Sympathy

If you open up my copy of Frankenstein, you’ll see a fair amount of underlines and check marks, maybe the occasional star or exclamation point. But if you really want to know how I felt while reading, you’d need to look at the little faces I’ve drawn on the margins. There are happy faces, angry faces and surprised faces, but it’s no surprise that the sad, frowning, pensive faces are what dot these pages the most.

And yes, this is one of those sad-face passages.

Victor’s reaction to Justine’s execution illustrates a complete failure on his part to sympathize with his supposed loved ones. From the start, Victor focuses not on putting himself “into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected” as Edmund Burke explains sympathy in A Philosophical Enquiry, but instead in announcing “the tortures of my own heart” (Burke 41). This is somewhat understandable; Justine’s death ought to fill Victor with guilt. However, he quickly repeats the word “my” an absurd four more times: “my Elizabeth,” “my doing,” “my father’s woe” and “my thrice-accursed hands!” (Shelley 85). Egomaniac much? Nowhere does he console Elizabeth or Alphonse. Worse, he rationalizes, choosing not to share in or feel, but to “contemplate” (85) Elizabeth’s grief, driving his focus further inward.

Victor’s narration switches to speak to his family — while concentrating even more on himself. Burke writes, “there is no spectacle we so eagerly pursue, as that of some uncommon and grievous calamity […] it always touches with delight” (Burke 43) but it is this sympathy that prompts humans to positively “relieve ourselves in relieving those who suffer” (43). Victor, far from comforting his heartbroken family, appears only to delight, perversely prophesizing worse things to come. He ironically claims he will be “happy beyond his hopes, if thus inexorable fate be satisfied” by Justine’s death, but only after he assures his loved ones, “Again shall you raise the funeral wail” (Shelley 85). Instead of relieving suffering, he indulges in it and even divests himself of any responsibility for the execution, pointing toward “inexorable fate” (85) instead. At one point Victor appears to demonstrate compassion like that which Burke describes, claiming he “has no thought nor sense of joy, except as it is mirrored also in (his family’s) dear countenances” (85), but the truth is in the writing. The only action verb in that final, excruciatingly long sentence is “bids you weep” (85), as Victor urges his family members to not smile, but “shed countless tears” (85). You don’t want anyone happy, do you, Victor?

I confess. I initially drew that sad face because I fell for Victor’s seemingly agonizing exclamations. It didn’t take much further examination, for me to realize that this sad face should definitely not be for Victor. Nor should it be for Elizabeth or Alphonse or Justine. It’s for the lost humanity. The total absence of sympathy.

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