Much of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein considers themes of discovery and exploration through the foils of Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton. Shelley frames the contrasts between these characters through the philosophical differences between the two. In the first lines of Letter I, Walton mentions his relationship with his sister,...
Much of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein considers themes of discovery and exploration through the foils of Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton. Shelley frames the contrasts between these characters through the philosophical differences between the two. In the first lines of Letter I, Walton mentions his relationship with his sister, whom the letter addresses, "informing her about the success of [his] undertaking." His "undertaking" is an exploration of the external world to find new paths for English colonialists in the Arctic; however, his drive for discovery is one that he describes as rooted in curiosity and internal peace:
I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven; for nothing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose—a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye. This expedition has been the favourite dream of my early years.
While his description reads as peaceful, he is a colonialist whose intended exploration stretches between the North Pole, "the most southern cape of Africa," and America. Here, we can see the colonialist motivations driving Walton, as he precedes his line "country of eternal light" with a description of the world as "undiscovered solitudes," insisting that these sites of colonial expansion are only truly "discovered" if England locates them through expeditions like Walton's. The description of his motivations for an exploration of the North Pole additionally shows his reliability as a narrator because these mark the novel as an example of the epistolary form (a narrative composed of letters). These letters are meant to be read by another party—in this case, by Walton's sister—not internally monologued in private first-person like much of Victor's musings throughout the novel. For readers of this novel, the invitational mode of the letters provides a trustworthy account of our first view of Victor as a broken and shattered person who needs to be nursed back to health when Walton finds him. The bulk of the novel is composed as Victor's explanation to Walton of his life leading up to these dying moments.
Readers can see Walton's motivations for outward colonial expansion contrasted with Victor's ambitions regarding the exploration of the inward functions of the body, "the hidden laws of nature," and the "secrets of heaven and earth." While Victor expresses hesitations about these internal discoveries of life, he ultimately ignores these reservations in favor of his own selfish drive. Victor's "fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature" eventually becomes a quest to reanimate the dead, no matter the cost. Victor, in contrast to Walton, seeks discovery of the internal world through his studies of medicine. However, when his professor at university denies the possibility that he can wield the secrets of nature to reanimate dead flesh, he turns to "the ancient teachers of this science," whom the professor M. Waldman describes as having "promised impossibilities, and performed nothing." Victor focuses on early modern occult sciences when he reads Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa's natural philosophy account of pursuing "nature to her hiding-places." The occult has its historical connects to both magic and hidden secrets, so Victor's constant use of language about the secrets of nature aligns with the use of the term "occult" by Renaissance philosophers such as Agrippa. Victor, through his uninhibited ambition for discovery, contrasts with Walton's caretaking of Victor, as Victor shows that he ultimately fails to care for anyone around him, eventually leading him to the state Walton finds him in on his voyage of colonial expansion.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Penguin, 2007.