Summary and Analysis
Letter 1 - To Mrs. Saville, England
This first letter, written on December 11, 17 — , is from Robert Walton in St. Petersburg, Russia to his sister Mrs. Saville in England. Walton is on an expedition to look for a passage through the Arctic Ocean to the North Pacific Ocean via the seas of the North Pole. Knowing the harsh climate and the dangers involved with making such a passage, he feels confident that a crew and ship will be found to make the trip, even after six long years of his own preparations. Walton recounts how he will not sail until June of the next year on his expedition, when the polar ices have thawed somewhat. Soon, he will travel to Archangel (now Ankhangelsk), Russia to finalize his plans and hire a ship. He tells his sister that if he succeeds he will not return in months or years. If he fails, he will be home sooner or never.
It was Walton's father who had told his uncle that Robert should not become a career seaman. Robert does so anyway after failing as a poet and inheriting a substantial sum of money from a deceased cousin. He relays to his sister that he has felt a sense of sadness at his own ignorance, and he wants to improve himself and expand his knowledge.
This letter and the following three, which begin the novel, use a literary device called framing, which, like a picture frame, sets up the major premise of the novel. Mary Shelley returns the reader to the letter format at the end of the novel. This technique eases the reader into the story and adds a subplot that gives the main story texture and richness. The framing technique also makes the story more compelling because Walton will eventually see the monster at the end of the novel. The story about the creature would be merely hearsay if not for Walton's personal encounter with Frankenstein and his creation. Shelley uses Walton to add validity to the novel. Also, note that the letters to Margaret Saville in England have the initials "M.S.," which could also be interpreted as Shelley's own initials.
Many Romantic writers at this time had little formal education. To make up for this lack of education, they undertook adventures to broaden the mind and soul. Shelley and her contemporaries are no different. A popular destination was the European continent. These adventures would provide a source for growth and material for writing, as seen throughout Shelley's Frankenstein.
Walton, himself, is a fairly typical Romantic character because he is educating himself and traveling for his own educational pursuits. Feeling sadness at his own ignorance and desiring to improve himself, he laments in his letter that "my education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading. These volumes [of Uncle Thomas' journeys] were my study day and night" as a young man. To add to his practical education, prior to this point, he worked as a second mate on a Greenland whaling ship, where he became a fine and able seaman.
Explorers had tried and failed to make the journey from Russia to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Ocean. Adolf Nordenskjold later completed this expedition through the Northwest Arctic Passage in 1878-79. This expedition will pass close to the North Pole, a far flung region not yet fully explored or understood during the 1800s. The remote place settings, the Arctic Circle and St. Petersburg, are another example of an element in the Romantic novel.