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Exploring the Sublime: Burke and Frankenstein’s Monster


Nate Ragolia

Teacher Jones

English 4564

7 December 2003

Checking out the Sublime: Burke and Frankenstein’s Monster

Entirely defining the sublime seems to lead to a near endless collection of puzzle pieces, all of which fill in just a little portion of the last picture. Edmund Burke attempts to put together a reliable meaning of the sublime-and the human experience that accompanies it-in A Philosophical Query into the Origin of Our Concepts of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke’s meaning declares that “whatever remains in any sort terrible” (Burke 499) invokes the sublime, which he considers “the strongest emotion which the mind can feeling” (Burke 499). In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the monster exemplifies the Burkian sublime. Shelley’s descriptions of the beast and his actions cohere with Burke’s meanings and his categories of Obscurity, Power, Fear, Problem and Vastness, each of which facilitate sublime experiences. Also, the monster generates feelings of extreme fear, astonishment and horror (each essential for Burke) in Victor, Walton, and the De Lacey family, but in no case harms or kills any of them. By not enacting direct physical damage on the above characters, the monster holds his power and dangerousness at a “certain distance” (Burke 500), which fulfills Burke’s requirement for the wonderful astonishment of sublimity. The monster even more embodies the superb because of his continuous liminal state. The monster is elementarily human, but remains an inhuman creation; physically tremendous, yet recounts his experience finding out to read and speak as a kid would. The liminality contributes to Burke’s concept of the Obscurity that causes the superb experience. Even the monster’s ultimate end preserves an air of sublimity, as Shelley never ever plainly specifies what takes place beyond Walton’s view.

In A Philosophical Enquiry (from Trouble) Burke states, “When any work seems to have actually needed enormous force and labour to effect it, the concept is grand” (503 ). The terrific effort Victor presents in assembling and bringing the beast to life in Chapter IV of Frankenstein falls nothing short of the difficulty Burke considers adequate to create a superb experience. Victor ponders on the process by which he created the beast and the emotional experience. Shelley composes, “No one can develop the range of sensations which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success” (32 ). Victor can not sufficiently explain the psychological attachment he holds for his creation and the trouble of the undertaking, and defaults to a metaphorical cyclone. The power and force of a cyclone seems to comply with Burke’s concept of feeling the strongest emotion possible as the result of the superb, which alludes to the monster’s intrinsic sublimity. As the beast comes to life, the superb effect on Victor emerges in the following lines:

I had striven for nearly two years, for the sole function of infusing life into an inanimate body […] now that I had completed, the beauty of the dream vanished, and out of breath horror and disgust filled my heart (Shelley 34).

The monster’s look overwhelms Victor, advising him of the extraordinary effort-“strove for almost 2 years”-he invested in something he does not see as gorgeous. Victor’s dissatisfaction in the beast’s form fills him with a nearly uncomfortable worry that resembles the superb awe Burke postulates in the section: Of the passion brought on by the Sublime. Even as the beast lies motionless on the table, Victor overruns with a frustrating and effective feeling that is absolutely nothing except superb. The beast’s physical building further fulfills Burke’s picture of the sublime from Trouble due to the fact that “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath” (Shelley 34) corresponds to the principle that “the rudeness of the work increases [the] cause of magnificence” (Burke 503). Although the monster lives his insufficient form with uncovered muscles removes any form of perfection, and thereby makes its creation even more Burkian sublime. Imperfection seems to be a precept of the scary category, making a single frightening defect or eccentricity the root of the risk.

