The first-person narration of “The Collector” by John Fowles and “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley is one of the features that make these stories so outstanding. It is about having a chance of looking into the brains of the protagonists, and trying to see the complete picture of what happened.
Both stories are not traditional in the manner of the text construction. Both Fowles and Shelley use uncommon schemes: he, using both protagonists to tell the story from their perspective, one after another, as if summing it all up, and she, using a story-within-a-story (sort of “wrapped” into it).
The “Collector” reveals the characters of two main characters, who tell the same story in a row, so that the reader could see what really happened, and was they felt about it. Frederick (though he preferred to be called Ferdinand, but was called Caliban anyway) Clegg’s part of the kidnapping and the life of Miranda in the sellar of his detached house is quite sketchy, if the reader reads the whole story. He is the one to explain all the initial causes and intentions, he is the only one to reveal his own way of thinking and feeling. Miranda’s point of view rarely coincides with what he thinks, but that’s what makes the picture more complete. Both of them are homodiegetic narrators, for they are not only telling the story, they are a part of it, the main part.
Mary Shelley’s story of Victor Frankenstein is a layered narrative; it is “wrapped” into his own words retold by Captain Robert Walton in the letters to his sister Margaret, who stays in England, while he’s heading toward the North Pole – the dream of his life.
In the course of the story most of the events are described in the first person through the “third” one. But the reader doesn’t realize it until at some point the narrator delivers an interruption like that: “I must pause here; for it requires all my fortitude to recall the memory of the frightful events which I am about to relate, in proper detail, to my recollection”. This is where the reader realises it is Victor’s word he is reading in Walton’s letters to his sister.
The characters of the protagonists are also well developed through the homodiegetic narration. In “Frankenstein” we first meet Victor Frankenstein through the perceptions of Captain Walton, who is actually retelling the story of the uncommon acquaintance. Later we get to know better Frankenstein through his own words, as he becomes the narrator. We also find out about all the other characters, including the Monster via Victor’s story. The most important thing is, there is a multitude of other stories, within his, and some of them and the reader gets to know through the Monster’s words, for example. It’s like the story of Felix and Safie told by the Monster, retold by Victor Frankenstein, and rewritten by Robert Walton. The abundance of wraps does not actually confuse the reader; moreover, it is very helpful in discovering the character.
Walton talks of Victor Frankenstein in an admiring tone, seeing him as a noble and tragic figure. Victor treats himself as proud and ambitious victim of destiny. The monster sees Frankenstein as a thoughtless and careless creator.
From the very first chapter the readers begin to get new fresh colours that others give to the figure of Frankenstein. The same is true about the monster. What seems to be true from the viewpoint of Victor, is opposed to what one might think of the monster reading his speeches and thoughts.
The collector is a bit different in composition. One gets to know almost the whole story from the viewpoint of Frederick, and then, the same plot is developed and brightened by the thoughts and feelings of Miranda. The first narrator is certainly more plain and sketchy, than the second one.
Miranda, as an art student, and as a person opposed to the New People, has more eloquence and vividness in her story. In a way, the reader tends to get to know her through her feelings to George Paston, a modern painter and an outstanding man, who “made her become another person”. We first meet Miranda Grey as an object of adoration, Fred’s vivid dream, just a pretty girl he likes very much. Later on, we meet her in his house and get to know what she did and what in caused. In the part of Miranda’s diary, the reader has an opportunity to find out why she did it and what her thoughts were like, when she stayed imprisoned in a cellar, being a butterfly in a killing-bottle. But to those, who knew her from her thoughts, she became more than a beautiful butterfly. Her thoughts, ideas and feelings, her love of life and respect of true beauty, her desperate desire to live, made the readers not only sympathize, but think. Think more of the square minds of uneducated boring people, the Old Men of the Sea, the New People, with there inexplicable aim of life – to put up with Joneses, while children in Congo starved. Of course, that was several decades ago, but it hasn’t changes much ever since. The great role of Miranda was to make readers see she was more profound than just a pretty girl, not perfect, of course, but far better and more deserving to live a happy life, than any Caliban in the world.
Ferdinand was also perceived differently in different parts of the novel. When he tells the story, the things he does somehow seems not so terrifying, not so inhuman as they really are. He is so “I-am-sorry-but-I-have-to-do-it”, and the readers think he is so clumsy and weak, that they loose the sense of horror, thinking of the things he did. Only the several days after the unlucky seduction Ferdinand seems to become a cruel beast, who wants to remind the girl “who the boss is”. But was actually always that, it was just hidden deep inside, and it didn’t come out before Miranda provoked him.
In this way, the stories have basically the same principle of uncovering of the characters. Or, rather, of covering the bare figures with different colour shades, each being put on after another accident or a dialog. Victor Frankenstein is perceived differently in the course of the novel: first respected as a dignified man, then pitied as his own story is told by himself, and then, just despicable on realising the immensity of cruelty he did to those he loved by simply being unable to understand and accept what he created with his own hands. The monster’s character is ever changed along the story. First he is simply horrifying, but then, one can perceive he is sometimes more humane than many other people. He actually has the right to be loved, happy and understood, for he never asked to be created an ugly monster. His development in the sense of education and understanding of life, a bit naïve, though, is actually bringing out the inclination of the readers. The acts of revenge seem to be less horrifying, when we get to know the monster, and it is basically the same that happens in case of Victor in “Frankenstein”, and Ferdinand Clegg in “The Collector”.
The new colours add up to the characters by themselves as they act and by their interlocutors, be that family, friends, of acquaintances in case of Frankenstein, or the kidnapper and his victim, and G.P. in case of Ferdinand and Miranda. The actions develop new features, which are put into words by the protagonists themselves, and this puts the situation into its most accurate presentation. In “The collector”, the reader is able to see what each of the characters thought of the situation, realize what made him or her act in a certain way, and know the motifs and the background. This all helps to build up one’s own viewpoint on the characters and the situation.
Homodiegetic narration enables the protagonist to justify and excuse their feelings and actions, and putting several narrators into one big storyline is what helps to solve the puzzle, and to justify or condemn. The funny thing is that in “Frankenstein” no character is clearly right or wrong, thus neither can be justified. As for Miranda and Ferdinand/Caliban’s story, the blame is clearly on the latter. Fowles manages to draw the final scene of the story in a way that makes the reader loathe Fred, no matter how much one sympathized with his feelings in the first place.
The homodiegetic narrators are usually more appealing and trustworthy, and have more understanding and sympathy than the heterodiegetic. The first-person narration not only gives an opportunity to build up a strong feeling (whatever feeling is needed) in a reader. It also serves as a base for developing a character more intense and impressive, that that, which is described in the third person. The effect from this trick goes from the feelings the protagonist has towards a certain person (him or herself, their relatives, friends, and acquaintances), these feelings are usually quite strong and clear to state or at least describe. In case of a clash of interest, the most effective and interesting thing thus is to clash two contrary points of view, leaving the reader a choice to decide, which one seems more persuasive and trustworthy.
1. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Pocket, 2004.
2. Fowles, John. The collector. Back Bay Books, 1997.