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Novelistic Sympathy in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Critical Essay)

Studies in Romanticism 2009, Spring, 48, 1

Studies in Romanticism

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CHARACTERS IN MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN (ISIS) DESPERATELY SEEK but never find ideal sympathetic companionship, and the novel's plot "repeatedly dramatizes the failure of social sympathy." (1) But if sympathy in the novel can be said to fail because it is madly but fruitlessly pursued or disastrous in its results, it might alternatively be understood to succeed in that it leads, as I argue, to the textual production and narrative levels that structure the novel itself. Frankenstein offers a version of sympathy that is constituted by the production and transmission of narrative as compensation for failures of face-to-face sympathetic experience. Behind any consideration of sympathy in the early nineteenth century is Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which defines sympathy as an abstract system of shifts in perspective juxtaposed with sensory, embodied response. Shelley's novel reflects Smith's abstraction in its shifts between narrative levels but, more importantly, revises his definition in two ways. First, sympathy in Frankenstein ultimately depends on auditory, not just visual experience, and, second, it is manifested most reliably not in the imaginative space between two individuals but rather in the textual space of the novelistic page. Frankenstein parses sympathy's elements and repeatedly makes the simultaneous alignment of physiological resemblance, visual experience, and auditory engagement impossible. At these moments, Frankenstein reformulates sympathy as a narrative phenomenon that implicates engaged listening and textual production. Shelley posits the novel as a genre that relies on compensatory sympathy. The monster's artificial body creates artificial circumstances that isolate sympathy's physiological or visual elements which, by their absence, force him as well as the novel's other characters to seek alternatives. These compensatory models of sympathy involve telling the story of another in either oral or written form. When feeling for another becomes impossible, narrating for another, in speech or text, becomes the novel's most reliable substitution. Shelley's consideration of species difference addresses the opposition between embodiedness and abstraction in Smith's moral philosophy: although his imagination brings sympathy within his grasp, the monster's hideous body consistently precludes sympathetic experience.

Novelistic Sympathy in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Critical Essay)
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  • Category: Language Arts & Disciplines
  • Published: 22 March 2009
  • Publisher: Boston University
  • Print Length: 36 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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