Novels usually draw readers in and work to avoid us thinking “this is fiction”. ‘ In an essay of not more than 1500 words, assess this claim with reference to one of the following novels: Great expectations, Fathers and Sons, Frankenstein. A novel by definition is a piece of fiction. The story may rely heavily on one literary genre (romance, gothic, sentimental and realism) but in all likelihood will encompass more than one type.
This fusion of styles projected through the novel’s structure, plot, settings, themes and characters, enables the author to impact the reader in many different ways, evoking feelings of fear, recognition, sympathy, doubt and acceptance. It is this subtle blend of genres that inevitably influences the reader as to the fictionality of the novel. It is with this in mind that I shall analyse the statement that ‘Novels usually draw readers in and work to avoid us thinking “this is fiction”‘ in relation to Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley in 1818. An author may seek to depict reality through the structure of their novel.
The reader is programmed to recognise a simple format. Events are sequential and we can identify both cause & effect. Invariably the story will be told through an omniscient narrator or single character in which the reader can trust. However, from the outset Shelley draws our attention to the fictionality of her novel. Through her use of episolatory and biographical styles relating to Walton and Victor’s stories respectively, Frankenstein in effect begins twice (The Realist Novel, p62). In its structure Shelley’s novel is akin to the Gothic genre.
It is non-linear; presenting instead an elaborate series of narratives (Walton, Frankenstein, the Monster, Frankenstein and Walton), enfolded within one another. This is referred to as a ‘Chinese-box’ narrative. Shelley’s use of diversity of voices employed and an absence of the author’s voice, work to emotionally distance the reader from any individual character, enabling them to explore the novel freely, changing their perspective and sympathies as they reach their own conclusions. For example, our sympathies are initially with Victor as we perceive him as the Monster’s victim.
However, our perspective and sympathies shift once we come to understand that the Monster is a victim, of both Victor and society. ‘I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept. ‘ (Frankenstein, page 80) By the end of the novel, their mutual desire for revenge means our sympathies are split. Although Shelley establishes a link between Victor’s experiments and the scientific discoveries of her time the plot at the centre of Frankenstein (the creation of the Monster) is extreme, melodramatic, and sensational.
Shelley goes some way to convince us that Victor’s experiment is possible by drawing the reader’s attention away from the biological detail and focuses us instead on the grotesque description of the Monster. This is what Roland Barthes would refer to as the ‘reality effect’ (The Realist Novel, page 260). However, for the modern reader, there is a chasm between early medical attempts at resuscitation and the ability to create a human whose ‘limbs were in proportion’ (Frankenstein, p39) from an amalgam of random corpses.
Had Shelley opted for Victor to bring a dead man back to life the story may have been more credible but arguably she was writing a spine-chilling tale in which references to the incredible and the paranormal are used to enhance the story. Felix uses ‘supernatural force’ to pull the Monster away from his father and we are told the Monster can move with ‘superhuman speed’ (Frankenstein pages 110 & 76). The settings in Frankenstein are largely recognisable and specific, thus adding to the reality of the novel.
References to actual destinations (Geneva, Orkney Islands and the North Pole) as well as dates and time (Walton’s letters), are prevalent throughout the novel. In addition the reader can relate to Shelley’s accurate descriptions of the sublime power of nature and its ability to lift one’s spirits. ‘It was a divine spring; and the season contributed greatly to my convalescence. I felt also sentiments of joy and affection revive in my bosom. ‘ (Frankenstein, page 44) However, although we acknowledge the reality of place and time in the novel, the healing power of nature is more akin to romanticism.
Furthermore the gothic overtones of particular settings cannot be ignored. The remoteness of ‘the land of mist and snow’ (Frankenstein, page 10) prepares us for Walton’s extraordinary sighting and the incredible story that Victor will tell. In addition Shelley’s inclusion of the prisons in the novel, are as symbolic as they are real. The prisons which constrain Justine and Victor as well as the Monster’s hovel and Victor’s ‘solitary chamber, or rather cell’ (Frankenstein, page 36) all symbolise mental as well as physical imprisonment.