Frankenstein Through the Eyes of Adam Smith
Edward J. Harpham for AdamSmithWorks
October 29, 2021
October 29, 2021
In the spring of 2021, AdamSmithWorks sponsored a Virtual Reading Group led by Dr. Caroline Breashears to explore the connections between Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The Virtual Reading Group was a follow-up to a lecture Dr. Breashears had given at the Liberty Fund in April 2019, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Shelley’s novel. A striking feature of Breashears’s talk was her departure from the usual interpretive frameworks for reading Frankenstein. She argued that the ideas of Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments can shed light on the themes and tensions that move the novel forward. This essay expands upon Breashears’s reading of Frankenstein by suggesting that at the heart of Shelley’s novel are the workings of Smith’s understanding of three relationships: the relationship between sympathy and the passions, between beneficence and gratitude, and between justice and resentment.
Sympathy and the Passions
Commentators have long noted that the idea of sympathy lies at the heart of Frankenstein.1 These interpretations look to writers like Rousseau, William Godwin (Shelley’s father, Mary Wollstonecraft (Shelley’s mother), and Percy Shelley (Shelley’s husband) for an understanding of what sympathy is and how it binds people together in communities in positive ways through the passions. The idea of sympathy, however, was a contested concept in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Authors like David Hume, Lord Kames, and Adam Smith offered fundamentally different accounts of the operations of sympathy than those of Romantic writers. Their theories provide alternative explanations of the operations of the human mind, the origins of duties and obligations, and the source of conflicts among individuals than those generally found in the secondary literature on Frankenstein. It follows that reading Frankenstein from Smith’s perspective on sympathy opens an alternative approach for reading the novel’s themes and lessons.
Smith uses the term “sympathy” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments in a variety of ways. At the most basic level, sympathy refers to “our fellow feeling with any passions whatever” (Smith: 10). Shared fellow-feeling is brought about through an active process. Using their imagination, individual human beings project themselves into the situation of others and then envision how they would respond emotionally if in that situation. This capacity for sympathy and fellow-feeling allows individuals to share feelings, passions, and emotions with others. Sympathy helps to socialize the passions of individuals and lays the foundation for the development of moral rules in society and conscience in individuals. Sympathy also makes it possible for individuals to be interested in the fortune of others and to care for their happiness even when they derive nothing from it “except the happiness of seeing it.” (Smith: 9)
Commentators generally present Smithian sympathy as an adaptive capacity that benefits society by promoting sociability. Its workings are complex. Properly directed sympathy can give rise to fellow-feeling that is life enhancing. Improperly directed or extended sympathy is, at best, problematic; at worst, it can be destructive. Put another way, sympathy can misfire like a gun, shooting improperly or not at all. This can lead to unexpected and unintended outcomes. Misfiring sympathy may spark negative emotions and passions that drive people apart. If circumstances hinder the connections among people, or if misunderstandings exist among people, sympathy can be personally and socially maladaptive.
The literature on Smith devotes relatively little attention to the potential negative consequences of sympathy. However, important examples of it run throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments. For example, Smith argues that sympathy can give rise to “illusions of the imagination.” At the end of Part I Chapter 1, Smith notes that the “dread of death” arising out of a spectator’s misguided attempt to share the feelings of the dead through the imagination “afflicts and mortifies the individual” making us “miserable while we are alive.” (Smith: 12-13) The dread of death reminds us that sympathy can misfire, leaving emotional distress for the individual in its wake.
This darker side of the operations of Smithian sympathy is particularly relevant to a reading of Frankenstein. Throughout Shelley’s novel the idea of misfired sympathy causing problems—namely sympathy not working as expected or hoped—applies to most of Frankenstein’s interactions with the monster. To illustrate, let us look at the initial interactions between Victor Frankenstein and the monster in Book I, Chapters 3 and 4.
After discovering the secrets that enable Frankenstein to infuse life into lifeless matter, he decides to create a human being. He discovers that the technical and mechanical challenges are great, leading him to design a gigantic creature, far larger than any normal human being. Driving this path breaking venture is his belief that he might create a new species, one that could express gratitude to its creator and “renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” (Shelley: 32) As we will see below, from Smith’s theory of sympathy and the passions, that hope is not beyond the realm of possibility, given the operations of sympathy. For Smith, expressions of gratitude are the natural response to beneficent actions under normal conditions. What Frankenstein fails to account for is how the conditions under which he is working are hardly normal, which explains why the consequences of his efforts are not what he anticipated.
When the monster comes to life, Frankenstein watches the “dull yellow eye” of the creature open as the creature breathes hard and “convulsive motion agitate(s) its limbs.” Instead of his accomplishment releasing a flood of pride and joyful excitement, Frankenstein is repulsed by the abominable creature he has brought to life. Frankenstein laments, “I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished the beauty of the dream had vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” (Shelley: 34). Looking at the monster for the first time gives rise to a desire to escape the creature’s presence. It does not open the possibility for shared feeling through sympathy with another being. Frankenstein flees to his chamber-room for a fitful sleep, only to be awakened by the monster peering through the bed curtain, trying to communicate with him: “His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.” (Shelley: 35) Frankenstein flees again, unable and unwilling to communicate, much less to share feelings with the monster.
From the perspective of Smith’s understanding of the operations of sympathy and the passions, what happened between Frankenstein and his creation? At the most fundamental level, Frankenstein’s visceral reaction to the monster’s physical appearance makes it impossible for them to establish a connection built on shared feelings. Added to that visceral reaction are other emotions, such as guilt about creating a new species. These make it impossible for him to enter the feelings of the monster or to share his own feelings with the monster. Frankenstein’s fear, fright, and revulsion obstruct the normal operations of sympathy, with grave consequences.
