Tag Archive: Sympathy


An Imperial Narrative

Reflecting on “The Power of Ambiguity” https://foundationsofliterarystudies.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/the-power-of-ambiguity/

I was struck by the student’s potent question, “Does the monster know himself where his sympathy lies?” It is easy to assume that the monster belongs to the “colonized” group due to his existence as the outcast creation, yet this question alludes to the possibility of the monster’s representation as one of the colonizers. Does the monster sympathize for the conquering of the native American races or with the decline of the once great and virtuous Roman empire? I agree with the student’s conjecture that the monster’s position as the subaltern is “necessarily ambiguous” to reflect that quality of imperialism in which the cultures interact and blend, thus obstructing their individual identities. The monster responds appropriately to the conflicts, or ambiguities, present in the history of human empires, by his own “strange feelings” (109). He questions the contradictory nature of human history— “at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base” (109)— and in doing so begins to question his own identity: “And what was I?” (109).

The uncertainty in the monster’s response to the histories Felix narrates reflects the narrative ambiguity, which, according to Spivak, creates “this great flawed text” (851). Spivak observes that in the end of Shelley’s novel “distinctions of human individuality themselves seem to fall away from the novel” (850), as if each of the players in her story are capable of exiting the text on their own. For example, in refusing to describe the monster’s death and close the framed narrative with Margaret Saville’s perspective, Shelley indicates that each “cannot be contained by the text” (850). This interpretation provides that the narrative itself is the colonizer and its characters the colonized, because they are kept within the world of the narrative, and we realize their colonized position only when they are allowed to escape it. Spivak summarizes this point in her essay: “the discursive field of imperialism does not produce unquestioned ideological correlatives for the narrative structuring” (847). In other words, Shelley does not directly address imperialist theory, but embeds it within the framed structure of her novel. The frame structure inevitably creates a binary structure of one individual subjected to the narrative power of another.

The student alludes briefly, but leaves room for expansion, to the layered imperialism in the novel: Felix is subjected to the imperialist commands of the society that exiled him, Safie is colonized by both her father and Felix.This layered, ambiguous reflection on imperialism also parallels the framing structure of the narrative and could be given further attention.

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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.

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.

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 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).

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 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.