Letter IV

To Mrs. Saville, England

August 5th, 17—.

SO STRANGE AN accident has happened to us that I cannot forbear recording it, although it is very probable that you will see me before these papers can come into your possession.

Last Monday (July 31st) we were nearly surrounded by ice, which closed in the ship on all sides, scarcely leaving her the sea-room in which she floated. Our situation was somewhat dangerous, especially as we were compassed round by a very thick fog. We accordingly lay to, hoping that some change would take place in the atmosphere and weather.

About two o’clock the mist cleared away, and we beheld, stretched out in every direction, vast and irregular plains of ice, which seemed to have no end. Some of my comrades groaned, and my own mind began to grow watchful with anxious thoughts, when a strange sight suddenly attracted our attention and diverted our solicitude from our own situation. We perceived a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on towards the north, at the distance of half a mile; a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge and guided the dogs. We watched the rapid progress of the traveller with our telescopes, until he was lost among the distant inequalities of the ice.

This appearance excited our unqualified wonder. We were, as we believed, many hundred miles from any land; but this apparition seemed to denote that it was not, in reality, so distant as we had supposed. Shut in, however, by ice, it was impossible to follow his track, which we had observed with the greatest attention.

About two hours after this occurrence, we heard the ground sea; and before night the ice broke, and freed our ship. We, however, lay to until the morning, fearing to encounter in the dark those large loose masses which float about after the breaking up of the ice. I profited of this time to rest for a few hours.

In the morning, however, as soon as it was light, I went upon deck and found all the sailors busy on one side of the vessel, apparently talking to some one in the sea. It was, in fact, a sledge, like that we had seen before, which had drifted towards us in the night, on a large fragment of ice. Only one dog remained alive; but there was a human being within it whom the sailors were persuading to enter the vessel. He was not, as the other traveller seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but an European. When I appeared on deck, the master said, “Here is our captain, and he will not allow you to perish on the open sea.”

On perceiving me, the stranger addressed me in English, although with a foreign accent. “Before I come on board your vessel,” said he, “will you have the kindness to inform me whither you are bound?”

You may conceive my astonishment on hearing such a question addressed to me from a man on the brink of destruction, and to whom I should have supposed that my vessel would have been a resource which he would not have exchanged for the most precious wealth the earth can afford. I replied, however, that we were on a voyage of discovery towards the northern pole.

Upon hearing this he appeared satisfied, and consented to come on board. Good God! Margaret, if you had seen the man who thus capitulated for his safety, your surprise would have been boundless. His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. We attempted to carry him into the cabin; but as soon as he had quitted the fresh air he fainted. We accordingly brought him back to the deck, and restored him to animation by rubbing him with brandy, and forcing him to swallow a small quantity. As soon as he showed signs of life we wrapped him up in blankets, and placed him near the chimney of the kitchen stove. By slow degrees he recovered, and ate a little soup, which restored him wonderfully.

Two days passed in this manner before he was able to speak; and I often feared that his sufferings had deprived him of understanding. When he had in some measure recovered, I removed him to my own cabin, and attended on him as much as my duty would permit. I never saw a more interesting creature: his eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness; but there are moments when, if any one performs an act of kindness towards him, or does him the most trifling service, his whole countenance is lighted up, as it were, with a beam of benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equalled. But he is generally melancholy and despairing, and sometimes he gnashes his teeth, as if impatient of the weight of woes that oppresses him.

When my guest was a little recovered I had great trouble to keep off the men, who wished to ask him a thousand questions; but I would not allow him to be tormented by their idle curiosity, in a state of body and mind whose restoration evidently depended upon entire repose. Once, however, the lieutenant asked, Why he had come so far upon the ice in so strange a vehicle?

His countenance instantly assumed an aspect of the deepest gloom; and he replied, “To seek one who fled from me.”

“And did the man whom you pursued travel in the same fashion?”

“Yes.”

“Then I fancy we have seen him; for the day before we picked you up we saw some dogs drawing a sledge, with a man in it, across the ice.”

This aroused the stranger's attention; and he asked a multitude of questions concerning the route which the dæmon, as he called him, had pursued. Soon after, when he was alone with me, he said,—“I have, doubtless, excited your curiosity, as well as that of these good people; but you are too considerate to make inquiries.”

“Certainly; it would indeed be very impertinent and inhuman in me to trouble you with any inquisitiveness of mine.”

“And yet you rescued me from a strange and perilous situation; you have benevolently restored me to life.”

Soon after this he inquired if I thought that the breaking up of the ice had destroyed the other sledge? I replied that I could not answer with any degree of certainty; for the ice had not broken until near midnight, and the traveller might have arrived at a place of safety before that time; but of this I could not judge.

