In Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, I think it is important for the reader to remember that the entire book is through the voice of Robert Walton – not Victor Frankenstein. The novel begins with Walton writing a series of letters to his sister Margaret, and these letters give the reader enough details about Walton’s story and his personality that it should be impossible to disregard him as a crucial character. Then after four letters, the story transforms into a traditional, chapter-style novel about Victor Frankenstein, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t Walton’s story. Just before Frankenstein’s narrative begins, Walton warns his sister that this man he brought on board who he has befriended is about to tell him this incredible story about his life and how he ended up in the artic. He even tells his sister that he is anxious to write down everything his guest tells him: “I have resolved every night…to record, as nearly as possible in his own words, what he has related during the day. If I should be engaged, I will at least make notes. This manuscript will doubtless afford you the greatest pleasure” (Shelley 20). This leads me to believe, with confidence, that Walton never stops narrating the story.
With that in mind, I have read this entire novel so far as if I am reading it through Walton’s lens, and I think that significantly alters the underlying meaning of the story if you would contrast it to what it would read like if you assumed it was only Victor or another character’s story. I believe that Shelley intended for Walton to be known as the narrator for the entire book – not just the letters portion – and that she will return to his letters probably at the end to make the novel come full circle.
But more importantly, realizing that this is story is clearly through Walton’s words makes Victor Frankenstein an unreliable narrator if for no other reason than Walton himself said to his sister that he’ll try to write down what Victor said “as nearly as possible.” Thus, Shelley’s “Frankenstein” must be read as a second-hand sourced story. There were already several moments that I thought Frankenstein’s words seemed odd – like the passage I pointed out in my reading response where Victor suggests scientists shouldn’t let their passion for technology blind them, while at the same time he appears to be doing just that. But once I remembered that Walton could’ve very possibly be misquoting Victor in that passage or at any other point in the book, it gave me new understanding about what I was reading.
This doesn’t mean that an entire book written by a second-hand narrator is bad – I’m sure there are hundreds of novels that have achieved success with that very strategy. But recognizing that when we read Victor’s story, it isn’t 100 percent his story because it is coming from the mind of someone else helps define what this book is truly about (which I haven’t completely figured out because I haven’t finished the book yet, but I don’t expect the true meaning of this book to be Victor’s story). With Walton’s voice telling me Victor’s tale, I’m reading “Frankenstein” in a completely different, more open-minded fashion than I would have otherwise, and I believe that it will pay off at the end when I expect there to be a reappearance by Walton and a completion to his story.