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The first text we're going to use is a controversial one. Heart of Darkness was written by Joseph Conrad in the year of 1899. There are multiple quotations in the text that suggest that Marlow has a lot more control over the narrative than Frankenstein in his text. Frankenstein's motives are controlled by his emotions, this can change events and retellings of other people's stories. Whereas, Marlow is able to control the emotions of others using the story. The most notable of these incidents is when he tells Mrs. Kurtz what Kurtz's last words were; of course, he doesn't tell her the truth and says that he said his wife's name instead of "The Horror! The Horror!"
Unlike Frankenstein, who insists all of his narrative is true, Marlow actually suggests that even though he states his story, you could never actually understand it because of the differentiation between each existence of each person. A fairly modern concept in which he clearly says:
“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams...No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone...”
Where Frankenstein is more Victorian, stating his account of events is the only true one and, as a warning to Walton, prays he never embarks upon the same knowledge; Marlow has no intention of making you believe anything, but states where he changes the narrative in certain places. It works on the same premise of Frankenstein in which a main character tries to change the narrative to their own will, but instead of insisting upon truth—Marlow doesn't try to prove anything. The way in which Marlow changes the narrative and tells us about it gives us all the more reason to believe him. Why? Well because he doesn't hide the fact behind emotional trauma like Frankenstein does.
The very fact that Marlow changes more of the narrative is the guess at his truth in it, a paradox that colours the modernist era—this is actually the real first person as opposed to the limited first person. Frankenstein being the most biased of the two.
The next text we will look at is more besides Frankenstein's time period. Lord Byron's epic poem The Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is one of the greatest poems about travel and experience ever written and is also one of my personal favourites. The way in which the Childe Harold controls the narrative is incredibly like Frankenstein, the narrative is effected by the emotion, time and place of the character. The verses and tension, the experiences and fallacy changes with the character—this means that we could suggest that allowing the emotion to effect the narrative probably means that there isn't much truth in it.
Unlike Heart of Darkness' Charlie Marlow - Frankenstein and the Childe Harold are constantly trying to prove the truth by warning, recollection or others being in the vicinity.
In Byron's poem, instead of the emotions effecting a particular event, they seem to instead morph and change the landscape to fit the emotion the poem is portraying. The question we must ask is: is this what it actually looks like? And more than often the answer is "no."
Let's have a look at some quotations from Byron's poem:
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, there is a rapture on the lonely shore.”
The idea of this is to show us what a particular scene looks like. Not only do we have two different scenes that aren't possibly linked here, but we also have two opposite emotions being expressed. Byron is trying his utmost to pump truth and honesty into it by making the correlation between the woods and the shore being completely different places and would, therefore, require different emotions. All of this is done without an actual physical appearance. Much like in Frankenstein, when Victor is always pressing his mental state upon the scenery whilst returning to Geneva, but never actually tells us the specifics of that "narrow road" or that melancholy. All of which seem to be linked to his emotion only and not what the scenery actually looks like.
The next quotation we're going to look at is:
“The moon is up, and yet it is not night,
The sun as yet divides the day with her.”
This is the Childe Harold making the same attempt Frankenstein was making with his narrative when it came to manipulating reason to make it seem more human. Frankenstein manipulates the narrative of the Monster to make him seem more human and thus, the Childe Harold here is manipulating the narrative of what he sees upon the sea, both the sun and the moon—and more scientifically accurate, instead of only one. He's trying to give us reason without emotion, something not very typical of the Romantic Poets, and like Frankenstein, this seems to be outweighed by all that has come after it or before it. It is simply a disguise in which to coat the want to press emotion upon an atmosphere and a story instead of depicting honesty.
This is why they both feel the need to prove the honesty they are not giving to the reader.
Therefore, the Romantic writers seem to require to prove their honesty due to the fact they cannot keep themselves and their emotion out of changing the moments and feelings of others and various events that colour the storyline. We must then question how much of their story actually happened since, according to the Romantics themselves, emotions are capable of dangerous things.
