Robert Walton as Reanimator

By Thompson, Terry W. | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview
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Robert Walton as Reanimator


Thompson, Terry W., Papers on Language & Literature


Since the publication of Frankenstein in 1818, scholars and lay readers alike have drawn numerous parallels between Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein--the two young, brilliant, and keenly ambitious explorers of the unknown who narrate the bulk of the novel. Because Walton has long dreamed of uncovering some of nature's most profound secrets--despite the many attendant risks--and then basking in the personal glory of such discovery, he has often been described unflatteringly. For example, Laura Claridge refers to him as "Victor's shadow self" (15), calling Walton "a potential Frankenstein, another man [...] seeking out ultimate knowledge by conquering the world's uncharted regions"--at once as ruthless, proud, moody, and self-centered as the frozen scientist he rescues and then comes to admire (23). There is something far more intriguing than mere youth, ambition, intellect, and privileged upbringing, however, to link this pair of headstrong, adventurous twenty-somethings who yearn to sunder the envelope of scientific knowledge and write their names large in the history books: in essence, both young men, not just Victor, are reanimators. Four years prior to his rescue in the Arctic by Walton, Frankenstein had built a man by reinvigorating dead human tissue; in a symbolically parallel tableau, during their short time together aboard ship, Robert Walton becomes the hands-on reanimator of Victor Frankenstein, in effect, bringing him back to sentient life in a dark and private chamber, closely reenacting--but this time in a most positive way--Victor's earlier gift to the monster of animation.

At the age of seventeen, brimming with optimism and ruled by vainglory, Victor leaves his native Switzerland to attend college at the University of Ingolstadt in southern Germany. Just two years later, after intense and cloistered study, he discovers the secret to creating life. Still bursting with youthful hubris, Victor then begins to gather the parts with which to construct his new species--the perfect being who will be immune to both death and disease. Although Victor is evasive as to how he actually reanimates his hideous amalgam of lifeless limbs and stilled organs, he offers very specific details about the ominous evening of its birth: "It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet" (Shelley 52). In southern Germany, the weather in November is routinely cold and dreary--providing the perfect Gothic atmosphere for the birth of the most famous monster in all of literature. The symbolic suitability of dark and dismal weather, however, is not the main reason Mary Shelley selected this particular month for the nativity of Victor's charnel creature.

Rather, November was chosen for its numerical symbolism: according to the old Roman calendar--discarded in the sixteenth century in favor of the more accurate Gregorian--November was the ninth month of the year, not the eleventh. Fittingly, according to Anne Mellor, Victor labors away in secret for precisely "nine months to give birth to his creature" (xii). Therefore, the gestation period for this artificial man--from rough assembly to first breath--is exactly that of a human fetus, nine months, and the birth month selected by Mary Shelley alludes to the same symbolic number. In perfect parallel, Walton's letters to his sister cover a period of nine months--from one December to the following September. Hence, the gestation time for Walton's grand adventure in search of personal glory and forbidden knowledge--from its optimistic nascency in Saint Petersburg until its bitter termination upon Victor's death--covers the same amount of calendar time. Whereas Victor Frankenstein's creation (the monster) will ultimately destroy him, however, Robert Walton's "creation" (Victor) will eventually save the life--and soul--of his reanimator.

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