‘I intreat you, write!’: The Epistolary form of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein


Johannes Vermeer, Girl reading a letter at an open window, 1667

Peter Brooks states that ‘most viable works of literature tell us something about how they are to be read, guide us toward the conditions of their interpretation’.[1] Narrative viewpoint, form and structure are not elements to be ignored or forgotten when reading a novel. James Keech stresses that ‘to evoke the sense of fear, an appropriate atmosphere must be created’.[2] Narrative viewpoint and structure contribute towards this ‘fear’ and therefore successfully build the atmosphere of the Gothic genre. Mary Shelley’s 1831 edition of Frankenstein ‘refuses to be solely Victor Frankenstein’s story’.[3] Shelley uses epistolary frames within the text, creating the voices of Walton, Alphonse and Elizabeth. Janet Altman’s book, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form, argues that ‘the epistolary narrative is unique among first person forms in its aptitude for portraying the experience of reading’.[4] Epistolary narratives create a disconcerting atmosphere that provokes uncertainty and the unknown, particular in Walton’s letters. On the other hand, Alphonse Frankenstein’s letter creates a dark sense of foreboding, as he creates chilling suspense for Victor and the reader. Shelley deliberately structures Elizabeth’s letters in accordance to significant, horrific, scenes regarding the creature. Shelley uses letters in Frankenstein to create suspense in the reader, ‘to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart’.[5] The framed narrative of many Gothic texts unlocks the dark and thrilling process of ‘peeling back one story to discover another’.[6] This process of ‘peeling back’ written documents, to discover yet another narrative viewpoint, contributes to the reader’s terror and curiosity, which is built up between each page. Shelley advocated for correspondence of letters and private journals, and by framing the text of Frankenstein, and integrating these letters within, Shelley conveys the power and necessity of written documents: to intimate instead of distantiate.

The British Critic’s 1818 review of Frankenstein seems to ignore the significance of Robert Walton’s narrative viewpoint and therefore refuses to comment on Shelley’s epistolary form. The reviewer writes how ‘in a sort of introduction, which precedes the main story of the novel, and has nothing else to do with it, we are introduced to a Mr.Walton’.[7] This critic has immediately disregarded the novel’s outer narrator, denying him the narrative space that Walton occupies. If Walton’s letters are a ‘sort of introduction’, readers can see how this critic undervalues the epistolary form as a framing device altogether. Walton relates the entire novel, to his sister Margaret, inside these letters. Jeanne Britton discusses how Frankenstein ‘shifts from epistolary immediacy to monologic narrative, from eighteenth-century novels of letters to nineteenth-century first person narratives’.[8] Britton’s quote sheds light on The British Critic’s review, as perhaps the epistolary form in the 19th century is no longer valued. However, Mary Shelley’s wide experience with letters surely inspired her to frame the main story of Victor’s narrative in this way. Betty T. Bennett states that ‘the epistolary works that most influenced Shelley were those by her parents’.[9] When Mary was a young girl, her father, William Godwin, departed on a six week tour and sent ‘direct and affectionate messages to his two daughters’.[10] Shelley’s understanding of the power of the letter is displayed in the opening chapters of Frankenstein. Being a great distance from his sister in England, Walton stresses the importance of communication by writing, ‘my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare’.[11] Whilst his letters are to inform his sister of his safety, the very form of the letter itself portrays his great distance from her, the inability to communicate in person, in a private place. Altman argues ‘the letters power to suggest both presence and absence, to decrease and increase distance’.[12] The letters convey various kinds of distance in narrative: geographical distance between sender and receiver; chronological distance between events happening and the actual time of recording; and emotional distance, or the inability to record our feelings accurately.

