Tag Archive: tragedy

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).


Lightning strikes the top of a tall dark tower, and within the monstrous creature opens its eyes. The creator cackles and eagerly approaches. Of course, the creature escapes and demolishes a city. By the time I began reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I had all but relinquished these faulty images. The thing I still could not expect, however, was that the creature would go on to, y’know, kill the scientist’s whole family.

Now, I do not seek to defend Victor Frankenstein’s many character flaws (his egotism, his aversion to taking responsibility) and I recognize that narrator bias deserves major consideration. However, I cannot help but feel for Victor because I cannot imagine behaving any better.

Far from a scientist bent on world conquest, Victor is a bright and promising college student who wants to “pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley 53). Sure, the language is somewhat dramatic, but this doesn’t sound far off from the pursuit of anyone interested in the sciences.

Unfortunately, his creature looks repulsive, and for Victor, “breathless horror and disgust filled [his] heart” (61). (Couldn’t he see how hideous this creature was before he brought it to life? But I digress.) For his lack of caring (but not only that), death upon death upon death ensues in Victor’s life. Like him or not, the suffering this young man endures is brutal.

Yes, the Victor Frankenstein I know may certainly have unkempt hair and a wild look in his eyes, but more than that he is a brokenhearted man sickened by his own foolish actions. He tells Walton, “I — I have lost every thing, and cannot begin life anew” (38). And this, at least, I believe.

(Interestingly enough, the image above is not of Victor at all but Frederick Frankenstein, Victor’s grandson in the 1974 comedy Young Frankenstein. Off on so many levels.)

The Dialectic of Marxism Gone Awry

In Frankenstein, the death of Justine Moritz serves as a crucial foil to the monster and plays an important role in the development of the plot. From a Marxist perspective, the monster represents the downtrodden masses, an underclass of proletariats who can only break this cycle of enslavement by revolution. The monster’s self-actualization thus serves as the class-consciousness that can organize and fight for its own interests. Justine’s death figures prominently in Marxist terminology because it challenges the very foundations of such an interpretation, one that rests upon a history of materialism. While Justine is a servant, she grew up with Victor Frankenstein, the scientist, and the Frankenstein family treated her with dignity and respect. Victor’s image, which is that of a ruthless capitalist, is thus shattered when we learn of the relative dignity she grew up with and the lack of exploitation or alienation from society. Her death bedevils the Marxist because according to such an analysis, revolution from below in which the proletariat unites to end the suffering to which they are subjected is the dialectic of history. Justine’s death changes this entire dialectic because she becomes a victim of Marxism, the very ideology that ostensibly claims to liberate her. Her death symbolizes Marxism gone awry, a revolution in which the persecuted end up becoming the persecutors. Edmund Burke, no fervent supporter of the French Revolution, said that such a revolution would only lead to a world “polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcasses” (pg. 71). Burke totally rejects the Marxist conception of Justine’s death and instead terms such a philosophy as part of the “great history-piece of the massacre of innocents” (pg. 73). While Marxism was supposed to liberate someone of her status, instead it ended up claiming her life. The monster, which symbolizes a noble proletariat rising up in Marxist terminology, wreaks havoc and destruction to destroy the very people it is seeking to represent. Burke would see Justine’s death as a wrongdoing, which explicates how revolution, initially conceived of favorably to the masses in order to rectify longstanding grievances, becomes increasingly bloody and leads to only more chaos and destruction. While Burke favored the gradual equalization of conditions in society, he would view the death of Justine as total injustice, something that would run counter to the tenets of an esteemed civilization. Perhaps he would best capture her death by saying, “All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination…are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion” (pg. 77). While these ideas promote Marxism might be praiseworthy in theory, in reality they would only lead to unmitigated bloodshed and insane brutality. Justine symbolized an innocent servant, one neither betrothed to capitalism nor Marxism, but a victim of both. While neither a slave nor part of the proletariat, her death ignites the larger dilemma of humanity in the novel. Justine would never have been executed had the monster not killed William, but her death could have equally been averted had Victor spoken out in her defense. Her death marks the death of humanity, something described as “savage and brutal” by Burke, in which the life of an ordinary, innocent citizen is taken away (pg. 80). This spearheads larger questions about the failure of Marxism to provide a remedy to the discontents of the proletariat, and shows the corrupting power of even the proletariat. In Marxist terms, the ruling class was overthrown only to result in a dictatorship of the proletariat, where even moderate, guiltless people are victimized.  

