St. Petersburg, Dec. 11, 17--
I am already far north of London, and as I walk in the streets of Petersburgh, I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling? This breeze, which has travelled from the regions towards which I am advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy climes. Inspirited by this wind of promise, my daydreams become more fervent and vivid. I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight.
In the first letter of the book, Robert Walton writes to his sister about his excitement as he prepares to embark on his trip to the North Pole. The cold weather in St. Petersburg whets Walton’s appetite for the “icy climes” he expects to find in the Arctic. At this point in the story, the Arctic is primarily a setting that inhabits Walton’s active imagination. Although on some level Walton seems to understand that the Arctic is a place of “frost and desolation,” he imagines it to be a place of “beauty and delight,” revealing that he is optimistic and perhaps even a bit naïve.
St. Petersburg, Dec. 11, 17--
I will put some trust in preceding navigators—there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. Its productions and features may be without example, as the phenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle and may regulate a thousand celestial observations that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent for ever. I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man.
In this passage, Walton continues to imagine the Arctic as a place of undiscovered mystery and natural phenomena just waiting to be revealed. Since no human has ever set foot in the region before, Walton does not know what he will encounter on his voyage, but his ardent curiosity fuels his grand expectations and thirst for adventure. For example, he expects to discover the source of the Earth’s magnetic fields, that “wonderous power” that makes compass needles point north. He also describes the Arctic as a place of “eternal light,” perhaps a reference to the fact that the sun never sets during Arctic summers. Yet he fails to mention that Arctic winters bring continuous darkness.
August 5th, 17--
Last Monday (July 31st) we were nearly surrounded by ice, which closed in the ship on all sides, scarcely leaving her the sea-room in which she floated. Our situation was somewhat dangerous, especially as we were compassed round by a very thick fog. . . .
About two o’clock the mist cleared away, and we beheld, stretched out in every direction, vast and irregular plains of ice, which seemed to have no end. Some of my comrades groaned, and my own mind began to grow watchful with anxious thoughts, when a strange sight suddenly attracted our attention and diverted our solicitude from our own situation. We perceived a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on towards the north, at the distance of half a mile; a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge and guided the dogs.
In Letter 4, the final letter before Victor Frankenstein's story begins, Walton describes the perilous state of his voyage on the day that he and his men first see the monster. The ship is enshrouded in fog and in danger of becoming trapped in the ice. Walton, who had been so enamored with the wonders of the Arctic, now senses the grave danger of his voyage and becomes very anxious. The appearance of the mysterious monster, however, distracts him and his men from their fears and excites their sense of wonder once more.
September 9th, the ice began to move, and roarings like thunder were heard at a distance as the islands split and cracked in every direction. We were in the most imminent peril, but as we could only remain passive, my chief attention was occupied by my unfortunate guest whose illness increased in such a degree that he was entirely confined to his bed. The ice cracked behind us and was driven with force towards the north; a breeze sprang from the west, and on the 11th the passage towards the south became perfectly free. When the sailors saw this and that their return to their native country was apparently assured, a shout of tumultuous joy broke from them, loud and long-continued.
This description of Walton's journey through the ice comes at the end of the novel, after Frankenstein's story has been told. In the beginning of the novel, Walton can see only the adventure and excitement of the Arctic. By the end, Walton and his men had begun to doubt they would ever survive the perils of the Arctic. With dangerous ice cracking all around them, they feel trapped and powerless. When the ice finally clears and they realize they will escape, the sailors cheer.
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