The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy (Streep). Empathy is defined as the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions (Webster). By understanding Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through the lens of Captain Robert Walton, we can begin to recognize some of the pitfalls that are presented to us. Although the obvious temptation is to say that this is because Victor Frankenstein is narrating his story directly to Walton—who is in turn narrating it to us, the reader—actually it is because of Walton’s unique position. Because of his corresponding traits and experiences within the novel, he is able to empathize with both Victor and the monster. Thus, he is able to illuminate each characters’ flaws on a more personal level.
The first such quality is ambition which Victor shares with Robert. Robert spends six years preparing for his voyage to the North Pole during which he “devoted [his] nights to the study of mathematics, the theory of medicine, and those branches of physical science.” (Shelley 3). The purpose of which is to “discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle.” (Shelley 2). He is driven by both the thirst for knowledge and glory which is exemplified with him writing to his sister, “You cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation.” (Shelley 2) Victor displays almost identical drive and ambition. He spends two years studying at Ingolstadt during which his studies “became nearly [his] sole occupation.”(Shelley 44). While recounting his youth, he expresses “what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable.”(Shelley 32). Both characters were essentially chasing the same thing. Robert is in effect where Victor was the better part of a decade ago. Victor even recognizes that Robert is on a comparably dangerous path when Robert expresses the feeling that “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of knowledge which [he] sought.”(Shelley 17). In fact, it is so obvious to Victor that he warns Robert to “dash the cup from your lips!”(Shelley 17). And goes on to tell Robert his story in order to deter him from pursuing his obsession.
Another similarity between Victor and Robert is that they are both extremely attached to their sisters. The way we are introduced to Robert is through the letters he writes to his sister, Margaret. Through his correspondence it is obvious he cares deeply for her. Out of context, one might even mistake these to be letters between two lovers because of the way he signs his letters off such as “Heaven shower down blessings on you, and save me, that I may again testify my gratitude for all your love and kindness.”(Shelley 5). Victor, on the other hand, is set to marry his “sister”—a prospect he is not opposed to. Victor feels very strongly toward Elizabeth saying, “No word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in which she stood to me — my more than sister.”(Shelley 27).
The combination of this shared love for their sisters and their mutual ambitions lead Robert to form a strong sense of camaraderie with Victor. This attachment between them gives the sense that Robert doesn't recognize Victor’s negative aspects. Considering that Robert writes, “I have endeavored to discover what quality it is which he possesses that elevates him so immeasurably above any other person I ever knew. I believe it to be an intuitive discernment; a quick but never-failing power of judgment.”(Shelley 18) Coupled with the fact that Robert records what Victor says in “as nearly as possible in his own words.”(Shelley 20). It is plausible to assume Robert’s retelling of Frankenstein’s story is one that is told through rose-colored glasses.
Simultaneously, Robert also shares characteristics with the monster. Robert is terribly lonely at the beginning of the novel. He admits to Margaret that, “I have no friend” (Shelley 5), that he has no one “whose tastes are like [his] own, to approve or amend his plans” (Shelley 6). and that he “greatly [needs] a friend who would have sense enough not to despise [him].” (Shelley 6). Similarly, the monster also yearns for companionship. He exclaims, “Am I not miserably alone?”(Shelley 107) as he recounts his experiences with mankind, namely De Lacey and his family. Likewise, Robert tells his sister of two of the crew members he has employed on his voyage. He describes them in a manner similar to that of someone from the outside looking in because he has no intimate relationship with these men. This is exactly the same as what the monster does while reflecting on his time at the cottage in Germany.
Robert can, therefore, be considered a link between understanding both Victor and the monster. Robert’s ability to empathize with both characters through his account spotlights their chief flaws — unchecked ambition and desperation for camaraderie. Flaws which Robert himself possesses. By understanding Frankenstein through Robert’s lens, we should understand and hopefully learn from his perspective as to not make the same mistakes Victor and the monster did. Because after all, we have all felt like Captain Walton at one time or another.
"Meryl Streep." BrainyQuote.com. Xplore Inc, 2014. 16 January 2014. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/merylstree383745.html
“Empathy” Merriam-Webster.com Merriam-Webster 2014 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy 01/16/14
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.