In terms of Gothic meaning, this dual notion of both ‘presence and absence’, particularly of the creature’s whereabouts, is a dreadful and terrifying mystery throughout the novel.  Walton’s letters portray uncertainty of his return and fear of permanent separation with Margaret, ‘if I succeed, many, many months, perhaps years, will pass before you and I may meet. If I fail, you will see me again soon, or never’.[13] This statement contains both the possibility and impossibility of a reunion, or as Altman’s suggests, ‘presence and absence’. Walton sets a tone of foreboding in this sentence, as he heightens the geographical distance between him and his sister. The tone of this sentence is by no means comforting to the reader, Walton instead conveys unease in the reader and creates a sense of trepidation. This effectively heightens the reader’s curiosity and sets the atmosphere of distance, fear, and isolation. Walton admits that a letter is ‘a poor medium for the communication of feeling’, which portrays the emotional distance apparent in the epistolary form.[14] However, the letter may be considered as a ‘poor medium’ due to the chronological distance between the events and time of recording. The content therefore has an air of unreliability, which ultimately distantiates his sister and the reader from the truth. The fact that Walton doesn’t receive letters, and therefore the reader never discovers Mrs Saville’s narrative viewpoint, Walton is the ultimate narrator and the outer layer of the framed and embedded narrative. When the novel returns to Walton’s narrative viewpoint, he writes to his sister, ‘it is highly probable that these papers may never reach you’.[15] If this is true, then the entire manuscript of Frankenstein would indeed be ‘lost in darkness and distance’.[16]  As these are the final words of the novel, followed by ‘THE END’, Shelley refuses to close the novel in the typical fashion of a letter.[17] Walton does not leave his signature in the usual manner, ‘your affectionate brother’.[18] Altman suggests that ‘the closing lines can be a privileged moment for emphasis, summary, retrospective illumination, or simply a playful punchline’.[19] These factors all contribute to the ‘epistolary closure’. [20] The ending of Frankenstein possesses the effect of a cliff-hanger, which can be viewed as ‘playful’, since it teases the reader with mystery of the unknown. If ‘all epistolary narrative ultimately drops off into silence’ then this emphasises the distance between the writer and the reader.[21] The reader is metaphorically ‘lost in darkness and distance’ when Walton fails to find epistolary closure. Shelley deliberately leaves this open to her readers to prolong the sense of mystery and the unknown. As readers, we are left to imagine the fate of the creature and of Walton himself.  The letter form therefore enhances these central themes surrounding uncertainty by creating an underlying tone of trepidation and fear.

Shelley returns to the epistolary form in Victor’s narrative, to maintain the Gothic atmosphere of suspense and foreboding. Favret argues that ‘the function of the letter, if not its form, remains essential to the function of the novel’.[22] Chapter seven of the novel opens with the letter from Alphonse Frankenstein, which, from the beginning, creates terrifying suspense for Victor and the reader. The start of Alphonse’s letter conveys the difficulty in bearing horrific news through a written document, and effectively becomes a commentary on the epistolary form itself.

‘My Dear Victor,
You have probably waited impatiently for a letter to fix the date of your return to us; and I was at first tempted to write only a few lines […] But that would be a cruel kindness, and I dare not do it. […] And how, Victor, can I relate our misfortune? Absence cannot have rendered you callous to our joys and griefs; and how shall I inflict pain on my long-absent son? I wish to prepare you for the woeful news, but I know it is impossible; even now your eye skims over the page, to seek the words which are to convey to you the horrible tidings.
William is dead!’ [23]

