Reading Frankenstein: Walton’s Letters

The first thing to note about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the full title: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The second thing to note is the line from Paradise Lost that Shelley chose as the epigraph for her story:

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?–
(X. 743-5)

Together they tell us a good bit about what to expect in what follows and what we should make of it. The allusion to Prometheus seems rather straightforward. The Greek Titan is remembered chiefly for stealing fire from the heavens and sharing it with earthbound mortals. For this he was later punished by Zeus by being bound to a mountain while an eagle perpetually fed upon his liver. This story suggests the modern usage of the adjective promethean, a brash transgression of limits and boundaries, often by technical means. For some, the adjective is a compliment. It signals the daring ambition of the human spirit that refuses to accept seemingly arbitrary natural limitations. To others, it is synonym for hubris, a blinding arrogance that leads to disaster. It’s my sense from previous readings that Shelley wants us to feel the compelling force of both attitudes. We’ll see if this reading bears out that sense.

Interestingly, there is a lesser known storyline associated with Prometheus that became more prominent in late antiquity, perhaps for its affinity with the biblical account of the creation of Adam. In this account, Prometheus brings human beings to life by animating figures of clay. Later still, the two storylines are blended so that it is by the fire he steals from the gods that Prometheus animates humanity. And all of this fit rather nicely with contemporary theories that suggested that electricity was, quite literally, the spark of life.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is the biblical story of the Creation and Fall recast in epic scale. As we’ll see, the book plays a pivotal role in the Monster’s coming to self-consciousness, and, formed by Frankenstein and cast out by the same, he identifies with both Adam and Satan. The relationship between Frankenstein and his creature, of course, invites us to consider the relationship between Frankenstein and his Maker. In one sense, it will be the Monster who strikes a promethean note in his indignation against the injustice of his creator.

Moving on to the story itself, we are first greeted with a series of four letters written by an intrepid explorer named R. Walton to his sister Margaret. The first letter is written from St. Petersburgh, where Walton is preparing to embark upon a journey to the North Pole, and aims chiefly to dispel his sister’s fears. But it also tells us a good bit about Walton’s motives. “I try in vain,” he writes, “to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight.” Later on he asks rhetorically and ecstatically, “What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” Shelley’s characters are nothing if not passionate.

A little further on we encounter the first mention of an important motive force in the novel: curiosity. “I shall satiate my ardent curiosity,” Walton declares, “with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man.” We would be right, of course, already to suspect that Shelley intends for us to pick up an obvious affinity between Walton and Frankenstein. The connection is made explicit by Frankenstein himself in the Walton’s fourth letter.

Curiosity is not the only important theme introduced in this first letter, however. Walton is the first of several characters to tell us about the books that, read in childhood, constituted their education and thereby set the trajectory of their life. In Walton’s case, they were books found in his uncle’s house telling heroic stories of nautical exploration. These inspired his childhood dreams, but for a time these dreams were superseded by a flirtation with poetry. But failing at that, and having inherited a fortune, Walton returns to his childhood ambition. At the end of the first letter, he is preparing to depart for his next stop, Archangel, from where he will put his expedition together.

The second letter sounds the theme of loneliness and friendship. Three months have elapsed and Walton complains, “I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavor to sustain me in dejection.” This dual theme of loneliness and friendship will recur throughout the novel, most pronouncedly in the Monster’s narrative. The Monster, we will see, is troubled principally by a profound loneliness that animates his actions and engenders our sympathies.

It’s also worth noting this line from Walton: “I greatly need a friend who would have sense enough not to despise me as romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavor to regulate my mind.” This introduces, vaguely, the idea that we need others to somehow reign in the more developed tendencies in our own nature. Or, alternatively, that there are certain tendencies which can come to dominate a personality that somehow need to be checked. We’ll come back to this in the next post.

After telling his sister about his lieutenant, Walton tells of another crew member who fell in love with and was engaged to be married to a woman who later admitted that she loved another man. This man, however, was too poor to meet with her father’s approval. The man proceeded to purchase an estate for the would-be couple and convinced the father to allow the marriage. Interestingly, Walton notes that this man of heroic virtue and selflessness is also “wholly uneducated: he is as silent as a Turk, and a kind of ignorant carelessness attends him.” I’m curious to see this time around if Shelley intends some sort of association between virtue and the absence of certain kinds of education.

