As a cautionary tale warning of the dangers that can be cast into society by a presuming experimental science, Frankenstein is without equal 1. Written in 1818 with the three volumes compiled into one in 1831, Mary Shelley sets out in her story to “speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror”. Throughout the novel, the underlying themes of the ambitions of man, the importance of appearances and the battle between science and religion are woven seamlessly together into a timeless, mind-provoking classic.
Both of the main characters, Frankenstein and his creature tell a chilling tale that speaks out to the hearts of the readers and forces our sympathies to blow one way and then the other. Can we find it in ourselves to understand the creature’s need and lack of companionship, and forgive him for his heinous deeds? Or do we feel more for Frankenstein, the mere human who bears the full weight of responsibility on his shoulders? This question of who deserves our sympathy has been debated by scholars and students for over a century, but is there a definite answer? It is the intention of this essay to find out.
At the start of the novel the readers are introduced to Captain Robert Walton, the medium through which we hear the story. Though not directly related to the essay title, one must appreciate the function of Walton in order to gain an understanding of some of the themes of the book such as man’s great ambition, and his capacity to endure. In one of his letters to his sister, Walton says
“This expedition (to the North Pole) has been the favourite dream of my early years”
This tells us that he is a very ambitious person, much like Frankenstein himself (as we discover later on). We also hear that Walton “voluntarily endured cold, famine, thirst and want of sleep” in order to complete his journey. Throughout Walton’s own narrative, we learn of his courage, bravery, ambition and endurance, making the captain an embodiment of the themes of the novel and of the capacity of man.
On a note more relevant to the essay title, Walton leads our early sympathies for Frankenstein and our dislike for the creature. Frankenstein is described in a god-like manner, as a “divine wanderer”, whose
“...limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering”.
These descriptions, coupled with Walton’s view of Frankenstein as “gentle” and “noble” evoke sympathy from the readers, who feel sorry for his pitiful condition and his precarious predicament. Walton also tells us about the creature, a being of “gigantic stature” which is also described by Frankenstein himself as a “demon”; we cannot feel anything but dislike for this creature because it seems to have caused Frankenstein’s spirit to be “broken by misery”. Throughout the novel, Captain Robert Walton acts as the medium through which we hear the story, but more importantly, also influences where our sympathy lies.
Another instance where sympathy is felt for Frankenstein is when the creature first awakens, and the creator realises that the being he animated is nothing more than a “hideous wretch”, with
“...yellow skin... his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips”
After years of painstaking work and toil, Frankenstein imagined his creation to be “beautiful”, a miracle of science. Instead, all his dreams were shattered by an abhorrent and unimaginable horror, the likes of which the human mind cannot comprehend. Frankenstein’s situation and circumstances solicit sympathy from the readers, as we can relate to his feeling of disappointment, but realise that his anguish is greater than anything most of us will ever feel.
However, some scholars and students of literature argue that it is the creature that deserves our sympathy at this stage, and not the creator. When the creature gets imbued with life, it effectively becomes Victor’s ‘son’...