The Obsessive Quest for Empathy
[…] the way in which an individual’s resilience is shaped by empathy
There is, perhaps, a certain form of hypocrisy within humans. As one may desire another individual’s full and complete understanding of them, they often fail to reciprocate this desire for others. This ability to understand a separate person’s feelings, emotions, and thoughts in whole completion is also often known as empathy. It enables one to put themselves in another’s shoes and view the world from their perspective, framed by their experiences. This is rather limited within human nature, as most forms of understanding are conveyed through a comparably more shallow sympathy; that is, pity. Yet the desire for it is also often a means of battling loneliness, thereby causing individuals to seek out empathy from companionship. In doing so, they are given the motivation to endure, to bounce back from the hardships life may offer because the support provided by empathy is a source of strength – an impetus for resilience. Yet in the absence of empathy, a lonely individual’s yearning for it will also often fuel one’s ambition to achieve it, thereby strengthening one’s resilience in attaining the end goal of empathy and understanding. This desire for empathy is found within the monster in Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, as the influences empathy may have on resilience is aptly illustrated through its development and presence. That is, the hope of attaining another’s empathy inspires resilience; but the failure of achieving the empathy desired, strengthens resilience, but now with negative results. Consequently, the warmth of empathy that was once desired and pursued now consumes all that was once yearned for, leaving nothing but a lonely and destructive force of resilience behind.
As a being patched together from various dead organisms, the loneliness of the monster rejected by not only his creator, Victor Frankenstein, but by all who encounter the monster, evokes a shy yearning for companionship and empathy – with the hope of finally being able to achieve said understanding from others, resilience is inspired. The monster’s attraction towards warmth, a characteristic of empathy, is illustrated when he becomes drawn to it and is subsequently burnt from having approached it too closely. Nonetheless, the kindness and companionship offered by a warm fire becomes his first means of approaching the De Lacey family, whose tight familial bonds provide him the optimistic ambition of one day being able to join them. In order to accomplish this ambition, his first step began with collecting wood for then. Literally, wood is the origin of fire; metaphorically, however, it is a symbolism of the warmth offered by empathy. During one of his loneliest moments, the monster found himself lost in the “bleak [and] damp” woods, “oppressed” by tall, confining trees, and shunned by all the people he has come into contact with; his first step in building resilience against this sense of isolation was in creating fire through wood. Henceforth, in offering the wood to the De Lacey family, the monster was essentially placing the origin of warmth within the household, with his hope for empathy continually trying to “spark” and ignite a fire, and thus the ember of companionship and the burning end of isolation. In other words, he was essentially offering his empathy to them with the hope of having this act reciprocated. Unfortunately, this hope proved to be false. Having failed to learn his lesson from his first experience of fire in the forest, the monster’s eventual approach towards the family is coldly rejected, and he was thus, burnt once more. It is interesting to note how the coldness of rejection produces burns; an effect of not coldness, but of heat. Henceforth, the act of the monster “fan[ning] sparks” towards the cottage to ignite a fire, which even in consumption, “clung [to the cottage] and licked it with their forked and destroying tongues” (146), seems to parallel how resilience within the monster continues to cling to him, for he has yet to abandon his quest for empathy. Shelley explores the duality of fire and ice both literally and symbolically within the monster himself – how both can be of comfort and how both can be destructive. Furthermore, Shelley fuels the readers’ empathy for the creature, by having us witness his gentle, loving, and thoughtful nature juxtaposed with the monsterous treatment he receives from others’ lack of empathy and understanding. Essentially, Shelley shows how humans (and her monster) will persevere, resiliently, in order to achieve their goals, but how in burning down the De Lacey cottage in a conflagration of flames, the monster’s resilience has essentially become the slave of his raging desire for empathy.
