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.




The Life of a Student: Explanation Post

When reading House of Leaves I always found it really interesting that Johnny’s inserts usually began as relevant notes about Zampano’s analysis, and would then deteriorate into a commentary on something about his personal life that at times was completely unrelated. His footnotes appear to mimic his thoughts in an almost stream of consciousness way (not fully stream of consciousness because a lot of the time they make perfect grammatical sense), and I thought it would be interesting to examine how my mind wanders when reading a piece of scholarly work.

Tonight I had to read an article for French about university education, and I wanted to do my blog post on how my mind wandered whilst reading the beginning of that article. My mind definitely wandered and I found my thoughts similarly wandering as Johnny’s did, beginning with something related to the article and quickly going off on a tangent not entirely related to the subject at hand. This to me seemed very indicative of a student’s process in doing homework. I think that many of us have a huge problem with procrastination, and at times our minds just wander in directions completely unrelated to what we should be doing.

The Life of a Student

Le lobby en faveur de la suppression de la quasi gratuité des études supérieures revient à la charge dans Le Figaro, profitant de la période estivale[1] où les étudiants sont moins vigilants, pour avancer ses pions. Reprenons point par point la thèse des partisans d’une américanisation de notre système pour mieux la démonter.

Tout d’abord, les officines en faveur de frais d’inscription à 10 000€/an (dans un premier temps… !) comparent notre système en premier lieu avec le système américain sur un seul critère : celui de la quantité d’argent disponible pour former un élève. Cela relève d’une pure idéologie dont le qualificatif n’existe guère, mais qui est pourtant très répandue en notre société ; l’argent serait à même de régler tous les problèmes et un problème non résolu ne serait dû qu’à un manque d’argent. Rien n’est plus faux et il faudra bien un jour que les mentalités polluées par cet état d’esprit changent profondément. De même, la qualité de l’enseignement et la quantité d’argent qui est injectée seraient liés.[2] Là encore, on est en plein délire américain ! Dieu merci, bien qu’anglo-saxons, les britanniques ne pensent pas ainsi. Quant à la France, son histoire est jonchée de prouesses qui ont été faites, justement, avec presque rien, prouvant par-là que ce qui compte avant tout c’est la volonté et non l’argent.[3]

[1] That would be an awesome word for my French vocab assignment “estivale”… too bad its already taken. You know I love my French class, I really do. I love my teacher and I love the topics that we discuss, but I also don’t love it, you know? My professor is super sweet and awesome but she also assigns like a million things to do each class. Does she not understand that I have other classes with other just as important and time consuming assignments? Just last week I had to write a huge paper for her on immigration. Qu’est-ce que l’immigration? Qu’est-ce que cet mot répresent pour toi? It was actually a really interesting topic to write about. I don’t think our next paper will be as interesting. The upcoming chapter is about the cost of higher education. In general this class is a lot more interesting than other French classes I’ve had because we discuss actual relevant issues. Anyways this week is going to be tough. I just realized that I have way more to do than I thought, and because of meetings I have at night this week I really just don’t have enough time to get it all done. I’m majourly stressed. And yes, I use british spelling. I was raised in Egypt where they use british spelling so I’m sorry but that’s what I’m going to use.

[2] “Lié” is my word. It means related. I had no idea. I used it in a sentence discussing how the church and the state shouldn’t be related. I’m not a huge fan of government. It really isn’t something that interests me so I have avoided it at all costs, but I have to take 6 hours of it at UT. I’ve actually learned a lot about the government, but that doesn’t change how I feel. See I’m a conspiracy theorist about a lot of governmental things, and most people in the US don’t believe you when you talk about conspiracy theories because they don’t want to believe that their government is capable of such things. But I honestly believe the US government is behind some truly abhorrent things.

[3] Okay I’m done for today. She said we have until Wednesday to read that article and do the vocab assignment. I’m honestly so exhausted from all of the homework and errands that I had to do today I can’t think anymore. Mais, ces sont mes responsabilités, non? Do you ever study or do work for a language class for so many hours that you find yourself thinking in that language? Whenever that happens I’m always so amazed because I realize I can speak this language and think in this language and that is super cool. Last semester I devoted an entire day to studying for my French midterm a couple of weeks ahead of time and I couldn’t stop thinking or speaking in French… it actually got kind of annoying but at the same time is was super cool. Okay yeah I’m gonna make dinner now. Its almost 8 I definitely deserve a food break.

