Reading Frankenstein: Walton’s letters

The structure of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is like the layers of an onion; step by step we come closer to the core of the story. The novel begins with captain Walton’s letters to his sister, then Victor Frankenstein tells his story to captain Walton. At the core is the Creature’s own narrative. After that we return to Victor Frankenstein’s story and finally we are back with captain Walton who began the story.

The beginning with captain Walton’s four letters to his sister, which precede volume I in the 1818 edition, is notoriously difficult to get through for a first time reader. On a re-reading they are an important part of the novel because they set the tone (perhaps in the same way that an intro to a song is important, even if it lacks melody and rhythm).

Captain Walton’s letters describe how he travels north via St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk (Archangel) and out into “the land of mist and snow“, looking for the Magnetic North Pole. This scientific exploration shows Enlightenment ideas. Captain Walton’s description of love and friendship, on the other hand, is very Romantic. He is impressed with the master of the ship who gives up farm and future to a young couple in love and his highest wish is to find a good and close friend.

Once you have read the novel, it is interesting to go back and read Walton’s letters again. Do they give us any hints about what is to come? Does Walton parallel any of the other characters in the novel? Is the theme presented in these letters?

What did you discover after a first reading of Walton’s letters?

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19 thoughts on “Reading Frankenstein: Walton’s letters”

  1. Reblogged this on mattobatto and commented:
    Måste läsa Frankenstein en gång till. Fantastiskt många läsningsmöjligheter gör sig åter påminda. Gilbert och Gubars läsning minns jag att jag imponerades av. Vad den var är lite mer diffust.

    1. Den är svårsammanfattad för de tar upp så otroligt många saker på några få sidor, men kanske är det viktigaste att Frankenstein är en romantisk, feministisk omskrivning av Paradise Lost. I sin beskrivning berättar Gilbert och Gubar om kvinnans underordnade roll i den bibliska Adam och Eva-myten; att biografiska tolkningar är mindre viktiga än det faktum att det är en roman om litteratur och romantik; att Walton, Frankenstein och monstret förenas i att de alla försöker hitta sin plats i världen; att Walton och Frankenstein inte bara är som Prometheus utan att de också är fallna änglar; att isvidderna representerar helvetet (och ligger efter St. Petersburgh och Archangel!); att syftet med Waltons berättelse är att låta Shelley utforska “the fearful tale of a female fall from a lost paradise of art, speech, autonomy into a hell of sexuality, silence and filthy materiality”; att nästan alla personer i boken är föräldralösa och att många förhållanden är incestuösa (vilket också gäller för Adam och Eva); att identiteter skiftar och att nästan alla personer växelvis tar på sig de bibliska rollerna från Paradise Lost (Adam, Gud, Satan men inte Eva). Analysen slutar med att monstret är “a female in disguise” samt att Frankenstein och monstret till slut visar sig vara Eva och Eva.

  2. After reading both the letters and your text I am very anxious to discover if the rest of the book will continue in the same way with tendencies from the two different eras you are mentioning, Enlightenment and Romantic that is. Maybe this sort of intro, as you are referring to the letters, could give us a clue to what will be central in this book just by setting the tone, to continue with the music references, with the ideas from the different eras.

    1. Regarding the difference between Enlightenment and Romantic ideas, Victor Frankenstein describes the difference between him and Elizabeth like this: “The world was to me a secret, which I desired to discover; to her it was a vacancy; which she sought to people with imaginations of her own.” His view on science isn’t enlightened though, as you will discover, since he reads alchemists and mystics such as Paracelsus and Agrippa.

  3. I believe that the man that walter took aboard the boat was Victor Frankenstein and that he was chasing the “monster”. That is probably everything I’ve gotten from the text so far.

    1. Yes, Daniel, it’s Frankenstein and the monster! In chapter one, Victor’s narrative begins and he is telling it to captain Walton. Later, it might be rewarding to return to these four letters.

