As the recipient of the letters Saville makes up the second half of the novel’s oft forgotten, or at least omitted, frame. Nasrin refers to her as “the irreducible recipient-function of the letters”. (Spivak 139) In other words, a placeholder for the reader: “the reader must read with Margaret Saville in the crucial sense that she must intercept the recipient-function, read the letters as recipient, in order for the novel to exist.” (Spivak 139) Aaron Urbanczyk, similarly writes that we are “all vicariously occupying the place of Margaret Saville” as she reads. (Urbanczyk 260) We experience the story as she does, third hand from her brother. This would explain the lack of response- Saville doesn’t write back because there is no singular audience response. It is also possible that, as Rosemary Hathaway interprets it, “Margaret neither condemns nor condones Victor’s “crime”; she merely echoes his silence” (Hathaway 23) as an illustration of or commentary on “the lack of reciprocity in family communication, the dominance of the male voice, and the vacuum in which family communication occurs”. (Hathaway 19) (More on familial ties and the domestic sphere below.) She has also been referred to as “the almost transparent medium through which these letters are transmitted to the public.” (Cross 31-2) Not only do we read with Saville, it would be impossible to read Frankenstein without her. She, within the world of the novel at least, is the one who could have published the collection of letters so that it could end up in our hands. So, if we take them as fact, rather than indulging in the idea that we are temporarily inhabiting her headspace in order to gain access to the story, then Saville is the editor of the physical book in our real world hands (or elibraries, as the case may be).
Saville is noteworthy because she is debatably a non-character. She is never shown. She doesn’t speak- Walton’s letters go unanswered. She is perhaps even less of a character than a narrator or embodied prologue. She is an idea, even more so than her counterparts, because she has so few connections associated with her. We understand the other characters in part, because we know what they look like and can cast them, for lack of a better word. Because of her lack of physical presence it is tempting to read Saville as “a receptacle, but not an active player in the novel”. (Green 35) To be fair, she is easy to forget- she functions only an address within the narrative after all; but she is always present while we as an audience are reading. As Ashley J. Cross writes, “Margaret Saville’s presence, as determining of the novel’s form, demands interpretation by the reader… the reading eyes of Mrs. Saville threaten to disrupt the reflection between reader and text, to know more than they should.” (Cross 32) Not only does the use of the frame narrative as a device “set a realistic tone for what is otherwise a completely fantastic story”, it simultaneously unsettles it from the possibility of realism. (Kelly 171) Margaret doesn’t see any of the events unfold, nor did Walton- some of it Frankenstein didn’t even witness, he just conjectures or relays someone else’s story. This reminds us that the story itself is not only a story, questionable in its validity by definition, but also a simulacra- a printed, edited collection of letters that detail a dictated autobiography written some unknown amount of time after the fact including retelling of other people’s stories. A copy of a copy of a copy. In an already unbelievable story of animated bodies and perfectly timed deaths, Saville is a reminder to be skeptical even when horrified.
