Archive for January, 2013

Like man at birth, the creature at his creation is a tabula rasa, enveloped in darkness and fueled by primal instincts until, inch by inch, he begins discovering the world around him, in both its human and its natural forms. It is then, at his most infantile stage of life and discovery, that the creature’s humanity is at its rawest and most profound, bubbling and taking shape beneath his unnatural shell.

Soon after the creature takes up residence next to a family living in a cottage, he forms a connection to them not by idolizing the beauty of their lives, but by witnessing the humble sadness that surfaces from time to time:

“They were not entirely happy. The young man and his companion often went apart, and appeared to weep. I saw no cause for their unhappiness; but I was deeply affected by it. If such lovely creatures were miserable, it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched. Yet why were these gentle beings unhappy? They possessed a delightful house (for such it was in my eyes) and every luxury; they had a fire to warm them when chill, and delicious viands when hungry; they were dressed in excellent clothes; and, still more, they enjoyed one another’s company and speech, interchanging each day looks of affection and kindness. What did their tears imply? Did they really express pain? I was at first unable to solve these questions; but perpetual attention and time explained to me many appearances which were at first enigmatic.” (102)

The creature seems confused by this dimension of pain in human existence, one that he had never before considered. His  sympathy for the family is an especially thought-provoking one due to its primitive and naïve nature. He feels it despite his lack of understanding; he is unable to see “[any] cause for their unhappiness”, yet he is “deeply affected by it”. This is a turning point for the creature: Before stumbling upon their humble abode, his only interactions with mankind were marred by the human ability to inflict pain. And, at the beginning of his silent existence next to the family, he saw only peace, beauty, and music. This realization, then, that pain can find its way even into the hearts of those whom he fears and revers, gives him pleasure as much as it confuses and disturbs him. “If such lovely creatures were miserable,” he says, “it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched.” Thus, their pain is his momentary salvation: he recognizes his connection to humankind, and is no longer so miserably alone. This passage thus reflects Edmund Burke’s theory in A Philosophical Enquiry that “…we have a degree of delight…in the real misfortunes and pains of others…if [sympathy] was simply painful, we would shun with the greatest care all persons and places that would excite such a passion.” (42-43)

A source of tension arises, of course, when we consider that he is, at this point, the only one who acknowledges his own connection to the family and to society at large. While at first, sympathy empowers him as a being in the sphere of human existence, the element of human interaction is missing, and the heightened sense of awareness of his own suffering is left to fester and deepen in the face of rejection by society. If we look carefully at the role of nature in the creature’s narrative, it would seem that the text foreshadows this tension from the beginning. To both Victor and the creature, nature always seemed to represent solitude, a separation from society; but while Victor sought refuge in this solitude, the creature feared it. Throughout his days spent alone in the mountains, his only source of joy was the light – the moon, the sun, the fire – that warmed him and saved him from the oblivion of night. In a particularly powerful moment, the creature discovers fire for the first time: “In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!” (97) Similarly, the joy he feels basking in the glow of human company and connecting to human beings seems at first to assuage his despair, but as he inches closer and closer to a society that will not accept him, his sense of fulfillment is paired to an inevitable sense of loss and pain when he is left in solitude once more, an eternal solitude that contradicts, as Burke puts it, “the purposes of our being…”(40). Eventually, the sense of something missing overpowers and poisons the victory of something gained, serving only to augment his isolation and rage as the novel goes on.  Perhaps, then, he would have been better off in the darkness.