The next text we are going to look at requires us to rely heavily on a completely unreliable narrator. Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe is possibly the best example of the unreliable narrator in literature since he states very clearly that he is nervous and unable to behave normally. Frankenstein is dying, in deep regret and sorrow, and the Childe Harold is overwhelmed so much with emotion that we don't get to see what anything physically looks like—instead it's all become a pathetic fallacy for himself.
When the narrator in the text of Tell Tale Heart begins to tell the story, he asks why the reader would think he is mad. Well, we haven't actually asked but asking the question doesn't help the story and its reliability at all. The fact that the narrator is already mad, as we presume purely because of the question, we have trouble believing any of this that he is about to recount actually happens, because nowhere in the story does he go mad. He seems to be already mad. He only increases in this throughout the text.
This is incredibly similar to Frankenstein as, from youth, Frankenstein explains that he is plagued by tragedy. But we never actually see him before the tragedy, so we can't make the judgment over whether he became sorrowful and full of regret or whether he already was. Yes, he recounts this to us, but because of the trauma he has experienced, how much can we believe is actually true?
We're now going to look at some quotations from Tell Tale Heart and see what they tell us about the narrative and what they can give us in terms of information on control in Frankenstein as well.
As we already know that we cannot assume that the narrator of Poe's story went mad, because he doesn't tell us. What we can assume is that he may have already been mad, because he states this:
"The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute.”
Poe's narrator states that his hearing was more "acute" than any of his other sense, having no idea when this happened, it must have happened before the incident in the story occurred or there would be no way of telling whether it was his hearing that was acute or the sound was loud. The fact that the police don't move when he can hear the ticking sound only lets us know that his hearing is either really acute, or that he has already gone mad and therefore, we probably shouldn't believe this at all. But even if we did believe it, everything here has to have happened before the narrative takes place or it wouldn't make any sense.
Much like in Frankenstein, when we look at how he becomes more and more depressed and melancholy about returning to Geneva. We can't tell whether he has always been this depressed, or whether this is a development, he seems to have left that part out. This is because every time he returns to Geneva, he is depressed or melancholy. It is as if he doesn't want to be there rather than anything specific having gone wrong.
The next quotation that tells us exactly that he was mad before the incident in the narrative took place is:
“I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.”
This is an essential quotation because there is no statement of this being anything to do with the old man. But instead, he makes this statement whilst planning to kill the old man, therefore he didn't go mad after the incident, he was already mad before and thus, we cannot trust his recount of events.
This is a lot like in Frankenstein when he attempts to manipulate, or as we've suggested he must've manipulated, the narrative of the Monster in order to suit the way in which he actually feels about the way in which things have turned out. But because of his emotional state being able to change and manipulate events that have nothing to do with him directly, he cannot be trusted in his chain of events.
The question we have now is, how does Victor's narrative link in with Mary Shelley's own life and does this link, if any, explain Victor's inability to keep his personal emotions, mental state and most intimate feelings out of the narrative.
In Badalamenti's biography of Frankenstein entitled: Why Did Mary Shelley Write Frankenstein? He states that there is something more to the man-made monster idea than just the fact that Victor is wanting to be God in both recount, narrative and plot. Instead, it is about how unconscious ideas are expressed through other things, not being expressed as what they are because Victor has:
"A defense used to consciously express an emotionally charged but unconscious issue that would be unbearable were its real meaning open to conscious view" (Badalamenti, 2006).
The idea of a "silent Mary" was possibly the best one. Mary was known to listen to the conversations between her husband, Percy Shelley and the poet, Lord Byron - when living in Byron's villa. In this, she heard them talk about Darwin and another thing in particular that was:
"The electrical experiments of Galvani on recently expired creatures and the prospect of generating life itself..." (Badalamenti, 2006).
