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Volume 1: Letters 1–4 Summary and Analysis

Letter One

Frankenstein begins with a series of letters from English explorer Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville, in London. In the first letter, dated “Dec. 11th, 17—,” Walton writes of his arrival in St. Petersburg, Russia, and of his excitement at the prospect of embarking upon an expedition to the Arctic. Though he has dreamed of this expedition since childhood, Walton previously abandoned the idea in order to become a poet. When this pursuit ended in disappointment and failure, Walton decided to return to his childhood ambition with the help of a recent inheritance. For the next six years, he gained sailing experience on whaling ships while studying science, mathematics, and medicine. Now, with this voyage, he hopes not only to finally set foot on the land that has captured his imagination all his life but to make discoveries about magnetism, astronomy, and a possible passage to the Pacific Ocean. He confesses to his sister that though he is confident in his purpose, he sometimes loses hope of success when he thinks of the difficulties he knows he will face. His next step will be to seek out a ship and sailors in the seaport of Archangel.

Letter Two

In the second letter, dated March 28, Walton writes from Archangel that he has found both a ship and a courageous crew. Despite this, however, he confesses that he is not entirely happy. He longs for an understanding friend to share in his joys and disappointments, to sympathize with his Romantic nature, and to repair what he considers his faults—namely his lack of formal education. Though he doesn’t expect to find such a friend in Archangel or on his voyage, Walton does admire the men he has enlisted. The lieutenant is a fellow Englishman Walton first met on a whaling expedition and is highly driven to achieve glory. The ship’s master is known for his kindness and, years ago, bestowed his entire fortune on the lover of a young Russian woman to whom he was engaged, then left the country so that his former fiancee could marry the man she loved. Though he is certainly noble, the ship's master is also uneducated and quiet.

As he waits for the harsh winter to give way to spring, Walton anticipates his voyage with a mixture of excitement and fear. He alludes to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” confessing that his passion for the sea was partially shaped by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem and that he is driven by a “belief in the marvelous.” If he doesn’t return from his expedition, he hopes his sister will remember him.

Letter Three

Walton’s third letter, dated July 7, brims with confidence. His ship is making good progress north, the sailors remain undaunted by the sheets of ice they have begun to encounter, and the voyage has so far proceeded without any real difficulties or incidents of note. Walton assures his sister that he will continue to be determined and sensible. Having come this far, he now fully expects to achieve success.

Letter Four

The fourth letter consists of three separate entries written on different days. The first entry, from August 5, describes how Walton’s ship becomes enclosed by ice and mist, unable to move. When the mist clears, Walton and the crew see that they are surrounded by vast stretches of ice on every side. Suddenly, a gigantic man guiding a sledge drawn by dogs comes into view and quickly disappears into the distance. The ice breaks a couple of hours later, but they decide to wait until the next day to continue north. In the morning, Walton is surprised to see the crew speaking to a man adrift on a fragment of ice. Though he has a sledge and dogs, this is clearly not the same man as the one who sped by the day before. Walton is further astonished when the stranded man wants to know where the ship is headed. When he learns they are sailing for the north pole, he agrees to come on board, and Walton and the sailors carry his emaciated, nearly frozen body into the cabin.

For two days, the mysterious traveler is...

(The entire section is 1,438 words.)