Obscurity stands as another of Burke’s sources of superb occasions. His meaning extends beyond the unidentified, pointing out the natural apprehension that includes the uncertain. The beast is eventually the “dark, baffled, uncertain image” (Burke 501) that has “greater power” according to Burke. The beast’s body, made of several various bodies sewn together and reanimated, remains an odd example of humanity. He is both a living being and the undead mix of other beings. How can the question of his true state be fixed up without considering the significance of obscurity? In Volume II, Chapter IV of Frankenstein the beast recounts his first months of life in the hovel amidst the cottagers and his experience learning about the world: “I discovered the names that were given to some of the most familiar things of discourse: I learned and used the words fire, milk, bread, and wood” (Shelley 75). This quote pertains to Burke’s concept of Obscurity in two methods. First of all, considering the monster’s size, “about eight feet in height, and proportionably large” (Shelley 32) the idea that he still required to find out the standard tenets of language seems troublesome. The sort of elementary learning the monster in which the monster describes taking part shows that at the point described in the quote, he would have had the intelligence of a baby and the form of a giant man. This confusion of outside look and inner truth appears representative of obscurity in the Burkian sense. Another essential aspect of the quotation from page 75 focuses on the diction. Consisting of the words “found,” “discourse,” and “applied” suggests an eloquence that readers do not usually associate with beasts. Arguably, the variation in between a monstrous form and a significant tongue fulfills the example Burke sets out of obscurity. The real nature of the monster doubts and baffled because it straddles the line between human and inhuman. Also, the monster is literally nameless. Throughout the unique, he is referred to only as “the monster.” His nameless nature compliments his obscurity of kind, and makes him difficult-if not impossible-to totally discern. Due to the obscurity of the monster, he wields fantastic power (as Burke might say) from the failure of others to discern and understand him, which results in the fearful ideas that accompany the sublime.

Another Burkian facet of the sublime is Vastness. Burke states, “Greatness of measurement is an effective cause of the superb […] achievement of measurement, vastness of degree, or quantity, has the most striking result” (502 ), which uses intuitively to Victor’s monster and his physical kind. As mentioned in the past, the monster’s size, near to 8 feet tall and proportionally big, a “being of gigantic stature” (Shelley 32), plainly shows the monster’s vastness. Besides being undoubtedly intimidating in size, the beast’s proportional largeness suggests an even higher mass. Simply the beast’s dimensions demand attention and embody an indisputable vastness. Thinking of any human or creature of that size, the reader should accept that such a creation would stimulate an extreme appreciation and awe. Throughout the novel Shelley go back to descriptions of the monster’s extent and a notable example happens near the end of the novel when Walton-a ship captain caught in the arctic and new acquaintance of Victor’s-very first sees the beast himself. “Over [Victor] hung a form which I can not discover words to explain; enormous in stature, yet rude and distorted in its proportions” (Shelley 152). After acknowledging the great size of the creature, Walton “shut [his] eyes involuntarily” (152 ), and attempts to remember himself. The intense physical response to the beast that Walton explains parallels the sort of effective emotional response Burke originates from superb occurrence. Through his look, the beast exhibits the concept of Vastness and attends well to Burke’s meaning for the superb.

In studying the Power and Terror qualities of the superb which Burke describes, the beast seems, nearly primary, to epitomize both. Victor’s monster is unquestionably horrible, eliciting severe fear in Victor and Walton as estimated above. The “breathless horror and disgust” (Shelley 34) that Victor feels in the beginning looking upon the living monster clearly corresponds to fear, or for Burke’s sake terror. Walton calls the monster’s appearance “terrible hideousness” (152) and his response can not be thought about anything however dreadful worry. The horror the beast educes in those individuals who see him stays to Burke’s belief that worry can induce the sublime. Likewise, Burke maintains, “Whatever for that reason is horrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too” (501 ). Thinking about the monster’s dreadful, massive and troubling appearance he easily fits with Burke’s concept of something aesthetically awful, which makes the monster naturally superb. The monster is likewise the ultimate “modification of power” (Burke 501) which heightens the danger and fear, which result in the superb. The ease at which the beast snuffs out the lives of Victor’s good friends and liked ones shows the power the beast has. In Volume II, Chapter VII of Frankenstein, the beast describes his encounter and murder of Victor’s brother William, the child still had a hard time, and filled me with epithets which brought misery to my heart: I grasped his throat to silence him, and in a moment he lay dead at my feet (Shelley 97).

