Before applying Edmund Burke’s theory of sympathy to a passage from Frankenstein it is important to clarify what Burke’s slightly cryptic ideas behind sympathy are. First and foremost, Burke classifies sympathy 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). Here Burke is describing sympathy as a means by which one man can understand the other, as if he were in the place of someone else. For instance, when one man sympathizes with another who is sad, the first man can understand the second man’s sadness and feel despondent himself.

The prompt of this particular blog was to apply Burke’s ideas of sympathy to ONE particular passage. However, the following two passages are too closely related to be ostracized. The first passage is as follows:

“The being finished speaking, and fixed his looks upon me in expectation of a reply. But I was bewildered, perplexed, and unable to arrange my ideas sufficiently to understand the full extent of his proposition… the latter part of his tale had kindled anew in me the anger that had died away while he narrated his peaceful life among the cottagers, and, as he said this, I could no longer suppress the rage that burned within me” (page 128).

The second passage:

“…and my first impulses, which had suggested to me the duty of obeying the dying request of my friend, in destroying his enemy, were now suspended by a mixture of curiosity and compassion… I was first touched by the expressions of his misery; yet, when I called to mind what Frankenstein had said of his powers of eloquence and persuasion, and when I again cast my eyes on the lifeless form of my friend, indignation was rekindled within me” (pages 186-187).

In both of these passages, Frankenstein’s monster had the ability to create sympathy for himself. First, when he tells his story to his creator, the monster is able to assuage his creator’s anger and earn sympathy by describing his disastrous attempts to win the affections of humans. Dr. Frankenstein is able to understand the monster’s misfortunes and feel sorry for him. In the second passage, the monster expresses grief at his vengeful actions toward his creator, causing Walton (an explorer) to also understand his pain and feel sorry for him. However, in both situations, the sympathy is short-lived, and soon replaced by Dr. Frankenstein anger regarding the monster’s murder of his younger brother and Walton’s anger at the monster’s virtual murder of Frankenstein.

These two passages exhibit repetition in the tranformation from sympathy to anger; both Frankenstein and Walton are initially won over by the monster’s unfortunate tale. However, the sympathy returns to anger when the monster discontinues his story and his violent actions are remembered. This is an example of tension in the passages: sympathy with the monster’s sadness and anger at the monster’s actions cannot coexist at the same time. There is no simultaneous feeling of sadness and anger: anger is “rekindled” for both Frankenstein and Walton. This tension, however, examplifies the organic unity of the novel: Frankenstien’s monster will never be able to fully earn the sympathy of humans. No matter how eloquently he may speak, his actions will always inspire fear and anger in those with whom he connects, as exhibited by the mirrored reactions of both Dr. Frankenstein and Walton to the monster’s tale.

 

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