In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley makes use of three large-scale literary devices in order to sustain the interest of her readers. Here, I will discuss to what extent these devices force the reader to alter their
perception of reality.
The first, and most obvious, device used is that of a non-linear structure. By nesting stories one within another, Shelley requires to reader to constantly go back and forth along the time-line of events, fitting together the different sections of the narrative like a jigsaw puzzle. It is possible to argue that even by the end of the novel, the puzzle has not been completed - we do not, for example, discover the ultimate fate of the Frankenstein family nor of Walton himself. On the other hand, the book begins with this metaphorical puzzle partially completed already - the reader is dropped into a story as it unfolds, and the novel allows them to follow it almost to conclusion. The strength of starting the novel someway past the beginning of events is that Walton is able to add a little hindsight to his narration, and thus the reader is provided with background for the story they have yet to read.
There are also plots within the novel to which, to some degree, the ending is known before the beginning. For example, despite the creature’s occasionally violent encounters with Frankenstein during both their narratives, the reader is confident that Frankenstein will escape alive since they have already read his exchange with Walton. It is a reflection on the precience of the novel that such middle-beginning-end structure is currently so fashionable in film - Tarantino’s temporally-jumbled Pulp Fiction and the prequels of Star Wars and The Silence of the Lambs. However, there is a certain literary skill necessary to execute such a construction, since a story with a known ending could easily become tedious and certainly predictable. Shelley rectifies this potential problem by stacking the stories so deeply, with up to four layers at its height. Thus the reader is never quite sure where each tale may be leading or when it will end. In fact, the known ending is used as a method to attract the reader’s attention; from the start, the reader is curious to know just how this “noble creature” has come to be “nearly
frozen” and “dreadfully emaciated.” There is a similarity here to classical music in which various melodies are nested inside one another, building tension which is only released when all the sonic elements are resolved in
the conclusion. A known point of return is, perhaps surprisingly, an effective way of capturing attention over long periods of time, and requires a constant
shift of perception as the story approaches the ending one has been expecting all along. Indeed, it gives an altogether different perspective, since the reader is given, in a sense, 'hindsight' on a story that, within the original
timeline of events, has not yet happened. This is frequently puts a strange twist on the reading of the novel, and such an unfamiliar sensation for the human brain causes constant re-evaluation.
The second device utilised by Shelley is that of the parallel stories. There are many parallels in the story that have been exhaustively detailed by critics since the novel’s publishing; that of Frankenstein and Walton, and Frankenstein and the creature. In Novel: A Forum on Fiction, George Levine goes further and draws parallels between Frankenstein and his father, as both provide a mate for their ‘child’; Elizabeth and Justine, who both appear to blame themselves for the murder of William, and between Frankenstein and Clerval, for when the latter is killed, Frankenstein contracts a near-fatal illness as if he himself had been murdered. In the novel then, one might say that each plot mirrors elements of the others; every story
is every other. Therefore, by reading one story, the reader is provided with ‘hints’ as to where the others might lead. For example, the creature tells Frankenstein, “I will be with you on your wedding night” and Frankenstein
assumes that the creature plans to kill him. However, Frankenstein himself destroyed the creature’s mate, and thus there is a suggestion that the creature might in turn do the same. Again, there is a danger here that tiresome predictability might creep into the developing story. However, Shelley again creates a need to re-examine previous perceptions by adding unforeseen twists to the story. For example, after the murder of Clerval, the reader might expect some other poor servant to be held responsible, as in the murder of William. When instead Frankenstein is suspected as a “villain”, the whole story is brought closer to home since it is the narrator, for once, who must suffer. Thus our perception of what will happen next is not left
static, predictable and ultimately stale; instead, the surprise of an ending different to that expected actually makes the story all the more unpredictable and dynamic.
Shelley is clearly fond of foreshadowing, and in Frankenstein this is executed most subtley. In addition to the suggestive nature of the parallel plots, the characters themselves often make remarks that seem unnecessarily
morbid; this is the value of a novel with non-linear chronology. Frankenstein remarks that Elizabeth “til death was to be mine only,” and thus even in the early chapters of the book, the reader is given clues as to events that only
happen much later. This perhaps serves to point perception in a certain direction, providing bearings for a trail that is not to be followed until later in the book. By both constantly shifting and re-directing the reader’s
perception throughout the novel, Shelley certainly makes use of this aspect of structure to force re-evaluation.
The final device used by Shelley is so crucial the progression of the novel and the perceptions of the reader that I have left it until last, since it links so intricately with the other two devices. This device is, of course, the narration from multiple characters.
The non-linear structure of the novel means that, at different points in the story, the reader is having the story reported from various assorted sources. At no stage does the reader hear the omniscient narration of Shelley
herself; instead, each character presents events as they appeared to them. Thus the reader is compelled to consider, at all stages, not just what is being said but who is saying it. When Frankenstein claims, “As I looked upon [the
creature], his countenance expressed the utmost extent of mallice and treachery,” it might be easy to judge the monster as violent and bestial. But when one considers that it is Frankenstein, seeking to justify his behaviour
to the listening Walton, that relates the tale, it is necessary to think twice about whether this is the truth or not.
The multiple narrators adds a whole level of complication to the novel, since there is no voice placed outside the story to whom we can attribute absolute truth. Rather, the best that can be done is to compare the different accounts of the events in the novel and reach our own conclusions on who is telling the truth and who is manipulating it for their own purposes. For example, Frankenstein initially concludes that “nothing in human form could have destroyed William! [The creature] was the murderer!” In the light of Frankenstein’s other claims about the nature of the monster, the reader might be tempted to dismiss such an accusation as the creation of a vindictive mind. Nevertheless, the creature, in his later account, admits that he “grasped [William]’s throat to silence him,” and the reader can conclude that this part of the story is true. In other cases, the reader is forced - in the light of their knowledge of the nature of the characters concerned, or by a later account from a different source - to alter their perception of the events of the novel.
In conclusion, I would say that the way Mary Shelley structures her novel forces the reader to constantly change their perception of reality. The selection of different perspectives presented in the novel requires the reader to consider which accounts they consider trustworthy and to what extent. The parallels between the lives of many of the characters provide some “familiar ground” in each story, which provides further contrast when the story plays out differently in the end and the reader is
forced once again to change their perception. Finally, the highly non-linear presentation of the novel allows for subtle hints as to events the reader has yet to read of, so that perception is gently altered as the story evolves. The
changing perspective of the reader is a deliberate and crucial part of the novel’s impact, undiminished since Frankenstein was published nearly two hundred years ago.