Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley didn’t know when she began it that her “ghost story” would become an enduring part of classic literature. Frankenstein is an admirable work simply for its captivating plot. To the careful reader, however, Shelley’s tale offers complex insights into human experience. The reader identifies with all of the major characters and is left to heed or ignore the cautions that their situations provide. Shelley uses the second person narrative style, allusions both to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the legend of Prometheus, and the symbols of both light and fire to warn against the destructive thirst for forbidden knowledge.
Frankenstein’s tale is narrated in the second person in order to warn the audience directly. Relatively few novels are written in the second person, but those that are have the singular ability to talk directly to their readers. Shelley went to great lengths to preserve this admonishing quality in her narrative: in order to speak to the reader as “you,” the book had to be written as a letter. Knowing the destinies of her characters, however, Shelley knew that neither of the principals would survive long enough to realize their mistakes. She therefore invented Capitan Walton who would, in his letters, preserve the imperative tone of the second person that is so essential to her purpose. The book was written in the second person so that the warning that Dr. Frankenstein gives to Captain Walton is preserved and relayed to Shelley’s readers: you and me.
A classic example of the warning voice inherent in the second person narrative is Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The entire purpose of the mariner’s tale is to warn his audience against repeating his own blunders. Shelley’s character, Victor Frankenstein, likewise delivers his caution from experience. Indeed, Shelley’s several allusions to Coleridge’s poem and the parallel plots that Frankenstein’s tragedy shares with the mariner’s tale are intentional references meant to expose her warning purpose. The mariner’s tale is a mirror image of Frankenstein’s—identical yet backwards. The mariner is punished for killing a Christ figure, Frankenstein is punished for vitalizing a demon—both offenses concern the illegitimate use of a godly prerogative and a disregard for the sanctity of life. Captain Walton—the warned—of course, is also a mariner; however, he sails north and the Ancient Mariner—the warner—sailed south. Walton himself is the first to allude directly to the rime saying that he goes “to the land of mist and snow,” yet he swears that he shall “kill no albatross” nor, says he, shall he return “as worn and woeful as the ‘Ancient Mariner’” (33). His vows are ironic, however, because he is saved from that ancient fate only by listening to Frankenstein’s tale which warns him against his hubristic quest for knowledge. Toward the end of the book, Captain Walton...