Narratives that Stick: Frankenstein and The Sopranos
In her introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley explains that it was a dark and stormy night when she and her companions decided to enter into a friendly ghost story competition. I can think of few genres that “stick” quite like ghost stories. I’m sure we all have one or two go-to tales that we tell and retell whenever we find ourselves sitting around a nighttime campfire—the special news bulletin about the escaped lunatic, the blood-thirsty, hook-handed man haunting Lovers’ Lane, or “snipe” hunting, just to name a few. Shelley emerged as the clear winner of her ghost story contest, penning a story that has endured for two hundred years. Two hundred years—what is it about the novel that has given it such longevity?
According to critics such as David Fishelov, Frankenstein has stuck around because of the numerous adaptations, references, and parodies that have persisted in popular culture; however, these critics, have failed to recognize a Frankenstein adaptation that has also stuck around for decades. I suppose it’s time to address the two hundred and forty pound mob boss in the room: “On January 10, 1999, a mobster walked into a psychiatrist’s office and changed TV history. By shattering preconceptions about the kinds of stories the medium should tell, The Sopranos launched our current age of prestige television” (Seitz, cover copy). This was the premiere date of the very first episode, of the very first season of The Sopranos.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published on January 1, 1818, making 2018 both the two hundredth anniversary of the novel as well as the twentieth anniversary of The Sopranos. Here we have a novel that has endured for two centuries and a television show that has endured for two decades. Again, it begs the question—what is it about these narratives that make them “stick”? (Although, I’m sure you’ve been wondering, given this essay’s title, what the two narratives have to do with one another in the first place.) First, this essay will argue that The Sopranos belongs in a conversation about the narrative form of Frankenstein because it is an adaptation of the novel. Then, using Anna E. Clark’s theory of “protagonism,” I will explore the protagonists of both Frankenstein and The Sopranos to posit that it is the use of a narrator at the center of the text–one who is capable of narrating from the perspectives of both major and minor characters–that allows us to access the internality of these characters and keeps us coming back for more.
Imagine my surprise while watching The Sopranos for the very first time to encounter not one, not two, but three explicit references to Frankenstein in the first fifteen episodes of the show. How does the saying go? “First time is happenstance, second time is coincidence, and third time is a pattern”? The more I thought about it, the more striking the similarities between the two texts became. The first two references appear within the first half of the premiere season, and these are the most important references because they explicitly link the protagonists in both texts; the later references really only serve as reminders that “Hey, in case you forgot, this is still a cleverly disguised Frankenstein adaptation!”
The first reference appears in season 1, episode 3, titled “Denial, Anger, Acceptance.” Tony Soprano has made a deal with Shlomo Teittleman, a Hasidic motel owner, agreeing to help him solve a family problem in exchange for a percentage of the hotel profits; however, when the owner doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain, Tony goes after him in a typically violent mob style. Teittleman says, “My son was right; you mutt…I created a living golem!…A monster! Frankenstein! Living dead!” While Tony is compared to Frankenstein’s monster in this episode, just two episodes later, Tony is compared to the maker, not the monster.
Season 1, episode 6, “Pax Soprana,” finds Tony dealing with fallout from Uncle Junior’s questionable management style. After the death of boss Jackie Aprile, Tony seems poised to succeed him; however, Corrado “Junior” Soprano is named the new head of the family. Tony abdicates the title to Junior in order to maintain peace, but when Junior decides to test the limits of his new power, people turn to Tony to correct the situation they feel he created. While complaining to Tony about all the ways Junior has overstepped his bounds and disrupted business, Larry Boy Barese says, “I think you created a fucking Frankenstein in Junior” (“Pax Soprana”). This time, Tony is referred to as Frankenstein, the creator.
In the two instances I have described, Tony is seen as both the monster and the maker. He is explicitly compared to both protagonists in Shelley’s novel, and this is where we start to hit upon what makes a narrative stick. In her analysis of Frankenstein, Clark quotes George Eliot when she writes, “the novel challenges us to look past stock figures and habituated types and ‘amplif[y] experience and exten[d] our contract with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot’…Frankenstein’s elaborate frame narrative and exemplary antihero are admittedly an extreme version of the decentered forms of readerly identification that mark protagonism” (252). Therefore, sticky narratives need protagonists who can be questioned by the audience while also encouraging that audience to compare other characters to each other and to themselves.
Clark continues, “It’s no secret that when we think of Frankenstein what comes to mind isn’t the title character, but his creature. Popular culture conflates ‘Frankenstein’ with the monster, and major critical interpretations of Mary Shelley’s novel describe the creature—not Victor—as the tale’s dramatic crux and conscience” (245). The first reference to Frankenstein in The Sopranos does just that; Teittleman conflates Victor Frankenstein and his creation when attempting to call Tony a sub-human monster, but he isn’t exactly wrong in calling him Frankenstein because Tony can be seen as a creator as well. Both texts question the boundary between monster and creator. Once we add the fact that The Sopranos also employs a frame narrative, it’s undeniable that David Chase seems to be piggybacking on one of the stickiest narratives of the last two centuries.