On a similar note, the second letter also alludes to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” To it Walton attributes his “attachment” and “passionate enthusiasm” for the “dangerous mysteries” of the ocean. This leads Walton to the following acknowledgement: “There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand.” He is a practical man, but there is another force, a love for the “marvelous,” that also drives him. The influence of poets and scientists strive against one another in Shelley’s characters.

The third letter, written four months later, is brief and it serves chiefly to assure Margaret that all is well. Not only this, but Walton promises that he will not act rashly. Rather, he will be “cool, persevering, and prudent.” But he is certain of triumph: “What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?” What indeed?

The fourth letter is written over the course of three separate days within the span of a week. It is here that we first meet the Monster and Frankenstein. Walton’s ship had sailed and found itself trapped by sheets of ice. One morning, after the fog cleared, the crew spots a gargantuan man-like figure driving a sled across the ice. The next morning Walton comes up to the deck of the ship to witness his crew talking to someone outside the ship. It is Frankenstein and he is a shell of man. He is searching for the Monster, although the crew doesn’t know it as such, and he agrees to come aboard only when Walton informs him that the ship is intending to proceed northward.

Quickly, Walton perceives in Frankenstein a kindred spirit: “For my own part, I begin to love him as a brother; and his constant and deep grief fills me with sympathy and compassion.” As Frankenstein recuperates, the two talk at greater length and depth. Walton tells Frankenstein of the ambition that drives his expedition. “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay,” Walton declares, “for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought; for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race.” Here was a man sold on the Baconian vision of knowledge as power for the relief of the human condition of subjection to nature and its forces.

But this declaration elicits a strong response from Frankenstein: “Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drank also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me,–let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!” Frankenstein sees something of himself in Walton, and this eventually convinces him to lay aside his scruples about sharing his story.

First, however, Frankenstein asks Walton to share his own life story, which Walton tells us he proceeded to do. But Walton sums up what he relayed simply by expressing his “desire of finding a friend.” Frankenstein agrees with Walton. “We are unfashioned creatures,” he explains, “but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves […] do not lend his aid to perfectionate our weak and faulty natures.” Frankenstein tells Walton that he once had such a friend, but now he “has lost everything.”

Wrapping up the second entry of the fourth letter, Walton comments on Frankenstein’s love of nature: “no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature.” We’ll want to remember that comment later on in the book. It seems pretty clear that Shelley is interested in distinguishing a romantic sensibility that is content to appreciate the beauties of nature from the curiosity and pursuit of knowledge expressed by Walton.

In the last entry of the fourth letter, Walton relates Frankenstein’s decision to convey his story to Walton in the hope that Walton will “deduce an apt moral ” from it. “You seek for knowledge and wisdom as I once did,” Frankenstein begins, “and I ardently hope that gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.” Interestingly, he goes on to characterize the “apt moral” as one that will “direct” Walton if he succeeds and “console” him if he should fail. Interesting because we might have expected that Frankenstein would wish to turn Walton back from his endeavor, but this seems not to be the case.

Frankenstein goes on to explain that he waits “but for one event, and then I shall repose in peace,” and he assures Walton that nothing can alter his destiny, it is “irrevocably determined.” Walton concludes the letter by telling his sister that he will make a careful record of Frankenstein’s story. With that the letters conclude and we enter upon the first chapter in which Frankenstein assumes the role of narrator.

Framing her story with Walton’s letters and later handing off the role of the narrator to Frankenstein and the Monster in turn allows the reader to experience the events under consideration from competing vantage points. It invites us to inhabit the world of the story through the subjectivity of both Frankenstein and the Monster, and including Walton’s perspective invites us to relativize both of their perspectives.

The letters also suggest the multiplicity of threads that Shelley weaves together. This is not simply the story of a mad scientist, nor is it simply a story about technology turning against its maker. It is a story about the various competing motive forces that together animate individuals and, more generally, human culture. It is also a story about virtue and education and friendship. And this broader perspective matters because if we are to understand technology, we must not see it primarily as an independent force in human affairs. Rather, we should recognize its entanglement in the shifting manifestations of perennial human desire.

Stay tuned for the next round.

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