Tag Archive: Edmund 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.


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.

Page 95: “As he said this, he led the way…he thus began his tale.”

In this passage, it is with considerable thought and convincing that Victor decides to hear the creatures tale. One would  think that what moved him was sympathy — the language of it is definitely there. Victor does not, however, ultimately act out of feeling for the creature, but out of his own rationalizations that he claims are sympathetic.

A major tension exists in this paragraph between what Victor is actually saying, his word choice, and the tone of the overall passage. “My heart was full” he says, and “compassion confirmed my resolution” (95). He supposedly feels something, may it be ever so slight, for his creation, something akin to sympathy. For a moment, the reader can imagine that Victor does feel the sympathy Edmund Burke describes in A Philosophical Enquiry: “a passion accompanied with pleasure, because it arises from love and social affection” (42). Yet, when one reads the passage, the tone of it is coldly calculating and impersonal. Even though Burke views the bond between creator and creature as one inherently possessing sympathy, by his account, Victor cannot love the monster because he does not find it beautiful. If Victor does not have any affection for the monster, how can he feel real pity, sympathy, or compassion?

Victor’s layering of compassion/sympathy language over the story is probably meant to maintain Robert Walton’s esteem. People are more likely to like people if they are benevolent. We again come up against Victor’s unreliability of narrative, a theme throughout the work. His sympathy is vague; real, true emotion is entirely missing from the passage, save Frankenstein’s dread at the upcoming tale. Victor is very aware that he is telling a story. When he sprinkles in sympathetic words, bits of emotional description, he seems to expect that the reader (or listener) will focus on those, rather than passages such as “I weighed the various arguments that he had used” (95), which are completely at odds with the emotion-driven compassion he attempts to portray.

Sympathy for a Tragic Hero

Passage: p. 178 “You have read….on his prosecutor”

The narrative frame, by which Robert Walton relays Victor’s story in his letters to his sister, sets readers at a safe distance from the tragedy, as if we, like Margaret, have only “read this strange and terrific story” (178). According to Edmund Burke’s theory on sympathy, this removal from terror “produces delight when it does not press too close” (42), an effect evident in Robert Walton’s response to Victor’s narrative.

In his initial reaction Walton dwells upon Victor’s outward displays of anguish rather than the horrific story itself, repeatedly noting how Victor was “seized with sudden agony” (178) as he related “words so replete with anguish” (178) with eyes “quenched in infinite wretchedness” (178). His fascination with Victor’s apparent suffering testifies to Burke’s claim that “we have a degree of delight…in the real misfortunes and pains of others” (42). Further, his tone of excited curiosity in the way he questions whether “you do not feel your blood congeal with horror, like that which even now curdles mine” (178) reflects Burke’s sentiment that “objects which in reality would shock, are in tragical…the source of a very high species of pleasure” (41). Walton’s speech assumes this excited energy as he describes Victor’s multifarious expressions of grief. Broken into phrases signaled by pairs of opposing prepositions such as “sometimes…at others” and “now….then” (178), the choppy structure of his sentences reflects Victor’s fitful behavior and testifies to his seemingly misplaced enthusiasm. Ironically, as Walton describes him, Victor sometimes appears more like the monster with eyes “lighted up with indignation” and “an expression of the wildest rage” (178). There is an emotional tension between this violent image of a man like “a volcano bursting forth” (178) and a pathetic figure “subdued to downcast sorrow” (178), resulting in simultaneously overwhelming feelings of fear and pity in the reader, as in Walton, toward this tragic figure.

Through Walton’s perspective we can perceive Victor as a tragic hero who “seems to feel his own worth, and the greatness of his fall” (179); and like Walton in his fascination, we feel both sympathy for the ruined scientist and fear that we might not make his mistakes. Burke attributes this cathartic fascination to the quality of pity as “a passion accompanied with pleasure” (42). In his exalting lamentations of Victor’s condition, “noble and godlike in ruin” (179), Walton demonstrates his delight derived from his sympathy for Victor. Because Walton remains removed from any active role in Victor’s narrative until this point, he can experience this kind of exhilarating terror, which, as Burke describes, “is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close” (42).