Shelley uses the letter form to create unbearable suspense in Victor and the reader. Altman refers to this as ‘the weight of the reader’.[24] Once the letter is received and opened, the language is exchanged and the burden is essentially passed over. In this instance of the novel, ‘the letter writer simultaneously seeks to affect his reader’ with the use of rhetorical questions.[25] ‘How, Victor, can I relate our misfortune?’, ‘how shall I inflict pain on my long-absent son?’, these questions are pointless, since Victor is in no position to give direct answers. Alphonse’s narrative power in this letter sparks an element of cruelty, as it teases and torments Victor in suspense. Shelley ‘quickens the beatings of the heart’ as she creates terror in the wider reader. The letter’s power to control and influence the reader is apparent, as Alphonse teases, ‘even now your eye skims over the page’. Alphonse’s language seems to become a critical commentary on the function of the letter, as he realises the reader’s desire to absorb the information quickly. Alphonse’s language also alludes to the various types of distance as he points out the chronological distance, ‘you have probably waited impatiently […] my long-absent son’, which conveys the delay in receiving this letter. By writing these words, the letter essentially gains more power in terms of the key information it stores. Alphonse’s letter marks a refusal to intimate with his son, as he writes ‘I will not attempt to console you’, he is therefore emotionally distancing himself from victor, due to his own grief for William.[26] However, this is because there is little that the writer can do to console Victor, through a letter, as it is ‘a poor medium for the communication of feeling’. Alphonse abruptly writes that ‘William is dead!’, illustrating how he eventually gives in to the unavoidable directness of the letter. Coming at the start of a new paragraph, this sentence is structured to enhance Alphonse’s blunt tone. The use of an exclamatory mark emphasises the abruptness and effectively shocks the reader with horror. Shelley’s letters begin to become associated with the transferal of bad news; they appear as omens containing unexpected and disastrous information. In terms of the letter forms effect, they give an exciting and thrilling reading experience for Shelley’s readers.

Alphonse now occupies a greater role in the novel, his 1st person letter acts as a story telling of the night of William’s disappearance ‘Last Thursday (May 7th)’.[27]  Here we can see how letters ‘frame and authenticate the novel’, as finally, we are shown another character’s perspective of the horrific events.[28] Alphonse’s letter builds an eerie atmosphere to enhance the horror of the William’s murder and to heighten the devastation as he describes, ‘it was already dusk before we thought of returning’.[29] In order to build suspense, certain images are repeated, ‘he did not return’, ‘he was not there’.[30] The letter adopts a flat, monosyllabic tone to enhance the fright and fear that they experienced that night. The imagery is grotesque and harrowing as he states ‘the print of the murderer’s finger was on his neck’.[31] Ultimately, the letter contains dramatic irony, as Victor and the reader instantly suspect the creature as William’s murder. A significant part of the plot is contained within this letter, which gives it a great deal of importance. Structurally, the letter marks a turning point for the novel, as the reader suspects that this shall be the first of many devastating events concerning the creature and murders.

Shelley structures Elizabeth’s letters in accordance to significant moments concerning the creature. Chapter five describes the moment of the creature’s birth and Victor’s terrifying nightmare of Elizabeth in a ‘hue of death’.[32] Chapter six immediately begins with Elizabeth’s letter, the first of two which remain unanswered during the novel.

‘My dearest cousin,

You’ve have been ill, very ill, and even the constant letters of dear kind henry are not sufficient to reassure me on your account. You are forbidden to write – to hold a pen; yet one word from you, dear Victor, is necessary to calm our apprehensions […] Write, dearest Victor – one line – one word will be a blessing to us […] I intreat you, write!’ [33]

