Robert Walton’s Sieve of Nectar

The influence of Coleridge on Mary Shelley’s Characterization in Frankenstein

by Alyssa Rittinger

“Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve, And Hope without an object cannot live”

(626, “Work Without Hope”)

“The die is cast; I have consented to return if we are not destroyed. Thus are my hopes blasted by cowardice and indecision; I come back ignorant and disappointed. It requires more philosophy than I possess to bear this injustice with patience.”

(Frankenstein, 24.37)

It is reasonable to presume that Mary Shelley was, by some extent, inspired by the works of Samuel Coleridge. His works are alluded in various ways throughoutFrankenstein. From an interpretive stance, Robert Walton is often compared to the Wedding Guest of Coleridge’s disconsolate poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  There are so many correlations with the Ancient Mariner poem that are explicitly alluded in Frankenstein that further comparison cannot be avoided. But Coleridge’s emulation of characterized hopelessness is one of the more distinguishing factors that compares directly with Shelley’s novella.  The epigraphs highlight the two excerpts in such a way that perfectly encapsulates this thematic correlation.

Coleridge’s “Work Without Hope” is a poem that juxtaposes the speaker’s perpetual depression with the optimism of nature making its gradual return to spring.  As beautiful and purposeful as life appears, the speaker feels somehow set apart, as though still stuck in a winter wasteland where he wilts away into idle uselessness.  The speaker alludes to having lost his sense of purpose.  He has nothing to hope for, nothing to strive for.  The world just continues on without him.

Frankenstein similarly expounds on the emotional ramifications of men who are overzealous with their own ambition, all of which liken to this form of helplessness.  With Victor Frankenstein, his pride constitutes as a primary consequence for his downfall.  For the creature, his desperation for companionship ends up eliminating any chance he may have had (or, arguably, could never have) in securing a loving dynamic with a human being.  Robert Walton, interestingly enough, represents a bitter marriage of these two qualities.

Walton, as a tertiary character, may not seem all that relevant to the direct context of Frankenstein’s cataclysmic ordeal with his creation.  Yet Walton still narrates a significant portion of the novella. His reflections on the morbid tale are what bring thematic questions to the forefront of the story. There are questions of exploration, hubris, family, companionship, fatality, etc.  All of these circumnavigate the events of Frankenstein and his creature, and culminate in the form of Walton himself.  His inactivity seems to be his only safeguard from complete ruin; however, the yearnings he has are conspicuously and intricately aligned with that of Frankenstein and his monster.  Frankenstein and his monster had both lost everything worth living for, and thereby lost themselves in the process.  Walton, being the second-hand audience of their tribulation, feels overcome with his own internalizations.  Whether it’s out of mimicry or relatability, Walton suffers the contagion of the same helpless melancholy that afflicted both Frankenstein and the creature. In this way, the conclusion of Frankenstein’s tale represents a parabolic harbinger for the ambitious seafarer.

Unlike Frankenstein and the creature, however, Walton still has a life to live for.  He has a sister waiting for him back home, the promise of returning to a land of warmer weather instead of succumbing to an icy sea.  Yet despite these optimisms, Walton now feels “ignorant and disappointed.”  He seems almost willfully blinded by the fact that his life still bears the promise of beauty, renewal, and solace.  The tumult of Frankenstein affected Walton’s perception of the world and his place in it.

That being said, Walton won’t necessarily be stuck in this proverbial rut for long.  His emotions seem to sway in accordance to those he surrounds himself with.  He is even influenced by the members of his crew, who convince him to give up the trek through the arctic and return home.  Walton explicitly recognizes that he will forsake knowledge in favor of safety, which is the lesson that Frankenstein was unable to learn.  Walton may have little inhibition with keeping his heart on his sleeve.  But there’s a keen awareness there that ensures Walton’s capability to adapt as the situation dictates.  So while he may feel like his limitations render his voyage impossible, like “drawing nectar from a sieve,” Walton still has a life that he can live. A home to return to, to a sister he cares for.  He can find a new “object” to center his “hope” on in such a way that was no longer possible for Frankenstein.

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