Tag Archive: close reading

On Solitude and Silence

The meaning of the fifth stanza of Percy Shelley’s Mont Blanc has always been up for debate. There are several parts of that stanza in the poem that makes little sense, including the rhyme scheme. When looking at the different possible ways a form of writing can be arranged there are pieces of insight that are sometimes uncovered. By changing the rhyme scheme into couplets, some interesting parallels can be made between the fifth stanza and a passage on pages 91-92 in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that might even answer the puzzling question at the end of the stanza. The paragraph that will be referenced starts with “The ascent is precipitous…” and concludes with “…may convey to us”.

The question posed at the end of the stanza is if silence and solitude are/were vacancy. The first mention of either silence or solitude in this passage is when Victor Frankenstein narrates, “…one of them is particularly dangerous, as the slightest sound, such as even speaking in a loud voice, produces a concussion of air sufficient to draw destruction upon the head of the speaker” (Shelley 91). In this rearranged stanza, Percy Shelley’s first words about silence are, “..much of life and death silently there, and heap the snow with breath”. These two lines almost seem to intertwine. It is interesting however, that Frankenstein says anything but silence will cause a fatal avalanche and the poem states that life and death are both silently waiting and they heap the snow with breath. Victor Frankenstein seems to be answering the question of  whether silence is a vacancy. If silence is a vacancy, Frankenstein does not want that vacancy to be filled with death and in that sense, equates silence with life. Victor sees this peaceful silence on Mont Blanc as life, thereby filling the vacancy of silence with life.

What then about solitude? Can this rearranged stanza and the detailed scenery give us any information into what fills the vacancy of solitude? In the passage Victor states, “It is a scene terrifically desolate. In a thousand spots the traces of the winter avalanche may be perceived, where trees lie broken and strewed on the ground,” A possible parallel to this in the reorganized stanza says, “In the lone glare of day, the snows descend or the star-beams dart through them. Winds contend rapid and strong, but silently! Its home which governs thought, and to the infinite dome the voiceless lightning in these solitudes keeps innocently, and like vapour broods over the snow”. Although there is no one on the mountain in the poem, there seems to be a lack of complete solitude. The thought of snows, star-beams and winds as plural entities make it seem as if there really is no solitude. This creates an odd issue however. How does Frankenstein fill in the vacancy that is in solitude?

In his narration Frankenstein states, “I looked on the valley beneath; vast mists were rising from the rivers which ran through it, and curling in thick wreaths around the opposite mountains, whose summits were hid in the uniform clouds, while rain poured from the dark sky, and added to the melancholy impression I received from the objects around me”. Much like how Percy Shelley uses objects to fill the solitude that is present on Mont Blanc, so does Victor. He turns the the objects and by “receiving” an impression from the objects, he humanizes them. This is how the vacancy of solitude is filled by Frankenstein, through making the objects around him human, he is no longer in solitude. Victor Frankenstein, on Mont Blanc, fills solitude with the humanization of objects and fills silence with life itself and in this way, Mary Shelley answers her husband’s question of if silence and solitude are vacancy by filling those vacancies.

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.

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.

The Curse of the Flame

The end of Frankenstein’s monster’s lamentation comes with as much passion and emotion that had guided its words since it first spoke to Robert Walton at its creator’s corpse, and yet more as its final words ring out while it resolves to depart the world of the living.  Through this, the monster carries the allegorical reference to fire to the end of the novel, mentioning its “burning miseries,” the “torturing flames” upon which it shall die, and the “conflagration” as another term for this fire. The monster is regretting the gift of fire, the feeling and passion which it was searching for, that his master unknowingly bestowed upon him.

The primary conflicting image the creature presents is an image of his internal fire, his miseries, dying and becoming extinct, yet he is doing so through fire itself. The irony is not lost, that the fire of life is being extinguished by fire itself, as it is clear that the monster wishes he had no such flame within himself, that he had not destroyed the life of his creator and those that his creator loved. In addition, there is a strong tension between the context of the language with how the creature is described saying it. The creature is described to say these words with enthusiasm, and mentions that it “shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames” (189). This disconnect between the emotions we would expect a creature of sadness to feel from the actual energy and almost excited anticipation for what it is about to do to itself creates a strong dissonance that perhaps is meant to reflect the creature’s own inner conflict, that it found passion, but only in the form of hatred inspired by his creator. This is the sad truth of the story, that Frankenstein did indeed fulfill his creation’s wish – yet in doing so doomed himself and his creature’s hopes for achieving humanity.

The final two paragraphs of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are packed full of detail and life. The creature in his final moments shares his plans for suicide as well as his emotional state in a few sentences. The way in which he presents himself on its own has an incredible amount of meaning. The creature’s “body language” speaks volumes to why his ending statements are framed in the way they are.

Mary Shelley writes, “He [Frankenstein] cried, with sad and solemn enthusiasm,” (Shelley 189). This statement poses an interesting paradox that opens a window into the soul of the monster. A strong statement is made just by paying attention to the wording of the phrase, “…with sad and solemn enthusiasm”. The definitions of sad and enthusiasm are nearly complete opposites yet the word sad accompanied by solemn are used to describe an enthusiastic cry from the creature. This creates a paradox that has not always been observed but plays a key role in the last two paragraphs.