From this time a new spirit of life animated the decaying frame of the stranger. He manifested the greatest eagerness to be upon deck, to watch for the sledge which had before appeared; but I have persuaded him to remain in the cabin, for he is far too weak to sustain the rawness of the atmosphere. I have promised that some one should watch for him, and give him instant notice if any new object should appear in sight.

Such is my journal of what relates to this strange occurrence up to the present day. The stranger has gradually improved in health, but is very silent, and appears uneasy when any one except myself enters his cabin. Yet his manners are so conciliating and gentle that the sailors are all interested in him, although they have had very little communication with him. For my own part, I begin to love him as a brother; and his constant and deep grief fills me with sympathy and compassion. He must have been a noble creature in his better days, being even now in wreck so attractive and amiable.

I said in one of my letters, my dear Margaret, that I should find no friend on the wide ocean; yet I have found a man who, before his spirit had been broken by misery, I should have been happy to have possessed as the brother of my heart.

I shall continue my journal concerning the stranger at intervals, should I have any fresh incidents to record.

August 13th, 17—

My affection for my guest increases every day. He excites at once my admiration and my pity to an astonishing degree. How can I see so noble a creature destroyed by misery without feeling the most poignant grief? He is so gentle, yet so wise; his mind is so cultivated; and when he speaks, although his words are culled with the choicest art, yet they flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence.

He is now much recovered from his illness, and is continually on the deck, apparently watching for the sledge that preceded his own. Yet, although unhappy, he is not so utterly occupied by his own misery but that he interests himself deeply in the projects of others. He has frequently conversed with me on mine, which I have communicated to him without disguise. He entered attentively into all my arguments in favour of my eventual success, and into every minute detail of the measures I had taken to secure it. I was easily led by the sympathy which he evinced to use the language of my heart; to give utterance to the burning ardour of my soul; and to say, with all the fervour that warmed me, how gladly I would sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope, to the furtherance of my enterprise. One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought; for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race. As I spoke, a dark gloom spread over my listener's countenance. At first I perceived that he tried to suppress his emotion; he placed his hands before his eyes; and my voice quivered and failed me, as I beheld tears trickle fast from between his fingers—a groan burst from his heaving breast. I paused;—at length he spoke, in broken accents:—“Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me—let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!”

Such words, you may imagine, strongly excited my curiosity; but the paroxysm of grief that had seized the stranger overcame his weakened powers, and many hours of repose and tranquil conversation were necessary to restore his composure.

Having conquered the violence of his feelings, he appeared to despise himself for being the slave of passion; and quelling the dark tyranny of despair, he led me again to converse concerning myself personally. He asked me the history of my earlier years. The tale was quickly told; but it awakened various trains of reflection. I spoke of my desire of finding a friend—of my thirst for a more intimate sympathy with a fellow mind than had ever fallen to my lot; and expressed my conviction that a man could boast of little happiness, who did not enjoy this blessing.

“I agree with you,” replied the stranger; “we are unfashioned creatures, but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves—such a friend ought to be—do not lend his aid to perfectionate our weak and faulty natures. I once had a friend, the most noble of human creatures, and am entitled, therefore, to judge respecting friendship. You have hope, and the world before you, and have no cause for despair. But I—I have lost everything and cannot begin life anew.”

As he said this, his countenance became expressive of a calm, settled grief that touched me to the heart. But he was silent, and presently retired to his cabin.

Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions seem still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth. Such a man has a double existence: he may suffer misery, and be overwhelmed by disappointments, yet when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit that has a halo around him, within whose circle no grief or folly ventures.

Will you smile at the enthusiasm I express concerning this divine wanderer? You would not if you saw him. You have been tutored and refined by books and retirement from the world, and you are, therefore, somewhat fastidious; but this only renders you the more fit to appreciate the extraordinary merits of this wonderful man. Sometimes I have endeavoured 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; a penetration into the causes of things, unequalled for clearness and precision; add to this a facility of expression, and a voice whose varied intonations are soul-subduing music.

August 19th, 17—.

Yesterday the stranger said to me, “You may easily perceive, Captain Walton that I have suffered great and unparalleled misfortunes. I had determined, at one time, that the memory of these evils should die with me; but you have won me to alter my determination. You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been. I do not know that the relation of my disasters will be useful to you; yet, when I reflect that you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral from my tale; one that may direct you if you succeed in your undertaking, and console you in case of failure. Prepare to hear of occurrences which are usually deemed marvellous. Were we among the tamer scenes of nature, I might fear to encounter your unbelief, perhaps your ridicule; but many things will appear possible in these wild and mysterious regions which would provoke the laughter of those unacquainted with the ever-varied powers of nature; nor can I doubt but that my tale conveys in its series internal evidence of the truth of the events of which it is composed.”

You may easily imagine that I was much gratified by the offered communication; yet I could not endure that he should renew his grief by a recital of his misfortunes. I felt the greatest eagerness to hear the promised narrative, partly from curiosity, and partly from a strong desire to ameliorate his fate, if it were in my power. I expressed these feelings in my answer.

