Function Follows Form or Form Follows Function?
The epistolary form serves to set up a panopticon of sorts where, at first, I feel like a stalker of sorts (reading the letters) then pulled into, even involved in the narration, by the use of first person narrative, and Victor’s occasional and seemingly random direct addresses to me (the reader) in Vol. I. The letters serve not only to give a sense of history and reality, relationships, and create a mode of storytelling but to create, set up, a sense of watching, spying upon that ultimately sets up a panopticon of sorts. I wonder if Frankenstein had the same effect on Shelley’s contemporaries, or even on generations before mine. Was (or is) the epistolary form taken for granted?
In reading Vol. I, it seems to me that she was acutely aware of both form and function. Did Shelley’s ambition for the novel (desired function to be in conversation with her contemporaries and their works, or perhaps promote conversation) drive the form of the novel? Or did she mold the form of Frankenstein to serve a function, to be in conversation with her contemporaries and their works? Does it matter? How have form and function impacted readers’ interpretations over the centuries?
Perhaps an avant-garde feature of Shelley’s Frankenstein is the peppering of what feels like stream of consciousness writing that pops up here and there in the narrative portion of Vol. I. Victor relays not only the events and his observations but his thoughts, feelings, and reactions. In this manner, I become more intimate with him. Yet, he challenges my moral and ethical values, as I’m sure he likely challenged his contemporary readers. I don’t know how to feel about him. He challenges my notions of conformity, my values upon from which my feelings about him derive. How do you feel about Victor? Why?
The letters are the first challenge to my sense of morals – should I really be reading someone else’s personal letters? As the story shifts into a first person narrative in Vol. I Ch. 1, I find myself zooming in on Victor, questioning what he is saying and why, questioning what he is not saying and, again, why. I learn more and more about Victor, his hopes, dreams, and ambitions, but more importantly I get a glimpse into his psyche. At first, Victor seems to possess some degree of self-awareness when he tells Elizabeth in a letter, “My life might have been passed in ease and luxury; but I preferred glory to every enticement that wealth placed in my path” (51). At the same time, he seems to lack insight, or is in some state of denial or blinded by the pursuit of glory. Yet, it is not until later in Vol. I that Victor’s weaknesses begin to emerge. He becomes fearful of his creature when the creatures eyes “were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds … he might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. I took refuge …” (86). Yet any kind of awareness, save self-preservation, seems to abandon him when his creature comes to life.
At first, I am distant, looking down upon Victor, but as Frankenstein progresses, I find myself getting closer and closer to him, to the point my watching is exposed.
The Stalked Stalking the Stalkers
In the more conventional sense of a panopticon, I, the reader, would be watching in on Victor (who would be most unaware, of course), yet it seems a construction of a panopticon within a panopticon is emerging throughout Vol. I – I’m not sure who’s watching who by the end of Vol. I. At times Victor reaches from the timeless pages and directly addresses me, the reader:
- Remember, I am not recording the visions of a madman (80).
- I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to informed of the secret which I am acquainted; that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject (80).
- … and your looks remind me to proceed (84)
After Victor’s creature comes to life, his interactions with me, the reader, become more indirect and less frequent, as if he is not only retreating from the creature, and perhaps himself, but me (the reader) as he questions, reflects, “Besides, of what use would be pursuit?” (104). After this point, Vol. I seems to shift back into an almost exclusive first person narrative. Yet, I feel very close, or rather closer than ever, to Victor. It is at that moment I feel like I have been sucked into the story; I feel that same sense of dread about the creature he is feeling. I feel a sense of being watched, not just by Victor, but the creature, and some unseen force that I can’t quite pinpoint (perhaps my own conscience?).
Who’s Watching Who?
Who's Watching Who?
As Vol. I wraps up, I am feeling watched, even by myself (introspection), and feeling the need to judge. Would I have let the creature run amuck? Would I have let Justine die an innocent for something the creature did? I question Victor’s actions and reaction, as well as his motivations. I question my reactions to Victor. Would I have done or been able to do differently?
Interestingly, it seems Victor is feeling watched, has some awareness of this, and is also watching. Perhaps this sense of watched and watching are a clash between the desire for glory then later remorse (resulting in non-conformity) and social conformity? Between being a good man and good citizen?
While Shelley was certainly in conversation with her contemporaries and their works, is she critiquing something and/or someone? Is Shelley trying to challenge me (the reader) or my values? How does Frankenstein reach through time and still continue to challenge readers who are likely very different from Shelley’s contemporaries? In this case, it seems the delivery may very well be just as important as the content.
Still the question remains. Who’s watching who? And, why? As Victor said, perhaps I’ll just have to wait until the end ….