Clark explains that many critics identify the creature as the narrator who best exemplifies the rhetorical and thematic traits of the novel, but she believes these traits can be equally applied to the other narrators, Victor Frankenstein and Walton; however, the creature is “unique in one regard: his ability to understand and narrate the perspectives of other characters” (245). Ultimately, Clark seems to believe that a true protagonist is one who, like the creature, can narrate from the perspective of many characters, even minor ones, and that this ability reflexively works to develop the character of that narrator. Clark calls this “protagonism,” which, she explains, “facilitates identification with many characters, emphasizing evaluation, comparison, and contemplative detachment rather than unreflective absorption in a single perspective” (246). Although Frankenstein is not the only novel that utilizes protagonism, Clark holds it as the exemplar, specifically because it “encourages its audience to evaluate each of its three narrators upon their practice of protagonism” (246). This is exactly what I find myself doing when I watch television shows like The Sopranos.
Clark’s theory is built upon a number of dichotomies. Although she mentions detachment, she also discusses sympathetic identification, something the creature exhibits when he narrates from the perspective of other characters. This ability hinges on another dichotomy, internal and external focalization, which Clark explains in terms of several more dichotomies: subjective/objective and first-person/third-person (247). In Frankenstein, the creature’s ability to occupy the perspective of another character is evident when the creature narrates events surrounding Felix De Lacey from both an internal and external focalization.
While narrating the backstory of the De Laceys, the creature explains, “The news [of his father and sister’s imprisonment] reached Felix, and roused him from his dream of pleasure. His blind and aged father, and his gentle sister, lay in a noisome dungeon, while he enjoyed the free air…This idea was torture to him” (Shelley 87). The creature at once narrates past events he has heard the De Laceys discuss, as well as the internal emotions felt by Felix at that moment. Moreover, the discussion he overhears is also a past event that is now being disclosed to Victor. Chase follows this same exact narrative form with The Sopranos. The medium of film and television is a bit different because the camera eye can narrate the story visually and from many different points of view, but the story of The Sopranos is centered around Tony, and he also evinces the narrative ability we detect in the creature, chiefly during his therapy sessions.
The series begins with Tony attending his very first therapy session with Dr. Melfi. Like Frankesntein’s Victor and Walton, Dr. Melfi and Tony occupy the outer frame of the narrative. As Tony describes his most recent panic attack, the camera moves out of Dr. Melfi’s office to a flashback of Tony walking up his driveway after getting the morning paper. We see his narration in flashback as he describes it in the present day. During these therapy sessions, which are featured throughout the series, Tony often narrates the personal experiences of some of his closest family members and friends. Thanks to the medium, Tony is able to narrate the events of other major and minor characters verbally during therapy through his own point of view, but the film can actually depict to us to the characters’ points of view through a visual flashback. We can travel in time and see the actual event while hearing Tony’s perspective on the event. This is what Clark calls protagonism’s “primary formal apparatus” a focalization technique that is a new form of point of view, one that “brings multiple perspectives successfully or simultaneously into view” (246).
This is the key difference between the two mediums and where Chase gave Frankenstein’s narrative form new life. In the novel we travel in time through the words of the narrators. Whether it is the creature narrating the De Laceys’ history, Victor narrating the creature’s time in hiding, or Walton narrating Victor’s story to his sister, the narrative is delivered through text. In creating The Sopranos, Chase had to figure out a way to similarly bring multiple perspectives into simultaneous view, even in the scenes that take place outside of Dr. Melfi’s office (scenes that rely on flashbacks and voiceovers). Ultimately, to remedy this issue, Chase allowed the camera to act as another narrator.
Moving between the first-person and third-person perspectives is another unique ability of protagonism as a narrative form, one that, in Frankenstein, “works primarily through distinctions between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ focalization” (Clark 247). This internal focalization allows readers (or viewers) to share and occupy a first-person perspective, which “elides the temporal distance between speaker and subject,” or a third-person perspective, which is “capable of incorporating that character’s view into its own” (247). In Frankenstein, we see this through the creature’s narration of the De Laceys’ imprisonment, and in The Sopranos, we see this through the use of the camera eye.
Specifically, this narrative ability of the camera eye is achieved through camera angles and editing. Rather than the typical over-the-shoulder angle, scenes are shot from Tony’s literal point of view. In season 6, episode 2 (“Join the Club”), when Tony is in a coma after being critically wounded by a gunshot, the show depicts one of his dreams. In this dream, Tony is a traveling businessman who is presently on the road when he loses his wallet and briefcase. A kind group of other business people invite Tony to join them for dinner. All of this action is shot from third-person perspective; however, as the group moves to leave the restaurant, a TV show in the background catches Tony’s eye. At this moment the camera switches to first-person perspective and we see the show as Tony sees it. Before the camera abruptly shifts back to the third-person, we see through Tony’s eyes a series of images on the television: the question “Are Sin, Death and Disease Real?”, a waterfall, and, finally, a golden cross.