Afterwards, the monster escapes – but he does not escape broken and weak. Rather, he runs away with a sense of strengthened resilience and determination caused by a lack of empathy; the monster found within himself the resolution to seek “succour” (147) in Frankenstein’s younger brother, William, for he has yet to give up his quest for empathy in spite of its current absence. However, nothing changes as he is “spurned” even by the most innocent of human beings – a child. Thus, William is killed, and the monster moves on with a resurfacing resilience, albeit monsterously destructive in its will and force. This time, however, the lack of empathy in his life is conveyed in how the monster begins seeking “refuge” in the mountains of Mont Blanc where he is surrounded by ice; the opposite of fire. Ice is the arresting of motion; the silencing of sound; and the muffling of life. Its hardened texture reflects the monster’s hardened resilience – just as light may reflect off of ice and bounce back into the air, the monster bounces back from rejection and fails to lose his will to achieve companionship. Instead, his quick recovery from the rejection is rooted in his newfound ambition to convince Frankenstein to create him a partner. This request is, of course, denied. Nonetheless, the monster’s resolution and resilience in achieving his end goal empowers him to shed any good will and humanistic intentions he may have originally possessed. In doing so, he kills both Frankenstein’s friend, Henry, and his own fiancée/ wife, Elizabeth, just as he had done with William– it was an act of “unparalleled malignity” (235). Only from that murderous moment with Henry did the monster truly become a monster – one in intentional action, rather than in simply appearance. It becomes significant to recognize how Shelley devises the monster’s ice-like resilience, in all its inability to bend and adapt with flexibility, is not just a means of self-preservation, but also the driving force that pushes the monster towards his original goal – to attain empathy. Shelley establishes the monster’s narration on the icy mountain in order to achieve Frankenstein’s empathy for his tale and to persuade him to provide to him a mate, a companion like him, a companion who he could receive love, understanding and empathy from. He desired a companion who would fully understand how, in spite of his appearance, is a being of humanitarian essence. Yet he already lost this virtue through his “diabolical vengeance” (238). As the monster continues relying on the ice for refuge, he continues to blindly act as a slave to his own resilience, thus failing to notice the destruction fire has left behind; that is, the degradation of his previous “excellent qualities”. Although the monster initially yearned for the warmth of empathy as a means of self-preservation, the resilience through which he pursued this desire had instead done the opposite. The stubborn persistence through which he had approached the fire with is perhaps a dangerous one; an individual ought to be wary of getting burnt when arriving at proximal distance to fire.
In the end, due to the monster’s desire for empathy, his resilience in attaining it had left both Frankenstein and himself in isolation. After having killed Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth, the monster is subsequently chased by Frankenstein, whose soul’s desire after the loss of several family members, a friend, and his fiancée is simply the monster’s death. The chase comes to end as Frankenstein dies shortly after relaying his story to Walton. As the monster blames himself for Frankenstein’s death, a death where the frozen ice destroyed him, so, in turn, the monster executes a suicidal act through fire:
I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell. (244)
Fire – the spark of life. Fire, in its burning vitality, is the embodiment of passion. Fire, in how it is fed by a continuous supply of oxygen, is a source for life. Fire, in how it thaws apathy, is the empathy the monster had desired. Fire, that which destroys what it once created. Thus, the irony achieved through this ending is in how the monster dies through the medium he had initially most yearned for. In the monster’s dramatic death, lies an attempt in reconciling fire with the ice of the North; but as fire melts ice, the subsequent production of water may end up “dampen[ing]” the wood that once provided warmth, thus preventing it from bursting forth in a flame. Perhaps the monster will end up achieving the opposite of his ambition, thereby allowing one to argue that a quest for empathy will only feed itself into a vicious cycle of loneliness. Certainly, fire possesses a dazzling appearance, but the fuel it provides may instead lead to a contorted form of empathy; while it may warm up in paradise, it will burn in Hell. Through his murders, the monster had subsequently robbed Frankenstein of the companions who provided him warmth; his younger brother, his fiancée, his best friend. Subsequently, the loneliness that is born from this robbery is one where Frankenstein can subtly understand the isolation the monster had been experiencing – Frankenstein can empathize with his monster’s plight. In the end, they are reflections of one another. In calling Frankenstein “Fellow me”, the phrase “fellow” implies how the monster had considered Frankenstein to be his sole companion, as they both experience the “cold and frost to which [he is] impassive to.” (222). The word “me” also denotes their parallel existences. Perhaps, this is why they are surrounded by ice during their chase; ice, after all, appears to be effective in reflecting all that hits it. However, the most prominent form of irony is rooted in how their empathy of one another is derived from their understanding of loneliness and isolation – a “cold” emotion the monster had been attempting to be rid of from the start of the novel. In such a fashion, Shelley achieves a tale that suggests resilience that transforms into obsessiveness in pursuing empathy might instead lead to isolation and loneliness. The fire had, instead of providing warmth, consumed and burnt everything in its path, leaving only ashes – and loneliness – trailing behind it; this is what empathy is capable of. It shapes resilience into a looped circle.
Through the different phases of empathy, the monster in Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, is a quintessence of the ways resilience is shaped by it. That is to say, while the hope for empathy can inspire resilience, the subsequent lack of it can strengthen resilience into obsessiveness. Yet a tenacious resilience proves to be ineffective as it will end up looping back on itself. Having started with a strong resilience to attain empathy as a means of fighting off loneliness, the end goal was, nonetheless, still loneliness. In such a way, Mary Shelley proves that although empathy can often fill up the hole of loneliness, the persistent pursuit often risks achieving the opposite.