Sympathy and Sight

Passage: pg. 120, paragraph starting with, “The old man paused…”

The passage I’ve selected is during the conversation in which the creature is pleading to the old man De Lacey and trying to persuade him to lend him a hand. This passage is particularly important in highlighting sympathy, or the lack thereof, that exists in Frankenstein.

The creature has passionately begged old man De Lacey to be a friend to him. De Lacey, who is blind, evaluates the Creature’s arguments and, after careful consideration, agrees to help the Creature. Noticeably, when he makes his decision, there are multiple words that indicate his hesitation.

“The old man paused

“I perhaps may be of use”

“There is something in your words”

After evaluating what the Creature is asking, De Lacey comes to the conclusion that, “it will afford me true pleasure to be in any way serviceable to a human creature.” He reaches this conclusion out of his sympathy for a fellow man, in that he is able to understand the situation presented and feel emotion towards another member of his species. Unfortunately for the Creature, he does not fall in the realm of human beings and thus, when it is determined that he is not a human creature, he no longer garners the sympathy that blind De Lacey initially offered.

Interestingly enough, in Burke’s writings on sympathy, he makes continual note of how mankind naturally possesses sympathy for other men. If you take Burke’s writing to be absolutely literal, it becomes clear that there exists no sympathy for beings of another species, such as the Creature. And again and again in Frankenstein, we see that a continual lack of sympathy towards the Creature, consistent with Burke’s writings.

Blog Summary 1: False Justice

As I perused my previous blog posts, I reread one in particular that caught my eye: my post titled “The Bond of Creator and Creation.” In it, I cite a quote from Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: “”And as our Creator has designed we should be united by the bond of sympathy…”, and then I elaborate on the bond of sympathy between Frankenstein and the Creature when he listens to his progeny’s story. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that moment is the only display of sympathetic connection between this God and his Adam found in the whole novel. Everywhere else, most particularly the execution of Justine, it is absent—but why? There should be a strong bond of love between them like that of a father and son, but no connection or true communication can be found. Understanding this disparity between expectations and reality can be further explored using Marxist analysis.

A preliminary structural analysis reveals that the turning point in the novel is the death of William and the execution of Justine. Before that point, Victor is at peace and the Creature’s location is, for all intents and purposes, held at bay. After the death of Justine, however, everything changes; Victor now lives a life of fear, and the Creature is a broken human with an insatiable desire for vengeance trying to exert control over his creator. The focal point of Marxist analysis also centers on the death of Justine—the symbolic death of justice. Frankenstein, a scientifically and technologically inclined member of the bourgeoisie, created Frankenstein much in the same way that the techno-centric industrial bourgeoisie created the new working class. There is no sympathy between the two emerging classes because their stratification was not created through humanistic demands, but rather socioeconomic demands. The bourgeoisie, despite begetting a whole new “race” of people, could never view them as anything but a means to an end—and the end is money. In the French revolution, they promised the proletariat egalitarianism, but their words were hollow—the proletariat, being naïve and possessing no prior context, were able to be repressed by the bourgeoisie’s bastardization of the ancient ideology of justice. They believed that it was killed during the revolution, but it was killed long before then, when the first factory manager looked down on his newly-minted workers and saw them as a stack of dollar bills. The proletariat never stood a chance, and their mislead sense of justice prevented them from seeing the creator as the true enemy.