According to the new style of critical thinking, paradoxes should be explained in the text. Mary Shelley is quick to do just that as she writes the dialogue of the creature. The creature states, “I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct” (189). From these lines, it becomes apparent why the monster cries with sad and solemn enthusiasm. The enthusiasm stems from the fact that his emotional struggles are coming to an end. The creature is enthusiastic to finally be able to escape from his emotional weight. The sad tone in his voice however is an indication of several things. First off, the creature is about to kill himself. There is no joy in this suicide and he has decided to choose what he sees as a fitting death by fire. Secondly, these final words are spoken as the creature stands over his creator’s dead body. He says these things in sadness because not only is his creator dead mostly due to him, but many others have perished under his hand. The monster chooses an interesting term, conflagration, for the flame he is about to extinguish. A conflagration is a destructive fire and I believe that the monster realizes that not only is he extinguishing the conflagration that is his emotions, but he is literally extinguishing himself, the destroyer of many lives. His mood comes from the fact that he is ending all the destruction which is good, yet he was the cause of the distraction so he is in essence, ending himself. This would put the creature in a sad, solemn yet enthusiastic mood which, due to its placement in the story, sets the tone for the entire book.

Exulting in Death

The last two paragraphs of Frankenstein give a stark description of the effects of intense and prolonged social rejection on an individual. Social rejection has the potential to emotionally pain a person so badly that they feel the emotional pain far outweighs any physical pain or fear of death. “Sad and solemn enthusiasm,” seems to be quite a contradiction. Normally, “enthusiasm” would be associated with words like “excitement,” “happy,” and “joy.” In most contexts, enthusiasm is a positive looking-forward to something. However, the creature’s enthusiasm is for his death. If he ever feared death, he no longer fears it now. He looks forward to it. The creature also says he will, “exult in the agony of the torturing flames.” “Exult” is another word with normally positive connotations, and “agony” and “torturing” normally has negative connotations. The pairing of these contradictory connotations reveals the creature has truly lost his desire for life, and that he will only find joy or happiness in death.

The creature’s existence has become painful to him. Exacting revenge against his creator was not enough to make up for the fact that society completely and utterly rejected him. That rejection is so painful that the creature wants to, “ascend [his] funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames.” “Torturing flames” could be taken as a reference to hell, which would imply that the creature would be happier in hell than on Earth. A more literal interpretation would be the creature’s cremation. However, the creature doesn’t have anyone to light his funeral pile for him after his death. Therefore, if he truly desires and plans to revel in the flames, he has to light the fire himself. He will have to burn himself alive. The pain of rejection by society and his creator is as or even more intense than being burned alive. Because he has been shown repeatedly that he has no place, the creature desires death.

Close Reading of the Novel’s ending

For this Thursday (1/22), students will write a post that provides a close reading of the last two paragraphs of Frankenstein on page 189 (starting with “But soon” and ending with “distance”).  Please categorize under “New Criticism” and don’t forget to create specific and relevant tags.

To help you with this post, here are 5 close reading guidelines you should follow:

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 Bond of Creator and Creation

“And as our Creator has designed we should be united by the bond of sympathy…”

As I read Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, that phrase stood out to me as particularly relevant to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The bond of sympathy is what binds human to human, but also what binds human to creator, being that for a Creator to design us to feel sympathy, he himself must feel sympathy. And certainly the sympathy for creator and creation must be as great, if not greater, than the bond between mother and daughter. As a passage that best exemplifies all aspects of Burke’s theory, I choose the passage beginning with “‘How is this?'” on page 130 and ending with “‘…when you are ready I shall appear,'” on page 131.

A great source of tension in this passage is the concept of solitude vs. “communion”. The Creature is outside the human order of things, capable of sympathy but without a human to turn to. Burke describe’s solitude as “[being] as great a positive pain as can almost be conceived.” The Creature derives no pleasure from this lack of sympathy, as he is experiencing positive pain. He hopes to be accepted by another being and feel “the pleasure of general society”.

When Frankenstein decides to appease the Creature in his request for a bride, it is through some sort of sublime sympathy. While he reflects on his options, Victor notes that the Creature “was a being possessing faculties it would be vain to cope with” — Victor is terrified by the strength of his creation. Yet, he derives positive pleasure from his situation because he has power over this danger; it is present, but never poses a threat great enough to cause positive pain. Indeed, a close reading reveals that issues of fear, anxiety, terror, and threats arise frequently in this passage. More so, Victor achieves this comfort and then bows to Frankenstein’s request only after his deeply sad tale; Burke writes that “terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close, and pity is a passion accompanied with pleasure…” , and that these feelings are the origins of sympathy.

Frankenstein dwells on his decision for a while, and this pause is stressed in the text. Burke discusses how we tend to hold onto grief because we find some sort of pleasure in it– sympathy, being the willing taking on of others’ pain, is similar. The second paragraph of the excerpt in Frankenstein frequently brings up this indulgence in sympathy: Victor “paused”, “reflect[s]”, thinks, and then, “after a long pause of reflection”, makes his decision. The text draws out the length of this paragraph, and therefore emphasizes Victor’s indulgence.

The Creature’s reaction to Victor’s acquiescence is the most profound example of Burke’s philosophies found in this passage. Frankenstein, who just a few moments before says that he has “no ties and no affections”, now cries that “the fire of love…burns my heart”. Such a transformation is through the pleasure we derive from sympathy. The two beings’ — creator and creation — sympathy has created positive pleasure in both.

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.