Analysing a passage: example and comment

The passage

I entered the room where the corpse lay, and was led up to the coffin. How can I describe my sensations on beholding it? I feel yet parched with horror, nor can I reflect on that terrible moment without shuddering and agony, that faintly reminds me of the anguish of the recognition. The trial, the presence of the magistrate and witnesses, passed like a dream from my memory, when I saw the lifeless form of Henry Clerval stretched before me. I gasped for breath; and, throwing myself on the body, I exclaimed, ‘Have my murderous machinations deprived you also, my dearest Henry of life? Two I have already destroyed; other victims await their destiny: but you, Clerval, my friend, my benefactor' –
The human frame could no longer support the agonizing suffering that I endured, and I was carried out of the room in strong convulsions.
A fever succeeded to this. I lay for two months on the point of death: my ravings, as I afterwards heard, were frightful; I called myself the murderer of William, of Justine, and of Clerval. Sometimes I entreated my attendants to assist me in the destruction of the fiend by whom I was tormented; and, at others, I felt the fingers of the monster already grasping my neck, and screamed aloud with agony and terror.
Fortunately, as I spoke my native language, Mr. Kirwin alone understood me; but my gestures and bitter cries were sufficient to affright the other witnesses.
Why did I not die? More miserable than man ever was before, why did I not sink into forgetfulness and rest? Death snatches away many blooming children, the only hopes of their doating parents: how many brides and youthful lovers have been one day in the bloom of health and hope, and the next a prey for worms and the decay of the tomb! Of what materials was I made, that I could thus resist so many shocks, which, like the turning of the wheel, continually renewed the torture.

Frankenstein, Volume 3, Chapter 4

The analysis

  1. This passage comes from the part of the novel describing Victor's travels with Henry Clerval after his encounter with the monster. Victor and Henry have separated, Henry going to London and Victor to the Orkney Islands to fulfil his promise to create a female companion for the monster – which he hopes will free him from the creature's persecution. Frankenstein, however, is afraid that the monster and his mate may breed a species that will threaten humanity, so he destroys his work; but he is spied upon by the monster who swears revenge. Victor sinks the remains of the second monster in the sea, then falls asleep in his boat and drifts to the shore of Ireland. Here, he is taken before a magistrate because a man's murdered body has been found on the beach. This passage describes Victor's reactions when he realises that the murdered man is Henry Clerval.
  2. Henry's death is one of the most important moments of the novel and is another in the sequence of deaths of people close to Victor. He recalls those of William and Justine, and Elizabeth's murder at the hands of the monster is yet to come. These deaths arouse in Victor not only a sense of grief and loss, but also strong feelings of guilt and despair because he realises that, ultimately, he is responsible for what has taken place.
  3. Victor is the narrator of the passage and his only listener is Captain Walton. It is to Walton that he addresses the first of the rhetorical questions in the passage; these are questions that do not expect or require an answer, but are used to heighten and dramatise the effect of the speaker's words. ‘How can I describe my sensations on beholding it?' is the first of these questions; and the second, beginning ‘Have my murderous machinations…?' is directed at Henry's corpse. The final paragraph of the passage, beginning ‘Why did I not die', consists of a series of rhetorical questions or exclamations that amount to a kind of lament for the position into which his experiments have brought him.
  4. The heightened manner in which Victor addresses Captain Walton (and thus also the reader) is matched by the use of powerfully emotional language, and the passage is full of words and phrases expressing the strength of Victor's reactions: ‘parched with horror', ‘shuddering and agony', ‘anguish', ‘I gasped for breath', ‘throwing myself on the body', ‘the agonizing suffering that I endured', ‘strong convulsions', ‘my ravings … were frightful', ‘the fiend by whom I was tormented' and ‘screamed aloud with agony and terror'. These words and phrases refer not only to Victor's feelings but also to his extreme physical reactions: his mental torments are expressed in violent body language. For much of this time, Victor is clearly suffering from a serious nervous illness and this, too, is part of a pattern – he falls into a fever immediately after he creates the monster and takes some months to recover.
  5. Victor's ravings are expressed in his native German and understood only by Mr. Kirwin the magistrate. The staff in the prison do not understand him, which is perhaps just as well because his first words on seeing Henry's body could be interpreted as an admission of guilt to this and other murders. Once he falls ill, the only way his attendants can understand him is to ‘read' his body language and the tone or manner of what he says. This is enough to ‘affright' them and it could be argued that during this period Victor seems, to most people, alien, strange and terrifying, rather like the monster he has created. The fact that Mr. Kirwin is the only person who fully understands him hints at the role the just magistrate will play in ensuring that Victor is not wrongfully convicted of Henry's murder.
  6. The final paragraph of the passage contains a number of ironies in relation to the past and future events of the novel and to Victor's view of his situation and actions. He is given to extreme statements of the misery of his position – ‘More miserable than man ever was before' – which appear to ignore the sufferings of the monster's victims or others who have been bereaved, like his father and Elizabeth. In this sense, therefore, this part of the passage could be said to help the reader to understand Victor's absorption, first in his work and then in his own suffering as a result of that work. Even in his genuine grief at the sight of Henry's body, his first thoughts are about his own actions: ‘my murderous machinations'.
  7. A second irony in the final paragraph of the passage concerns what will happen in the future, and the reference to ‘brides and youthful lovers' points forward to the monster's murder of Elizabeth, which will take place quite soon afterwards. This in turn leads to the final irony of the passage. Victor speaks despairingly of the dead as ‘prey for worms and the decay of the tomb', but it is his use of dead bodies and of the way in which decomposing matter may be reanimated that has led him into his present situation. And when he goes on to cry ‘of what materials was I made?', he asks the same question that the monster might ask about his own origins, suggesting to the reader an increasing identification of Victor with his creation.

Comments on the analysis

  1. This paragraph places the passage in its context in the novel. It gives an account of what has happened immediately before the passage appears in the text, and does so in such a way as to suggest the kinds of events that lie behind this episode.
  1. In this paragraph the analysis moves on to look at the significance of the episode in the novel as whole, linking it to less immediately preceding events and themes.
  1. This paragraph comments on the narrative voice of the passage and the way in which Victor uses various rhetorical devices in the way he addresses Captain Walton.
  1. Here the analysis moves on to discuss how these rhetorical devices are intensified by the language of the passage. As well as the spoken language, the analysis concentrates on Victor's body language. It also points out that Victor's illness is part of a pattern in the novel.
  1. The discussion of Victor's behaviour begins to introduce ideas of the similarities between Victor and the monster and takes up the theme of monstrosity.
  1. This paragraph is the first of two that concentrate on the final paragraph of the passage. It points out the irony in the passage, particularly in relation to the characterisation of Victor.
  1. The concluding paragraph highlights further instances of irony, both in terms of Elizabeth's death, which demonstrates how the passage moves the plot forward; and in the final sentence by suggesting the indissoluble bond between Victor and his creation.
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