Monday, September 19, 2016

Oakridge's 1st Period Sophomore English Class Reflects on the Opening Letters from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein:

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

13 comments:

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  2. Dear Oakridge,
    We read your posts! Thanks!
    We’re going to start with an answer to your most open-ended question—what did we think of the letters? Arjun & Anna were both interested in the similarities between the searchers—their loss of parents, their loneliness, the holes they have in their hearts. Walton has a specific friend he can reach out to – his sister. The letters & the similarities, for Caroline, create a kind of “jumping point” into the story—we begin the story with insight. We understand a lot before we meet Viktor. Walton is an alter ego, and according to Lucia, he gives us an idea of Victor…we don’t have to interpret him, we have Walton helping. With a stepping into the unknown, we have some help here—we have the letters. It’s not a distant narration, Brinia concluded, it’s an intimate invitation to the story. That’s what it feels like at least.
    Speaking of letters, one contrast between the two, Sampson noted, is in writing. Viktor is notably bad at writing letters—his family complains about it. Walton, by contrast, is an assiduous writer. What do you think about this difference, Oakridge?
    As for the lab report, first of all, cool idea. Thanks for that. Samantha agrees that Viktor seems to have sacrificed his relationships with family for his ambition to know. He is such a “slave to his passion” (Walton, letter 4, page 4) that he puts his life in danger to pursue the monster instead of looking to his family. You all note that he is using his studies as an excuse, as an escape. But I mean, isn’t his ambition, at some level, admirable…what kind of scientist would he be if he didn’t pursue his ideas? I mean, does the world need more Waldmans and Krempes? What kind of students would we be if we didn’t pursue our passions, at some times, in a manner that defied common sense? It’s not only passion for his life’s worth. It’s a kind of love…it’s a novel, after all, written by a woman who has known childbirth and miscarriage. Is Viktor any different from a mother who has lost a child?
    So thanks for getting this conversation started. Now we have some questions for you: Has the term doppelganger or alter ego come up in your conversations? Has you all talked about the Enlightenment context of the novel? What are the merits of Krempe’s brand of education, and what are the disadvantages of Waldman’s? Which professor would you rather take for a class?
    With Hornet passion and Hornet pride, First period English 9

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    1. Hello Greenhill first period English 9! Thank you for posing these questions to us. You definitely gave us a different perspective on Victor's passionate pursuit of science. Where would we be if it weren't for people who dare to defy the expectations of those around them in order to be different by society's standards. Class is ending right now but we would love to respond to more of your questions come Monday! With owl passion and owl pride, Oakridge third period British Lit.

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    2. Dear Greenhill, thanks for asking about the Enlightenment. Although Victor is fascinated with pre-modern sciences such as Alchemy, we believe that he is the Enlightenment’s version of the Promethean figure. Victor discovers how to create life from dead corpses, a power usually reserved for gods. Before the Enlightenment period, people didn’t look to science for knowledge or power, they only looked towards faith for answers. Victor is the first literary figure we can think of who accomplished his Promethean task on the grounds of science. He did not use supernatural methods like magic or sell his soul like Dr. Faustus. Barring questions of faith and religion, is there a way to still criticize Victor’s project in terms on grounds of reason and science alone?

      While we’ve discussed the similarities in both characters (Walton & Frankenstein), we haven’t used the terms doppelganger and alter ego. We understand your usage of the term alter ego, but Jace brought up an interesting point that the one area where the term doppelganger becomes less useful is any reference to actual, physical traits of individuals’ bodies. They are alike in their endeavors (meaning they are doubles in some sense), yet we feel that they lack the physical attributes to be referred to as doppelgangers. Physical appearance at times seems to hide the “doubling” of characters in the novel. Is Shelley making us think critically about vision and our over-reliance on it?

      We agree with your comment about the letters, and their varying styles. The simple answer to your question is that Victor is notably bad about writing his letters because he’s more antisocial than Walton and less interested in human interaction (which makes his project a little ironic, if you think about it). Keep in mind that Victor is more interested in Science, Mathematics, and Technology than he is in the creative fields. Whereas, Robert is deeply versed in the more creative fields, such as History and Literature (he does reference Coleridge). Perhaps this is one reason why he is better at writing letters than Victor. With this in mind, Walton seems to treat his sister with more respect and devotion, whereas Victor treats Elizabeth (HIS ADOPTED SISTER) in a more neglectful manner. Why do you think Victor fails to write Elizabeth more frequently? Is he just too busy?

