes the responsibility for himself to fix the situation by “devoting himself, either in his life or death, to his [the monster’s] destruction” (Shelley 164). This sudden change from Victor’s prior turndown to “confess himself guilty” of the first of his creature’s killings because seemingly this confession “would have been considered as the ravings of a madman” seems to display a switch in understanding too (Shelley 62). In this scene, Victor Frankenstein describes his misfortunes and acknowledges his wrongdoings by making a personal decision to fix his mistakes. This self-effacing attitude matches the lively commitment of revenge to create an identity of Victor that shows not only that he has learned from his mistakes, but also that he intends his background and story to be used as a warning.
Captain Walton gives a conflicting view of Victor Frankenstein in his last few letters. Although Victor uses his frame narrative to defend his behavior and convince readers he has, in fact, changed, Walton describes Victor Frankenstein’s views on Walton’s crew, criticizing them for “[shrinking] away” and attempting to leave behind the “glorious expedition” that Walton has accepted (Shelley 177). This motivation of aspiration and the underlying theme of “search for knowledge” displays that Victor Frankenstein has not been reformed as he believes. His overwhelmingness causes him to enter a state of lassitude, “almost deprived of life”. This display of the damaging consequences of the ambition that Victor carries provides a more transparent message than what Victor Frankenstein could develop through his own frame narrative (Shelley 177).
Mary Shelley’s frame narratives act as sources in which the readers are able to judge the effectiveness of the characters’’ narratives and develop a connection to the underlying themes in the novel. Walton mentions that the letters Victor gave and the glimpse of the monster “brought to me a greater conviction of the truth of his narrative than his Victor’s asseveration”, proposing that the truth and fiction of Victor’s narrative were indistinguishable (Shelley 172).
Yet, when the creature, Walton, and Victor Frankenstein’s body come together in the principal frame, Walton grasps, at last, the truth of Victor Frankenstein’s story in addition to the damage and mistakes that label it.
Walton’s reaction to the creature was not one of disgust, but rather one of “a mixture of curiosity and compassion” (Shelley 182). The sources of desire and interest that Walton feels in that moment illustrate the tension created by the two frames that Victor Frankenstein and his creature hold, one carrying the monstrous-like creature and the other of a creature of humanity. Regardless of the promise Walton makes to Victor, Walton allows the creature to “spring from the cabin-window” and be “borne away by the waves” (Shelley 186). This scene connects the two frame narratives and Walton seems to favor the creature’s frame over his creator’s, proposing that Walton thinks the Creature will “ascend his funeral pile triumphantly” and remove himself from the world (Shelley 186). The creature seems to disrupt Walton’s narrative, in some way shape, or form, causing Walton’s ambition to interfere. This interruption could be explained by Walton’s search for knowledge as he immediately sees the damaging consequences of this creation. Shelley writing Walton as the principal narrator allows him to shrink from the other frame narratives after analyzing them, in regard to the novel’s narrative technique and in terms of Walton’s personal decisions in the plot of the novel. Rather than dealing with Victor Frankenstein’s creation at the end of the novel, Walton goes back home and abandons the creature and everything he stands for.
The layered structure of the novel is best interpreted by peeling each skin back to reveal the story underneath, similar to peeling an onion. This is part of the nature of reading, as each story gives way to another, readers feel themselves approaching a greater truth that lies at the core of the novel. It is a force that pulls readers into suspense a well-known characteristic of the Gothic literature era. The stories of Frankenstein and the creature become, through Shelley’s artistic style of writing, Walton’s story. The outer layer of the frame narrative is taken over by the letters of Captain Walton to his sister, which discuss his concerns with Victor Frankenstein. As the frame narrative progresses inwards towards the core of the novel, readers are able to get insight into Frankenstein’s background. Frankenstein takes up the story for Walton’s benefit before the dark heart of the process is revealed to be the creature, who tells his story to his Creator. The creature, a result of the lonely, lost Victor Frankenstein represents the dark consciousness. Captain Walton, who is isolated at the North Pole, is the subject who has not yet experienced the inward progress to the extent that Victor Frankenstein has had with his creations. Ultimately, it can be established that Shelley employs the frame narrative to mirror the examinations of Victor Frankenstein and his creation and how the two characters’ voices merge into the single narrative voice of Captain Walton.