Letters 1-4

Synopsis of Letters 1-4

In the eighteenth century, Captain Robert Walton, an English explorer bound for the North Pole, writes home to his sister, from St Petersburg, where he is fitting out a ship for his voyage. He writes further letters from Archangel as he begins his journey.

As he approaches the North Pole, the ship becomes ice-bound, and Walton and his crew glimpse in the distance a dog-sledge, driven by a huge man.

As the ice breaks up, the ship rescues another man, who is at first too ill and exhausted to speak. He is in pursuit of the figure previously seen by the crew and he begins to tell Walton the story of how he comes to be travelling alone in this remote region.

Commentary on Letters 1-4

St Petersburg, Dec. 11th, 17—: This gives the novel a setting that is both specific as to place and mysterious as to date:

  • for nineteenth century readers, St. Petersburg would sound remote and unfamiliar
  • it was not unusual for novels published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to be vague about when the events they describe were taking place; for Shelley (who was writing in 1816), the choice of the eighteenth century is close enough for readers to feel some sense of identification.

a land surpassing in wonders … the habitable globe: a reference to the classical belief in the existence of a Hyperborean (temperate) zone in the far north of the planet.

the wondrous power which attracts the needles: referring to the magnetic power of the Pole.

a niche in the temple where the names of Shakespeare and Homer are consecrated: discussing his own (failed) ambitions to become a poet, Walton refers to Homer and Shakespeare, writers known throughout the world.

they want (as the painters call it) keeping: Walton is writing about his daydreams and uses a term from painting which means ‘proportion'. In his lonely state, he needs a friend to help him ensure that his hopes and ambitions do not run away with him. This is an example of dramatic irony (see Narrative), for the companion he will soon meet will tell him an even more extraordinary story of ambition and its outcome.

a considerable sum in prize-money: when a ship captured an enemy vessel, any money or valuable goods thus gained were distributed among the crew, the sum received varying according to rank.

‘the land of mist and snow': a quotation from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' by S. T. Coleridge (see Literary context: Romanticism), line 403. The poem was first published in 1798, so this might suggest that Walton's letters are dated in the last year or two of the 18th century. But Shelley's narrative is not necessarily conforming to reality in this way (see Narrative).

a merchant-man: a trading ship.

we heard the ground sea: ‘A heavy sea in which large waves rise and dash upon the coast without apparent cause.' (OED)

the world before you: an allusion to the end of Paradise Lost by John Milton (see Literary context: The monster's reading).

The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
Book 12, lines 646-7


Investigating Letters 1-4
  • Think about the structure of the novel
    • why do you think Shelley chooses to frame Victor Frankenstein's narrative with letters from Captain Walton? (See also Structure and Narrative).
  • Consider what the reader learns about Walton from his letters
    • why, in Letter 2, does he tell the story of his lieutenant's unhappy love affair?
    • how does he respond to Frankenstein after he takes him on board?


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