Michael Raine


Completing the Wretch: Reception Theory and Frankenstein


The object of horror is to frighten an audience, to produce an effect. A successful author will be subtle, ambiguous and stingy with the details. Gratuitous violence and crude imagery may have the power to disgust or offend, but not the power to frighten or disturb. The most terrifying scenes of horrific novels are not when the killer sticks the knife in the victim, but just before, when the issue is in doubt and the audience has the opportunity to imagine for themselves what might happen.

On the surface, the terrorizing aspect of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein comes only after chapter V, as the monster sets in motion his vengeful crusade. But ultimately these feelings of disgust at the monster’s actions are dwarfed by the novel’s horrific look at human nature, creation and responsibility, and blind ambition. An author can create opportunities for horrific assumptions to be made, and a reader will respond according to his or her individual frame of reference and powers of imagination.

Shelly’s work operates in this vein, prompting her readers in two ways. The account of Frankenstein’s experiment is more ambiguous than the description he gives the monster, or the motivations behind its “filthy creation.” The narrator seemingly knows the events to come at the beginning of the story, but conceals and reveals facts in places to build suspense and retrospectively inform on Frankenstein’s self-centered quest. The narrative structure also filters Frankenstein’s story through Robert Walton’s letters, a thematic method that reflects inherent problems with perception and that is intended to alter the reader’s reception of the scientist’s account. Wolfgang Iser, one of the founders of reception theory, suggests that the reader’s role is to “concretize” meaning by answering all of the questions, contemplating all the rhetoric within a given text. Conversely, it is the author’s role to lead this process, providing in their work opportunities for the reader to fill in textual gaps, or what Iser calls “indeterminacies” (Freund 142). The end result is a “dialectic of production and consumption” (Lernout). The completion of Shelly’s novel comes with each reading as a combination of the author’s intention and the application of a reader’s reception

The narrator’s retelling of Frankenstein’s terrifying story uses a retrospective, honest tone. Shelly writes, “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness.” For a reader encountering the monster for the first time in print, Frankenstein’s initial description of his creation would hardly conjure up the same image as the wretched creature that Robert Walton sees near the novel’s end. “Lustrous,” “flowing,” and “pearly white” are hardly monstrous adjectives. Shelly’s narrator conceals from the audience facts which are already known, and provides a description of the monster that accurately reflects Frankenstein’s state of mind at the climax of his creation.

Shelly’s choice of words is calculated to give Frankenstein credibility as a character. Key facts, such as Frankenstein’s eventual hatred for his experiment, the monster’s murderous revenge, and the most recent events leading to his rescue in the Artic north, are withheld despite (or on account of) their importance, so that readers can imagine and presuppose what they will. “A new species would bless me as its creator and source,” exclaims the hopeful student. By revealing the scientist’s own self-centered aims with transparent descriptions, Shelly opens up a murky issue in the novel. Is Frankenstein the real monster, self-centered, cold, and negligent in the abandonment of his child? Or, is he a repentant soul, aware of both his immense talent and the folly of its misuse in his endeavor? Shelly’s work is completed when each reader makes this judgment.

Surrounding the novel’s perception is the most indeterminate feature of Shelly’s fiction: the multiple narrative layers in Frankenstein. That Shelly filters the story through Robert Walton’s letters should be ever present in the minds of readers. Through this method ‘indeterminacies’ creep in, and the validity of Walton’s account is considered. Eagleton explains, “meaning is not something ‘expressed’ or ‘reflected’ in language: it is actually produced by it” (53). Language cannot live outside subjectivity, individual systems of evaluation and perception vary and so to will the ways in which individuals express reality, as they know it. The language Walton uses to describe the events leading up to, and the creation of the “wretch” produces the meaning, or for our purposes, the perception Frankenstein’s story. However, if it is taken into account that the story is received second hand in the beginning, and later with three or four buffers of miscommunication, it should be assumed that in each transaction of the facts a sender will encode the context of the message. It is the job of the receiver to understand the code of the message, its inherent meaning as it comes from the specific sender.. When the reader knows at the novel’s end that Walton indeed has come face to face with the monster, readers must retrospectively reevaluate the message he gives them. This process becomes highly interactive and subject to individual interpretation as the narrative layers of Shelly’s novel stack up. The genius of Frankenstein is Shelly’s use of the second person in this process. Second person narration is the most personal method of telling. “I can see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope your eyes express…that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted,” says Frankenstein to the narrator. Shelly provides all the elements of communication: sender, contact, receiver, message, context and code—each with their own ambiguous definition within the novel (Richter 812). It is the reader’s job to complete Shelly’s novel is complete when a reader takes all possible miscommunication into account, scrutinizing each character and their motivations.

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is a horrific look at human nature, creation and responsibility, and blind ambition. It draws its most terrifying picture with its most ambiguous descriptions leaving the details to the imagination, thus allowing the reader to participate in the creation of the "wretch". Multiple narrative layers distance the author from the story and make the text an interactive translation of various messages. Indeterminacies in Frankenstein allow the reader to concretize meaning from the novel and complete a most dreadful tale of human suffering in the only place where such a tale can be accurately told: the imagination.


Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.

Freund, Elizabeth. The Return of the Reader: Reader-response criticism. Methuen: London, 1987.

Lernout, Geert. “Reception Theory.” Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism. Eds. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. 15 September 2002

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, Second Ed. Bedford/St Martin’s: Boston, 1998. 812


Wolfgang Iser

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