The Ridiculousness of Romanticism

Victor Frankenstein of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein focuses highly on nature, and how his view of nature is affected by his mood or vice versa. His constant jump from being inspired by nature to not being capable of appreciating it makes it difficult for the reader to take Frankenstein seriously, and thus leads the reader to question his character. The unreliability and distrust in Frankenstein that is created can be seen as Shelley’s personal commentary on the exaggerated literature of Romantic writers of the time period and their resulting egocentrism.

Frankenstein often dramatizes his current mental state through lofty descriptions of the natural world around him; it appears to the reader that Frankenstein is either full of joy or despondent beyond recovery. After the death of his younger brother, he escapes into the mountains where he vacationed as a child and claims his surroundings fill him with a “sublime ecstasy, that [gives] wings to the soul, and [allows] it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy”. The use of the words “soar”, “light” and “joy” when discussing the soul alludes to heaven and angels, giving Frankenstein’s trip up the mountain a transcendent and biblical quality. This is similar to Romantic writers such as Wordsworth and Shelley, in that they compare nature and their overwhelmingly inspirational experiences in nature to God and the idea of the “sublime”. However, only a paragraph later Frankenstein’s entire outlook on nature shifts with his fresh bad mood. The scenery that Frankenstein had before compared to heaven transforms into a “sombre” place with “thick wreaths” of mist and a “dark sky”, or in other words a different and more ominous “sublime”. With this word being tossed around so frequently by Frankenstein to mean both amazing and awful, the reader is given the impression that he is not to be trusted. His changeable attitude largely reflects the writings of Romantic writers such as Shelley’s husband, and helps to highlight the egocentrism involved with Romanticism. The highly dramatized use of such strong polar opposite emotions exudes a sense of egotism within the character and, as Shelley’s novel implies, the author as well. Victor is certainly a self centered character, made obvious through his constant concern that the monster is going to kill him despite the large amount of evidence that it is the people he is close to that are in trouble. Ultimately Victor Frankenstein embodies an almost laughable amount of egotism and changeability that the reader can connect to Romantic writers.

In conclusion, Frankenstein’s inability to figure out what he truly feels, as represented through his view of nature, highlights the ridiculousness of self centeredness and the sensationalization nature and everything that is both beautiful and terrifying that is the center of Romantic writing.

The Ancient Mariner: Victor 2.0

In chapter V of volume one in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Shelley alludes to the final section of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The allusion foreshadows what is to come for Victor as a result of his endeavors, with the story of the mariner acting as a foil to not only Victor’s experiences but also Shelley’s novel as a whole. Coleridge’s poem tells the story of an old sailor and how his endeavors on the sea accidentally result in the death of his crew at his hands. A young man on his way to a wedding finds the sailor’s story captivating, and “cannot choose but hear” (Coleridge 18). The young man foils the character of Walton, as Walton finds Victor’s story completing enthralling, and the old sailor serves as a foil for Victor and the regrets he has over his aspirations.

The excerpt that is included in the text is quite ominous, and if one did not know the context behind the poem it would seem simply about the fear that Victor feels because of his Creature. Shelley inserts the allusion at the point in the novel when Victor is appalled with himself after succeeding with his Creature. The “frightful fiend” that “doth close behind him tread” alludes to the Creature, and Victor’s fear that he is following him. While this literal meaning is important as well, it is only when you delve into the poem itself that the deeper meaning behind the allusion arises. For those of us who have read Frankenstein before, we know how Victor’s treatment of his Creation drives the Creation to do certain things. This mirrors the way that the old sailor’s actions drives his crew into death, without him intentionally meaning for them to die. Victor’s proceedings in creating life will cause pain and suffering to those around him without that being his intention. Victor also resembles the sailor in that both of them “wear” their wrongdoing around their necks to haunt them forever. In the sailor’s case he is forced to wear the Albatross that he killed as a constant reminder of his role in the curse on him and his crew. For Victor, the situation is not quite so literal. His version of wearing the albatross is having to deal with the Creature’s murder of his loved ones and his constant reappearance. The naivety and ambition in both the old sailor and Victor are ultimately their downfall, and Shelley’s inclusion of this excerpt serves as a warning to the reader of what is to come and what we can learn from them.