Letters 1 – 4 from Robert Walton, Sea Captain to Mrs. Margaret Saville
Robert Walton writes from St. Petersburg in Russia to his sister in England.
He is preparing an expedition to navigate through the Arctic Ocean to the
North Pacific in an aim to find a passage for shipping.
The first letter is dated December and it states that after many years of
preparation the expedition should start in June of next year when the Polar ices are at their thinnest. He will need to travel to Archangel in order to obtain a suitable ship.
In March he writes again from Archangel saying that the work making ready
his ship and crew is near completion, but he now feels lonely and desires someone with whom he can converse.
In July, he writes again, saying that the voyage is now well under way and
that the weather is warmer than expected, and he feels confident that he will succeed in his endeavors.
The final letter is written on 3 separate days in August, and it describes
how his ship is stuck fast in an ice field far from land. The crew are amazed to see a man “of gigantic stature” following a dog sled team traveling north.
The next day, they find another man adrift on an ice flow near to death. It is Victor Frankenstein, and when he recovers, he tells a strange story to Walton.
This “introduction” in the form of four letters written by Robert Walton, is
a technique used so that the reader has the impression that what is to transpire in the novel is authentic and has been verified independently by this ship’s captain, Robert Walton. If you like, the letters
are independent evidence, and they appear at the start and finish of the book, thus ‘framing’ the main narration by Victor. Perhaps it is coincidental, but the initials of Walton’s sister, Margaret Saville –
M.S. – can be interpreted, as Mary Shelley’s own.
Shelley also demonstrates her knowledge of contemporary exploration in the
late 19th century, when there are many expeditions seeking the North-west Arctic Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.
These letters demonstrate the romantic ideas of the author, but these will
soon be eclipsed by Gothic influences. However, initially, the reader is intrigued by Walton’s expedition and there are certain similarities with the rhyme of
“The Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was a close friend of Mary Shelley’s father. Clearly he was an influence on Mary when she was a child, and he too was a romantic writer.
The romantic sentiments of Shelley are clearly expressed in the 3rd letter.
It is when we reach the 4th letter that the Gothic element of the novel comes to the fore with Shelley’s descriptive writing portraying the fantastic atmosphere of the Arctic region. The reader obtains the first feeling of foreboding with the description of the monster, and then the mysterious stranger who clearly has a fantastic story to tell.
Walton, the Captain, is pleased to assist Victor, for he seems to be the answer to his prayers, and a
release from his loneliness. At last he has a kindred spirit. Of course, the reader is intrigued by Victor’s story, and Shelley fuels this interest with the quote, “You may easily perceive, Captain
Walton, that I have suffered great and unparalleled misfortunes. I had determined at one time that the memory of these evils should die with me, but you have won me to alter my determination.”