“I thank you,” he replied, “for your sympathy, but it is useless; my fate is nearly fulfilled. I wait but for one event, and then I shall repose in peace. I understand your feeling,” continued he, perceiving that I wished to interrupt him; “but you are mistaken, my friend, if thus you will allow me to name you; nothing can alter my destiny: listen to my history, and you will perceive how irrevocably it is determined.”

He then told me that he would commence his narrative the next day when I should be at leisure. This promise drew from me the warmest thanks. I have resolved every night, when I am not imperatively occupied by my duties, to record, as nearly as possible in his own words, what he has related during the day. If I should be engaged, I will at least make notes. This manuscript will doubtless afford you the greatest pleasure; but to me, who know him, and who hear it from his own lips, with what interest and sympathy shall I read it in some future day! Even now, as I commence my task, his full-toned voice swells in my ears; his lustrous eyes dwell on me with all their melancholy sweetness; I see his thin hand raised in animation, while the lineaments of his face are irradiated by the soul within. Strange and harrowing must be his story, frightful the storm which embraced the gallant vessel on its course and wrecked it—thus!

Footnotes

  1. According to Frankenstein, the arctic is the right setting for the telling of his story. Just as the arctic presents a strange, otherworldly landscape, Frankenstein’s story contains supernatural elements which require a suspension of disbelief.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Once again Frankenstein warns Walton about the moral limits of knowledge, referring to the fruit of his own scientific pursuits as a serpent that stung him. This represents an expression of the theme of hubris, the sin of excessive pride and the desire to wield godlike power.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Walton greatly admires and envies Victor Frankenstein’s logical powers, his acutely scientific mind. Walton has not yet taken into account Frankenstein’s continual warnings about the downside of wielding such a mind.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. A “paroxysm” is an episode in which a disease becomes more acute in its symptoms.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. Frankenstein immediately recognizes the path Walton is pursuing and tries to offer a warning. He blames his state of instability and ruin on the “madness” of pursuing knowledge. Such a warning provides readers with insights into Frankenstein’s past as well as an instance of foreshadowing, for the dangerous pursuit of knowledge is one of the novel’s core themes.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. While Walton is not clear about the nature of his own pursuit, he readily tells Frankenstein about his desire “for the acquirement of knowledge.” The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, as well as the limits of such a pursuit, is one of the novel’s central themes.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. Walton’s word choice here is telling. Walton shifts quickly from calling Frankenstein “brother of my heart” to calling him “stranger.” This shift shows his continued wariness around the mysterious Frankenstein.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. Frankenstein refers to the large figure previously seen sledding across the ice as “the dæmon.” A demon, or dæmon, is any supernatural entity with a malevolent character. The mention of such a demon prepares us for a supernatural layer in the story.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. It is intriguing that Walton refers to Frankenstein as a “creature.” On one level, this characterization draws attention to Frankenstein’s desperate, ragged state as a result of his pursuit across the arctic. On another level, the word serves as a bit of foreshadowing, comparing Frankenstein to another character in the novel often called “creature.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. Victor Frankenstein presents himself with an almost humorous degree of social grace. On the brink of hypothermia and starvation, Frankenstein nonetheless has the presence of mind to inquire after the direction of the ship. This passage is an apt introduction to Frankenstein and his characteristic verbal elegance.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Walton’s comment betrays the assumptions and expectations of British seafarers such as himself, and perhaps those of citizens more generally. The Victorian-era British possessed such a narrow understanding of the world that people were either Europeans or savages. There is a detectable note of relief in Walton’s realization that the stranger is of the former category.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. Draught, is the British spelling of draft, which can refer to a breeze, or a drink. Shelley uses it metaphorically here; Victor is essentially asking if Walton has also drunk from the fountain of knowledge. Victor’s calling the draught intoxicating reflects how thirsty for knowledge he truly is. Regardless, he goes on to warn Walton about the dangers of pursuing knowledge by sharing his own experience.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. This line refers to Victor’s philosophy towards life and reveals much about his pursuit to create his own form of life. Victor believes humans are unfashioned; that is, formless, without design. Additionally, his statement and his excessive desire for knowledge foreshadow the lengths he takes to actualize his philosophy and attempt to create life.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. The violence of Victor’s feelings suggests that his emotions are intense and wild, making it difficult for him to contain them. “Slave of passion” implies that Victor is so obsessed with gaining knowledge that he is a slave to the process. These descriptions depict excessive emotion, an element in Romanticism. At the same time, they reveal the self-contradictory nature within Victor: he dislikes himself for being so passionate about knowledge.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. This refers to the uncontrollable forces and obstacles of Nature. Calling such forces “foes” personifies Nature, as if it were an antagonist to those who encounter its forces. It also suggests that the human race is vulnerable to Nature’s oppositions and its overall power.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. This is the reader’s first encounter with Victor Frankenstein’s creature. Shelley purposefully describes the creature as large, but with the “shape of a man.” Doing so makes readers question the creature’s humanity, specifically in regards to his physical appearance.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. Such word choices are typical of romantic literature. Walton’s calling Victor a “brother of [his] heart” reveals how much he cares about Victor and how he sees qualities in Victor similar to his own. This also reinforces Walton’s desperation for a friend on his expedition. Victor naturally becomes the kind of friend that Walton has been waiting for.