According to Edmund Burke, sympathy consisted of being “put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected” (41). It involves the sympathizer in the affected person’s affairs/misfortunes that resonates so deeply within the sympathizer that he/she feels as though he/she can relate to some extent. Incidents of tragedy, such as a car accident, typically evoke this emotion because humans, Burke argues, find “delight… in the real misfortunes and pains of others” (42), and according to Burke, delight and sympathy go hand-in-hand. An attractive force towards tragedy and misfortune are apparent in how humans “[do] not… shun such objects, if on the contrary [induce] us to approach them [and] make us dwell upon them” (42). Since humans are naturally drawn to things which internally evoke a sense of delight or pleasure, it is these emotions that are at the root of our attraction to tragedy and misfortune. Burke rationalizes this seeming contradiction by stating how terror, an emotion associated with experiencing tragedy and misfortune at some level, “is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close, and pity is a passion accompanied with pleasure, because it arises from love and social affection” (42). Imagine watching a car accident unfold ahead of you on the road, and you manage to avoid it all. As you drive past, it is natural to check it out and absorb the whole situation. You likely feel a sense of delight that it was not you who was involved in such tragedy and misfortune, yet you feel pity for the people involved in the accident and hope that they are all right. This is where you sympathize with the affected people, where, as previously stated, you put yourself into the place of the affected man. Here is where the ties between being drawn to tragedy and misfortune and developing a sense of sympathy are formed.

In Frankenstein, a particular passage stood out with respect to Burke’s theory of sympathy: line 7 on page 94 through line 23 on page 95 (the very end of Chapter 10). Here, the creature, actively trying to get his creator, Frankenstein, to see him in a friendlier light, tries to make it clear to his creator that he “was benevolent [and his] soul glowed with love and humanity” (94). To humanize himself to Frankenstein– a hard thing to do, what with his grotesque appearance and Frankenstein’s firmly ingrained convictions regarding the creature’s behavior and intentions– he wants to emphasize the goodness of his soul. Of course, he also makes it a point to describe how humans have corrupted his positive spirit due to the way they “spurn and hate” (94) him. The hate is so universal that he feels as though the “bleak skies… are kinder to [him] than [Frankenstein’s] fellow-beings” (94). Here he essentially states that something inanimate like the sky (and a bleak one, at that) has a greater capacity of compassion than humans, which speaks of how harshly he is being treated. Such descriptions of his hardships are to evoke the sympathy of Frankenstein, who while delighted at the creature’s misery based on such combative statements as: “Cursed be the day, abhorred devil, in which you first saw light!” (94), does grudgingly capitulate by the end: “I did not answer him, but… I weighed the various arguments that he had used, and determined to at least listen to his tale… partly urged by curiosity, and compassion” (95). He gave in based on the creature’s heart-wrenching, tragic tale, which fostered the curiosity and compassion that drove him to at least give the creature a shot at explaining himself further– akin to someone seeing a car accident on the side of the road and, while delighted that it is not him/her, still slows down to check it out due to curiosity and compassion.

In the Frankenstein, the idea of sympathy finds itself stretched when the titular character meets his creation again in the mountains. Edmund Burke detailed sympathy in his Philosophical Inquiry, believing it to be one of the three great bonds of society: “And as our Creator had designed we should be united by the bond of sympathy, he has strengthened that bond…; and there most where our sympathy is most wanted, in the distresses of others” (42). Sympathy unites us because that sympathy is directed where one most needs assistance and is distressed. The use of a “creator” can be applied to the relationship between Frankenstein and his creation, yet here we see no bond of sympathy. The artificial person asks Frankenstein for that assistance in the form of a wife, begging for sympathy (129). The creature makes this call for aid after being denied the bond by his creator, telling of how sympathy would be paid greatly; “If any being felt emotions of benevolence towards me, I would return them an hundred and an hundred fold” (129). 

However, the creation’s perspective of sympathy is twisted from one of charity to one of favor, presumably because he was shown none when Frankenstein abandoned him. Even when pleading, his tone becomes confrontational: “Do not deny me my request!” (129) The creature ignores how the idea of sympathy is an innate and natural bond, instead trying to forcefully gain what he did not have. The want for sympathy does not unite him and Frankenstein, but instead divides them. The creature seems to think his immoral actions to gain sympathy are justifiable, claiming that when he is shown sympathy, all will be forgiven: “My evil passions will have fled” (130). Because Frankenstein did not give the creature sympathy and establish an innate bond of the feeling between man and creation, the artificial person became convinced that sympathy was something worked for, leading him to coerce Frankenstein into their bargain. Instead of helping those who need it, sympathy in Frankenstein becomes the catalyst for the two main characters’ conflict.

