The character Robert Walton has many functions in the novel of Frankenstein. His role in the story, though relatively brief, is extremely important. He fulfills four roles. First, his own writings anticipate much of Frankenstein’s behaviour. Second, he sets the novel’s tone by introducing the themes which recur the most frequently. Third, he creates a structure through which Victor Frankenstein can relate his story. Fourth, he adds greater suspense and interest in the character of Frankenstein, and consequently in the novel’s outcome.
Primarily, Walton is almost Frankenstein’s double. Their characteristics are very similar. Walton, a voyager, whom, when the book begins, is traveling to the North Pole, has rejected a life of relative ease in England for one of discovery and excitement. He wishes, as does Frankenstein, to provide mankind with an “inestimable benefit” and, perhaps more importantly, to achieve great personal glory. Walton, like Frankenstein, also has an “ardent curiosity” to find out that which is unknown and it is perhaps this which drives Walton to the North Pole and Frankenstein to creating the monster. It may also be the case that the dreams of both of the men, and that they have desired the fulfillment of this dream since childhood, has clouded their judgement. Walton, who has read about the great voyages of past explorers, wishes to surpass all those who he has read about and reach the North Pole, a hitherto unexplored area, Frankenstein on the other hand has read about the pursuit of alchemy, the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone and dreams of creating life himself. Walton’s own idealistic approach to his adventure is illustrated in the text when he describes the North Pole as ‘a country of eternal light,’ overlooking that the North Pole is only light half of the year, whereas the other half of the year it is shrouded in darkness. Their chosen pursuits have also been slighted by their fathers: Walton’s father’s ‘dying injunction had forbidden [Walton’s] uncle to allow [him] to embark in a sea-faring life;’ Frankenstein’s father dismisses the books which Frankenstein reads as ‘sad trash’. Walton also expresses his deep desire for a sympathetic friend, with whom he can share his inner most thoughts with. His feelings of isolation and loneliness are paralleled by Frankenstein’s own feeling of isolation later in the novel: having been educated at home, he has not had any long lasting friends besides his family and this leads to the rejection of society. Clerval, his only friend, is murdered by the monster Frankenstein creates. Both characters’ pursuits of knowledge and of discovery results in their isolation, either self-inflicted (Walton) or otherwise (Frankenstein).
Secondly, the themes Walton introduces in his letters, and the tone this sets, illustrates the spirit of the rest of the novel. Walton asks, rhetorically (although the reader is not meant to take it thus) ‘What…can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?’ This is a central theme to the novel. Frankenstein and Walton are both equally driven to achieve their task and could it be argued that they should continue in the fulfillment of their dreams, no matter what the cost? The benefits to humanity of their accomplishments will, as Walton says, endure to ‘the last generation’: if they had not taken these risks in pursuing the goals which were deemed too lofty by society, would society have been better off? Pioneers, in whichever field, make sacrifices for the good of humanity, and perhaps this is how both Walton and Frankenstein view their voyages of discovery. A second theme of alienation is also introduced in Walton’s letters: he feels physically isolated and is earnest to find a sympathetic friend. Frankenstein also feels isolated but, unlike Walton, rejects society, and no longer seeks for companionship. The monster Frankenstein creates also feels isolated and without friends: he is abandoned by his creator and rejected by society.
Thirdly, the structure created by Walton’s narration is called a Chinese box structure (a story within a story). This lends Frankenstein’s story credibility as, without Walton, the writing may just be perceived as the ramblings of a madman. Besides Frankenstein, Walton is the only other character who sees the monster. Therefore, one can say it was not a figment of Frankenstein’s imagination, created because of a long held desire to fulfill the dreams he conceived in his youth but a tangible being. In this role, Walton is the onlooker, performing the role of the witness to the supernatural events, and his presence validates the story.
Fourthly, Shelley uses Walton to create suspense and intrigue about the stranger he meets. Instead of introducing Frankenstein immediately, his sudden appearance, and the ‘demon’ he seems to be chasing, interests the reader. In this way, a question, which remains unanswered until the end of the novel, is posed to the reader.
In conclusion, Robert Walton has numerous roles to play. He sets the tone for the rest of the novel, he acts as Frankenstein’s double, even if one prepared to take fewer risks, he plays the onlooker role, validating Frankenstein’s story and, finally, he makes the story more interesting by creating a certain mystique around Frankenstein, ‘the divine wanderer’.