Tag Archive: Burke

An Attempt at Sympathy

p. 105: “My thoughts…blows and execration.”  In these paragraphs, the creature is remarking how he wishes to understand the “lovely creatures” in the cottage, to know why they are so sad and miserable, and restore happiness to them. Through his narrative, it is clear the creature is attempting to grasp at feelings that Burke has recognized as sympathy, and while it is possible that it was impossible for the creature to feel true sympathy, the passage presents him as at least striving towards this goal of feelings.

Through the passage, the creature uses a lot of terms to describe Felix, Agatha, and the father, all of which serving to elevate the beings.  In fact, the creature almost seems to extol them: “I looked upon them as superior beings, who would be the arbiters of my future destiny” (105).  The irony is fairly evident in this passage: these people are flawed and upset, yet the creature sees this as signs of their character strength and a source for his admiration. Because he admires them so, he wishes and hopes that it is in his power to “restore happiness to these deserving people,” which is rather clearly running parallel to Burke’s ideas of sympathy.  We discussed in class for a lengthy period how one of the primary reasons why people take such interest in people who are suffering or are distraught is in order to relieve it, and how this deliverance of Burke’s idea of Delight provides the giver themselves pleasure.  In this way, the creature is strongly exhibiting sympathy, or at least a close replica of the feeling.

Speaking from a broader perspective, the creature is in a correct position to be feeling sympathy for these people. He has been observing them, and witnesses their emotions regularly.  So when you account for the fact that he is destined to not be involved with them, and does not attempt to be for a good period of time, you cover the idea that the person should be close to the action but not in it themselves.  But perhaps he is not truly sympathetic, and he is merely curious to uncover the dynamic for these people.  It seems that the creature himself is selfish, for he wishes to learn how they are in order to be accepted and loved by these people.  This is a point for a different discussion, however; the creature has been adequately portrayed to, at minimum, desire the experience of this sympathy.

Edmund Burke’s idea of sympathy is very applicable to Frankenstein as one of the driving forces of the novel is the creature’s desire for sympathy and understanding from someone. I chose the last passage on page 121 starting with “When night came..” and ending with “…insupportable misery” to expand on this point.

There is a huge amount of tension in this passage between the concepts of animal and man, and the ambiguity over which category the creature falls into. Words like “howling”, “wild beast” and “stand-like” make the image of him as an animal stronger. Burke says that the difference between animals and humans is that the passions of animals “are more unmixed”, and they only require a mate to be of their species and the opposite sex, whereas humans love, and search for socially pleasing qualities as well. In this the creature is like an animal as he pleads Victor to create for him a female, and gives no regard for her beauty or nature. But unlike the animals, he doesn’t feel like he belongs in the woods, which is seen in the images of “cold stars [shining] in mockery”, “bare branches” and the tension between the “hell” inside him and the “universal stillness” outside. He is “unsympathised with” even by nature, and has very human thoughts. For instance, as his pain is so close and real, it is not at all the sublime and so to alleviate some of it he wants to “spread havoc and ruin around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin”, as in watching from a distance the terror and distress that this would cause, he would touch upon the sublime, and also feel the “degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others”(Burke, Pg 42), that Burke discusses. These are entirely human tendencies.

The phrase “luxury of sensation” struck me as very interesting and odd. The “sensation” seemed to have been keeping at bay his despair, and when he had to stop it all hit him. I think this is because, as Burke says, Sense is universal and “is in all men the same, or with little difference” (Burke, Pg 13). Thus “sensation” was a luxury to the creature as it allowed him to feel as if he belonged and was the same as man, which was his deepest wish.

In the ending of this passage however, the Creature renounces this wish and declares war on all mankind. Where before he felt sympathy for humans, such as Felix, he now says that he will cease. This is because where before he wanted to be one with men, and so felt the bond of sympathy which unites all humans, here is when he declares himself separate and different. Humans didn’t think of him as one of them and so did not feel a reciprocal sympathy, and in this light he relinquishes any desire to become human and the bond of sympathy along with it. The Creature asserts himself as not a man now, as he refers to humans as a “species” separate from his own, but he has learnt too much to go back to being an animal, as he is filled with human thoughts and emotions. Thus, he is trapped somewhere in the middle without belonging to either side, he is both and neither, and this unresolved tension is what torments him throughout the rest of the novel.

Page 102: “They were not entirely happy…which were first enigmatic.”

One aspect of Burke’s theory of sympathy is focused on the sympathy one feels in regard to the distress of others. He states that we feel a delight, which in this case is the absence of pain, in the tragedy of others. This “delight” is what prompts us to take interest and aid our fellows, instead of fearing the same fate and abandoning them to their own devices. Of course, we are unaware of such perverse motives with Burke stating, “…and the pain we feel, prompts us to relieve ourselves in relieving those who suffer; and all this antecedent to any reasoning, by an instinct that works us to its own purpose, without any concurrence.” This inborn instinct however, is very much absent in the Creature. Although he does experience feelings of sympathy for the impoervished family, he is at a loss as to explain the feeling. He attempts to rationalise and investigate the source of his sympathy, something Burke claims is an instinct and something people do not engage in. We see the similarities to a human in his ability to experience these emotions, yet his awkwardness and wonder in the experience alienate him further from us.

