Throughout modern society, the idea of sympathy is often understood as quite simplistic and mundane, far from the need for serious analysis. Burke’s definition for sympathy at first seems to reflect this elementary clarity, being described as “A sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected” (page 41, A Philosophical Enquiry). Sympathy serves as a route for comprehending the lives of other individuals. However, with deeper analysis, the weighty implications of such a concept may manifest themselves. Burke moves on to argue that sympathy allows one person to experience another’s pain while simultaneously transcending its full nature and real consequences, turning suffering back on itself in a delightful manner. And, indeed, “turning on pain may be a source of the sublime” (page 41, A Philosophical Enquiry). Through sympathy’s use of the sublime, “poetry, painting, and other affecting arts, transfuse their passions from one breast to another, and are often capable of grafting a delight on wretchedness, misery, and death itself” (page 41, A Philosophical Enquiry). Sympathy exists as more that just a valued social ideal; it forms the ancient skeleton of literature itself and many genres within, as it dictates that people enjoy experiencing the pains, stories, and myths of other lives.
Rather than being purely contained within the text, sympathy also transcends it, grasping the reader in order to instill meaning. This idea is excellently illustrated in Frankenstein, which embraces the sublime nature of sympathetic pain, especially in this passage.
Throughout its structure, the passage is built with sympathy in mind. The vocabulary is carefully chosen, emphasizing the opposition between terms of absolute state, such as “wretched,” “filthy,” and “abhorrence,” or “bliss,” “perfect,” and “prosperous.” These absolute phrases help to create a very strong tension between the ideas of aesthetic beauty against ugliness, solitude against care, power against weakness, and righteousness against evil.
The tensions smoothly transition to the monster’s internal debate between his characterization as Adam or Satan. A paradox is formed, as traits of both figures seem to exist, and he never truly decides on the correct comparison. This lack of definitive identity also serves as a major point of ambiguity.
These forms of opposing vocabulary, tension, paradox, ambiguity and missing conclusion all lend themselves to the major theme of uncertainty present in the passage, a great confusion that functions on a larger scale. The monster faces a universal horror, tragic existential worthlessness. The guiding Judeo-Christian belief of the culture that surrounds him cannot fully be applied to him, manifesting itself in the lack of definition. Although granted great intellect and strength, he was shaped not by the monotheistic master of the universe, but by the modern Prometheus. Normal humans take the forms of deities and titans instead of ethereal creatures, and they are as primitive, capricious, violent, and fallible as the ancient pantheon.
By utilizing Burke’s idea of sympathy, the meaning of the passage can be more fully exposed. A powerful creature is unwillingly created, before tragically sinking within the mire of existential irrelevancy. This type of pain and suffering is highly unique, yet at the same time relatable to very real concerns about one’s role within the universe. Sympathy is used to experience the terrible suffering expressed by the story, without the true consequences. Sublime delight is the product, and the reason why Frankenstein has culturally persisted and is of literary merit.