Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Robert Walton as the Unreliable Narrator
The story of Frankenstein is being told through Robert Walton’s letters to his sister. A person’s perception of a sequence of events is often changed by who they hear an account of the events from. When a story is told, it is often morphed and changed from person to person, as seen in the game ‘telephone’. As a story passes from person to person, it becomes less and less accurate, until the story is completely different from how it started. This is no different when it comes to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the novel, Robert Walton is the one who tells the story. Walton affects the reader’s perception of specific characters and events through a delay in narration, through his sources, and including his own personal bias.
To begin, Robert Walton’s account affects the reader’s perception due to a delay in narration. For example, in chapter seven of part three of the novel, a scene is described where the crew’s boat is stuck in the ice, and the men are losing motivation. Walton then describes that Frankenstein, with “his cheeks flushed with momentary vigor…”, addresses the men with an inspirational speech (Shelley 205-208). Based on the events described in the chapter, it can be assumed that all crew members have been called out to attempt to break the ship free. This means that Walton is also out on the ice, as he states multiple times throughout the chapter. It is logical to deduce that Walton does not have writing materials with him while trying to free the ship. This would create a delay in the narration. Furthermore, Walton would have had to sit down after the ship became free to recount these events to his sister. This would be cause for him to forget certain events or to leave out details he did not deem important. It would be impossible for Walton to remember Frankenstein’s exact speech to the crew members. The innacurate recount of Frankenstein’s speech could change the entire mood of the text, leaving readers to draw an opinion solely on what Walton decided to recount in his own words. Another example of severe delay in narration is at the very end of the book, in chapter seven of part three, just after Frankenstein’s death. Walton is in the process of grieving, when Timothy appears, and a confrontation ensues. To introduce this, Walton states, “Good God! what a scene has just taken place! I am yet dizzy with the remembrance of it!” (Shelley 211-216). This introduction to the account of events shows that Walton is writing after the altercation between him and Timothy ensued. He states that remembering makes him dizzy, which means he is not in the right mind while writing. His enthusiasm could also create the opportunity for embellishment. This means, that due to a delay in time between the actual events and writing, the narrative would have been altered. Due to this altered reality, readers are left to assume that everything did not happen exactly as Walton claimed it did, which is very unhelpful when trying to draw conclusions about characters. Therefore, Walton changes the reader’s perception of events due to his delay in narration.
As well as a delay in narration, Walton also affects the readers perception of events based on who he recieves his story from. For example, at the beginning of the novel, in letter four, Walton states, “He [Frankenstein] then told me, that he would commence his narrative the next day… I have resolved… to record… If I should be engaged, I will at least make notes” (Shelley 21). This shows that Frankenstein was the one telling Walton the story. This would change a reader’s perception, because readers are only provided with one side of the story, and while Frankenstein does recount Timothy’s side, readers have no assurance that it is done accurately. Walton also provides another reason for innaccuracy, seeing as he states that if he is engaged in the story, he will take notes. This means that if ever Walton did not find what Frankenstein was saying important or interesting, he did not write it down. Because of Walton’s choice to do so, the readers of the novel are left without what may have been important context to create an opinion on events and characters. Other examples of Walton’s source corrupting the story is in chapter four of part one: “I had worked hard for nearly two years… for this I had deprived myself of rest and health.” (Shelley 45). Also, in part three chapter six: “I was possessed by a maddening rage when I thought of him,…and ardently prayed that I might have him within my grasp to wreak a great and signal revenge…” (Shelley 192). Frankestein is grossly unhealthy throughout his entire narrative. His perception of reality is in no way accurate. He becomes unhealthy at the start and spirals rapidly downward after the death of Elizabeth. He is consumed by hatred and revenge towards Timothy. Not only is he recounting events that he did not percieve in right mind, but Walton is then recounting those events to his sister, and only including the details he deems worthy of including. In creating a story based off a fever-dreamed account of events that have then been regurgitated by a man who is looking to tell his sister an interesting story, the real events must get lost completely. This leads readers to hold biases against characters undeserving of said biases, and leads readers to be unable to ever gain the true story. Therefore, Walton’s source affects the reader’s perception of the narrative.
Above all, the most damaging thing to the reader’s perception is Robert Walton’s own personal bias. For example, in letters two and four of part one, it states, “I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me…The stranger [Frankenstein] has gradually improved in health…For my own part, I begin to love him as a brother” (Shelley 11, 18). This shows that Walton has a personal connection to whom he is recieving the story from. It is common for people to trust the ones they are close to. This means that Walton is likely to believe every word from Frankenstein. He trusts Frankenstein, and wants to hear the story from him, so Walton is going to agree with most everything Frankenstein says. This changes the reader’s perception, because Walton is framing Frankenstein as the ‘good guy’, which can lead the reader to belive Frankenstein is a ‘good guy’ as well. In addition to this, Walton’s bias surfaces yet again in chapter seven part three. He states, “‘If you [Timothy] had listened to the voice of concience…before you had urged your diabolical vengeance to this extremity, Frankenstein would yet have lived… Wretch!… it is well that you come here to whine. Hypocritical fiend!… you lament only because the victim of your malignity is withdrawn from your power’” (Shelley 212-213). Walton, when he meets Timothy, based solely on his love for Frankenstein and what Frankenstein has told him about Timothy, immediately begins to lecture him. He calls him names and does not listen when Timothy tries to defend himself. His hatred for Timothy is based only on hearsay and he includes it in his letters anyway. He allows words like ‘dӕmon’ and ‘wretch’ into his account of the story. The negative connotations of those words automatically creates a bias in the reader’s heads. Because of his bias towards Timothy, readers have no idea if anything that Timothy responds back with is completely accurate, meaning that the events in the story are still inaccurate. Furthermore, Walton is blind to the hypocritical effects of his own statement. He places Frankenstein on a pedestal, and disregards the fact that the actions of Timothy are almost identical to the actions of Frankenstein, and because he disregards this, the readers can be led to have an innacurate opinion of both characters. Therefore, Walton’s personal biases hinder the reader’s perception.
It may be stated that there is textual evidence that shows that Walton makes his story as accurate as possible, however this can be quickly disproven. The quote in question is from part three, chapter seven: “Frankenstein discovered that I made notes concerning his history: he asked to see them, and then himself corrected and augmented them in many places;…” (Shelley 203). While this does prove, that the history Walton wrote is accurate to what Frankenstein percieved, it does not prove that everything Frankenstein ‘corrected’ is truthful. He could have gone through the notes and changed details to put himself in a better light, or Timothy in a worse one. Another example to disprove this notion is that at one point in the narrative, chapters three to eight of part two, to be exact, Frankenstein is recounting Timothy’s story to Walton, who is recounting that story to his sister. This is a classic example of hearsay. Hearsay is not admissable as evidence in court, and by that standard the story is immediately untrustworthy. While it is not necessarily Walton’s fault, he is the primary narrator, and his version of the story is the one being read. At any point in the novel, the entire story could be a fabrication created by the person in control of the narrative. Wether it be Walton, Frankenstein, or Timothy. Walton could very well have fabricated the entire story solely to entertain his sister, and the readers have no way of knowing. Walton is in complete control of the text and how he wishes to make the readers feel, Therefore, he alters the reader’s perceptions no matter how accurate his main source is.
In conclusion, the readers perception of events and characters is affected by Robert Walton through his delay in narration, the sources he uses, and his own personal bias. Like a game of telephone, or hearsay in court, the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, is based upon layers and layers of other’s perceptions of a set of specific events. Because of this, Walton’s account is very untrustworthy, and very likely differs from the true sequence of events that occured in this fictional tale.
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