The scene then jumps to an exterior shot outside of the restaurant, where the third-person camera captures Tony kissing his female dinner companion. As the sound of an approaching helicopter intensifies, the couple is illuminated by a bright searchlight. The perspective jumps several times from third to first-person as Tony looks into the searchlight, and the sound of the helicopter merges with the regular beeping of a hospital heart rate monitor. The camera maintains the first-person perspective as the light changes from the helicopter searchlight to the surgical lamp above Tony’s hospital bed. Finally, the camera returns to the third-person perspective to reveal Carmela and Meadow Soprano standing over their ailing patriarch.
Frankenstein also includes similarly rapid shifts in perspective. In the letter he receives from Elizabeth shortly after animating the creature, the narration shifts from Victor’s first-person perspective, Elizabeth’s first-person perspective, her second-person perspective, and then back to Victor’s first-person narration. Victor explains, “Clerval…put the following letter into my hands” (Shelley 40). Then, he relays its contents: “‘MY DEAR COUSIN…And now I must tell you a little story…Do you not remember Justine Moritz?…I dare say you well remember the heroine of my little tale: for Justine was a great favorite of your’s’” (Shelley 40-41). Victor narrates his reception of this letter to Walton, and within the letter, Elizabeth narrates events concerning Justine. Elizabeth’s narration interrupts Victor’s first-person narration, and within her letter she employs a second-person perspective. We experience a shift in perspective while also experiencing a shift in time. We travel from Victor’s narration to Walton in the present day, then back in time to when he originally received the letter, and finally Elizabeth’s narration takes us back to the moment Justine joined the Frankenstein family. The text takes us on the same type of narrative journey that we experience while watching The Sopranos.
What Clark sees at work in the text is “a new kind of protagonist model”: “it presents three narrators with equivalent voices…Frankenstein models forms of narrative identification through focalizing techniques. At the same time, however, this performance of narrative identification reflects back on the narrators themselves” (264). Because the camera can work as another narrator, and the visual narrative can employ unique techniques, we often encounter in The Sopranos several characters who act as narrators. By borrowing from the narrative structure of Shelley’s novel, The Sopranos ushered in a new era of television where the protagonist no longer has to be the character who “speaks the most, or who simply appears most frequently” (Clark 251).
The kind of protagonism created by Frankenstein, and then later reanimated in The Sopranos, has created space for several television shows to break some of the old rules of the medium, as Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall have noted:
The show’s mercurial unpredictability was electrifying. Pre-Sopranos, TV was widely dismissed as a medium for programs that didn’t ask the viewer to think about anything except what was coming on next, and that preferred lovable characters who didn’t change and had no inner life. The ideal network series was filler between commercials. It was hard to make art in this kind of environment, though some creators managed. There were lots and lots of rules. There were words you couldn’t say, things you couldn’t show, stories you couldn’t tell. The number one rule: don’t upset people.
The Sopranos wasn’t the first show to break most of these rules…But it was the first show to do that and still become a massive, enduring hit. (6)
Viewers could potentially learn to tolerate, or even like, a character like Tony Soprano because they are not always subjected to his view and his perspective. As a narrator itself, the camera focalizes other characters. We learn more about Tony because we are able to see him through others’ eyes, or because we can see inside Tony’s mind. Thanks to Chase’s boldness, we’ve found ourselves in a new “Golden Age of Television”—one that features shows such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men, each of which piggybacks on the sticky narrative technique of The Sopranos and uses protagonism to narrate the story of their anti-heroes.
Chase, David, creator. The Sopranos. Chase Films, Brad Grey Television, and HBO Entertainment, 2007.
Clark, Anna E. “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Protagonist.” ELH, vol. 81, no. 1, 2014, pp. 245-268 Project Muse, doi.org/10.1353/elh.2014.0001.
“Denial, Anger, Acceptance.” The Sopranos, created by David Chase, performances by James Gandolfini and Chuck Low, season 1, episode 3, Chase Films, Brad Grey Television, and HBO Entertainment, 1999.
Fishelov, David. “The Indirect Path to the Literary Canon Exemplified by Shelley’s Frankenstein.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, vol. 18, no. 2, 2016, docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol18/iss2/6/. Accessed 1 April 2019.
“Join the Club.” The Sopranos, created by David Chase, directed by David Nutter, edited by William B. Stich, season 6, episode 2, Chase Films, Brad Grey Television, and HBO Entertainment, 2006.
Murray, Noel. “Rewatching Sopranos: A Shortcut.” New York Times, 12 Jan. 2019, p. C1.
“Pax Soprana.” The Sopranos, created by David Chase, performances by James Gandolfini and Tony Darrow, season 1, episode 6, Chase Films, Brad Grey Television, and HBO Entertainment, 1999.
Seitz, Matt Zoller and Alan Sepinwall. The Sopranos Sessions. Abrams Press, 2019.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by J. Paul Hunter, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.