In Edmund Burke’s construct of society, the behavior of the Man is fundamental to how that society functions. Burke claims that imitation, ambition, and sympathy are the driving forces behind human communication, which in itself is the foundation for society. Sympathy is particularly important because it is the act of directly identifying with another person. Sympathy thus is the most integral of the three, as it extends beyond both ambition and imitation, which are both often limited to the person themselves. Thus, it can be argued that the emotion of sympathy is the most fundamental in humans and, in the case of Frankenstein, the humanoid monster that is Frankenstein’s monster.

Frankenstein’s monster, for all intents and purposes, is an incomplete human construct. However, he still possesses the basest of human instincts, with sympathy being arguably his strongest driving instinct. When Frankenstein’s monster confronts Frankenstein he demands that Frankenstein construct a female counterpart:

“You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This you alone can do, and I demand it of you as a right which you must not refuse to concede.” (Shelley 128)

The monster directly states his motive for wanting a counterpart is for the “interchange of…sympathies necessary for my being”. Interestingly, he specifically requires a female, perhaps in an effort to sympathize with Frankenstein’s own companionship with Elizabeth. He directly equates the interchange of sympathies with a necessity on the magnitude of something required for survival. He claims his demands are within his “right” as a living creature, and Frankenstein, as his creator, cannot “refuse to concede” this “right”. The monster uses very authoritative and imperative language because he understands that the desire to sympathize and receive sympathy with another living creature is one of the most fundamental instincts of a human, or in this case a humanoid construct.

Throughout modern society, the idea of sympathy is often understood as quite simplistic and mundane, far from the need for serious analysis. Burke’s definition for sympathy at first seems to reflect this elementary clarity, being described as “A sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected” (page 41, A Philosophical Enquiry). Sympathy serves as a route for comprehending the lives of other individuals. However, with deeper analysis, the weighty implications of such a concept may manifest themselves. Burke moves on to argue that sympathy allows one person to experience another’s pain while simultaneously transcending its full nature and real consequences, turning suffering back on itself in a delightful manner. And, indeed, “turning on pain may be a source of the sublime” (page 41, A Philosophical Enquiry). Through sympathy’s use of the sublime, “poetry, painting, and other affecting arts, transfuse their passions from one breast to another, and are often capable of grafting a delight on wretchedness, misery, and death itself” (page 41, A Philosophical Enquiry). Sympathy exists as more that just a valued social ideal; it forms the ancient skeleton of literature itself and many genres within, as it dictates that people enjoy experiencing the pains, stories, and myths of other lives.

Rather than being purely contained within the text, sympathy also transcends it, grasping the reader in order to instill meaning. This idea is excellently illustrated in Frankenstein, which embraces the sublime nature of sympathetic pain, especially in this passage.

Throughout its structure, the passage is built with sympathy in mind. The vocabulary is carefully chosen, emphasizing the opposition between terms of absolute state, such as “wretched,” “filthy,” and “abhorrence,” or “bliss,” “perfect,” and “prosperous.” These absolute phrases help to create a very strong tension between the ideas of aesthetic beauty against ugliness, solitude against care, power against weakness, and righteousness against evil.

The tensions smoothly transition to the monster’s internal debate between his characterization as Adam or Satan. A paradox is formed, as traits of both figures seem to exist, and he never truly decides on the correct comparison. This lack of definitive identity also serves as a major point of ambiguity.

