The external form of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” provides the reader with insight into more general themes of the novel. By providing the story with a narrative framing structure, the reader is then forced to question the reliability of the narrator and thus question language as a whole. Focusing on a specific passage from the novel and examining its formal devices, one can accomplish the same analysis of major themes in the novel. The passage below is a description by the creature in regards to his first interaction with fire.
“One day, when I was oppressed by cold, I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!” (p.81)
This passage utilizes multiple formal devices to describe large themes of the novel. Upon first examination of the passage, one can examine a few words that stick out. The diction used by Mary Shelley helps to further convey certain underlying themes of the novel. In the first sentence, Shelley uses the word “oppressed” to describe the creatures feeling of cold. This initially seems like an interesting word choice due to the fact that not many times does someone describe themselves as being oppressed by cold. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word oppressed means: to overcome, put down, or subdue; to suppress; to check or put an end to. The last part of the definition is particularly interesting. The fact that Shelley decided to say that the creature felt as if he was put to an end by the cold plays into the theme of life and death; creation and destruction. In the creature’s eyes, cold is death and warmth is life. This subtle interaction of the creature with fire relates to the larger theme of the novel which is the creation of life. Victor Frankenstein finds the solution to the creation of life and in turn creates the creature, who then in turn describes warm and cold as life and death. The last part of this passage also features interesting diction by Mary Shelley. She writes, “…the same cause should produce such opposite effects!” Here Shelley uses the words “cause” and “effects” in close proximity to each other. This choice to use these words close to each other provokes in the reader the thought of the common idea of cause and effect. In this passage, the creature says that the cause, which is the warmth of the fire that fills him with joy and the effect is the pain that is felt when he touches the hot embers. This idea of cause and effect relates to a larger theme in the novel, again having to do with the creation of the monster. An effect is what happens as a result of the cause. Victor Frankenstein creates the creature in hopes of producing an ideal form of life. This brings him much joy. However, the effect that is seen is that the creature is harmful and Frankenstein feels a great need to stop him from further terrorizing society.
Another formal device that is used throughout this passage is the extensive use of “I”. By doing this, Shelley accomplishes two things. First, she is simplifying the sentence structure. This allows the reader to focus more on the images that are being presented and how those images relate to deeper themes in the novel. Secondly, the numerous uses of “I” relates to the larger theme of language in the rest of the novel. Here Shelley portrays the creature as being short and simple with his language. However, he is also seen using very extensive language with much depth. What this does for the novel is that it further emphasizes the idea of language failing. The inability to classify how the monster actually utilizes language further progresses the theme of the unreliable narrator and the failing language of the novel.
Whether you examine the large external form of “Frankenstein” or you analyze a small passage from the novel, one can see the formal devices that Mary Shelley uses to further discuss major themes of the book.
(Word Count 731)
“oppress, v.”. OED Online. March 2011. Oxford University Press. 9 May 2011 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/132001>.