Framing the Tale: A study of Frankenstein and Heart of Darkness
Throughout the ages poets and novelists have used frame narratives not only to structure their tales but also to serve a variety of different purposes. The use of frame narratives can be traced back to Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales or The Arabian Nights. However in the hands of writers like Mary Shelley and Joseph Conrad, the use of frame narrative has acquired new dimensions altogether.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance, has a complex narrative structure with not only a single frame narrative as is true in the case of Decameron or Canterbury Tales. Frankenstein’s narrative structure can more appropriately be described as the Chinese box for it has multiple layers of narrative. The novel begins as an epistolary narrative with Walton writing letters to his sister recounting his adventures before he meets Victor Frankenstein. However, the reader is very soon led into Victor’s own account of things. In the first layer of narrative, Walton has been the narrator and Walton’s sister the listener. As the story progresses Victor Frankenstein becomes the narrator while we listen to his anarchic tale along with Walton. This constitutes the first ten chapters of the book. However, the eleventh chapter of the book takes the readers toward yet another level of narration. The reader finds that even Frankenstein’s account has simply been another frame to lead us to the subject of the novel which is the monster The monster recounts his tale and that of the Delacey family to Victor who in his turn recounts it to Walton and so on and so forth. From the seventeenth chapter, Victor once again takes up the narration and after eight chapters the reader returns to Walton again for the conclusion of the tale.
The complex narrative structure, however, is a strategic tool used by Mary Shelley to problematise and at once broaden the scope of her novel. For instance, the multi-layered narrative presents the readers with a variety of perspectives, which a linear narrative can never hope to achieve. The same incidents (what happened for instance after the creation of Frankenstein’s monster) is recounted by both Victor and the monster himself and indirectly commented upon by the frame narrator Walton. The feverish terror of Frankenstein at the sight of the monster he himself has created, his delirious attempts to escape from the consequences of his action comprises only one side of the coin: “I beheld the wretch – the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me…I escaped, and rushed down stairs” (39). The account only finds completion when the reader has heard the monster’s side of the tale, from the early moments of his consciousness to the time when he, seeking the love of his Father, his Creator, his God is confronted with Victor who would have wished him out of existence if only he could: “Cursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?”(101). The reader, once again, being aware that all this is being recounted for Walton’s benefit, and being acquainted to some degree with Walton’s different subject position also feels the invisible presence of the frame narrator throughout the tale absorbing this fantastic and terrifying account and presenting it to his own narratee. This multiplicity of perspectives, and the apparent freedom of choice and latitude for judgment that it brings to the reader, works towards keeping this anarchic and quiet fantastic tale under control.
The frame narrative, both Walton’s as well as Victor’s also act as buffer between the reader and what seems to be the core of the tale: the monster. Perhaps the author thought that to introduce such a primordial figure, a creature haunting the horrifying depths of imagination to her unsuspecting readers would amount to shocking them into apathy, horror and revulsion. Thus, the reader who is also the narratee of each tale recounted in the book is moved step by step into a position where his/her mind is capable of responding to the monster’s account with sympathy, consideration and proper judgment. From the safety and security of the Walton’s sister’s position, the narratee or the reader moves to Walton who with his vaulting ambition is a potential Frankenstein himself, then to Victor and finally to the monster.
However, this analysis of the narrative frame/s bases itself on the assumption that the primary narrator remembers the tales narrated to him word by word and reproduces it verbatim for his readers. Thus, the readers hear Victor’s voice and not Walton’s account of the same during Victor’s tale and the Monster’s voice, without intervention from either Victor or Walton in the Monster’s account. However, some critics argue that since it is Walton, who is the frame narrator, each tale is tinged by his subject position. In this sense Victor’s account becomes Walton’s appreciation of Victor and the Monster’s account becomes Walton’s appreciation of Victor’s appreciation of the monster, doubly removed from the reader by intervening voices and subject-positions. This view however immensely problematises the narrative technique as well as the tales without adding much to it from the epistemological perspective. It is therefore, more fruitful, and perhaps also closer to the authorial intention to indulge in some ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ and think of the tales genuine products of the voice they are ascribed to. This view is also supported by the fact that Mary Shelley consciously differentiates the voices and tones in each of the tales to bring out and establish the differences in subject position of each narrator.
Conrad’s use of frame narratives is much less complex though equally masterful and significant. If Shelley’s Frankenstein can aspire to the position of an open-ended text allowing a great range of contesting interpretations, then Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is much more so. For Marlow, unlike Walton or Victor Frankenstein or even the Monster, is a typical modern man whose own subject-position is highly problematised.
As Edward Said points out, Conrad uses a ‘retrospective method’ (viii) in order to allow for reflection on and reconsideration of incidents that could not have been reflected upon when they happened. The frame narrative in Conrad’s tale performs a similar function. The narrator at once puts Marlow’s extremely subjective tale into perspective, encouraging the readers to interpret, to look for the meaning that is not only elusive but always deferred and to read the subtexts beyond the text of the tale for like every modernist piece of writing Conrad’s novel opens up the possibility for a huge variety of interpretations on the textual as well as the sub-textual level. For instance, once when Marlow’s account is stopped and the readers return to the frame narrative, the narrator says: “I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by the narrative” (43). Conrad was one of the very first great modernists and considering his time, was writing a very new, very different kind of novel and the use of the frame narrator is a means not only to structure this unusual tale but also to direct and guide the reader’s response to the tale by providing them with an ideal listener, the narrator himself.
Conrad’s use of a frame narrative evokes a “chain-like reaction”. Marlow’s story is recounted to four listeners. One of the presents it to the readers whose reaction to the story is left completely open. Just as the listeners react to the tale differently from their respective subject position – at least three of whom (a lawyer, an accountant, and a company director) are incidentally participants and profiteers from the imperialist discourse like the officials whom Marlow meets in Brussels and Africa. Only the narrator seems to be the ideal listener of Marlow’s account free of bias and with the capacity of imagination to admit the problematisation of colonizer-colonised relationship that happens in the tale. His involvement in the tale, just like that of the reader is much more than that of a passive listener. He is imaginatively moved by Marlow’s account as is evidenced from his realization that comes at the end of the novel that Thames leads “into the heart of an immense darkness”(95).
Conrad strategically divides the narrative into three chapters breaking Marlow’s account at three significant moments to bring back the attention to the listeners and their reaction to the tale. The first break for instance appearing when Marlow has mentioned Kurtz for the very first time makes the frame narrator comment about the apparent meaninglessness of Marlow’s account and his attempt to elicit some sense from it thus raising the reader’s curiosity. Similarly the second break in the tale provides a relief from the oppressive, brooding narrative to bring back in to focus the reader-response once again through the reaction of the listeners.
Thus one might conclude that both these authors, Mary Shelley and Joseph Conrad, use the device of a frame narrative not only to structure their tales but also to enhance their scope and complexity at once. In the modern times narrative technique has become a most important aspect of novel writing and these two novels are perfect examples of the cases where complex narrative technique has been employed masterfully for the betterment of the work of art.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Transl. G. H. McWilliam. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1972
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover, 1990
Said, Edward. Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, 1966
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, Worldview Publications, Delhi: 2003