These forms of opposing vocabulary, tension, paradox, ambiguity and missing conclusion all lend themselves to the major theme of uncertainty present in the passage, a great confusion that functions on a larger scale. The monster faces a universal horror, tragic existential worthlessness. The guiding Judeo-Christian belief of the culture that surrounds him cannot fully be applied to him, manifesting itself in the lack of definition. Although granted great intellect and strength, he was shaped not by the monotheistic master of the universe, but by the modern Prometheus.  Normal humans take the forms of deities and titans instead of ethereal creatures, and they are as primitive, capricious, violent, and fallible as the ancient pantheon.

By utilizing Burke’s idea of sympathy, the meaning of the passage can be more fully exposed. A powerful creature is unwillingly created, before tragically sinking within the mire of existential irrelevancy. This type of pain and suffering is highly unique, yet at the same time relatable to very real concerns about one’s role within the universe. Sympathy is used to experience the terrible suffering expressed by the story, without the true consequences. Sublime delight is the product, and the reason why Frankenstein has culturally persisted and is of literary merit.

Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my own condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me… ‘Hateful day when I received life!’ I exclaimed in agony. ‘Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred. (Shelley 116)

“And as our Creator has designed we should be united by the bond of sympathy…”

As I read Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, that phrase stood out to me as particularly relevant to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The bond of sympathy is what binds human to human, but also what binds human to creator, being that for a Creator to design us to feel sympathy, he himself must feel sympathy. And certainly the sympathy for creator and creation must be as great, if not greater, than the bond between mother and daughter. As a passage that best exemplifies all aspects of Burke’s theory, I choose the passage beginning with “‘How is this?'” on page 130 and ending with “‘…when you are ready I shall appear,'” on page 131.

A great source of tension in this passage is the concept of solitude vs. “communion”. The Creature is outside the human order of things, capable of sympathy but without a human to turn to. Burke describe’s solitude as “[being] as great a positive pain as can almost be conceived.” The Creature derives no pleasure from this lack of sympathy, as he is experiencing positive pain. He hopes to be accepted by another being and feel “the pleasure of general society”.

When Frankenstein decides to appease the Creature in his request for a bride, it is through some sort of sublime sympathy. While he reflects on his options, Victor notes that the Creature “was a being possessing faculties it would be vain to cope with” — Victor is terrified by the strength of his creation. Yet, he derives positive pleasure from his situation because he has power over this danger; it is present, but never poses a threat great enough to cause positive pain. Indeed, a close reading reveals that issues of fear, anxiety, terror, and threats arise frequently in this passage. More so, Victor achieves this comfort and then bows to Frankenstein’s request only after his deeply sad tale; Burke writes that “terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close, and pity is a passion accompanied with pleasure…” , and that these feelings are the origins of sympathy.

Frankenstein dwells on his decision for a while, and this pause is stressed in the text. Burke discusses how we tend to hold onto grief because we find some sort of pleasure in it– sympathy, being the willing taking on of others’ pain, is similar. The second paragraph of the excerpt in Frankenstein frequently brings up this indulgence in sympathy: Victor “paused”, “reflect[s]”, thinks, and then, “after a long pause of reflection”, makes his decision. The text draws out the length of this paragraph, and therefore emphasizes Victor’s indulgence.

The Creature’s reaction to Victor’s acquiescence is the most profound example of Burke’s philosophies found in this passage. Frankenstein, who just a few moments before says that he has “no ties and no affections”, now cries that “the fire of love…burns my heart”. Such a transformation is through the pleasure we derive from sympathy. The two beings’ — creator and creation — sympathy has created positive pleasure in both.

Burke believed that “sympathy must be considered as a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected; so that this passion may either partake of the nature of those which regard self-preservation, and turning upon pain may be a source of the sublime; or it may turn upon ideas of pleasure; and then, whatever has been said of the social affections, whether they regard society in general, or only some particular modes of it, may be applicable here” (41). Burke’s theory of sympathy hinges on us putting ourselves in the shoes of someone else to be similarly affected. Only then can we truly understand this passion, which he refers to as sympathy.

