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The Main Types of Narrative Voice in M.Shelley's 'Frankenstein’ and E.Gaskell’s ‘North and South’

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The extract from ‘Frankenstein’ demonstrates how Shelley utilises first person narrative to express the inner thoughts and workings of Victor Frankenstein’s brain and conscious. Whereas in ‘North and South’, Gaskell employs the use of third person narrative to contrast Margaret’s sophisticated way of life with the working-class characters in the novel. Narrative voice and perspective are important in every novel as it is the medium through which the author expresses the thoughts and views, they wish each character to have. Narration can also highlight the tone the author wishes the novel to convey. The different forms of narration and the perspective it takes shapes the views of the author.

In ‘Frankenstein’, first person narrative is used to highlight the main themes of the novel and the moral issues they carry. In contrast, Gaskell uses third person narrative in ‘North and South’ to compare societal issues. Shelley uses different forms of first-person narration such as letters throughout ‘Frankenstein’. This provides a way of framing thoughts and perspective. Gaskell uses a traditional novel format to frame the opinions of her characters. This is especially important as she analyses more than one character within her novel. In ‘Frankenstein’, the use of first-person narrative has limitations. Although the main characters emotions are highlighted, other characters feeling and emotions and the setting around the main character are rarely mentioned. In contrast, Gaskell’s use of third person gives freedom to write about other characters and the setting around them.

In the extract given from ‘Frankenstein’, there are many examples of first-person narrative. “I often asked myself” (Shelley, 33), “I revolved these circumstances in my head” (Shelley, 33). This allows the reader to understand the inner workings of Victor Frankenstein’s thoughts and emotions. It allows Victor to become a more sympathetic character in the book as the reader can understand what he has been through and what has led to him wanting to build a being such as Frankenstein’s monster. His thoughts towards the ending of this passage become self-deprecating. “I was surprised that among so many men of genius…I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret” (Shelley, 34). This may lead to the broader theme of abandonment in the novel itself. Frankenstein finds it hard to believe that he may have created this new phenomenon, this new science. This is because no one else has believed in him up until this point. He finds it hard to believe in the work he has done or, indeed, to believe in himself. These thoughts and ideas forming in Victor Frankenstein’s head can only be understood by the reader due to Shelley’s use of first-person narrative. The reader gets an in-depth view into what is happening in Victor’s head. In this way, first person narrative is used to highlight the main theme of the novel and the moral issues they carry.

Unlike Shelley, Gaskell employs the use of third person narrative in ‘North and South’. Gaskell does not dwell as much on a singular character. Gaskell uses third person narrative to compare and contrast the different social classes within North and South. Third person allows the reader to experience the events of the novel as an individual, from an unattached viewpoint. The use of third person narration allows Gaskell to share direct information about the setting and characters. “There were many mills, out of which poured streams of men and women” (Gaskell, 71), as Gaskell uses third person narration, it gives the reader an opportunity to experience the setting of the novel. ‘North and South’ is set within the industrial revolution in England and that is very apparent in this extract. Margaret is an upper-class lady and if the reader were to experience the novel through her narration it would affect the way we view the lower-class citizens. Due to the third person narration, the reader is able to see the citizens are they truly are. In this extract there are references to “girls with rough, but not unfriendly, freedom” (Gaskell, 71), “workmen…who commented on her looks” (Gaskell, 71). Whilst the social class difference is apparent, there is little emotion in describing it as there is third person narration. This makes the social class even more apparent as it is not romanticised. This extract shows how third person narrative is necessary in ‘North and South’ to highlight societal issues within the novel.

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In the Novel ‘Frankenstein’, Shelley uses different forms of first-person narration such as the medium of letters to write the story. This is epistolary narration. This can only be done through the use of first-person narrative. Shelley uses letters to frame Walton’s thoughts. The letters allow Shelley to provide Walton’s issues of loneliness and allows Shelley to set up the framework for the rest of her novel. The use of letters allows Shelley to switch narrators within the novel. This extract is not written as a letter but was included in one of Walton’s letters. It is written as a traditional chapter. The use of letters at the start of the novel allows Victor to talk in the present tense and day within this extract. The premise of the story has already been started by Walton in his letters, allowing Victor to move the story forward. In this extract, Victor speaks of how he “should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret” (Shelley, 33) or how he “should be impressed with no supernatural horrors” (Shelley, 33). It is clear that this manuscript that Victor has written and given to Walton was written after the events had occurred. The use of Walton’s letters allowed Shelley to foreshadow what was to happen to Victor. Victor’s story also mimics that of Walton as he too is on a journey enveloped in loneliness. In this way, Shelley uses different writing styles to frame the thoughts and perspectives of her characters.

However, Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ takes a different approach than ‘Frankenstein’. Gaskell uses a traditional novel format to frame her settings and characters. This allows Gaskell to examine more than one character within her novel. Not only that, it allows Gaskell to contrast the different social classes and ways of life within her novel. Due to Gaskell using third person narrative, it is possible to see ways of life that are different to Margaret’s. The story is not affected by Margaret’s personal views as it is not told through letters or through first person narrative. Although this extract mainly focuses on Margaret’s experience, there are scenes throughout the novel in which Margaret is not present. As stated above, this extract focuses on Margaret, there are examples of other characters mannerisms, opinions and lifestyle. “The very outspokenness marked their innocence of any intention to hurt her delicacy” (Gaskell, 71), this sentence demonstrates the “workmen’s” (Gaskell, 71) point of view. If this was written in first person narration such as Frankenstein, it would be impossible to work out what the workmen’s intentions really were. Margaret was “frightened by the disorderly tumult” (Gaskell, 72) and the reader would have been influenced by Margaret’s opinions and experience and viewed the workmen in a different light. This is why the format and narrative in ‘North and South’ is important as it aids in character development and in forming the readers of the different characters, not just a singular character.

First person narrative is used throughout the novel ‘Frankenstein’. Many examples of this can be seen throughout the extract. Although this narration is beneficial to some of the major themes within ‘Frankenstein’ and it aids in making Victor a character to empathise with, there are limitations to first person narrative. As the reader is only hearing and seeing the world and events of the book from Victor’s point of view, they can be seen as bias and one sided. Victor is not an independent character or narrator and therefore his narration is affected by his very close involvement in the events of the story. First person narration does not allow a writer to share direct information about the setting and characters. Due to Victor’s emotional attachment to the events of the novel, his narration of the story is unreliable. It is clear from the extract that Victor’s narration is unreliable. “In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors” (Shelley, 33), Victor speaks of his childhood, showing the emotional attachment to the subject matter he will be talking about. This can be seen as foreshadowing to the emotional response Victor will have after he has created the monster. Due to the first-person narration, there is little mention of surroundings or settings or even of the emotions of other characters. Victor talks of spending nights “in vaults and Charnel houses” (Shelley, 33), but there is little to no description of these places throughout the extract and the entire novel. The narration allows Victor to talk of his thoughts and emotions but only his thoughts and emotions. This is what makes the limitations of first-person narration so apparent.

In contrast, Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ use of third person narration gives more freedom throughout the novel. Third person narration is a more reliable form of narration as the narrator is not a character within the storyline. The narrator is an independent source of information. The narrator is not bias as they have no personal involvement within the story or with the characters. As mentioned above, the main character of Margaret does not influence the reader’s point of view as she is not the narrator of the story and the reader can see the story from a number of different perspectives. Similar to first person narration in ‘Frankenstein’, ‘North and South’ use of third person narrative has its limitations. The unattached nature of a third person narrator can undercut feelings or emotional scenes within the novel. The narrator can seem very removed from the plight of the individual characters. Third person narrative can focus on the setting or surroundings of the main characters which can take away from the individual. This can be seen throughout the novel and there are examples of this within the extract from ‘North and South’. “She alternately dreaded and fired up against the workmen” (Gaskell, 71), “If she had been less frightened by the disorderly tumult” (Gaskell, 72), because Margaret is not expressing her own emotions, in this case fear, it is hard for a reader to be empathetic to her character. The reader can also view the novel from the perspective of other characters, which leads to the reader being more knowledgeable than an individual character. This again makes it hard to empathise with a particular character and what they are experiencing. Although third person narrative allows more freedom than first person narration, it too has its limits.

It is clear from both the extract from ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley and the extract taken from Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ that narrative voice and perspective are necessary and play an important role in a story and novel. The use and choice of narration allows the writer to share information about the setting and characters. Shelley uses first person narrative to aid the exploration of Victor Frankenstein’s personal struggles and battles. Her use of letters and traditional narrative provide an interesting read and help the reader to understand the setting of the novel of Frankenstein. Gaskell utilises third person narrative to express the views of each of her characters and to explain the broader themes of her novel such as social class and the industrial revolution. Gaskell’s highlights the social inequalities through using an unattached third person narration. While it is clear both of these narrative perspectives have their limitations, it is necessary to recognise the importance of narrative voice and perspective in each of these novels. There are reasons for which Gaskell and Shelley have picked their chosen narrative and it is to explain and express the characters of the novel. Narrative voice and perspective shape the story the author is writing and releasing into the world.

Works Cited

  1. Mary Shelley. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818). Oxford University Press, 1998, 33-4.
  2. Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (1855). Oxford University Press. 1982, 71-2.

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The Main Types of Narrative Voice in M.Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and E.Gaskell’s ‘North and South’. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from
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