In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, how does Walton's perspective of Victor make the audience respond to the novel's protagonist?
Mary Shelley's gothic novel Frankenstein employed the epistolary style to convey the story's narrative, with the journals of the explorer Robert Walton providing the structure through which this lonely, intellectually isolated man conveys to his sister the story of Victor Frankenstein and the latter's horrific creation. Walton is a forlorn character, and Shelley emphasizes his despondency at being bereft of a companion with whom he can share his thoughts. In the second of his letters to his sister, he writes the following:
"You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans."
Having established the desolate, lonely atmosphere in which Walton finds himself stuck among ice sheets in the Arctic region, Shelley continues to have her narrator convey this sense of longing for excitement when, in Letter 4, that excitement presents itself in the form of the mysterious gigantic form he spies from a distance followed by the appearance of Victor Frankenstein. The clearly physically and mentally exhausted figure who Walton’s crew hauls aboard their vessel appears completely indigent, so it is with some pleasant surprise that the stranger is immediately revealed to be an individual of some refinement and education:
“On perceiving me, the stranger addressed me in English, although with a foreign accent. ‘Before I come on board your vessel,’ said he, ‘will you have the kindness to inform me whither you are bound?’ You may conceive my astonishment on hearing such a question addressed to me from a man on the brink of destruction and to whom I should have supposed that my vessel would have been a resource which he would not have exchanged for the most precious wealth the earth can afford.”
Walton and his crew gradually nurse the stranger who will be revealed as Victor Frankenstein back to health. As the stranger regains his strength and becomes more communicative, a bond begins to develop between two kindred spirits, one an explorer of the earth, the other an inventor whose creation will be the instrument of his own demise:
“Such is my journal of what relates to this strange occurrence up to the present day. The stranger has gradually improved in health but is very silent and appears uneasy when anyone except myself enters his cabin. Yet his manners are so conciliating and gentle that the sailors are all interested in him, although they have had very little communication with him. For my own part, I begin to love him as a brother, and his constant and deep grief fills me with sympathy and compassion. He must have been a noble creature in his better days, being even now in wreck so attractive and amiable.”
With this introduction of narrator and protagonist, Shelley’s story of a young, gifted but naïve scientist—a student, actually—and the creature he unleashes upon humanity begins. The narrative shifts from Walton’s perspective to that of Victor, as the latter relates his tragic story, including his efforts at reanimating dead tissue and the eventual destruction of all he has held dear. Victor created the monster he refers to as “the wretch,” and “the demon,” that murders his younger brother, his closest friend, and near the story’s ending, his bride. He is not, however, depicted as an innately evil person, or bad in any way save for the suffering he could have prevented had he displayed the moral integrity that could have prevented the chain of catastrophic events he has set in motion from the moment he shrieks in horror at the sight of his creation and casts it away into the wilderness. Walton is clearly enamored with the individual his crew has saved and whom he has nursed back to life. In his final journal entry, Walton reemphasizes the bond he has developed with this despondent figure who lies weak and demoralized on his ship. Victor is determined to continue his journey to find and destroy his creation, and Walton laments the imminent departure of the only human being in his midst with whom he can relate:
“Must I then lose this admirable being? I have longed for a friend; I have sought one who would sympathize with and love me. Behold, on these desert seas I have found such a one, but I fear I have gained him only to know his value and lose him. I would reconcile him to life, but he repulses the idea.”
Walton’s perspective of Victor makes the reader sympathize with the scientist. Shelley depicts Walton in a favorable light, and her narrator likewise depicts Victor in a favorable light. The reader cannot help but sympathize with Victor’s situation. The reader can also, however, not help but acknowledge that he brought onto himself the travails he has experienced, and bears no small amount of responsibility for the deaths of his loved ones. He pursued his experiment with a fervor bordering on insanity only to summarily reject his creation, and then rejected the creature’s request of a female companion in exchange for disappearing into the wilderness to never be seen again. Victor, as Walton relates the story, is a victim of his own questionable choices, and now lives with the consequences.