Your friend’s brother’s wife’s uncle told you WHAT?

A practice that occurs surprisingly frequently in classic literature is to start the story with a minimally developed main character, who hears from another character about a story told to them from a highly trustworthy third party…

This roundabout storytelling can annoy the modern reader. It feels like a trick- wait, I just got invested in this character, and now the whole story is going to be told to him by some random stranger? I wanted to hear about the first guy!

But there is method to this madness. First, it serves to distance the reader from the primary storyteller- in this case, Victor Frankenstein. We are not distanced emotionally from him, of course- far from it. From the start we are enthralled by Frankenstein’s very human and relatable tale, from his halcyon childhood (“no youth could have passed more happily than mine”, pg 67) to his obsession with creating life, during which he “lost all soul or sensation but for [that] one pursuit” (81). But all the while the reader is subtly reminded of the fact that he is retelling past events, and is currently old and “emaciated by fatigue and suffering” on Robert Walton’s ship (pg 59), waiting for his time to finally “repose in peace”(62).

So why would we want to have that distance from the story? Because it serves the key purpose of making the story more believable. Back when stories like Frankenstein were written, a lot of storytelling was done orally. Stories about things that happened to family members or friends of friends were frequent sources of entertainment. Thus real stories often started with preambles like “my brother once told me this story that an old sailor told him…”

To start a story with this kind of convoluted introduction, as Shelley does, serves to make a fictional story more realistic. Today the main character would be Frankenstein or even his monster, because the main action and story happens to them, and the author would cut out the middlemen.

But having an active “listener” like Walton also serves to give some artificial feedback to the story. It gives Frankenstein a way to address likely reactions of the reader, thus giving the reader a voice. We know that Walton shows great “eagerness” and “wonder and hope” while listening, desiring the details of how Frankenstein actually reanimated a creature, right where Shelley anticipates the reader will be eager to learn the secret too(79). But Shelley chooses not to create fake science, and avoids the details by making Frankenstein unwilling to burden Walton with the knowledge.

By beginning the story with letters, Shelley hopes to invest the readers more emotionally in the story by lending it an air of authenticity. Even modern ghost stories are told this way, usually around campfires- although the listener knows it’s made up, if the teller pretends it happened to them or someone real, the fun of being afraid comes all the more easily.

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