Alchemy, Ring Writing, Doppelgangers, and Arabian Nights: The Artistry and Meaning of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

I’ve just finished a hurried reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, a book I haven’t read in too many years. In the hopes of encouraging others to pick it up again, I risk making observations about its structures and predominant symbolism which the two centuries of critical literature almost certainly have raised and, as likely as not, dismissed for valid reasons. I’m certain that serious readers of popular fiction will recognize several of the ideas below as the heart of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Divergent (not to mention Twilight!). I ask your forgiveness in advance for whatever degree I have seen or ‘found’ only what I wanted to find, even allowing that perhaps having eyes to see such things is the only means of perceiving them.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a parable about the monster within us, ‘the Modern Prometheus’ of the sub-title. The moral of this parable is lost or just neglected (as it has been in the endless popular adaptations of the novella) without noting the careful bracketing of the tales being told a la The Arabian Nights. The meaning of such stories-within-stories, a type of ‘ring composition’ or parallelist scaffolding, is most often at their center, “the meaning in the middle” or key turning point of the ‘nesting doll’ container.

Frankenstein was published in three volumes per the conventions of the time rather than because of the work’s length (as were Austen’s Emma, Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, etc.). Shelley’s familiarity or expectation of that format shapes her telling of Victor Frankenstein’s life and death. The first volume and third are mirror reflections of one another and the second, the monster’s tale to his creator, reflects the story’s beginning and end.

To be precise, the first volume begins with five letters of Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Saville about his arctic expedition in search of the Northern Passage. In these letters he recounts his incredible meeting with Dr Frankenstein, who floats to his ship on an ice flow. The eight proper chapters of the first volume are Frankenstein’s tale, told, he says, as recorded in Walton’s last note, in the hopes that Walton will “deduce an apt moral from my tale” and avoid his fate consequent to over-reaching traditional boundaries.

Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature (Vol. 1, ch. 4)

The third volume includes the last seven chapters of Frankenstein’s story, which he concludes with the command, recorded in Walton’s first note of five after the narrative, that his friend “learn my miseries, and do not seek to increase your own.” The first and last volumes are twelve part brackets, whose outer part are Walton’s work, whose inner part is Frankenstein’s narrative, almost all of which tale-telling, however far the stories told may wander geographically, take place in the ship’s cabin on a vessel caught within the ice-cap. The events of these volumes are also in chiastic echoing; Frankenstein’s laboratory frenzy at Stuttgart in the first have a match in his work on the Scottish isle as do his relations with his beloved “cousin” before the death of his brother paralleling in inverse order his marriage to her after the monster kills his best friend Clerval.

The second volume squared by this story frame is the tale of the monster, who is never given a name. Frankenstein introduces this story by recounting how he found the fiend on the glacier above Chamonix; he closes the volume by sharing the effect the story he had heard and his response to the monster’s request for a wife. In between these two chapters are the seven parts of the monster’s life story. This repeats the story scene of the novel’s brackets in taking place on an ice bound cabin, the glacier hut. The monster, too, just before arriving at his “benefactor’s” home, first stays in a snow bound woodsman hut in the forest.

The monster’s story in turn is the tale of another family, the DeLaceys of Paris. Walton, here, is telling his sister the story told by Frankenstein, who is relaying the story he heard from the monster he created, who is sharing the events of his short life which is principally a Romance about the causes of the fall of an aristocratic family to poverty and their redemption. It is in this last part, the kernel of the nesting doll or pearl inside oysters within oysters, that we come to the story turn.

In the central chapter of the monster’s tale, which is the center of the book’s multiple brackets as well, the reader meets Safie, the Turkish beauty who has been the cause of the family’s misfortune and their hope. She redeems their hopes by returning to them against all odds to marry Felix, brother of Agatha (whose names mean “blessed man” and “holy woman”). ‘Safie’ is Turkish for “purity’ and is assonant with the Greek word for ‘wisdom.’ Her arrival as reward for the good family’s fidelity to her is the point or ‘heart’ of the book. Even the monster realizes this, as he becomes fluent in French and learned in a variety of subjects by clandestinely observing her lessons in language, history, the arts, and politics.

An aside here: Shelley points to the bracketing technique, not only with an allusion to the signature story telling of Arabian Nights in Victor’s early narrative (ch. 4), but also with the book used in Felix’ instruction of Safie:

“The book from which Felix instructed Safie [the monster tells Victor] was Volney’s Ruins of Empires. I should not have understood the purport of this book had not Felix, in reading it, given very minute explanations. He had chosen this work, he said, because the declamatory style was framed in imitation of the eastern authors.” (Vol. 2, ch. 13)

Shelley’s only reference to a literary technique comes in the central chapter of the novel and involves a “framing” or bracketing method of exposition, one, the reader assumes, would be most familiar to his Turkish student, but also a pointer to her own technique at its critical junction.

When the monster tries to make contact with these archetypal figures soon after, however, they reject him as the grotesque crime against nature that he is. At the heart of the multiple-bracketed story is Shelley’s indictment of materialist science’s corruption of traditional natural science, the alchemists that Victor loved before going to university and being ‘turned’ by the chemists there. The monster is not named because he is an aspect of Dr. Frankenstein, the fallen image of his creator, his dark-side doppelganger, a relationship evident in his being known as ‘Frankenstein’ by most people today.

Shelley’s involved parallelist and bracketing story structure serves two purposes in support of her meaning that a reading that overlooks it might neglect: the ‘two sides of a coin,’ two-sides-of-one-man character that creator and creation here are meant to represent and the ‘meaning to be found in the middle.’ Reading the book as a writer, rather than as ‘serious reader’ hoping to explain the novel’s power, I confess to being impressed most by the invisibility of the story squares or brackets. From Walton, to Frankenstein, to monster, to the DeLacey romance, and back out again in inverse order with parallel story events in correspondence with these changes in voice and perspective is only as evident as the wind that fills a sail.

Your comments and corrections are, as always, coveted.


  1. In his book “Trillion Year Spree”, sci-fi giant Brain Aldiss makes the claim that Frankenstein is the “real” first science fiction story. He also makes a claim that would probably outrage any who still remember the genre’s Golden Age, namely that Amazing Stories publisher Hugo Gernsback is not the revolutionary fans make him out to be (does fans today still remember Amazing Stories?).

    I also remember Shelly’s references to Cornelius Agrippa, who is then summarily dismissed by one of the main character’s father (perhaps that’s where all the trouble starts?).

    Shelly also references Isaac Newton a few paragraphs on (somewhat ambiguously, and she calls his followers “Mere tyros.”). In that regard, it’s interesting to learn about Newton’s studies in Alchemy. A good place to start, if it please, is a BBC documentary called Isaac Newton: The Last Magician, which details his studies in esotericism. The major question to documentary leaves hanging in the air is just this: How much of Newton’s alchemical studies effected his most famous treatise, and is it possible that alchemy is somehow preserved in modern chemistry? Also, what “Science” really powered us to the moon and back?

    If all the above sound melodramatic, apologies, it’s just one of the questions the documentary might leave one with. It can be found in it’s entirety at this Youtube link (it unknowingly reveals that Shelly was familiar with, and quotes from, Newton’s writings without ever referencing her):

    Incidentally, Brian Aldiss can be found conversing with a certain Oxford Don in Lewis’s valuable anthology “On Stories”, in which he gives his own definition of Science Fiction (I’m also gratified that he labels Ray Bradbury Mythopoeic!).

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