Frankenstein | Study Guide

Mary Shelley

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Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Robert Walton's first four letters in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein.

Frankenstein | Letters 1–4 | Summary



Letter 1

Robert Walton, preparing to explore the North Pole, relates the progress of planning for his expedition in a letter dated December 11, 17—, to his sister Margaret Saville, in London. Walton has made it to St. Petersburgh, Russia, and he describes his excitement about being the first to reach the Pole, solve scientific mysteries, and benefit humanity. Six years before he started training for the arduous journey by serving on whale boats to the North Sea and enduring great physical hardships. As a result, Walton feels entitled to success.

Letter 2

In his letter of March 28, from Archangel, Russia, Walton describes securing a ship and hiring sailors, but he is lonely, writing, "I have no friend, Margaret." He praises the other ship officers but says they are not friend material for him. He hopes a friend will help him learn, feeling self-conscious because he is self-educated, and yearns for someone to celebrate his victories and soothe his defeats. He keenly anticipates the future, describing a "trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful," that fills him as he considers what is to come.

Letter 3

In a very brief letter from July 7, Walton writes that the ship is well under way and is nearing the North Pole. He and the crew have occasionally seen sheets of ice float by, and they have weathered two wind storms and a broken mast, but nothing significant has happened. He reassures his sister that he will "not rashly encounter danger."

Letter 4

On August 5 Walton writes to his sister explaining recent events. On July 31 his ship got stuck in the ice floes. That same day Walton and his crew saw the strangest thing: a "gigantic" figure of a man traveling by dogsled on the ice floes. The next morning they found another man, this one of normal size, also on a dogsled. Although the man was close to death, he would not agree to come aboard Walton's ship until Walton verified that they were traveling to the North Pole. A few days later, when the stranger had recovered sufficiently to speak, he told Walton and Walton's lieutenant that he has been chasing someone also traveling by dogsled. The stranger got excited when Walton said he thinks they saw such a man. Walton is delighted to have found a possible friend, though the man's "spirit had been broken by misery."

By August 13 Walton writes that his fondness for the stranger has increased. They talk about the business of the ship, Walton's goal to reach the North Pole, Walton's childhood, and Walton's desire for a friend. The stranger tells Walton, "But I—I have lost every thing, and cannot begin life anew."

On August 19 Walton writes that the stranger promises to tell Walton his story "the next day," when Walton is free to listen, and calls Walton "my friend." Walton plans to "record" the stranger's story.


The connection to Paradise Lost continues in the letters. Some critics have noted that both St. Petersburgh and Archangel, the places Walton uses to prepare for his voyage, are biblical allusions or references. St. Petersburgh was named after St. Peter, one of the chief apostles of Jesus; an archangel is the highest rank of angel. If Victor Frankenstein can also be seen as Adam (created), fallen mortal man, then Walton is an angel who takes care of Frankenstein as he is dying.

Walton's four letters have several purposes in the novel. First, they serve as a frame narrative. This literary device is just what its name suggests: a frame in which the main story is set. People select a frame to set off the picture it encloses; in the same way, authors create frame narratives to underscore the main story they surround. In Frankenstein Walton's story offers parallels to Victor's. Both men are exceedingly ambitious and driven to leave their mark on the world. However, in this frame the men's stories turn out very differently, as the novel's ending reveals. Walton's fate contrasts to Victor's. This makes Walton a foil, or contrast, to Victor. His need for human companionship contrasts with Victor's frequent failures to stay in touch with his family. His scientific idealism and curiosity parallel Victor's, but the decisions he makes at the end show more caution than Victor showed.

Second, the letters give Frankenstein a veneer of realism, although the novel is the wildest fiction. Without Walton's conversations with Frankenstein and especially with the Monster, Frankenstein's wild story would not have any verifiable proof.

Third, the letters introduce Walton, who reflects the emotionalism, individualism, and imagination prized among those in the romantic movement. Other factors also link Walton to romanticism.

  • In his second letter, Walton tells his sister he will "kill no albatross," an allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In that poem, an old sailor tells the story of what happened to him decades ago. His ship was locked in the ice. The crew spotted an albatross, a large seabird, thought to be a good luck symbol. However, the old sailor (then a young man) shot the bird, sending a curse down on the ship. As a result, the ship was stranded in the ocean, and everyone but the old sailor died of thirst. As punishment, the old sailor must travel the globe to share his story to teach people to respect all of God's creatures. While Walton vows not to commit the old sailor's crime, he plays this part, in a way. He bears the burden of telling Frankenstein's story, although he did not commit the crime.
  • The North Pole, as with any exotic location, held great interest to readers, but especially to romantics, who celebrated nature. The region held mystery , which explains Walton's conviction that the Pole holds more than "frost and desolation," as he says. "What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?" he asks, setting the stage for the adventure to come.

That Walton is self-educated connects him to Mary Shelley. It also links him to Victor and the Monster, as readers learn over the course of the novel. Victor educated himself about alchemy; the Monster reads classics to learn more about humankind.

Finally, the letters introduce one of the novel's primary themes: human companionship. Walton is bitterly lonely and isolated, craving a friend. He tries to blunt the edge of that loneliness in writing his sister. When Victor appears, Walton quickly warms to him, seeing the chance to form a friendship.

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