How are Robert Walton the explorer and Victor Frankenstein alike and different in Shelley's Frankenstein?

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caledon's profile pic

caledon | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Victor Frankenstein is (arguably) the protagonist of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. Robert Walton is the captain of an exploratory ship, and the narrator for the beginning and end of the novel. Walton's story acts as a frame or bracket for Frankenstein's. The novel has a fairly common gothic "letter in a bottle" structure, with the tale being introduced to us near its own end, a "flashback" telling us what has come before, followed by a return to the present with a conclusion.

Similarities

  • Both are scientifically-minded men, who "descend" into "lesser work" - Walton's descriptions of working among fishermen and laborers, and Frankenstein's pillaging of graves for parts.
  • Both are more reasonable than most, and while they acknowledge the Monster's hideous appearance, they are not incapable of functioning in his presence, as many others are.
  • Both are educated and eloquent, capable of abstract thought and expression, and make considerable efforts to explain themselves and their reasons for doing what they do, and seek to convince their audience of the rectitude of their actions.
  • They take a liking to each other as kindred spirits - this is another common theme in gothic literature, where two characters of exceptional, and often scientific ability, meet and befriend each other, though the friendship may be terminated when the character's differing morals or objectives are applied. This also appears in The Island of Dr. Moreau and Heart of Darkness.

Differences

  • The single greatest difference between them can be shown in the crew's demands to return to England. Walton has a direct responsibility and accountability to others; his crew. He is their leader. Victor isn't really a leader of anyone, nor is he directly responsible to or for anyone, leaving him free to be the voice of theory as opposed to Walton's need to deal in facts. This may help explain why Walton's actions are more conservative, and acquiescent to human nature (heading home instead of staying), whereas Victor's actions were more liberal, and it was this freedom that brought destruction. Nevertheless Walton's actions ensured his own survival, although at some mental cost: " It requires more philosophy than I possess to bear this injustice with patience. " He is not pleased with the outcome (having to give in to the animalistic threat of violence from the crew, because it's just human nature) but his choices were not "punished" with death.
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bettykirkers's profile pic

bettykirkers | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 2) eNoter

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Similarities

Both men are incredibly ambitious:

Walton: “I shall satiate my ardent curiosity… and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man”
Victor:  “I determined to go without a guide”

Both men are learned:

Walton: “I devoted my nights to the study of mathematics, the theory of medicine and those branches of physical science from which a naval adventure might derive the greatest practical advantage”
Victor: "I became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient" 

Both men are alone:

Walton: “But I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy… I have no friend”
Victor: “I shunned the face of man”

Both men compromise their physical wellbeing:

Walton: “I voluntarily endured cold, famine, thirst and want of sleep”
Victor: “weight of despair and remorse pressed upon my heart” “this state of mind preyed upon my health”  

Both men’s actions have negative repercussions for others:

Walton: “The cold is excessive, and many of my unfortunate comrades have already found a grave amidst this scene of desolation”
Victor: “I beheld those I loved spend vain sorrow upon the graves of William and Justine, the first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts”   

Differences

Frankenstein does not turn back before it is too late, Walton does:

Walton: “I have consented to return, if we are not destroyed. Thus are my hopes blasted by cowardice and indecision: I come back ignorant and disappointed.”  
Victor: “I, not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer”

Frankenstein is incredibly selfish, Walton less so:

Walton: “I cannot lead them unwillingly to danger, and I must return”
Victor
: “My tale was not one to announce publically, it’s astounding horror would be looked upon as madness by the vulgar”

Ultimately, Walton is a character double of Victor Frankenstein. They are both ambitious men who cause others to suffer as a result of their hubris, but it is important that Walton learns from Frankenstein’s harrowing tale, turning the ship around and returning in accordance with the wishes of his crew. In Shelley’s critique of the limitations of man, it can be said that Walton knows his limits, whilst his double – Victor Frankenstein – did not. 

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