      With Owl Pride,

      Mr. Colley's 1st Period Sophomore Honors British Lit Class.

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    3. Hello Greenhill! We agree that it is admirable that Victor pursued his passions as a scientist. Sam mentioned that the Enlightenment was a period that expanded modern sciences, but Victor combines these more modern methods with the alchemical ambitions to know the secrets of all of nature. Katie questions whether passion can be license to cross limits that conventionally cause others to hesitate? We can push the limit, but what would happen when we reached it? Is it Victor’s lack of care for boundaries that gets the novel’s tragic action going? Most of us would hesitate at the moral boundaries of robbing graves, stitching organs, and creating life from death. We would slow down and think about the consequences of our actions. Victor does the polar opposite. He speeds up the process to get it done faster and make it bigger. He doesn’t think about what his actions will unleash (Interestingly, he does hesitate in such way later in Volume 3, which we’re reading right now…). What boundaries do you think Victor is crossing? And does his passion make it excusable? When does passion become unhealthy?

      Oakridge Sophomore 3rd Period
      Go Owls!

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  4. Hello, first period! We had some thoughts about what you had to say about the letters.

    Our thoughts on the letters are that they create verisimilitude, a feeling that the story is true. However, the letters and what is contained within them make us suspicious: we wonder, is Robert Walton a truly reliable narrator? It seems possible that Robert, alone in the arctic, might be hallucinating in the freezing cold temperatures to the point that he creates the person of Victor Frankenstein in his mind and manifests the “rescue” of him, and the sighting of the monster. Victor’s story provides Walton with comfort and companionship to know that even if Walton is alone, he’s not so far gone that he can’t recover and that others have walked this road before him.
    Both Victor and Robert are similar in that they both isolate themselves on a journey that only benefits them. Their obsession to do what no one else has done proves miserable. Robert Walton is lonely in the arctic, “killing his albatross” when he meets Victor, a half-dead man who has pursued his passion to obsession. Much like Robert, Victor becomes obsessed with pursuing his passion to the point that he makes himself miserable. Once Victor actually reanimates the dead, he falls apart. It seems that Robert could possibly follow the same path. That’s why Frankenstein seems to be playing the experienced mentor to Walton, trying to dissuade him from falling headlong into the same trouble that he himself has fallen.
    Overall, the letters frame the story creating a cautionary tale: one man warning another very much like himself to steer clear of the trouble that obsessive ambition can cause.
    Mrs. Anders' First Period Brit. Lit.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful insight on the opening letters of Frankenstein. Our 3rd period Honors Survey of British Literature and Rhetoric class haven’t thought about the idea that he might be hallucinating due to the harsh temperature and weather. It makes you consider the possibility that all of the insights that we have come up with as a group might be turned to fiction.The possibility of Walton’s hallucination seems to be a bit far-fetched as he is surrounded by other sailors, but then again, Henry’s letters are all we have to go on as evidence of the crew’s existence. This got us thinking about the layers of different narrators (Walton, Victor, the Creature…). Can we trust any of them? Other than the facts we know about the setting and how extreme it is, does anything else make you think that the entire story is composed of hallucinations from Robert Walton?

      Your affectionate fellow class mates,

      Honors British Literature 3rd Period Class
      The Oakridge School
      Sept. 26, 2016

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    2. Honors British Literature 3rd Period,
      Why do you believe Robert Walton? We just aren't sure that he's reliable because he goes on and on about how lonely he is and how the crew members aren't his type of people, and then he meets Victor, a man much like himself. It just seems so fantastic. And doesn't it make sense that a cold and lonely man with a penchant for writing fantastic letters to his only relative and friend back home could create such a story like Victor's? The stories are too intricate, too interwoven to be believable. That is all.

      Your very affectionate fellow classmates,

      Mrs. Anders' 1st period British Literature Class
      The Oakridge School
      9/27/16

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    4. British Literature Class 1st Period,
      Well we don't necessarily believe Robert Walton but we also believe him to some point. It is like a Gothic fiction type of novel. Why would Robert Walton make up such an elaborate story to his relative?

      Your very happy and cheerful fellow classmates

      Mr.Colleys 3rd period British Literature Class
      The Oakridge School
      9/28/16

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    5. Thanks Nicholas for commenting back! Could you elaborate on what you mean by Gothic? What is a Gothic novel? And how does the unreliability of Walton as a narrator make the text "more Gothic"? I think you're on to something here, and I would love to hear more on this!

      Best,

      Mr. Colley

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