“Let me see that I excite the sympathy of some existing thing; do not deny me my request!”
—The being in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (99)
Why, in the latter half of 2018, are many of my Composition I students resistant to empathizing with Frankenstein’s monster? Recently, I assigned two articles for them to pick apart, both on their own and in group discussion. The first was published by The Sun, taking a potshot at college students who, in reading Mary Shelley’s now-200-year-old novel, were criticized for empathizing with Frankenstein’s monster; its headline branded these young adults, in the era of the pejorative “snowflake,” Flakensteins. The other article was David Barnett’s response to it in The Guardian, calling out the publication for insincerity and, well, behaving like a tabloid. I’m not particularly invested in one or the other—they both strike me as superfluously flatulent in their own ways. But I do have feelings for that creature. I do have some sense of how he feels in his various iterations.
This semester I see a shift has taken place with regard to college students’ opinions on empathy. From what and to what is impossible to articulate just yet, but things have changed. I first went with the theme of empathy—to provide a common-thread focus to everyone’s favorite required college course—in spring 2016. At that time, many of my seventy-five students came in expressing a sense that empathy is constructive, that it tunes us into others’ emotional conditions, offering needed connection. Two and a half years later, many students still carry this belief—while others exhibit a fervent leeriness toward the concept. The wary students seem to be starting off where some of my students in 2016 wound up. They’re coming in thinking it is a gravely dangerous enterprise.
I’ve grown allergic, over time, to a good deal of either/or, oppositional, adversarial thinking. My job here is to teach them a set of dictated competencies related to college writing and its conventions while coaching them on how to improve the skills involved. They’re not graded in terms of jiving with my opinions on empathy. Only if they ask will I share my own opinions.
Do I think empathy is a good thing? I think it can be; it can be terrible, too; it can manifest in terms of any value people will place upon it; every instance where empathy is felt will be distinct and bound to a multitude of factors tied to its specific situation. (See? I’m horrendously wishy-washy when it comes to espousing absolutes about a great many things.)
In some ways, student reactions to empathy at this point in the semester are quite similar to those of students I taught a couple years ago. For instance, students gravitate toward tragedy when thinking of empathy—only a smattering identify empathy at work in positively charged experiences, say a swelling of vicarious pride when a friend, proud of herself, has succeeded in a challenge. Talk of empathy so typically zooms in on the tough stuff that many forget it can be felt on good, even typical days.
Yet I am already seeing that the word, in some, can set off a kneejerk shrewdness, a sudden skepticism, perhaps even cynicism about the idea that others’ feelings are accessible at a level of feeling—and that it could have any positive value. For the first time, students are telling me empathy is politically tribal. I’m finding out that liberals are empathetic and conservatives are sympathetic, that empathy drives catastrophic legislation. My students today are also drawing lines that students in previous semesters have not openly expressed, lines dictating who we must never empathize with.
Back to Frankenstein’s monster, people in all three classes this time around shared that he deserves no empathy. We’d discussed the character, how he’s become an icon, how he so permeates our culture and the iconography of Halloween that they all know who he is even though only two have read the novel, three have seen James Whale’s 1931 film, none have seen The Bride of Frankenstein—and six have seen Young Frankenstein. Out of sixty-six people, more had engaged with Mel Brooks’s parody than the original film and novel combined. To give them a taste of his first incarnation, I read to them from Vol. II, Chapter VII of Shelley’s novel, the passage in which the monster confronts Victor with how horrible it felt to read the notebooks he kept while creating him:
“Hateful day when I received life!” I exclaimed in agony. “Cursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God in pity made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of your’s [sic], more horrid from its very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested.” (88)
The eloquence Shelley gave him in his bitterness did nothing to budge those heels dug in before me, not on the issue of whether or not we can empathize with the monster. Some contended we definitely should not, chiefly on the basis that he is a murderer.
What happens when readers empathize with fictional monsters? I asked them this, three separate classes.
Three pregnant silences.
“Forget fiction,” I said. “What would happen if we empathized with a murderer?”
“We might,” said one student in one class, quietly, “start seeing them as human beings.”
That it could only be said quietly rather upscuttles me.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.
STEVE GRONERT ELLERHOFF holds a PhD in English from Trinity College, Dublin. With Philip Coleman, he co-edited George Saunders: Critical Essays, the first academic volume to be published on the author (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). He is also the author of Post-Jungian Psychology and the Short Stories of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut: Golden Apples of the Monkey House (Routledge, 2016). His own fiction, with art by Kevin Storrar, includes the novel Time’s Laughingstocks (2013) and Tales From the Internet (2015). Currently he is an an Editorial Assistant in Fiction for The Flexible Persona, and has just written Mole for the Animal Series published by Reaktion Books.