  4. At first glance, captain Walton character seem to be independent, confident and urbane. But as you continue reading all of the four letters, you realize that he is quite the opposite. He might look like a rugged seacaptain, but on the inside he is still the same unsecure child, protected by the warm embrace of wealth.
    This journey, that he has dreamt of for so long, seem to be his first time traveling “by himself”, for himself. The fact that he has left his privileged lifestyle where, I suppose, friends came along with the money, has left him with the insight that he has not got any true friends. Nobody, except for his sister, really cares for him. And neither does he possess interest in anyone else, until “the stranger” appears ( who obviously is Victor Frankenstein). You can tell that the stranger is a special character by the fact that he awakes a hidden urge within Walton: the urge to become friends with someone. Waltons fascination with the stranger shows in his complete devotion towards the stranger, how he seems to praise every little characteristic the stranger has.

  5. After reading the letters, I gave myself a moment to gather my thoughts and create a somewhat clear picture of Walton and the kind of person he is. Walton, for me, is an adventurous man who now is facing something unknown for him, without anyone to share it with or feel secure with. He is on his own, meeting only new people, which shows courage but this courage also makes him feel lonely, since he does not have the security of a friend with him. Therefor I think it’s impotent for him to write to his sister to feel the connection between them as family to give him comfort. The first face to face interaction you come apone in the book seems to leave big marks on Walton, since his fascination for this stranger is quite intense.

  6. I had to read the letters twice because I didn’t really understand them the first time I read them. After reading them the second time I came to the same conclusion as many others. That the stranger is Viktor Frankenstein.

  7. The letters for me shows what kind of novel this is going to be like. It presents the Romantic themes with Waltons dream of exploring. The stranger Walton picks up is Victor Frankenstein and this gives a little insight to what’s about to happen later in the novel.

  8. I thought It was pretty difficult to understand the letters when I read them. The one thing that I undestood was that the man Walter brought aboard was Viktor Frankenstein. I look forward to read the rest of the book.

  9. Well after reading the letters I’m fairly certain that the unnamed stranger is going to narrator of the book and I’m also quite positive that the stranger is Victor Frankenstein. Most likely he is looking for the monster..

  10. When I read the letters I could almost guess what the novel would be like. While Walton sails he spots a stranger which I think could be Victor Frankenstein and the creature he’s chasing is probably Frankenstein’s Monster.

  11. When reading the first part of Mary Shelly´s Frankenstein I was surprised to discover that the novel itself is nothing like I pictured it. Especially the letters which gives us un idea of how the book will be written and which kind of language that will be used. I can only imagine that what is mentioned in the first letters will reappear when reading the next parts. Such as the stranger that gets picked up on the boat who i believe is Victor Frankenstein. However I am exited to discover how the romantic themes will evolve over the course of the book.

  12. Walton’s wishes for friends and belonging is not unlike Frankenstein’s monster’s own. Linking “Frankenstein’s” thoughts to Walton’s own humanizing him thus making him less monstrous. Furthermore the choice of narratives can be compared to telling myths and legends. Which is what the romantics is partly about, especially the gothic romantics. It’s not only myths that have been spread by storytelling, horror stories are a fine example “campfire entertainment”. And honestly Frankenstein is a philosophic horror story.

  13. The letters are a great seguay into what I think will sometime end up being the moral of the story. Not only do you get a taste of how the story is written, with its beautiful description of the events and surroundings, but you also get some backstory and your thoughts start to wander. You create your own picture of what is happening.

  14. I am utterly surprised about the fact that Walton is such a Romantic person with the intense longing for love and friendship that he has shown. He is a very passionate and ambitious man who know what he wants, and he is giving these letters a touch of enjoyment for reading with his colourful descriptions of the world around him.

  15. I discovered that Walton is exited about his journey and has a burning desire to accomplish “some great purpose”. Because he has such a luxurious life and is well educated, he complains about not being able to make friends with the crew of the ship because he thinks that they are not on the same intellectual level as he is. I also think that the stranger he meets is Frankenstein. He and Walton become friends, to Waltons delight who was starting to feel lonely.

  16. I thought the letters were somewhat difficult to get engaged in, so therefore I am looking forward towards the rest of the book not being the same way. But I also believe that this is a good way to start the book, to set the tone and it kinda builds up some expectations.
    And also what I got out of the letters was, as many others, that the stranger is Victor Frankenstein.

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