Understanding the intended audience, especially their preconceptions and motives, of a narrative is essential for comprehending the message of the author and/or narrator. Robert Walton’s character in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the audience of Victor Frankenstein’s Gothic tale. From Walton’s letters, readers must gather his perspective from which to make inferences about the reactions Walton would have to Frankenstein’s narrative. Contemplating Walton’s scope provides readers with a deeper understanding of the sacrifices and irrevocable changes to the scientific pioneer’s life made in pursuit of discovery.
“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has occurred in the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with evil forebodings.” (Shelly, 1) This first sentence, written by Robert Walton, initializes his characterization by referencing his devotion and risk in an attempt to discover, an undertaking in which a relative dreads. Walton is clearly pursuing a discovery that is disturbing to his family, in terms of their worry for his safety and disrupting the unity of the family. This remarkably parallels the situation of Frankenstein as he is in the throes of his own discovery. Surely, as Walton is learns this, he cannot help but to consider his own family. If Frankenstein’s family knew about his pursuits as Margaret Walton knows of Robert’s, they would have regarded it with “evil forebodings” as well. Robert’s tale again resembles Frankenstein’s as Walton confesses that this has been his “favourite dream since his early years.” He seeks a land of infinite knowledge, symbolized by his glorification of a place consistently in the light of the sun (Shelly, 1-3). Frankenstein’s pursuit of attempting to tame the nature of life and death, a knowledge that is equally as misguided, must also be towards the same goal. How would Robert react to realizing his favourite dream could likely end in tragedy and despair? He must at least store this tale of woe in his subconscious, and wonder if he should continue to pursue his glory. Understanding Walton’s perspective must be a warning from Shelley to consider against “flying to close to the sun”.
Another recurring element of both Walton’s and Frankenstein’s tales are the references made to the “Ancient Mariner.” In his second letter, Walton jests about returning from his expedition in the same state as the Ancient Mariner (Shelly, 8-9). Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written in the nearly the same style and age as Frankenstein, is a narrative of a mariner who sailed, was nearly lost at Antarctica, and finally return as a personification of “Life-in-Death.” Robert may have been shocked to hear Frankenstein quote this poem in his moment of achievement of his monstrous dream. Frankenstein quotes a passage from the poem speaking of the dread he feels knowing that the fiend will forever lurk behind him, so he dare not look back lest he remember the evil he has done (Shelly, 56). Figuratively, he knows now that the monster has been created, it cannot be undone, and Frankenstein must always live-in-death as a result. Perhaps upon noticing this similar interest, Walton could see that the tease he made to his sister could become reality should he realize his own dream. If Walton does recognize this irony, it must at least give him pause to continue on the path to becoming Life-in-Death.
It is possible that Frankenstein has arrived on Walton’s ship by some act of Fate to deliver Walton from his inevitable defeat. In his second letter to Margaret, Robert describes his need of friendship. “I greatly need a friend who would have the sense not to despise me as a romantic, and affection enough to endeavor to regulate my mind” (Shelley, 6). Walton and Frankenstein, sharing in their romanticism, must realize their encounter as the divine intervention of Fate. Walton, incredulous to have found a friend by Fate’s desire, must give full credibility to the lessons of Frankenstein. He must again be inclined to reconsider his choices when Frankenstein prays to Walton that he “ardently hope[s] that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been” (Shelley, 19). Assuming that Walton fully grasps the hopelessness of Frankenstein’s life through the breadth of the narrative, this wish must be appreciated increasingly as the tale develops. Walton, as a romantic, will perceive Frankenstein’s presence a gift and his tale a warning from Fate; a foreboding that must be respected by terminating his own monster before its completion.
It is essential to speculate the development of Walton from the fearless explorer of the letters to his changed perspective by the narrative of Frankenstein. By assuming that Walton is moved by the misfortunes of his new friend, this brings readers closer to the Shelley’s theme. Walton may hesitate on pursuing his dream because of realization of the sacrifices of attempting to tame Nature.