Frankenstein Polished Critical: Resilience and the Weakening Forces of Empathy

Prompt: The ways in which an individual’s resilience is shaped by empathy.

                  Empathy is a weakening emotion. It takes the experiences and emotional upheavals of one and forces another to undergo the insecurity, pain and hardship, all for the sake of developing a communal feeling of comfort. Empathy itself is characterized by losing a sense of one’s personal mission—the idea that one so passionately pursues that they are willing to accept failure on the way— and trading one’s own reactions to life’s hardships to be able to mimic the reactions and experiences of others; empathy is an emotion of the masses that does not serve the individual. Yet, empathy limits the ability of the individual to harden their self to life’s cruelty and develop the personal willpower necessary to sail through the rough waters of life. Simply put, an individual lacks the ability to develop a resilient character when falling prey to empathy. In Mary Shelly’s gothic fiction, Frankenstein, through the evolving nature and capabilities of the Monster, the author argues that the desire and presence of empathy in an individual’s life degrades their ability to become a resilient individual in the face of hardship and erodes the ability to develop the will power necessary to decide one’s personal mission.

In the Monster’s initial contact with humanity, Shelly reveals how his desire for empathy degrades his ability to develop the strong emotional and mental control that characterizes a resilient individual, and begins the development of the Monster’s psyche. After being abandoned by Frankenstein, the Monster finds his “home” in the hut of a poor family, secretly hiding his existence so as to learn the ways of humans and understand those base emotions that he believes are necessary for his life. Yet, while there the audience notes that the Monster seems to play out his own life through the inhabitants, never once living the experiencing of life, becoming victim to a burning desire for empathy. Becoming a mess of unexpressed emotion and desire, he comes to the conclusion that it is empathy he lacks—the inability to identify with their struggles on a personal level—that drives his yearnings and that cages the development of his personality into one capable of expression. During this time the audience becomes conscious of how timid and submissive the Monster has become, a notion that is juxtaposed against his massive physical structure to emphasis the discord between the strength of character that resiliency requires and who the Monster truly is. The narrative structure lends to this development, as the Monster speaks of the family with an awe and admiration that does not befit someone of his clearly superior physical strength and capabilities, choosing diction that reveals a child-like mind that is not prepared to handle rejection from those who he has become so utterly dependent upon for a sense of comfort. Consequently, in the moments before his formal introduction to Felix—the blind old man the Monster has come to love—the Monster undergoes incredible self-doubt and fear that further characterizes him as an insecure child who is not mentally prepared for the slightest of challenge, an idea that further supports the limiting nature of empathy in the Monster’s development. Foreshadowing his complete lack of resilience, it is this emotional insecurity and child-like demeanor that reveals how the monsters need for empathy becomes the ultimate undoing for his ability to develop the character traits necessary to become a resilient individual.

With the rejection of the family comes the lack of empathy that frees the Monster and begins the development of a resilient nature that is born of his ability to finally identify who he truly is and be driven forward by a purpose that will allow him to sustain failure. The maniac rage that drives the Monster from the hut that he once called home is Shelly’s comment on the power of empathy to blind one from their true nature and cage them within the frame of other’s weaknesses. As the Monster’s idyllic beliefs are torn from him he is finally able to experience his own pain and suffering and find a purpose to his life. Until now the Monster was content living slave to the family, but with the removal of empathy he is free to explore the full strength of his capabilities and determine a purpose for his own life. Where resiliency is developed as an ability to spring back from challenge and recover from hardship, it was not until the Monster was removed from the presence and desire for empathy that he was able to experience what it meant to bounce back from challenge. Furthermore, once forced from empathetic relationships, the Monster decides his own course in a manner that is indicative of a resilient individual. The ability of the monster to forget the family as a fragment of his past and move onto a new mission, driven forward by the strength of his new found will and take revenge upon Frankenstein underlines the change in psyche that he undergoes. Whereas the family had come to become his only ideal in life, once removed from the need for their empathy, the Monster was able to shape a resilience founded in his understanding of his own goals: namely, revenge upon Frankenstein. Shelly make clear that is only when allowed to understand himself and not be drowned by the empathetic emotions and experiences of others that the Monster finds a cause that he so passionately believes in that he is willing to sustain failure on the route to its completion. Furthering the notion through symbolism, the author takes the Monster far from the bounds of the cozy hut where his physicality was out of place, to vast ice lands of isolation and frigidity that better suit his unique body in order to showcase the shift in values that occurs once removed from and spurned of the empathy that previously lulled him into a weak spirit. In this isolation the Monster makes his decree to Frankenstein for a wife and tells his story, bouncing back from the challenge he faced in the environment of men, finding strength in the environment that is truly his own. In his failure to find empathy, the Monster begins to develop a sense of resiliency that was not present until this moment, a resiliency that is founded in his understanding of self and his ability to determine his own mission.

In the final leg of his development, the Monster is able to showcase the extent of his resiliency when faced with a complete lack of empathy, using the development of his will power to make clear that it is only when stripped from the bonds of empathy that one can find their own mission and develop a true sense of resilient strength. In a final attempt to salvage empathy, the Monster make one request of his creator: the gift of company. After all the death, the reader sees a partial return to the psyche of the old Monster when he asks for a wife to keep him company, a final plea for empathy on behalf of the world to let him be happy. Yet he is refused. The refusal of any kindness or shows of understanding ultimately allow him to experience the full extent of his strength, both physical and mental, recovering from his abuse only when empathy is killed. The significance here lies in the fact that the Monster returns to his original mission of revenge after he is refused of his desires, because it indicates that the Monster was able to recover from a great challenge and return back to the mission that he decided would drive his existence. The author is making clear that an individual’s resilience is shaped in the absence of empathy, where they must find their own way to deal with their challenges and not be bogged down by the emotional, baggage of others experiences. The spurning of his final attempt at empathy does not destroy the Monster. He is not caught in another maniac rage of passion, but instead is able to make the conscious decision to return to his original mission and act upon his threats, revealing the resilient character he has ultimately developed. In his ability to carry out decisions lies the final stage of his development, as he has traced from a being caught in the ghost of others, incapable of experiencing his own challenges, to the ability to make decisions and decide what challenges he will risk, to finally being able to accept failure and return to his original goal without begin crushed—as he was previously—by his failure. The unifying theme that Shelly weaves through the character development? The slowly receding presence of empathy in the Monster’s life. Until all empathy is robbed from him, until he is no longer faced with the need to identify with others and understand their struggles, until then the Monster is unable to develop the purpose and will power that drives the development of his resiliency.

Mary Shelly, in her science fiction novel Frankenstein, through the character development of the Monster showcases that empathy—whether the desire for or presence of—plays the role of a corrosive agent in the development of an individual’s sense of resiliency, eroding the ability to develop the will power necessary to decide the mission that an individual is willing to fail for. Through the initial weakness of character, the hardening of the resiliency when robbed of empathy and the final “version” of who he becomes when empathy is completely lost, Shelly showcases the manner in which true resiliency can only be born in the absence of empathy. Humans require empathy to survive as a community; however, empathy becomes an obstruction in the journey of an individual. Whereas empathy is shared between two people, a sorts of telekinetic give and take of a catalogue of emotions and experiences that challenged them individually, resiliency is meant for one. And as a result, man can only develop resiliency, that golden virtue that is a product of being able to recover from momentary challenges back to an over-arching goal, when freed form the shackles of empathy. Ultimately, this is because empathy tries to define an individual’s life mission in light of the challenges others faced in their own missions, yet one cannot find their mission through others.



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