To Our Fellow Readers of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, DFW
Arlington, TX, Sept. 19th, 2016.
“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings” (15). That’s right; we’ve decided to read one of literature’s most horrifying novels together, and you too have embarked upon the journey, so think of these letters as a log about what we will encounter together at each stage of our reading quest. Our first stop on the journey is the opening letters from Robert Walton who is travelling to the northern regions of the Arctic in search of a northwest passageway to the Pacific Ocean. Did it strike you as odd to begin the novel in the arctic when we know we're starting a story about a European scientist who raises to life a stitched-together corpse only to experience disastrous consequences as a result of his questionable experiment? It struck us as odd: Why do we begin the novel near the North Pole?
Shelley presents us with parallels between the two characters, Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein, in order to set up suspense about the novel, to foreshadow possibilities about the story of Victor Frankenstein, and to help the reader understand how both characters become “Slaves of [their own] passion.” When Robert Walton discovers Victor dying on the ice, he resuscitates “the stranger” and quickly develops a bond with his new passenger. During this time, Walton describes Victor as a “slave of passion” (29), but we believe this to be one of the many parallels that make Walton an interesting comparison to Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist of the novel. Walton too is not in control of his passionate desires which drive him to accomplish his task at all cost: “I would sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope, to the furtherance of my enterprise. One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought…” (29). In class, someone wondered why the stranger (who is revealed to be Victor) wanted to tell Walton his story, and we noted that it’s after Walton proclaims the above statement that the traveller is prompted to share more about his past experiences. Walton seems to struggle between choosing what’s best to satisfy his passions and what’s best for both his health and his crew’s livelihood, and Victor witnesses this struggle in his new friend, which is why he states, “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… when I reflect that you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral from my tale;” (30-31). We think Victor wants to caution Walton once he recognizes his parallel fervor and passion. There are elements of Walton’s quest that make it noble in the eyes of Victor and the eyes of the reader, such as discovering new knowledge and embracing the sublimity of nature, but there are also reasons to question Walton’s motives, such as his willingness to endanger his crew, his inability to accept failure, and his desire to seek glory and fame.
On the Google doc about the opening letters, someone commented that Walton’s passion to discover new knowledge drives him into the wild, which isolates him from community and human relationships (JA/1/Colley). Walton pursues his quest at the cost of being isolated, much like the fate of the ancient mariner (whom Walton alludes to in the 2nd letter). The reference to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” got us wondering if accomplishing Walton’s task would serve as his “albatross moment” - namely something he can never take back with consequences that will forever haunt him in later years of loneliness. He claims in an early letter, “I shall satiate my curiosity 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” (16)), but what is the cost of attaining such a trophy? When does one’s passion become obsession? Where is the line? When does following one’s passion become morally questionable and perhaps even dangerous? Obviously Shelley’s allusion to the mariner invites us to pose such questions about Walton’s quest, and as stated above, Walton’s experience seems to run parallel to Victor’s (which we will learn more about in the chapters that follow).. As stated earlier, Victor recognized their common predicament, and in a way, Victor seems to play the role of the Mariner from Coleridge’s poem who stops a younger man on his way to a wedding so that the ancient seaman can share his cautionary tale about shooting the fateful albatross. Walton therefore plays the role of the “wedding guest,” and Victor attempts to halt the wedding guest’s isolated journey by sharing his story in an act of communal friendship and goodwill.Are there other parallels between Walton and Frankenstein that can be noted this early in the reading? What other reasons might Shelley start her novel in the arctic with Victor inexplicably found in the wilderness? What impact does meeting our main character in such circumstances have on the reader? And why reveal the facts using letters? One thing is for sure, meeting the characters in such circumstances raises our level of intrigue and even builds suspense for a story that we know will have terrifying twists and turns. What are your thoughts on the opening letters?
Your Affectionate Fellow Readers,
Mr. Colley's 1st Period Sophomore English Class