Justine’s public execution must therefore be seen solely as a tragedy. Marx claimed “all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice…the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (pg. 41). The execution of Justine, an innocent moderate who neither identified with the extremes of capitalism and Marxism, represents the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. During the Reign, opponents of the radical revolutionary government led by Maximilien de Robespierre were summarily executed and purged, ostensibly for being enemies of the revolution. The failure of Victor to defend Justine, and the creature’s conflicted view of Justine in which he realizes he will never have her beauty and that she’d treat him horribly just as Victor did, result in the death of a spotless human being. Because the French revolution, according to both Burke and Marx, was truly unique and the first of its kind, the period of political instability and terror that followed it was also truly unprecedented. While revolutions had indeed occurred before, nothing quite similar to the reign of Terror had ever occurred before. Marx said, “Earlier revolutions required world-historical recollections in order to drug themselves concerning their own content. In order to arrive at its content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must led the dead bury their dead” (pg. 43). The French revolution only brought change because the bourgeoisie was able to deny the dialectic of history, which necessitated that the oppressed class would always rise up against its capitalist persecutors. Because this dialectic had not been established, the capitalists were able to disguise their true intentions. However, the revolutions of the nineteenth century were able to use that dialectic to truly understand the actual intentions of the capitalist ruling class and were historically conscious in that sense. Therefore, the French revolution must be seen as a singular event in history, necessitating that we see Justine’s death as tragedy instead of farce. 

According to Edmund Burke, sympathy consisted of being “put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected” (41). It involves the sympathizer in the affected person’s affairs/misfortunes that resonates so deeply within the sympathizer that he/she feels as though he/she can relate to some extent. Incidents of tragedy, such as a car accident, typically evoke this emotion because humans, Burke argues, find “delight… in the real misfortunes and pains of others” (42), and according to Burke, delight and sympathy go hand-in-hand. An attractive force towards tragedy and misfortune are apparent in how humans “[do] not… shun such objects, if on the contrary [induce] us to approach them [and] make us dwell upon them” (42). Since humans are naturally drawn to things which internally evoke a sense of delight or pleasure, it is these emotions that are at the root of our attraction to tragedy and misfortune. Burke rationalizes this seeming contradiction by stating how terror, an emotion associated with experiencing tragedy and misfortune at some level, “is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close, and pity is a passion accompanied with pleasure, because it arises from love and social affection” (42). Imagine watching a car accident unfold ahead of you on the road, and you manage to avoid it all. As you drive past, it is natural to check it out and absorb the whole situation. You likely feel a sense of delight that it was not you who was involved in such tragedy and misfortune, yet you feel pity for the people involved in the accident and hope that they are all right. This is where you sympathize with the affected people, where, as previously stated, you put yourself into the place of the affected man. Here is where the ties between being drawn to tragedy and misfortune and developing a sense of sympathy are formed.

In Frankenstein, a particular passage stood out with respect to Burke’s theory of sympathy: line 7 on page 94 through line 23 on page 95 (the very end of Chapter 10). Here, the creature, actively trying to get his creator, Frankenstein, to see him in a friendlier light, tries to make it clear to his creator that he “was benevolent [and his] soul glowed with love and humanity” (94). To humanize himself to Frankenstein– a hard thing to do, what with his grotesque appearance and Frankenstein’s firmly ingrained convictions regarding the creature’s behavior and intentions– he wants to emphasize the goodness of his soul. Of course, he also makes it a point to describe how humans have corrupted his positive spirit due to the way they “spurn and hate” (94) him. The hate is so universal that he feels as though the “bleak skies… are kinder to [him] than [Frankenstein’s] fellow-beings” (94). Here he essentially states that something inanimate like the sky (and a bleak one, at that) has a greater capacity of compassion than humans, which speaks of how harshly he is being treated. Such descriptions of his hardships are to evoke the sympathy of Frankenstein, who while delighted at the creature’s misery based on such combative statements as: “Cursed be the day, abhorred devil, in which you first saw light!” (94), does grudgingly capitulate by the end: “I did not answer him, but… I weighed the various arguments that he had used, and determined to at least listen to his tale… partly urged by curiosity, and compassion” (95). He gave in based on the creature’s heart-wrenching, tragic tale, which fostered the curiosity and compassion that drove him to at least give the creature a shot at explaining himself further– akin to someone seeing a car accident on the side of the road and, while delighted that it is not him/her, still slows down to check it out due to curiosity and compassion.