This may have prompted the use for a scientist, especially that of the previous era to which the Romantics were reacting against - the Enlightenment. These were rational scientists, which is why the scientist of Victor Frankenstein is far from rational. It is a satire on the fact. His inability to control everything except for his own story is a perfect satire on his actual intelligence.
Badalamenti also gives some suggestion to why the dialogue and relation in Frankenstein is the way it is. Why does Frankenstein commit incest, but never actually calls it incest? He's never ashamed of the fact and he doesn't think there's anything wrong with it because it is his adopted sister.
"The immediate trigger for the dream in the challenge and the dialogue surrounding it is transparent. Mary was being urged to create something worthy by two esteemed poets, one of whom, Byron, was regarded as the most esteemed of his time. She likely sensed at some level that they shared a strong interest in incest, an interest that Byron lived out in an incestuous affair with his half sister Augusta Leigh."
Percy Shelley's interest in darkness and horror may have prompted the atmosphere of the story and the instability of Victor's mental state. Percy Shelley was known to have suffered horribly with depression and thus, would make a perfect model for the mental state of Frankenstein, especially if it meant ridiculing the enlightenment and values of Augustan Reason. Badalamenti states:
"She had ample evidence of Percy’s interest in horror and creating fright as shown by her note on “Jane’s horrors” entered in her journal on August 27, 1814, referring to Jane’s nightmares and emotional outbursts during her flight from England with Percy."
Therefore, we have a woman in the centre of the story, depressed and writing away out of nightmares and sleepless nights, much like Elizabeth Lavanza and, Badalamenti explains the connection with the Frankenstein narrative himself as something Mary was pushed to do. He concludes this as:
"Mary was pressured to create a story by two eminent men, one of whom loved her and both of whom shared an interest in incest."
So it is strange that so much of Mary's own life should show itself in the novel to the point that Victor's sister is Elizabeth and Percy's sister is also Elizabeth. It is also to the point that Felix loves the motherless Safie, when Percy loves the motherless Mary. The various historical pieces of the name Victor being adopted by Percy Shelley as a pseudonym in his early career.
The Monster also holds importance to Victor's narrative. It doesn't have a name because Victor didn't name it, its story is only told through Victor because it is said that the Monster can communicate, but probably not sufficiently enough for the novel. Mary Shelley's own life plagues this narrative and we have the suggestion of:
"The man-made monster attracts her feelings for her lost child, her anxieties over her often-pregnant state and Percy’s reply to these events."
The fact that it took Victor nine months to make the monster only exemplifies these concerns over Mary Shelley's ability, or rather, inability to keep herself out of the narrative.
So, it's not just a question of how much control does Victor have, or not have over the narrative and whether he can keep his own mental state, emotions and traumatic past out of it. But it is also a question over whether Mary Shelley can keep it away from Victor. This seems like more of a deliberate ploy by Mary Shelley in order to communicate her various anxieties about her life, the language of Byron and Percy Shelley and the way in which she lived near the alps during this time in a narrative that was more unrelated to her own lifestyle in order to indirectly assume this state. In other words, she attempts to keep herself out of the main plot, whilst filling the characters and themes with her own states of life, mentality and emotion.
In conclusion, Frankenstein is unable to control the narrative, not because he doesn't want to, but for the following reasons:
- He is a satire of enlightenment and Augustan reason philosophy—the concentration on the advancement of science probably impressed Mary Shelley but possibly didn't make her think positively because of the arguments had by Percy and Byron in her presence
- He is coloured with Mary's own life. He doesn't seem to be his own character but an amalgamation of different states of time in the relationship of Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley. Possibly explaining the depression, to which Percy Shelley was very experienced
- He is made up of various interests and hobbies of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley—therefore, his narrative must be covered with emotion as this is the insight that we get into the minds and interests of Byron and Shelley.
Even though this is and we know that Victor may not be able to control his own narrative. We must then ask the most formative question—one of those that we could not possibly answer unless able to communicate with the author themselves. The question is:
How well can Mary Shelley control the narrative?