Mary Shelley
Contributed by Jerrold Mcmenamin
Preface and Letters

Summary: Preface

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.

Frankenstein opens with a preface, signed by Mary Shelley but widely regarded to have been written by her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. It states that the novel was begun during a summer vacation in the Swiss Alps. An unseasonably rainy weather and nights spent reading German ghost stories inspired the author and her literary companions to engage in a ghost story writing contest. This work is the only finished product of that writing contest.

Summary: Letter 1

What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?

The novel begins with a series of letters from an explorer Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville. Walton, a well-to-do Englishman with a passion for seafaring, is the captain of a ship on a perilous voyage to the North Pole. In the first letter, he tells his sister of the preparations leading up to his departure and of the desire to accomplish “some great purpose” — discovering a northern passage to the Pacific, revealing the source of the earth’s magnetism, or simply discovering an unknown land.

Summary: Letters 2–3

In the second letter, Walton rues his loneliness and lack of friends. He feels isolated, too sophisticated to find comfort in his shipmates. He finds no one worthy with whom he can share his dreams. He projects himself as a romantic with his “love for the marvelous, and a belief in the marvelous,” which pushes him to the perilous, lonely pathway that he has chosen for himself.

In the third letter, the 'romantic' explorer informs his sister that he has set sail and he has full confidence that he will achieve his aim.

Summary: Letter 4

In the fourth letter, the ship is stuck in huge sheets of ice and Walton and his crew sees a sledge guided by a gigantic creature about half a mile away. The next morning, they encounter another sledge stranded on ice. All the dogs drawing the sledge except one are dead, and the man on the sledge is weak and starving. He is certainly not the man who was seen the night before by the crew. The emaciated man refuses to board the ship until Walton informs him that the ship is heading north. Nursed by the crew, the stranger takes two days to recover before he can speak again. The crew is curious but Walton, aware of the man’s fragile state, forbids his men to question the stranger. As time passes, Walton and the stranger become friends and he narrates his story to the explorer.

At the end of the fourth letter, Walton states that the visitor will narrate his story the next day. Here, Walton’s framing narrative ends and the stranger’s story begins.


The novel Frankenstein is prefaced sets as entertainment but with a serious twist. A science fiction that nonetheless captures “the truth of the elementary principles of human nature". The author aspires Frankenstein to be the kind of work that great personalities like Homer, Shakespeare and Milton produced. The reference to “Dr. Darwin” in the first sentence is to the biologist Erasmus Darwin — grandfather of famous evolutionist Charles Darwin, who was seven years old at the time the novel was written. Besides setting the scene for telling the stranger’s story, Walton’s letters introduce himself as an important character in the story, whose story runs parallel to the Frankenstein’s. The second letter mulls on the idea of loss and loneliness; Walton complains of the lack of friends. There is no sensitive ear to listen to his triumphs and failures, dreams and ambitions. Walton sees the stranger as his friend whom he has always wanted. His search for companionship and his attempt to find it in the stranger is almost similar to the monster’s desire for a friend and mate later in the novel. This parallel between man and monster, hidden in early letters, but increasingly clear as the novel progresses, suggests that the two may not be very different from each other as they may seem.

Walton’s letters introduce another theme that is the danger of knowledge. The stranger tells Walton, “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". Throughout the novel, the theme of destructive knowledge is developed as the tragic consequences of the stranger’s obsessive search for understanding. Similarly, Walton is enthused by the opportunity to know what no one else knows, to delve into nature’s secrets: “What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” he asks. Walton’s is only the first of many voices in the novel Frankenstein. Many more Walton's letters set up a framework that encompasses the main narrative — the stranger’s — and lends a context to the story. There are many more voices within the stranger’s narrative.

The use of multiple frame narratives brings into attention the telling of the story. It adds new layers of complexity to the already intricate relationship between author and reader. As the reader listens to Victor’s story, so does Walton; and as Walton listens, so does his sister. By focusing the reader’s attention on narration, on the importance of the storyteller and his or her audience, Shelley may have been trying to link her novel to the oral tradition to which the ghost stories that inspired her tale belong. The reader gets constant reminders of the presence of other authors and audiences, and of perspective shifts within each framed narrative. Victor comes out of his narrative to address Walton directly and Walton signs off each of his letters to his sister.

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