The passage selected focuses on the scene in which the monster is first made aware of the unhappiness that the DeLacey family are experiencing. He is surprised by his empathy for them, with their intense emotions deeply resonating with him. Yet, this sympathy does not come naturally to him,as he tries to justify these strange, alien feelings. We see this through the repetition of his questioning, “What did their tears imply? Did they really express pain? I was at first unable to solve these questions…” This quote also reveals a theme of rational versus emotion. The creature, lacking in true comprehension for human suffering, is frustrated with his fruitless attempts  to answer these questions. His sympathy is tainted with the sense of logic and justification, a mix which Burke argues, is not characteristic of human sympathy. Additionally, the rapid questions create a sense of tension for the audience, his distress in the unresolved matter almost palpable. This tension lends to detracting further from the creature’s sincerity in his empathy, making it seem more like an inquisitive reaction rather than true sympathy.

This passage highlights the creatures ability to feel a pale imitation of sympathy ( judged by Burke). The creature seems to react to the emotions he sees rather than experience a true empathy for the DeLaceys. His aggressive repeated questioning lends a strained quality to his concern for the DeLaceys, which in turn undermines his genuine concern for them.

In reading the post written by jelenzada a year ago, I noticed that there were some interesting thoughts that the blogger had deduced from their reading of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry as well as from Frankenstein itself  (click here to read the post). One of the strongest arguments I read during that blog post starts when the blogger writes about the source of tension that arises when dissecting the book about the creature’s sympathy. The blogger refers to the passage in the story where the creature is talking about his discovery of fire. The creature during that portion says, “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). The analogy is then made that the creature finds, and “connects” to society through the De Lacey family yet when he tries to get close to them, he is rejected or socially burned. The blogger notices that it is at this point where the sympathy completely leaves the monster. He/she approaches this phenomenon in the sense that the monster lost his sympathy because of a lack of human interaction but according to Edmund Burke, there is more to this story.

To Burke, the reason why humans think, reason, and function the way we do is because of our Tastes. We all like and dislike different things and these things drive us. Sympathy towards humans then, in this definition, would be a human Taste. There are many layers however that define the Tastes we have according to Burke. So which layer then was corrupted and changed the Taste of sympathy in the eyes of the monster? Taste in humans is broken down into Sense, Imagination, and Judgement. These are further broken down into several categories but the underlying theme in all of these are experiences. The creature then in Burke’s world would not have lost sympathy because of a lack of human interaction but because of the human interaction he had experienced. If we referenced the clever analogy from jelenzada’s blog, we noticed that the creature pulled his hand away from the fire because of pain. The creature pulled away from his sympathetic nature because of the pain he felt after dealing with the De Lacey debacle. Pain and Pleasure are two parts of the Sense layer of human Taste according to Burke. Due to the emotional pain he felt after the meet up with the family, the creature changes his Tastes about sympathy to where he was now blind to sympathy. Burke believed that our experiences shaped us, not our lack of experience and the creature in Frankenstein seems to have been affected due to experience, rather than the lack of experience.

Sympathy in Frankenstein

For next Thursday (1/29), write a blog post that applies Edmund Burke’s theory of sympathy to ONE particular passage in Frankenstein.  Please take the time to practice your close reading skills.  File your post under the category “Sympathy, Art, and Society” and don’t forget to create tags.

Students could choose to write a post in response to a previous student post under this week’s category.


To help you with this post, here are 5 close reading guidelines worth considering:

1. Note key words or phrases that repeat in that passage.

2. Look for irony, paradox, ambiguity, and tension.

3. Note those words or phrases that seem odd or out-of-place.

4. Note any important symbols, motifs, and themes.

5.  Is there anything missing from the text that should be there?

The creature is negatively perceived by individuals of society, even prior to their understanding of the wrong-doings he has committed. This brings up issues of appearance and the importance of a person’s appearance with regards to how that individual is perceived by society. What does society value more, beauty or morals?

The creature is an interesting character because of the fact that he is created as a fully cognizant being who still however does not understand the world, as opposed to how natural beings are created as infants and they slowly learn about the world as they develop. The creature’s naivety highlights a lot of the issues in society. For example, we can presume that he at first does not understand why people are repulsed by his appearance. Burke’s description of beauty aligns with this lack of understanding, as he calls beauty a “social quality” (burke 39). The creature is not able to understand his beauty or his lack thereof fully due to his lack of social interactions.  The monster himself addresses his situation, deeming himself “utterly inexperienced,” (Shelley 110). This allows each experience the creature encounters to heavily shape him. He diseases himself that if the first human he had met was different, he would feel much different towards humans in general.

The creature desperately wants the cottagers to see past his appearance. The role of the creature’s appearance plays in the cottager’s perception of the creature is evident from the fact that the blind man accepts the creature before the seeing people arrive. The blind man was able to “see” the creature’s sympathy and virtue because he was not “blinded” by the ugly appearance that the creature presents on the outside. While the creature had learned that he was ugly by this point, it was nonetheless a rude awakening as to the inhibiting nature of his appearance. The creature describes himself as “overcome by pain and anguish,” indicating that he could not have been accepting this reaction (Shelley 121).

Mary Wollstonecrant also talks about issues of beauty in relation to character. She relates beauty to both morals and reason, questioning weather or not they should be a part of each other. The cottagers were “systematically neglecting morals to secure beauty” by choosing to focus on the creature’s appearance rather than his character (Wollstonecrant 47). While Wollstoncrant speaks much of female beauty and the rejection of morals involved, the same analysis can be used to judge the reception of the creature’s appearance. For example, Wollstonecrant argues that women are valued for their “breast rather than (their) inventions,” (Wollstonecrant 51). This parallels the fact that the creature’s hideous nature was valued over his virtue. In both cases, something on the outside is overpowering something on the inside.

The creature’s experience with the cottagers presents a claim that individuals cannot overcome what is on the outside, at least not without great difficulty.

The Theory of Sympathy in Frankenstein

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.