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It would seem that the man Walton rescues at the beginning of Shelley’s Frankenstein is the perfect candidate to fill the position of a friend for the lonely adventurer. Walton sets what most would call a high and noble standard for a true friend: sympathy flowing from similar taste, refined intelligence, and frank advice and encouragement (14). Frankenstein seems to excel in these and more, with a depth of feeling and understanding unmatched by Walton’s usual associates and communicated with masterful eloquence.
He too spent much of his life longing for such a friend, grew up observing his parents’ sacrifices and upright principles, and spends days in the story contemplating the surrounding natural beauty, suggesting the devotion of a deeply sensitive heart (25, 32). Yet Frankenstein ends up in a state diametrically opposed to the life all these virtues would suggest. He not only loses all his friends and family, but even the desire to get them back, and passively permits atrocities upon the human species he once claimed to be his highest commitment.
The simplest diagnosis would trace his intellectual vanity leading to egoism, depressive misanthropy, perhaps insanity, and above all, incredibly detachment from reality. How can he live out this double character? Another failing came prior to all of these, for which not only Frankenstein but the high-minded people around him are at fault, and it plays out in the distinct choices he makes throughout the novel. Isolated from human reality physically and emotionally, Frankenstein loses the ability to form friendships by repeated failures in truly seeing and being seen by others, resulting in his tangle of errors of forgetting a life of human goodness.
Speaking generally, the vision they lack is interpersonal, does not seek to get anything out of the other directly, and it must at times be uncomfortably invasive to produce a real communion of souls. It is not merely an emotional affirmation, although the lack of sympathetic feeling is all Frankenstein and Walton are aware of, and romanticized descriptions of emotional states are primarily what they have to express themselves with in a limited fashion. A failure in empathy is a symptom and effect of the failure in vision: they were turned from interpersonal communion at so young an age that they begin to hurt from solipsism without empathy. I define this defect as one of sight because the critical moments where a spiritual connection needs to take place are enacted with a refusal to stop and take in the entirety of another’s state of soul. It is radically opposed to the father’s “cursory glance” that fails to catch Frankenstein as he slips into his fatal quest through the discovery of Agrippa’s book (38). Thus Walton implores, “I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me, whose eyes would reply to mine.” (14) This takes effort, but also vulnerability to allow another to make an impression on one’s own soul, and it is what allows the other (particularly as a child) to watch their interior thoughts, words, and actions affect the outside world both creatively and destructively.
On the physical as well as the spiritual level, then, seeing others is both an action and reception that takes in the exterior reality of the human good while also allowing the interior life to contribute. Sight brings the exterior world in and makes it real, and being seen brings the interior person out and makes him real. Frankenstein eventually starts to feel the deficit of these essential components of human life at a point during his detention where he cannot pursue his single project and is treated entirely as an object: “The whole series of my life appeared to me as a dream; I sometimes doubted if indeed it were all true, for it never presented itself to my mind with the force of reality” (193). This is more than simply despair of achieving a goal. With no one to draw him out into reality by sight, Frankenstein feels and acts as though his actions are performed in a virtual world without consequences that touch real fellow men—hence his double lives in public and in hiding. Frankenstein and Walton needed the mutual sight that recognizes a friend’s desires and ideas as a real internal world that fits in with the external one, where actions are done in communion, shaping the world either creatively or destructively.
The failure of sight is not a simple event in the story, but rather plays out in stages with both Frankenstein and Walton also at fault. Each has a desire for communion goes through a cycle of mutual rejection of sight until the pursuit becomes so arduously futile as to be repulsive. In childhood, though “indifferent” to his schoolfellows, Frankenstein expresses his desire to attach himself “fervently to a few.” (36) He describes his relationships with Elizabeth and Clerval as purely harmonious, but gives the impression that he is living alongside them rather than in their presence, because they seek to gain distinct objects from their exploration of nature and books (contemplation, “moral relations,” and science) though they are physically in the same places (37). This leaves the boy free to disdain “childish pursuits” and the majority of his peers engaged in them. In such a smoothly run Eden (facilitated by Frankenstein’s parents), with no disillusionment, conflict of interest, or real sacrifice, it becomes easy to live without looking directly at the unobtrusive humans who make pleasurable projects possible. In fact, Frankenstein views himself and others as projects: Elizabeth is rescued during a charity outing and received as a “possession” to be complimented, and the boy himself never mentions relating to his parents beyond receiving “every hour . . . a lesson of patience” from those who author and construct “all the many delights which we enjoyed” (36). With only a few preferred associates around him, effortlessly assimilated into his internal world, it becomes difficult for Frankenstein to see others as other.
Yet it also becomes more desperately necessary for him to learn to do so, because his adolescent years reveal the wall between his interior and exterior world grow more pronounced. He recognizes his father’s admonition against reading Agrippa as true and judicious, but a crucial opportunity was smothered: they boy was bounding with joy, but his new vision was returned with a “cursory glance” when his father “looked carelessly at the title page” (38). Though the judgment of the object he immediately glanced at was true, his sight failed to encompass or even acknowledge the huge internal world of thought behind the joy in his eyes. It was wrested outside, but then crushed by reality rather than incorporated into it. To keep holding on to the truth of both worlds now in conflict, the inner one must become hidden from close scrutiny. This is affirmed by M. Kempe, who processes his student’s “carelessly” communicated journey, judges the entirety of his study as detached from reality, and dismisses him with a written list of books—another cursory glance. But Frankenstein feels a tug both for companionship and for pursuing emotionally comfortable projects, and they combine to give him a philosophy of communion as mutual utility, rather than love. When he looks back on his happiest days, they are defined by “bright visions of extensive usefulness” (37), and when his heart overflows “with kindness and love of virtue” he says they drive him to make himself useful to his fellow beings (94). It is a safe way to create goodness in the separate exterior reality without having his interior world evaporated in the careless sight of prospective friends.
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