Walton’s Role as Narrator in Frankenstein
Examining Frankenstein’s story through Walton’s eyes clouds some of the errors and overlooks some of the mistakes Frankenstein made. The reader sees Walton quickly become fascinated and enamored with Frankenstein. This raises the question of what role Walton plays in the story. Is it so that the reader can see Victor in a sympathetic light, or does it go deeper? One role of Walton’s character is that he allows the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, to teach a lesson. By using someone who is outside of the story Victor tells, Shelley utilizes the character of Walton show the readers how valuable life is. Shelley uses parallels in the relationships Walton and Victor have with their families, and those around them, as well as the similarities in their dispositions to show how important life is and the consequences that follow from disregarding it.
Shelley begins the novel by introducing Walton, a captain on a sea voyage to the North Pole to discover the source of power that directs compass needles North. Walton mentions his loneliness in the beginning of the book in his letters to his sister, which start out as hopeful and turn more melancholy as Walton begins to feel more alone and out of sorts. He claims to Margaret that he “greatly [needs] a friend” who would understand him and his fancies, rather than just the crewmen that he has found himself surrounded by (Shelley 6). It is in this mindset that he meets Victor Frankenstein, who is found in a state of exhaustion and desperation that requires him to recover from his travels; after Victor recovers he learns of Walton’s quest and insists on recounting his own journey. In a letter to his sister, when describing his conversation with Victor, Walton writes: “One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race” here showing that already Walton displays a lack of care for life, revealing that he believes knowledge, or even just the pursuit of knowledge, to be more important (Shelley 8). Upon hearing this, Victor cries out: “Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me; let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!" which begins Victor’s narrative to Walton about his quest and the story of his monster (8).
As Victor tells his story Walton sees the similarities in their dispositions and beliefs and latches on to them, but does not see himself as a young Victor before misfortune has fallen him, as Victor clearly does. Walton’s relationship with Victor (and vice versa) shows a sympathetic side that appears lacking throughout the novel. In her essay “Novelistic Sympathy in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Jeanne M. Britton claims that the characters “desperately seek but never find ideal sympathetic companionship” throughout the course of the novel (Britton 3). Britton starts with this claim and goes on to describe that though the characters may not find themselves able to truly connect with one another in the novel, the textual devices Shelley employs reveal a different type of sympathy. This relates to Shelley trying to display the importance of life because each character lacks the ability to connect on an emotional level with one another, instead valuing the pursuit of knowledge over human contact. Victor himself states “I do not know that the relation of my disasters will be useful to you; yet, when I reflect that you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral from my tale, one that may direct you if you succeed in your undertaking and console you in case of failure,” revealing his belief that their paths are similar and that if Victor shares his story with Walton, Walton will be able to gleam what he himself missed (9). Victor cannot comprehend the value of human life fully, as he never truly felt connected to any of the people surrounding him. Victor is regarded by his parents as a “plaything and their idol,” showing that from an early age Victor is in turns idolized and adored, then abandoned as a toy is when one grows tired of it (11). Though his parent’s might have loved him, they never showed the unconditional love and support that would allow Victor to connect with other people.
The relationship between Victor and his cousin Elizabeth as well as the relationship between Walton and his sister Margaret demonstrate another similarity between the two characters. Walton’s letters to Margaret display a deep love shown when he writes: “Heaven shower down blessings on you, and save me, that I may again and again testify my gratitude for all your love and kindness, ” (5) that parallels Victor’s saying that Elizabeth is his “more than sister,” showing that both characters have a family companion in their family that they both care about (27). However, in Walton’s accounts he addresses his sister as “dear Margaret,” (2) while Victor does not address anyone with this endearment. Elizabeth writes “dear Victor” in a letter that Victor recounts for Walton, but Victor never talks to Elizabeth with the endearment (107). Victor either lacks the ability to express his feelings for Elizabeth or he lacks the ability to truly connect with her. Shelley builds the similarities between Walton and Victor and then creates subtle differences to emphasize the different paths the characters choose to take. For when Victor finally falls in love with Elizabeth and marries her she is killed by the monster Frankenstein creates. After she dies, Victor tells Walton that he “rushed towards her, and embraced her with ardour,” showing a passion in his embrace he never showed Elizabeth in life (225). Victor’s ability to appreciate Elizabeth comes only after she has been killed becomes a cautionary tale for Walton to show that he cares for the people around them before it is too late.
Victor’s drive for knowledge and power allows him to achieve his goal of creating human life, and yet he loses many companions along the way. Victor’s creation kills younger brother William, his friend Clerval, and his wife Elizabeth, and after his father dies too Victor finally decides to take revenge upon the creature. Shelley utilizes Victor’s misfortune to show Walton that the lives of the people around him are more important than his own reward for finding what he seeks. In his essay “The Devaluing of Life in Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Lars Lunsford discusses the way each character, especially that of Victor Frankenstein, fails to appreciate the people around them. He argues that because Victor “places a higher worth on his reputation” (Lunsford 174) than the people around him his “failure … to value life over fame becomes the wellspring of his suffering,” stating that the Victor’s unhappiness stems from inside, and he values his research over his relationships with people (175). This allows the importance of the character of Walton to be noted, as without someone for Victor to relate his story to, this message of valuing others could not be passed on. By giving Walton similar ambitions to those of Victor, Shelley has created the perfect receptacle to drop her message in. At the end of the novel Walton shows how driven he is to reach his goal, and how alike he really is to Victor when he threatens to press on even when he faces the mutiny of his crew. When he finally does consent to return to England, he claims he has had his “hopes blasted by cowardice and indecision” in reference to the crew who would rather return home safe than sail on into almost certain danger and death (Shelley 250). Here Walton displays his bitterness and yet still he values the lives of his crew enough to not sacrifice them for the completion of his goal. Walton’s final decision to return himself and his crew home to their loved ones rather than continuing their journey shows that this tale has been noted and that Walton will not follow in Victor’s footsteps.
Mary Shelley utilizes many tricks in her story of Frankenstein, including the use of different narrators throughout the novel. At first, the use of the character Walton is unclear as to its purpose and role in the story. Without Victor having a character of similar disposition and desires, the effect of Victor’s story would be lacking and its message unclear. Through Walton, Shelley is able to display the importance of valuing life over personal gain. Victor’s deep unhappiness after achieving his goal while losing all those around him serves as a cautionary tale that Walton heeds. By using the similarities between the two characters and the parallels between their lives the message becomes more effective and easier to see. Without the creation of Walton, the importance of value of life would not be as apparent, making him play an essential role in the novel Frankenstein.
Britton, Jeanne. “Novelistic Sympathy in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Diss. Boston University, 2009. Web.
Lunsford, Lars. "The Devaluing Of Life In Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN." Explicator 68.3 (2010): 174-176. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009.