I spent a fair amount of time before this assignment wondering what I could even write about. Edmund Burke seems to frame his theory of sympathy as a response to art rather than sympathy in general. I didn’t know how to apply a theory that so explicitly models itself as explaining responses to beauty and art to a piece of art itself without bringing in a personal response (something I thought would be quite trite).  Then, I thought about the frame of Frankenstein. Victor’s story, the whole ordeal with the monster, is all told to Robert Walton. All of the horror of his tale – the deaths of everyone he loves, the terrifying monster, etc. – is told directly toward Walton. His response to it all is telling.

“do you not feel your blood congeal with horror, like that which even now curdles mine? … I cannot doubt [the existence of the monster]; yet I am lost in surprise and admiration… My thoughts, and every feeling of my soul, have been drunk up by the interest for my guest, which this tale and his own elevated and gentle manners, have created” (Shelley 178-179).

His response typifies that of sympathy.  This story shakes him to the very core, yet he never stops Frankenstein from telling it. This suggests some sort of pleasure in the tragedy, a phenomenon that Burke says has a place beyond simple schadenfreude. As Burke argues, “if [sympathy] was simply painful, we would shun with the greatest care all persons and places that could excite such a passion” (Burke 42). The delight Walton experiences when hearing and copying down Frankenstein’s tale allows him to tend to Frankenstein and form a friendship with him. His experience also mirrors that of the reader, as we have taken delight in this story of misery up until this point.

More interesting is how his initial sympathy for Victor prevents Walton from feeling any long-lasting sympathy for the monster. He admits to being “first touched by the expressions of [the creature’s] misery,” but as he “[calls] to mind what Frankenstein had said of [the monster’s] powers of eloquence and persuasion… indignation was rekindled within [him]” (Shelley 187). Perhaps Walton cannot sympathize because he was incapable of hearing the monster’s story removed from Frankenstein’s misery. His existing sympathy may prevent him from forming sympathy towards this new creature. Or maybe he does not regard the creature as human.

Maybe a future post can take this last idea and run with it, but I find Walton’s lack of sympathy for an equally distressed character that has been hated by everyone he has ever known completely fascinating. Burke’s theory of sympathy here seems to apply only in select cases, and Walton seems to have chosen to sympathize with Frankenstein.

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