Letters In Sympathy

In the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the ideas of sympathy and human connection are of vital importance. The characters of Walton, Victor, and the Creature are all looking for sympathy through the relationships that they forge, however not all find it attainable. In the end Walton is the only character that learns from his mistakes and succeeds at maintaining relations with those close to him. The frame narrative of Walton, which begins and ends the novel, is in the form of letters implying that the epistolary structure has a function beyond its outward appearance. Epistolary novels are grounded in the idea of connection and correspondence, and in Shelley’s case Walton’s ability to triumph over Victor’s and the Creature’s oral stories with his letters. Contrastingly, oral storytelling is based on fictional and mythical tales meant to excite or scare an audience, not create connections. Through the epistolary nature of the correspondence with his sister, Walton is able to maintain a relationship in ways that Victor and the Creature cannot, ultimately making his character capable of sympathy where Victor and the Creature are ultimately lacking.

In order to fully understand why Walton’s letters make him the most sympathetic and redeemable character, one must first examine the epistolary novel and its function in nineteenth century literature. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word epistolary is defined as “of or relating to letters or letter-writing.” In the nineteenth century it was very normal to write letters on a daily basis, as telephones and the Internet did not exist; in the 1800’s letters were the only way to maintain a relationship. Mary A. Favret states in her article “The Letters of Frankenstein”, that the epistolary novel of the nineteenth century represents “connections and continuity” and “human correspondence in an age of instability and incertitude.” With this philosophy in mind, it is simple to see that the frame narrative of Shelley’s novel encompasses these characteristics. Walton is constantly writing to his sister complaining of loneliness and his desire for “the company of a man who could sympathise with [him]”, signifying his yearning for connection from both his sister and those around him (Shelley 19). The letters serve as a stark contrast to the tales of Victor and his Creature, who never quite master the art of correspondence. In victor’s case, he rarely replies to the heartfelt letters he receives from his family, altogether forgoing the use of letters to keep in touch with his loved ones. In the Creature’s case, he is so shunned by society that he is incapable of having correspondence with anyone but his creator who hates him. It is therefore fitting that Walton’s narrative takes the form of letters, representing his ability to keep in touch, and that Victor’s and the Creature’s narratives take on the form of oral storytelling, implying a transitory and fictional nature with regard to their relations.

While Walton, Victor, and the Creature all arguably desire human connections at some point in the novel – although with varying degrees of want – only Walton is able to truly forge those connections through the constant correspondence with his sister. Walton’s letters typically include terms of endearment such as “my dear sister” as he constantly reminds his sister that he “love[s] [her] very tenderly”, marking him as someone that earnestly wants to have meaningful relationships despite his ambitions (Shelley 23, 22). The fact that this is done through an epistolary form only reiterates that fact. For Victor, relationships are only forged through spoken incidents. Similarly, the story he tells to Walton and their sequential relationship is based off of his verbal recollections. As Walton and his letters signify correspondence and connection, it is only logical to conclude that Victor and his preference for the word of mouth signify ineptitude for the same. Furthermore, at a time when Victor finds happiness through nature he out rightly states that he prefers the solitude as “the presence of another would destroy” the experience, an attitude that mirrors the one he had in university and has throughout the rest of his life (Shelley 100). Contrastingly, the Creature actually does wish for relationships only to be “irrevocably excluded”, turning him into a “fiend” incapable of forging relationships (Shelley 103). When trying to appeal to people he also forgoes letters and instead uses the spoken word, signifying that like Victor he is incapable of keeping up relationships the way Walton does.

Victor and the Creature do go through experiences that make their characters sympathetic, but their lack of human connections and inability to recognize the error of their ways prevents them from truly gaining sympathy. Jeanne M. Britton argues in her article “Novelistic Sympathy in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’”, that the overlaying frames of stories within Shelley’s novel are of importance because “the impossibility of sympathy silences each voice and concludes each frame” (6). Following this pattern, Victor and the Creature can be seen as sympathetic at some point in the novel, however they ultimately fail in gaining said sympathy leaving the novel to end with Walton and his letters. Victor watches his loved ones die around him, providing his character sympathy, but he is continuously portrayed as self-centered. He constantly reminds himself of the “labours [he] endured”, a character trait that marks him as incapable of having relationships with others (Shelley 143). Although one can argue Walton does sympathize with Victor, calling him “the brother of [his] heart”, this sympathy arises early on in Victor’s tale and in the end Walton decides to do what Victor never could: return to his loved ones; the sympathy that Walton may have held for Victor dies along with him. On his deathbed Victor remains full of hate and self-pity saying he “must pursue and destroy the being to whom [he] gave existence; then [his] lot on earth will be fulfilled”, denoting his lack of remorse for the terrible things he has done (Shelley 215). Shelley’s portrayal of Victor as a selfish man with an inability to own up to his mistakes and show remorse implies that his character is not deserving of sympathy. Likewise, the Creature wallows in self-pity, continuously reminding Victor that he feels like “a blot upon the earth” (Shelley 123). While he has certainly endured a difficult existence being shunned by society, his violent behavior creates a character that is truly unsympathetic. Circumstance is arguably what turns him into a violent monster, but his lack of ability to recognize the errors of his ways and right his wrongs is what makes him undeserving of sympathy.

Where Victor and the Creature lack the ability to change and show remorse, Walton understands his mistakes and genuinely wants to repair his relationships, making him the only character truly deserving of sympathy. Originally a selfish and ambitious man like Victor, Walton has a change of heart after Victor’s tale and writes to his sister “encompassed by peril” that he will never get the chance to return home (Shelley 215). Walton undergoes a transformation where he decides to “[return] to England” and “the dearer friends that inhabit it,” confirming that the constant correspondence with his sister gives him the ability to recognize his mistakes where Victor’s and the Creature’s isolation could not (Shelley 218, 215). In the end, Victor’s tale is a mere tool for Walton to recognize the error of his ways and return to his loved ones. Using Britton’s observations about the frame narratives in Shelley’s novel, one can argue that the fact that Walton’s narrative concludes the story means that he gains sympathy. Victor and the Creature show no remorse for their actions, and make no attempts to change their ways, which finally results in their narratives concluding with a lack of sympathy. Conversely, Walton’s story ends on an open-ended note. The reader is given only the information that he has decided to return home and that he has reminded his loved ones of his affection for them, the rest is up to interpretation. His innate difference from the other characters in the novel combined with Britton’s structural argument verifies that his character is the only one in the novel that is worthy of and receives sympathy.

At the end of the day Frankenstein is a novel about sympathy and the importance of relationships. Victor and the Creature never truly understand the connection between relationships and sympathy, ultimately leaving them alone and unsympathetic. Walton, on the other hand, comprehends what they cannot and gains sympathy through remorse and correspondence in his letters. Where Victor’s and the Creature’s oral stories of self-pity fail them, Walton’s epistolary narrative of righting wrongs and cherishing those around him leads him into a life of love and understanding.

Works Cited

Britton, Jeanne M. “Novelistic Sympathy in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’”. Studies in             Romanticism 48.1 (2009): 3–22. Web.

“epistolary, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 5                         December 2015.

Favret, Mary A. “The Letters of Frankenstein.” Genre 20 (1987): 3-24. Web.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. Maurice Hindle. London: Penguin, 1994. Print.




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