Elizabeth expresses the importance and urgency for communication through a recipient’s response, as she emphasises the notion of exchange between sender and receiver. Shelley uses the letter form to enhance the theme of distance and separation in the novel. The letter’s tone of panic and desperation repels Victor, as the notion of replying to his family ‘greatly fatigued’ Frankenstein.[34] Following Frankenstein’s nightmare regarding Elizabeth, his cousin’s letter comes as a shock to both him and the reader. The letter form works here as a dreadful reminder of those ‘wildest dreams’.[35]  Shelley creates the first letter to force the reader to look back upon creature’s birth, whilst Elizabeth’s second and final letter becomes a device for foreshadowing her own wretched murder. The epistolary form is therefore reintroduced between scenes of horror and terror, as Shelley associates and enhances the theme of fear with the letters. Elizabeth writes, ‘do not let this letter disturb you; do not answer tomorrow, or the next day, or even until you come, if it will give you pain.[36] The language is ironic in terms of how Elizabeth is the one to be ‘disturbed’ and experience ‘pain’.  The letter is unique in terms of how the writer doesn’t require a response, which essentially cuts off any desire for maintaining correspondence. Again, Victor neglects answering his cousin because ‘this letter revived in [his] memory what [he] had before forgotten, the threat of the fiend – ‘I will be with you on your wedding night’.[37] In the same way that Victor ignores Elizabeth, he also disregards that the threat was intended for her as opposed to him. Victor’s lack of concern for Elizabeth results in her murder, and the letter appears before the reader as a penultimate farewell to her character. Shelley uses the epistolary form to enhance the theme of Elizabeth’s abandonment, which reaches its extent moments before her death. The letter serves to emphasise Elizabeth’s character as powerless, forgotten, ignored and essentially, unanswered.

Due to Shelley’s thoughtful structure of the letters in Frankenstein, they signify danger, fear, uncertainty and destruction and awaken the horrors of the Victor’s creature. The reading experience of these letters is one of terror and suspense that consistently grasps our attention throughout the course of the novel. Shelley utilises the letter form within Frankenstein to give a critical commentary on the epistolary’s function, to convey its strength in story-telling and limitations in communicating feeling. The reader relishes in the emergence of an aged and worn letter, when we stumble upon letters and diaries, we can’t help but feel we have discovered a fragile piece of treasure, but there will always be something intriguing and frightening about reading them. With each and every frame the reader transcends, we submit ourselves to become enclosed within the next, but eventually we find that there is no breaking free of the Gothic genre’s vice-like grip on our hands, our hearts, and our dreams.


[1] Peter Brooks, ‘Preface’, in Reading for The Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Knopf, 1984), p. xii.

[2] James M. Keech, ‘The survival of the gothic response’, Studies in The Novel, 6 (1974), 130-144 (p.134).

[3] Mary A. Favret, ‘The Letters of Frankenstein’, in Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and the Fiction of Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993),pp. 176-197 (p.178).

[4] Janet Altman, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982), p.88.

[5] Mary Shelley, ‘Authors Introduction to the Standard Novels Edition (1831)’, in Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus, ed. by Maurice Hindle (London: Penguin, 2003), p.8.

[6] Beth Newman, ‘Narratives of Seduction and the Seductions of Narrative: The Frame Structure of Frankenstein’, ELH, 43 (1986), 141-163 (p. 144).

[7] The British Critic n.s., 9 (April 1818): 432-38.

[8] Jeanne M. Britton ‘Novelistic Sympathy in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’’, Studies in Romanticism, 48 (2009), 3-22 (p.6).

[9] Bennett, Betty T., ‘Mary Shelley’s letters: the public/private self’ in, The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, ed. by Esther Schor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 211-225 (p. 216).

[10] Ibid., p. 212

[11] Shelley, Frankenstein, p.15.

[12] Altman, Epistolarity, p.15.

[13] Shelley, Frankenstein, p.18.

[14] Ibid., p.19.

[15] Ibid., p.216

[16] Ibid., p.225.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p.22.

[19] Altman, Epistolarity, p.145.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p.149.

[22] Favret, Romantic Correspondence, p.179.

[23] Shelley, Frankenstein, p.73.

[24] Altman, Epistolarity, p. 88.

[25] Ibid., p.88

[26] Shelley, Frankenstein, p.73.

[27] Ibid., p. 73.

[28] Britton, ‘Novelistic Sympathy’,  p.11.

[29] Shelley, Frankenstein, p.73.

[30] Ibid., p.74

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., p. 59.

[33]  Ibid., pp. 65-68.

[34] Ibid., p.68.

[35] Ibid., p. 59.

[36] Ibid., p.192.

[37] Ibid.