    — Jane, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. When Victor begins his own narrative, that is when the frame story ends and the meat of Shelley's novel begins.  Therefore, the next chapter is called "Chapter 1."

    — Noelle Thompson
  19. This entire sentence may be Freudian scholars' focus to describe Victor as the "id" aspect of the personality.  It is the part of the self that is manned by instinct and desires control over all things, in this case, control over life.  (Further, these same scholars often point to the creature as the "ego" as the mind trying to make sense of the world's rejection and to Walton as the conscience trying to instruct both aspects of personality.)

    — Noelle Thompson
  20. This description of Victor by Walton certainly describes the depth of feeling between the two, and is quite typical of Romantic Literature.

    — Noelle Thompson
  21. As the reader can see, Victor is in fact the companion and friend and helpmate and confidant that Walton has been wishing for on his voyage to and from the Arctic.

    — Noelle Thompson
  22. Now for Some Words of Interpretation. Here is the end of the beginning of Shelley’s “frame” to her story. Of course, the “meat” of the story is the exploits of Victor Frankenstein. It is the most important part of the frame story in that it is the first time the reader meets the creature this novel is famous for. The scene is set with Walton and his shipmates at the mercy of nature in that they are stuck in an ice chunk and must wait for release. Because of this fact, they are unable to investigate the being they have seen (apart from Victor Frankenstein). We find out from this letter that Victor is in much need of comfort and rest, but in search of this same being who is escaping from him. The reader finds that Victor is definitely the answer to Walton’s lack of friendship and further, Walton uses words like “love” and “brother” in order to describe Victor. Victor quickly becomes Walton’s confidant. This becomes evident when we see Victor spending all of his free time on the deck of the ship on look out for the escaping being (or creature) who still may be en route with its dogsled. The story that follows, the meat of Shelley’s tale, is Victor Frankenstein’s confession. Victor wants to rid himself of the guilt of his life experience. This might be a good point to reveal an interesting psychological perspective about Victor & the creature. Some scholars see the two as the same being: one as Freud’s descriptive id (or the part of the self that acts on instinct and desires control) vs. pe as Freud’s expression of the ego (or the part of the self that uses the mind to come to terms with the world and its rejection thereof). (Some say this makes Walton the “conscience” trying to regulate the two.) Whether, as a reader, you wish to consider these three separate people or one and the same, it is from here that Walton ceases to be the main character and Victor becomes the main character. For a further explanation and description of plot, please see my first note that begins with the following phrase: “First, let us expound upon the plot of this particular chapter.”

    — Noelle Thompson
  23. Here is the reader's first encounter with the creature of Victor Frankenstein's creation.  Simply a "man" of "gigantic stature" who is riding a dogsled across the ice.

    — Noelle Thompson
  24. Ironically, this is not the "strange ... accident" that Walton reports in his first line.  It is simply a normal happening for a ship in the Arctic Circle.

    — Noelle Thompson
  25. Walton’s encounter is so strange that he cannot wait to share its details with Margaret. This statement implies that Walton’s voyage is probably going to involve some supernatural elements. Moreover, describing the experience as a really strange accident provokes a sense of urgency from the reader.

    — Noelle Thompson
  26. This letter is actually a series of events from more than one day. The first report is a fairly boring one, Walton and his ship are stuck in the ice in the Arctic. However, quite soon, this chapter becomes important and quite exciting because it marks the reader’s first real acquaintance with the creature whose simple “stature” is spoken of here. Specifically, the observations of the crew report that a large being is driving a dogsled across the ice. In the following days, the crew finds another man adrift on another piece of ice, separate from the other large being. The crew take the man aboard only to find out that he is Victor Frankenstein (whose name inspired the title of the book). Victor is in great need of rest and recuperation, of course, (even though he does relate that he is in search of the being that is fleeing from him), so is in need of renewal for the next few days. In the meantime, Victor Frankenstein becomes the “friend” for which Walton has been longing during his journey. Walton helps to nurse Victor back to health and becomes more and more interested in Victor’s strange situation (especially after finding out that Victor longs to find the being who fled from him). The love of Walton for Victor as a “brother of my heart” wins Victor over so very much that Victor decides to tell Walton his story.

    — Noelle Thompson