Volume 1: Letters 1–4 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1443
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.
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.
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.
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 unable to speak. Walton eventually brings him into his own cabin and reports that he finds this melancholy, tormented man fascinating. More mysterious still is the stranger’s admission that he has been pursuing the other, gigantic man, whom he calls “the daemon.” After hearing that Walton and the sailors saw the object of his pursuit, the stranger becomes much more animated and wants to keep watch on deck, but Walton persuades him to stay in the cabin and rest. He tells Margaret that although he previously despaired of ever finding a true friend, he has begun to feel a brotherly love for this strange man, whose grief fills Walton with compassion.
On August 13, Walton writes that his affection for the stranger—whose name, though he has not yet revealed it, is Victor Frankenstein—continues to grow. While he admires Victor’s wisdom and gentle manners, he also feels pity for his grief. Walton describes his willingness to sacrifice everything in order to gain the knowledge he seeks in the Arctic, and Victor begins to weep, telling the captain he has a tale that would make him abandon his ambitions. After this outburst, however, Victor recovers himself and urges Walton to speak more about his own life. He is sympathetic to Walton’s yearning for a friend and says he once had such a friend himself, but now he has lost everything. Walton says that in spite of his sadness, Victor possesses a deep appreciation for the beauty of nature and an intelligence that elevates him above anyone Walton has ever met.
In the letter’s last entry, on August 19, Walton writes that Victor has decided to tell him his story in the hopes that the captain might learn from it. Walton at first hoped he might be able to help Victor once he knew his history, but Victor maintains that, while there is still time for Walton to change his course, his own fate is sealed. Nevertheless, Walton looks forward with curiosity and sympathy to hearing his guest’s tale. He resolves to record the story in Victor’s own words, both for Margaret and for himself.
Walton’s letters to Margaret serve as a framing device for the narrative that follows. Incredible as Victor’s story will turn out to be, the letters lend it a sense of authenticity as well as wonder. Walton’s writing shows him to be a practical, intelligent, sensitive individual and therefore a reasonably reliable narrator.
Moreover, the letters establish the first of several parallels that will be important throughout the novel: the parallel between Victor’s story and Walton’s. Walton, whose quest for the secrets of the Arctic is fueled as much by his imagination and emotions as by his desire for discovery and knowledge, is a Romantic figure; he quotes the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whose “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” will reappear later in the novel), laments his own failed attempt to become a poet, and confesses to a belief in the “marvelous.” The Romantic qualities that so captivate him in Victor—sensitivity, deep feeling, expressiveness, a spiritual affinity for the beauty of nature—reflect his own values and traits.
While Walton feels great compassion for his guest’s grief, Victor feels perhaps even greater compassion and concern for Walton. He recognizes that the captain is driven by the same dangerous desire to achieve dominance over the forces of nature that brought his own life to utter ruin, and he is able to sympathize with Walton’s yearning for a close friend precisely because he had such a friend and lost him. In his guest, Walton has found a man he believes could have been the kind of friend he longs for, if only Victor’s spirit hadn’t been broken by suffering. Ironically, it is this very experience of suffering that allows Victor, through the telling of his story, to provide the kind of sympathetic advice Walton longs to receive—albeit in the form of a terrible warning. Both the longing for companionship and the folly of attempting to control natural forces will remain major themes in Frankenstein.
It is also significant that Victor appears to be, like Walton, upper-class. Much as he might admire the bravery, skill, and even kindness of his crew—or lament the informality of his own education—the wealthy, well-read captain does not expect to find a true kindred spirit among working-class sailors.