Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Original Text
CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
The novel is framed with a series of letters. This means that it begins and ends with letters, not chapters. The chapters start after the fourth letter. After twenty-four chapters, the series of letters resumes.
The novel begins with a series of letters from Robert Walton, who is writing from St. Petersburg to his sister, Margaret Saville, in England. He assures her that he is safe and is looking forward to his voyage which has been his dream for many years. He is delighted that his plans are working out well. He reminisces about how, as a child, he had neglected his education but was very fond of reading the histories of voyages. Unfortunately for him, his dying father had not allowed him to attempt a seafarer's life.
He then relates that the next thing he did was to try his hand at literature; he wrote poems for a year, but he failed at that endeavor. Luckily, he acquired some money and was able to pursue his former plans of becoming a sailor.
He has now been leading a seafarer's life for six years. Initially, he had to face a great deal of hardship. He recounts how he accompanied whalers on several expeditions to the North Sea, and survived the bitter cold, hunger, thirst and famine. However, he still managed to study mathematics, medicine and the physical sciences required of a sailor. He had also worked as an undermate with a Greenland whaler and had been offered a designation in the vessel.
He talks of traveling to Russia. He declares his plans to leave for Archangel in two week's time. He even plans to hire a ship out there for the purpose of whaling.
The novel begins with the epistolary form (in letters). The series of letters helps to keep the fantastic happenings of the larger narrative grounded in reality.
As Robert talks of the icy breeze that "fills him with delight," the readers realize how enthusiastic he is about his job as a sailor. He seems to possess a spirit for adventure, but he also expresses mixed feelings about his journey. His apprehension is combined with excitement about an undiscovered place. He reveals an ambition to discover new lands or unknown routes leading to the countries near the pole.
Robert's passion for a seafarer's life is revealed as he recalls his childhood, when he would read nothing but histories of voyages. He is lucky when he inherits his cousin's fortune, and he is able to follow his dreams. However, he mentions how he has endured hardships that could easily have discouraged him from going any further. But he continues his pursuit of adventure.
This letter also shows the tremendous love between Robert and his sister, Margaret. He is afraid he will not see her again and wishes her the best in life. The uncertainty of a sailor's life stands out here. As Robert says, his resolution and courage are firm, but his hopes fluctuate. This is because he is responsible not just for himself, but also for the other men, whose morale must be kept high.
The author begins by comparing the undiscovered geographical location with Robert's mental vision of it, as he tries to imagine the polar region for himself. But the focus later shifts to Robert's practical nature: he cannot let his visions hamper the actual details of the undiscovered land. For instance, he talks of a sunny land while referring to the North Pole, but then he insists that it will be bitterly cold and he must be fully prepared to face that reality.
Moreover, it is striking that Robert's sister should bear the same initials as the author herself, M.W.S.: Margaret Walton Saville.