The passage I chose from the novel was:

“I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery. Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Shelley 57).

From this passage, it is easy to see Victor’s attempt to warn of the dangers and misery associated with science. The juxtaposition of eagerness, wonder, and hope – emotional states that are normally indicative of optimism – with destruction and misery highlights an important paradox that is central to Victor’s caveat. Greater knowledge and understanding of the world will not lead to happiness; au contraire, it will only lead to one’s demise. This complete inversion of the benefits that we associate enlightenment with is similar to Rousseau’s conception of the “noble savage”, a natural man who remains completely untouched by the corrupting influences of civilization. The tragic irony of all of this is that happiness is associated with ignorance, while misery is associated with education and science.

The “secret” that Victor claims to know is not some arbitrary mathematical equation but instead a discovery of the truth in his lifetime. Victor’s pursuance of this knowledge causes his own undoing. His discovery that nature, an ambiguous term yet possibly denoting an all-powerful force which shapes the world, shall not be reckoned with is indicative or a larger conflict between man and nature. Victor’s desire to become greater than nature would allow not only shows that nature is a self-actualizing, active force in the world, but also that any attempts to interfere with its hegemony could very well be fatal.

Victor does have sympathy in this warning, as he doesn’t want others to have to learn this lesson the difficult way. His ability to put himself in the shoes of another lends an air of affection to his request. Even nature can be said to be sympathetic to Victor, for it regards the self-preservation of humanity an important matter and has decided to have this secret known to prevent any further misery among man. A central theme of this passage is Victor’s message, namely that ignorance is bliss. The intrusion of civilization into the realm of nature, the interference of human cognition with the ambiguous, synchronous ways of nature may result not in erudition and happiness, but inevitable misery. Victor’s dire message, in which he implores others not to err just as he did, is based on a sympathetic and affectionate notion of self-preservation for the rest of mankind. 

Burke’s understanding of sympathy can be put concisely, I think, as an indiscriminate attempt by the inherently curious mind to recreate for all faculties what it only perceives with a few. And this phantom of an experience , because it is unreal “may either partake of the nature of those which regard self-preservation, and turning upon pain may be a source of the sublime” (part 1, section 13), or because it is still an experience “it may turn upon ideas of pleasure” (part 1,section 13). Be that as it may, sympathy is a profound mode of communication. It is, as Burke puts it “an instinct that works us to its own purposes without our concurrence.” (part 1, section 14).

The novel Frankenstein is a narration (in a letter, to Margaret Seville) of a narration (to Robert Walton) of a recollection (of Victor Frankenstein. Inception, anyone?). And so by its very structure, it distances the reader from the story. It is imperative, therefore, that the text bridge the gap of this sacrifice for realism by invoking man’s generous reserves of sympathy. This is my attempt to understand how an extract, and by extension the whole text from the novel, communicates with the reader’s passions.

In this selection from a letter, Robert mentions to his sister his dire need of a friend. The paragraph expands on this idea to garner the readers’ sympathies. The text contains a lot of repetition and rephrasing of thoughts (“when I am glowing with […] success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will […] sustain me in dejection.”, lines 2-3. And: “who could sympathize with me, whose eyes would reply to mine[?].”, lines 4-5). Similarly, Robert delineates his  need for a friend throughout the paragraph (“I have no friend, Margaret”, line 2; “but I bitterly feel the want of a friend”, line 5; and “I greatly need a friend who would […][not] despise me as romantic, and […] endeavour to regulate my mind.”, lines 13-14). This repetition, both explicitly and in meaning, ensures that the readers can let Robert’s thoughts sink in, and that they are constantly reminded of his predicament.