The dynamic between Frankenstein and his creation acts in very much the same way. Frankenstein, a disgusting but powerful mass of muscle and sinew, is the large, dirty proletariat; suppressed by their master, they only blame themselves. In the Justine episode, the Creature fails to fully realize it is Frankenstein’s fault for the death of justice, not his—the very act of creating “a new species [that] would bless me as its creator” (Frankenstein 58) killed justice before the starting gun had even fired, for to create a species for the sake of deification is the most unholy of all injustices. The ideology that the Creature follows is a false one, perpetuated by Frankenstein (who knowingly refused to intervene to save justice before her execution at bourgeoisie hands) in order to exert control over his creation. Frankenstein does all of this because his creature was not created for humanistic reasons; it was a means to an end, an attempt to gain power to stay the cold hand of death from those he selfishly wanted to keep forever in this world. In the end, the Creature is unable to see Frankenstein as an enemy. Even after he kills everyone Frankenstein loves, he still cries when his creator is finally subdued by Death and sacrifices himself to the sea. His false ideology will always blind him to his creator’s evil. Unless the proletariat can see what the bourgeoisie’s sense of justice actually is—frail, twisted, and coughing up the blood of innocents—they will never throw off the yoke of oppression.

Whilst scrolling through my blog post I was particularly uninspired and disappointed in past writings. Luckily, a comment from my professor sparked my imagination and got the wheels moving.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not simply a story told by a narrator to an audience. Frankenstein encapsulates four different stories within one narrative framework and each new narrator influences the lens through which the story is interpreted. It is through this story-telling and narrative framework that sympathy is mediated between the characters. In Frankenstein sympathy requires two actors, one to share their story and one to listen. Edmund Burke argues that sympathy is a way in which we “enter into the concerns of others” (Burke 41) however, the listener can’t engage if there is no one willing to tell the story. Frankenstein has several characters that invite others into sympathetic connection through story telling, including Dr. Frankenstein and the creature.

The first two-way sympathetic story telling relationship occurs on board the ship of Robert Walton between Walton himself and Dr. Frankenstein. Robert Walton deeply desires a companion with which to engage in such sympathy on his lonely voyage. He finds that person who is not just willing to engage, but enthusiastic to do so, in the incredibly ill Dr. Frankenstein. Walton describes this desire as a “thirst for a more intimate sympathy with a fellow mind” (Shelley 38). Here is Walton fulfilling the role of “entering into concerns” of Dr. Frankenstein by listening to the Dr.’s story. It is important to remember that it is not just Walton creating a sympathetic bond. Frankenstein is inviting him into this bond by sharing his story.

The invitation to hear a character’s story and acceptance of that invitation occurs again in between Dr. Frankenstein and the creature, and allows them to have sympathetic connection for the first time. When the creature introduces his story to the narrative framework he opens himself up to participate a sympathetic relationship with his creator, Dr. Frankenstein. Frankenstein in turn accepts this invitation by listening, saying “I weighed the various arguments that he had used, and determined at least to listen to his tale” (Shelley 95). Just as Walton “enters into the concerns” of Dr. Frankenstein by listening to his story, so does Dr. Frankenstein “enter into the concerns” of the creature by listening to the creature’s story. The story telling within the narrative framework of Frankenstein makes it possible for the characters to enter into sympathetic relationships with one another. The story telling within the novel shows that sympathy requires two active participants, an idea illustrated by both Robert Walton and Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Frankenstein and the creature.


Here’s a full pic of our completed in-class graphic idea map.  Students can use it as a study guide to help them prepare for the blog summary due next week.  The green color is for William Godwin, the red for Edmund Burke, and the blue for Mary Wollstonecraft.

We’re making steady progress in our historicist analysis of the Justine episode in Frankenstein.  Please feel free to comment on students’ impressive idea map.


117 photo (3)


117 photo (1)


117 photo (2)

The execution of Justine is a symbolically dense passage. The exact message of what Shelley is trying to convey by the death of Justine (justice) is confusing at best — and how could it not be? Her dad was a political philosopher, her mom was a feminist, and yet she still believed in Edmund Burke’s semi-sexist theories. These conflicting views are reflected in this passage, although I believe that Shelley mostly uses the work of Burke as a scaffold for the execution scene.

Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, is deeply concerned with the death of traditional European values with the rise of the Proletariat revolution in France. He writes extensively on how the class system has worked to promote civility and limit the powers of tyrants. He even remarks that Europe’s upper-class civility “kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.” Justine is this very indentured freedom. She is a servant for an upper-class family, the Frankensteins, and represents the “old money”, if you will, of Europe. Her ultimate death is not caused by the townsfolk that executed her, but rather by the Creature — he is the one who killed William and planted evidence on Justine, condemning her. A Marxist reading of Frankenstein leads one to believe that the Creature is, at a very basic level, a symbol of the proletariat. He is created by the technological prowess of Frankenstein in the same way that the new working class was created by the new technology of factory owners.

It is this working class that is creating terror in France in the same way that the Creature is creating terror in the lives of the characters that inhabit the world of Frankenstein. When the Creature kills William — an innocent, virtuous child — he also kills Justine, signalling both the end of her life and the end of the traditional European values that Burke longs for.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men mocks Edmund Burke’s idea of beautiful femininity being inherently virtuous, differentiating having virtue and merely looking it: “Not to cultivate the moral virtues that might chance to excite respect, and interfere with the pleasing sensations they were meant to inspire,” (Wollstonecraft, 47). Wollstonecraft notes that this idea of beauty pleases others but does not uplift one’s own self, putting women in a position of inspiring inferiority that requires no actual virtue. She would consider the character of Justine a prime example of this disparity in action. The characters of Frankenstein claim the maid’s beauty is at odds with her unfortunate fate. The first description of her by Elizabeth emphasizes how she clears negative emotions with her very appearance: “For the same reason that Ariosto gives concerning the beauty of Angelica – She looks so frank-hearted and happy” (Shelley, 67). Even though the text makes a distinction between beauty and Justine’s qualities, that divide is imaginary; she does not alleviate woe because she is frank-hearted and happy, but because her physical appearance reminds of those qualities. The word “frank” means truthful, yet Justine’s frankness is only skin-deep, creating a paradox of her frankness being a mask. In an everyday situation, a character may describe Justine’s virtue the way Elizabeth did, yet when dealing with the grim business of murder, that appraisal disappears: “As the trial had proceeded, her countenance had altered” (80). Beauty is only necessary as long as it pleases; when real virtue is needed, beauty does not suffice, and so it is no longer perceived as so pleasing.

The sentence of Justine in Frankenstein is supposed to inspire anger at the unfairness of the proceedings, since Justice is killed even when innocent. Her name even resembles the word “justice” to illustrate how justice dies. However, Wollstonecraft would not claim that justice died during the trial, but instead before it, pointing to the failure of beauty to balance with truth. Even though the reader knows Justine is innocent in retrospect, the presented evidence against her is overwhelming. Even Elizabeth cannot actually provide reason, instead discussing her emotional relationship with Justine: “Elizabeth’s heartrending eloquence failed to move the judges from their settled conviction in the criminality of this saintly sufferer” (Shelley, 85). While her defense is described as aesthetically pleasing, the beauty is hollow, and Justine is sentenced for her crime. The judges have already decided, but it is not because the court is unfair; in the face of all the evidence, it would be a farce to think otherwise just because of one person’s account being “heartrending”. What is unfair is that beauty was ever considered an acceptable substitute; Wollstonecraft thinks it bizarre that Burke’s definition of beauty does not come from “those exalted qualities, fortitude, justice, wisdom, and truth” (47). Justine provides no fortitude and is broken into confession, she provides no truth in her paradox of only appearing truthful, and worst of all, Justine is not able to actually embody justice when reason and evidence, the very items most important to a court, are not on her side. Wollstonecraft rejects Burke’s and Frankenstein‘s definitions of beauty if embracing beauty means one must reject the best human qualities in favor of a sham.