Beneath the most obvious plot line in Frankenstein lies a more subtle relationship between Walton, Victor and the monster. The three characters are very closely linked; their existence depends on one another. Walton represents the youthful desire for knowledge inherent in man, while Victor and the monster represent the moral compass for Walton to use in his scientific endeavors.
Robert Walton makes only a few appearances throughout Frankenstein, in the form of letters to his sister, Margaret. We begin to see very early on, from his first letter, that he is driven to make a name for himself in discovering the cause of magnetism, pave the way to the Pacific, or set foot on uncharted lands. He feels entitled, in fact, to a discovery, telling his sister that he deserves to “accomplish some great purpose” because of the lengths it took to make it as far as he had (3). This thirst for knowledge is paralleled in both Victor and in the monster. Victor finds “continual food for discovery and knowledge” in his scientific studies (30). Victor is farther along his studies than Walton into his, but stopped short of being able to fully understand the results of his experiment. Like a neglectful parent, Victor cast his creation to the winds to face the harshness of nature – a rather ironic end considering the monster is antithetical to nature.
The monster too has made discoveries of his own, though more metaphysical than scientific. By observing the inhabitants of the cottage, he learns language and history. Through their interactions, he learns of family and bonds. The knowledge he gains from his observations through the crack in the wall does not affect him as discovery would affect Walton or Victor. Those men strive to discover the undiscovered, while the monster seeks only to discover what is in plain sight. All that he learns serves to sadden him and make him realize his station in the world: that he is an anomaly, without a name, a family, or friends. His answer to his own question of “what am I” is a groan, weighted by his isolation and turmoil. To him, knowledge is more of a parasite than anything else as “it clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock” (85). He was ignorant and an animal, but became intelligent and saddened.
Unlike Victor, the monster takes what he learns and internalizes and reflects upon the lessons. His ultimate goal is to achieve some sort of humanity from his experiences, in effect becoming a more whole individual. Victor initially believes strongly that he is working for the betterment of mankind when he researches the method of bringing life to the dead, but abandons the fruit of his labor before it has a chance to develop when he sees that his creation is not as beautiful as he had originally intended. Both fail at their endeavors. Victor, while trying to better society as a whole, fails in realizing the importance of an individual’s effect on it. The monster, while trying to better himself, fails by lashing out at and destroying a community. The monster and Victor represent two ends of a spectrum in regards to the acquisition and application of knowledge, and Walton, who has yet to make any headway into any discovery, must choose a path that lies between them if he is going to do any kind of good for anyone.
Walton has yet to discover anything when he starts his writings, and his shipmates are on the verge of mutiny. His quest to find the idealistic “country of eternal light” ends rather abruptly when his ship freezes in its own wake (1). Light symbolizes a land of knowledge, discovery and enlightenment, and ice, or the cold, is the barrier to attaining that knowledge. Interesting that Walton would attempt, as his first venture into exploration, a trip to discover a land of eternal light surrounded by eternal cold. It is as if he were never meant to succeed. Victor points his figurative compass towards a light as well and manages to get there, but his stay is short lived. Victor’s “brilliant and wondrous” light appears to him when he discovers the secret of bringing animation to the inanimate (31). The monster discovers light in the form of fire. Unlike Victor, though, the monster realizes very quickly the consequences of putting hand to flame. The monster realizes both the benefit and harm that a fire provides, and adapts accordingly. Even though it is a physical fire that burns the monster, it still serves to illustrate the metaphor that some lessons can burn the learner while at the same time burning others. Victor grasped at the fire but never truly held it in his hand, and thus he did not know that it could burn. The fire burns only the hand that touches it, and Victor never considered the hands that would be touched by the flames of his creation. He gave the monster a small flame when he created it, but because he did not take the time to fan the flames himself, or the responsibility for the damage the fire could and would do, the fire became too much to handle, and spread its destruction too close to home.
Walton has yet to see the light he desires, but he will no doubt get there one day. While setting foot on uncharted land or discovering the source of the north pole’s magnetic field may seem rather innocuous, the moral that Victor and the monster both learn through their own hardships is that there is no light so bright or too dim that it cannot cause harm. Again, his path, if he is to truly make a discovery that benefits everyone, must lie somewhere between the paths that creator and created made for themselves.
While Walton and Victor share a desire for scientific exploration of the unknown, Walton and the monster share, early on, a desire for companionship. As Walton tells his sister, he “bitterly [feels] the want of a friend,” on his voyage, and he finds what he had been looking for: a fraternal bond, in Victor (4). The monster, upon seeing what family is like, goes to Victor for a solution as well, but instead of brotherly love, he is looking for love of a mate. Victor, initially, has no want for a friend, for he has many. Victor already had the companionship of friends that Walton desired, as well as the love of a mate that the monster desired. He had no room in his heart for more, for he was unwilling to create a mate for the monster, and was unable to remain at Walton’s side in the end. As if to balance the scales, the monster kills off Victor’s loved ones. By doing so, the monster is effectively bringing Victor down to his level; he is showing Victor exactly what it means to be alone. The monster forces a relationship to be forged between them. Victor, driven by hatred, becomes the monster that he created. This acts as a warning to Walton. If he chooses to use the light that he finds to harm either an individual or the society, he will become nothing more than a monster.
Victor entreats Walton to be careful of the pursuit of knowledge. As the personification of all pursuers of knowledge, Walton should take to heart Victor’s early warnings. In science, a choice must always be made in regards to how a new discovery or technology is to be used. The “right” road to take is never evident at the onset of a journey, thus a scientist must proceed cautiously. Cases such as the monster’s and Victor’s, which exemplify the extreme negative outcomes of scientific discovery, serve to warn Walton and other scientists about what can happen without such caution. Walton benefits from his relationship with Victor and the monster in that he will most likely proceed with care – and ultimately achieve the scientific success for which he longs.