Another point of notice is the dramatization of Robert’s thoughts. For instance at one point he almost assumes his sister’s response (“You may deem me romantic, my dear sister”, line 5). And again, in the heat of the moment he exclaims :”How would such a friend repair the faults of your poor brother!” (line 7). This change in tone and attitude makes the letter’s text more vibrant and creates the illusion that the veil of narration does not exist. And so the readers find it easier to identify themselves with Robert directly rather than through Margaret.

Similarly, the letter’s content is enforced by its theme. Robert’s repetitions make it clear that his need is acute. We see it reflected in the aura of his words. Between lines 3-6 the sentences are disjointed, and put excessive focus on something, his prospective friend, that he does not have. He also uses somewhat contradictory phrases (“gentle yet courageous”, lines 5-6; “approve or amend”, line 6) that create tension in the text. The structure and the content of his sentences makes Robert seem urgent and impulsive and in character with Shelly’s intended depiction. So the readers can now experience another dimension consistent with what they already know (of his overwhelming need). And the clearer the image of Robert is, the more the readers can sympathize with him.

Also the general outlook of the entire paragraph is very grim. Shelly uses words like “disappointment”  (line 3), “dejection” (line 3), “difficulties” (line 7), “despise” (line 13) etc. that form, so to speak, a chain of gloom through the lines. And in my observation tragedy is easier to dramatize. So the word choice contributes to an increased effect on the readers and their immersion in the text, which in turn makes their sympathy an easy target for the author.

Furthermore, up until now, to the readers Robert is the under-taker of a dangerous adventure of an era long bygone. This makes it difficult for them to associate weakness with him, or to let themselves be “put into the place of another man, and [be] affected in many respects as he is affected”, (Burke, part 1, section 13). However, from lines 8-12, Robert mentions his youth and his isolation, and his consequent inferiority to “many schoolboys of fifteen” (line 12). Now Robert starts unfolding as a human character with flaws, which is something that every reader can identify with on a personal level. And as a result the readers start paying more attention to his current distress.

It is apparent that this extract is a trove of sympathy traps. Mary Shelly uses narrative technique and sympathy to create a plausible and realistic story that, I am sure, must have been the closest thing 19th century England had to a 3-D experience.

“’This trait of kindness moved me sensibly. I had been accustomed, during the night, to steal a part of their store for my own consumption; but when I found that in doing this I inflicted pain on the cottagers, I abstained, and satisfied myself with berries, nuts, and roots, which I gathered from a neighbouring wood.

            ‘I discovered also another means through which I was enabled to assist their labours. I found that the youth spent a great part of each day in collecting wood for the family fire; and, during the night, I often took his tools, the use of which I quickly discovered, and brought home firing sufficient for the consumption of several days,”


            Frankenstein’s monster speaks these words while he is observing the cottagers and discovers that the source of much of their discontent is their poverty. By changing his actions due to other people’s feelings, the monster is displaying sympathy. The sympathy that the monster is displaying aligns with Edmund Burke’s definition of sympathy. Burke describes sympathy as “a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man,” which is essentially the same idea as the modern day concept of “putting oneself in another’s shoes”.


            The mere action of changing his ways serves as only one of the ways in which the monster displays sympathy. In addition, the verbs that the monster uses show a strong parallel to Edmund Burke’s theory. For example, the monster states that he is “moved” by the kindness he sees. This idea of movement directly mirrors Burke’s theory that sympathy involves moving oneself into another’s place emotionally. The monster also expresses his desire to “assist” the cottagers. Assistance is a word that implies sympathy. In order to desire to assist someone you must have sympathy for that person.


            A tension exists between what the monster desires to do when solely thinking about himself and what he wants to do with the feelings of the cottagers in mind. However, this tension is resolved as his sympathy for the cottagers outweighs his own personal desires. While this particular passage does not display ambiguity, I believe that there is ambiguity in the creature’s overall intentions with regards to human beings. While he means well in this particular passage, he is responsible for the deaths of multiple other people in other instances of the novel. This creates a conflict in terms of his character.