“And as our Creator has designed we should be united by the bond of sympathy…”
As I read Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, that phrase stood out to me as particularly relevant to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The bond of sympathy is what binds human to human, but also what binds human to creator, being that for a Creator to design us to feel sympathy, he himself must feel sympathy. And certainly the sympathy for creator and creation must be as great, if not greater, than the bond between mother and daughter. As a passage that best exemplifies all aspects of Burke’s theory, I choose the passage beginning with “‘How is this?’” on page 130 and ending with “‘…when you are ready I shall appear,’” on page 131.
A great source of tension in this passage is the concept of solitude vs. “communion”. The Creature is outside the human order of things, capable of sympathy but without a human to turn to. Burke describe’s solitude as “[being] as great a positive pain as can almost be conceived.” The Creature derives no pleasure from this lack of sympathy, as he is experiencing positive pain. He hopes to be accepted by another being and feel “the pleasure of general society”.
When Frankenstein decides to appease the Creature in his request for a bride, it is through some sort of sublime sympathy. While he reflects on his options, Victor notes that the Creature “was a being possessing faculties it would be vain to cope with” — Victor is terrified by the strength of his creation. Yet, he derives positive pleasure from his situation because he has power over this danger; it is present, but never poses a threat great enough to cause positive pain. Indeed, a close reading reveals that issues of fear, anxiety, terror, and threats arise frequently in this passage. More so, Victor achieves this comfort and then bows to Frankenstein’s request only after his deeply sad tale; Burke writes that “terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close, and pity is a passion accompanied with pleasure…” , and that these feelings are the origins of sympathy.
Frankenstein dwells on his decision for a while, and this pause is stressed in the text. Burke discusses how we tend to hold onto grief because we find some sort of pleasure in it– sympathy, being the willing taking on of others’ pain, is similar. The second paragraph of the excerpt in Frankenstein frequently brings up this indulgence in sympathy: Victor “paused”, “reflect[s]“, thinks, and then, “after a long pause of reflection”, makes his decision. The text draws out the length of this paragraph, and therefore emphasizes Victor’s indulgence.
The Creature’s reaction to Victor’s acquiescence is the most profound example of Burke’s philosophies found in this passage. Frankenstein, who just a few moments before says that he has “no ties and no affections”, now cries that “the fire of love…burns my heart”. Such a transformation is through the pleasure we derive from sympathy. The two beings’ — creator and creation — sympathy has created positive pleasure in both.