Why does Mary Shelley start Frankenstein off with Walton's letters to his sister as opposed to beginning with Victor's life story and experiences?

Mary Shelley starts Frankenstein with Walton's letters to his sister as opposed to beginning with Victor's life story and experiences as a means of verifying the credibility of Victor's tale and as a means of establishing a tone that better supports the themes of the novel.

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In addition to the previous educator's response, it is important to note that Walton lends credibility to Victor Frankenstein's tale. If Victor himself had narrated this story, describing how he had sewn various body parts together and had created new life, the narrative would seem suspicious. Indeed, it might be easy to label Victor an unreliable narrator, full of conceit and in need of scientific accolades, and to thus determine that the "creature" is simply a construction of Victor's imagination. However, Walton himself sees the creature, which he writes about in a letter at the end of the work:

The apparition of the monster seen from our ship, brought to me a greater conviction of the truth of his narrative than his asseverations, however earnest and connected. Such a monster has, then, really existence! I cannot doubt it, yet I am lost in surprise and admiration.

Walton is the only other person who has seen Victor's creation and has lived to verify its existence. He acknowledges that he tries to persuade Victor to divulge the details of this creation's "formation," but Victor resolutely refuses, calling Walton "mad" for even asking.

Walton's letters also set the tone for the events of the novel. Victor's story would have likely begun with the adoption of Elizabeth and with recollections of his idyllic childhood. This tone would be disjointed from Victor's efforts to create a monster—and to then abandon that creation. When Walton finds Victor in the cold and desolate Arctic, he describes him as "nearly frozen," "dreadfully emaciated," and "wretched." This provides a more appropriate tone for the themes of alienation, deceit, and revenge that permeate the novel.

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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a frame narrative. Walton's letters are...

...the frame around which the novel is based.

These letters to his sister serve several purposes. First, the author does not give away the story's ending. If Victor began the story, how would the reader ever learn of his fate? He would be unable to tell the end of the tale (after he dies) unless his story was interrupted at his death, and Walton was somehow able to step in and share the news of Victor's death. This would have been particularly awkward.

Walton is able to share with his sister (and us) not only Victor's story and the creature's version of the story (as told to Victor), but also what occurs with the creature after Victor is dead—an aspect of the story that conveys an important element: the "monster's" abject remorse and grief at his creator's passing.

Another aspect of Walton's presence in the story (that is addressed with Shelley's form of introduction) is its use as a cautionary tale or allegory where Walton is concerned. A cautionary tale is:

...a tale told in folklore, to warn its hearer of a danger.

An allegory is...

... narrative form in which the characters are representative of some larger humanistic trait...and attempt to convey some larger lesson or meaning to life.

In this story, the allegory is theme-based, sharing a life-truth with the audience. Victor's downfall comes with his quest for dangerous or forbidden knowledge: his desire to create life, like God. 

It is a cautionary tale involving Walton because he is also pursuing that which he should not—"[a wish] to conquer the unknown"—just as Victor did—without thought to the consequences of his actions. Walton is exploring unknown areas of the North Pole. When Victor is rescued by Walton's crew, he describes the dangers of trying to rise above the natural order by creating the creature without thought to his responsibilities or the outcomes of his experiments, and doing something man was not meant to do: creating life. At the same time, Walton (a parallel to Victor's character) is ready to continue to pursue his dream at the cost of other men's lives: he is so blinded by ambition that he loses sight of his moral obligations—just like Victor. Hearing Frankenstein's tale, and then seeing the sorrow of the creature, Walton learns an important lesson, and stops before disaster strikes. Victor delivers the Shelley's message:

Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. 

Lastly, because Walton is simply hearing the tale, he is a more credible storyteller. E.g., Victor accuses the creature of being a monster. The creature believes Victor was equally monstrous in creating, abandoning and rejecting him. Walton is not personally involved in Victor's life: he has emotional distance, and is touched by the creature's words:

Some years ago...when I felt the cheering warmth of summer, and heard the rustling of the leaves and the warbling of the birds...I should have wept to die...


You...seem to have a knowledge of my crimes and his misfortunes. But in the detail which he gave you of them he could not sum up the hours and months of misery which I endured...

Victor could only see things from his perspective. The creature notes that even Lucifer had friends—but he is totally alone in the world.

Walton is an important part of the telling of the story.

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