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.

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