Like that of Saville, the importance of domesticity is illuminated by its relative absence from the novel. Saville is the “locus of domestic normalcy” as she has a husband and children whom she (assumably) didn’t animate from corpses, and yet she “is literally written out(side) of the text”. (Hathaway 23) Because of this Hathway reads Frankenstein as Shelley hypothesizing “the theory that traditional domesticity centers around the interdependent expectations of male transgression and female silence.” (Hathaway 19) This is a story of men adventuring, exploring- avoiding the home space as much as possible, because it can wait until after a new species has been created or the wonders of the universe have been grasped, or whatever project is Important. Women wait, silently. For this reason Saville is simply written off as, “the absent mother figure who must remain at home awaiting news of the fate of her beloved.” (Green 35) (The simultaneous reference to a sister being a mother and a lover is not just a slip of this particular edition’s analysis, this is an uncomfortable theme in the novel itself.) Hathaway concludes that in the novel the “domestic ideal is merely the creation of transgressive males capable of standing outside it; and there is no way to get ourselves back to a garden that never existed.” (Hathaway 25)
As seen above, the lines of family are often blurred in Frankenstein. The mother lover sister combination is fully expressed in Frankenstein’s nightmare of Elizabeth Lavenza as his dead mother, but it is also present in the Saville-Walton relationship. This is further complicated as “there is never so much as a mention of any mother”, but we are informed “that upon the father’s death, sister Margaret takes on the maternal duties of raising her brother”. (May 683) On top of the motherly duties, Walton’s “dear, excellent Margaret” is expected to wait enthusiastically to hear his stories as well as to worry about the troubles he has gotten himself into, even though both she and his father warned him against them. (Shelley 2) There is no expectation of reciprocity. Hathaway points out that Walton’s “insistence on having his voice heard” as well as “his ludicrous expectation that [Saville] will write back” demonstrate “ the part of the traditional domestic myth that demands that women concern themselves with family matters whether such concern is productive or not.” (Hathaway 19) Saville would know that, given the lengths Walton has already gone to in order to ‘discover’ the Arctic, her letters would be fruitless. If she were incapable of convincing him not to go she would be equally ineffective in calling him back. Also, the logistics of getting a letter to Walton at this point in the novel would have been laughably impossible. He is in a ship surrounded by ice in the middle of nowhere. Still, she should be devoted enough to try. This is because, as May notes, there “was a large cultural stake in maintaining and closely surveilling a certain kind of feminine passivity and self-sacrifice” which meant that the “moral space occupied by the sister’s selfless love and servitude became the inner sanctum of nineteenth-century family life as represented in the literature of the period.” (May 669)
Margaret Walton Saville is the first character to be introduced in Frankenstein, via her address in the first letter. Her function is to receive the story and respond to it, which one could say she doesn’t do, or at least that she doesn’t respond in the obvious way that she is asked to by Walton. Preferring to stay silent, Saville continues the line of distribution and is the most effective person in it- upping the scale from one on one discussions to a mass production first printing. In truth this is her story we are reading, for hers are the last hands to touch it before it reaches ours (at least fictionally). She is also the omnipresent second reader we both take the place of and feel the presence of throughout the novel. Because of our awareness of her eyes we are allowed to recognize the unreality of Frankenstein. This is an unbelievable and unsubstantiated simulacra, so far removed from its ‘source’ that any semblance of truth has been strained out. Meanwhile we are being forced to reckon with the novel on its own terms. To some extent we have to allow for a suspension of disbelief in order to delve meaningfully into the novel. This constant switch between belief and disbelief is aided by the knowledge of Saville’s presence in the background, always with us. As the person with the least gothic influence on her domestic life, Saville is also a center for the conversation on the domestic vs. adventurous worlds and by extension the roles of women and men in Romantic era families and relationships. The question of which world is Important is first brought up in Walton’s letters to Saville. Her silence to them and the demands for her attention are also commentaries on the unequal expectations for mothers/sisters/lovers when compared to those for fathers/brothers/lovers.
References/Suggestions for Further Reading
Cross, Ashley J. ""Indelible Impressions": Gender and Language in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Bloom's Literary Criticism, 2009. 11-36. Print.
Green, Andrew. Philip Allan Literature Guide (for A-Level): Frankenstein. Deddington: Philip Allan Updates, 2010. Print.
Hathaway, Rosemary. "No Paradise to Be Lost: Deconstructing the Myth of Domestic Affection in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Trajectories of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Ed. Michael A. Morrison. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997. 15-26. Print.
Kelly, Kevin. "Study Guide." Frankenstein Dover Thrift Study Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. 165-67. Print.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. Seattle, WA: Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2012. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Literature." A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. 112-97. Print.
Urbanczyk, Aaron. "“You Have Read This Strange and Terrific Story”: The Epistolary Novel as Monstrous Reading in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein." Frankenstein. By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. Joseph Pearce. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008. 259-74. Print.