The beast grabs the William’s throat just in an attempt to peaceful him, but since of the fantastic power he has the kid passes away. Although the monster reacts strongly to his murderous work, the method which his effort to hush William failed seems to suggest that even the beast can not predict the power he boasts. The monster moves quickly and powerfully too, as he pursues Victor, and Shelley explains him, “advancing towards [Victor] with superhuman speed. [The beast] bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which [Victor] had walked with care” (65 ). The diction “superhuman” seems particularly relevant in recommendation to the power the monster has. By surpassing the abilities normally attributed to humans the beast shows a sublime may. Picturing such an event stimulates astonishment almost quickly and begs the concern of how a creature so exceptionally robust might exist. Superhuman speed is the sort that would also bring horror and fear to the viewer who might question if such speed would be used versus them. For Burke, the worry intrinsic to the superb occurs “wheresoever we find strength, and in what light soever we consider power” (502) that is “the concomitant of fear” (502 ). So, any strength that triggers fear for the observer is sublime in nature. The beast bears enormous power that daunts and terrifies Victor and thereby produces the sublime.

Burke highlights early in A Philosophical Query that the sublime occurs just when the discomfort, risk and fear are viewed or experienced from a distance. Experiencing pain very first hand rends it “incapable of giving any delight” (Burke 500), but when the pain and threat is suggested by Terror, Obscurity, Power, Trouble and Vastness then the superb happens bringing with it feelings of astonishment. Although Victor perceives himself to be in imminent danger throughout the Frankenstein, the beast never ever attacks or harms him-Victor passes away prior to the beast finally reaches him. Rather, the beast converses with Victor, relating to him his life experiences. In practice, the beast is eloquent, respectful and unthreatening to Victor, and this creates the distance that Burke believes should exist for superb fear. This distance asserts once again in the danger the De Lacey family and Walton view throughout their respective encounters with the monster. When Walton initially beholds the beast he is struck by the animal’s dreadful appearance, once the beast relies on him miserably Walton has a change of mind:

His voice appeared suffocated; and my first impulses, which had actually suggested to me the responsibility of following the dying request of my buddy, in destroying his opponent, were now suspended by a mixture of curiosity and empathy (Shelley 153).

Walton’s perception of real danger eases off in the above passage since he recognizes that the beast means him no real harm or discomfort, which develops the “specific distance” (Burke 500), that permits him to feel a superb pleasure and compassion. Surprisingly, once the range appears Walton’s whole thought procedure becomes “suspended” by brand-new effective feelings that overwhelm his original vengeful hatred for the monster. A comparable scene occurs between the monster and De Lacey as the beast tries to make a connection with the old male, hoping that his disturbing appearance will not bias a blind man. Without his vision, De Lacey can not view the monster through any methods beyond discussion and that works in the beast’s favor. De Lacey calls the monster his “finest and just benefactor” (Shelley 91) clearly showing that blindness develops the range in between the horrible monster and the guy. De Lacey enjoys his discourse with the beast, and continues to until his housemate, Felix, returns and sees the beast’s form, successfully collapsing the range and the sublime pleasure that accompanies it. In the above scenes, the monster never harms the character with whom he engages. His power and awful nature sit at a range that allows them to be perceived as impressive, wonderful and subsequently superb.

Through Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime he presumes the causes and requirements and result in such an odd and psychological experience. Burke considers fear, Power, Vastness, Obscurity, Horror, and Vastness as key qualities of the sublime. Having used these concepts to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the beast becomes an example of Burkian superb. The beast has fantastic power and size, but is wrought with contradictions, confusions and unpredictabilities. He instills terrific fear in the human character he comes across, but also evokes sensations of astonishment, compassion, and caring. Even as the beast threatens and hurts a few of the book’s secondary characters, he develops a range between himself and Victor, Walden and De Lacey that permits him to be mainly harmful in understanding just. Shelley produces a monster that fulfills Burke’s requirements, and offers readers a character that embodies the superb.

Functions Pointed out

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 1757, 1759. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 2A. Ed. David Damrosch. New York City: Longman 2003. 499-505.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. 1818. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York City: Norton, 1996.

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