Frankenstein Letters 1-4 - Summary

  Mary Shelley's classic novel, Frankenstein, begins in a unique way. Rather than launching straight into the action, she begins the novel begins with a series of short letters-four, to be exact. Each of these letters is written by a character named Robert Walton. Walton is an explorer and an Englishman, captaining a ship that is headed directly toward the North Pole. He writes these letters to his sister, Margaret Saville.

  In the first letter, he describes to Margaret his preparations for his grand journey, telling her that he hopes to accomplish some "great purpose." In the second, he confides to Margaret his complete lack of friends. He feels lonely because he feels different from his shipmates. He is a thinker, too educated to be their equals. But, at the same time, he feels his lacks enough education himself to seek a more sensitive companion.

  The third letter finds Walton setting sail. So far, everything has gone according to plan, so he anticipates no difficulties. Of course, however, this does not last. In letter four, he describes a startling incident. His ship gets stuck in a thick sheet of ice. In the distance, the crew sees a gigantic figure moving across the ice in a "sledge" or dog sled. Oddly enough, the next morning, they encounter another sledge stranded on the ice. This sledge contains a different man than before, and his team of dogs-all except one-are dead. The man, himself, is quite nearly dead. The crew brings him aboard, and the man spends two days recovering. Walton finds in this stranger the companion he has been searching for. At the conclusion of this last letter, Walton tells his sister the man will begin his story-the rest of the novel-the next day.

  These letters serve to set up the main narrative, which begins in the subsequent chapter, told by the man Walton rescues from the ice. This method of story-telling is called a frame story. A frame story is-like a picture frame-a story that surrounds another story. The letters are the frame for this story, while the stranger's tale is considered the main narrative. At the end of the novel, Shelley picks up Walton's letters once again. This not only makes for an interesting narrative, but it also allows Shelley to create layers of depth within the novel.

  The letters themselves refer to many ideas that are echoed throughout the rest of the novel. Walton's journey is an echo of the journey that Frankenstein will tell about in later chapters. And, like Frankenstein's monster, Walton expresses his loneliness and a search for friendship. This is important because, later in the novel, the question of the differences between man and monster will be called into question.

  Walton himself is also considered a Romantic character. The word, Romantic, might call to mind notions of romantic love; however, this word actually refers to the Romantic period in England and its characteristics. The Romantics valued people as individuals, the search for understanding of the world, and their personal emotions. Robert Walton is a character who clearly embodies all of these traits: he is different from others, is an explorer, and worries what others will think of him because of his emotions. Walton also mentions a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in letter two, called The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a work that is all about a the journey of a lonely and tormented sailor lost at sea. Walton clearly identifies himself as a Romantic individual.

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