As for the monster, he lacks the tools and refined moral sentiments for building a mutually beneficial relationship with Frankenstein. He has no one with whom to share or check his feelings about the world, or about others. Without the benefit of fellow-feeling with others, the monster strives to learn about himself and how relationships work. The monster’s subsequent encounters with other humans follow the pattern laid out during his initial meeting with Frankenstein: The monster’s physical appearance universally triggers others’ revulsion, leaving the monster alone, trapped in his own thoughts and feelings.
Beneficence and Gratitude
In Book II of Frankenstein, the Smithian theme of sympathy and the passions shifts into a discussion of beneficence and gratitude, a theme that lies at the heart of Part II in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith’s argument about the relationship between beneficence and gratitude is a complicated one that can be boiled down to a simple idea: Individuals are able to act from beneficent motives and to build valuable social bonds through the operations of sympathy and the passions.2 They can do good for others just for the sake of doing good for others. In other words, self-interest is not the only way that people interact with one another or build interpersonal relations.
For Smith, the natural response to beneficence directed towards you is to feel and show gratitude. One good deed of beneficence naturally demands an appropriate emotional response. Sympathy thus becomes the mechanism by which humans are brought closer together to build a cohesive community. Through the reciprocal actions of people acting beneficently towards one another and showing and expressing gratitude through the process of sympathy, mutual trust and social capital are built. Beneficence and gratitude become the foundations on which a flourishing moral community rests.
Under certain circumstances, sympathy can misfire in the space between beneficence and gratitude. One person can act beneficently towards another, but the recipient of that beneficence can fail to recognize it as such. Instead of responding with gratitude to beneficent actions aimed at them, such inattentive people can fail to express gratitude or, worse, act in an ungrateful manner. In a reverse of the life-enhancing feedback loop between beneficence and gratitude that builds good will and social trust, the failure to show gratitude at appropriate times can lead to passions of hatred, conflict among individuals, and social dissonance. As David Hume, Adam Smith’s dearest friend, noted in his Treatise of Human Nature, “Of all crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude, especially when it is committed against parents, and appears in the more flagrant instances of wounds and death.” (Hume: II. I.I)
Much of Book II of Frankenstein can be read as the unintended consequences of sympathy in situations where the adaptive positive feedback loop of the passions of beneficence and gratitude is disrupted. In Chapter II of Book II, we learn of a later meeting in the mountains between Frankenstein and the monster.3 As with Frankenstein’s encounter with the monster at its birth, overwhelming feelings of “anger and hatred” lead Frankenstein to feelings of “detestation and contempt.” (Shelley: 65) The monster tries to calm him down, begging Frankenstein to understand his desperate situation: “Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous.” (Shelley: 66) Initially Frankenstein refuses to consider the monster’s request. Then the monster covers Frankenstein’s eyes, as if to reduce the intensity of the emotions obstructing sympathy. It works. Gradually, Frankenstein gives in to his curiosity about the creature. A budding compassion for its plight causes him to begin listening to the creature’s story.
The central theme of the monster’s story is what happens to a creature when the natural linkage between the desire to do good to others is severed from the natural response of feelings of gratitude. We see evidence of that theme beginning with the monster’s rejection by Frankenstein. The monster wanders outside Frankenstein’s home and seeks food and shelter in a nondescript village. Because of his appearance, the monster is summarily rejected and driven out of town. There is no more sympathy among the villagers than there was with Frankenstein. (Shelley: 70)
Later in the monster’s wanderings, he comes across a primitive hut, a domicile occupied by the impoverished De Lacey family. Secretly observing how the De Laceys live together, the monster experiences a transformative education. He comes to understand the meaning of words, language, poverty, self-consciousness, the capacity for fellow-feeling, and various other moral sentiments that bind people together in communities.
One discovery is particularly poignant: the importance of kindness to human beings. After observing members of the De Lacey family engaged in work for their common good, the monster secretly lends a hand, demonstrating his own capacity for beneficent actions on their behalf. In the story, the family never learns who is responsible for their good fortune. No one expresses gratitude to the monster, instead attributing their good fortune to a “mysterious force.” (Shelley: 76-7) Beneficence enters the world, but gratitude does not.
The monster’s continued observation of the De Lacey family from afar enables him to learn about human beings and the operations of the moral sentiments. By itself, seeing the De Laceys share their emotional lives together is not enough. Wanting to share his experiences and feelings with the family, one day the monster knocks on the door of the hut to introduce himself. At first, he is welcomed by the blind grandfather who shares feelings with him as if nothing were wrong. Again, the elimination of sight seems to tone down the negative reaction of humans to the monster. For a moment, there appears to be a possibility that a sympathetic bond of fellow-feeling between the monster and a human being can emerge. When the rest of the family returns and sees the monster, their horror and disgust overwhelm their ability to imagine the monster’s feelings or connect in a positive way through sympathy. Once again, the monster is driven away from any possibility of sharing fellow-feeling in a human community.
The monster feels kindness and gentleness towards others and seeks to act upon it. Beneficence is offered, and gratitude is naturally expected. Instead of gratitude, the monster receives in return the emotions of disgust, horror, and rejection. This time, though, the monster’s emotional response to rejection is dramatically different from the prior two times: He is overwhelmed with a “hellish rage and gnashing of teeth.” He swears “eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind.” (Shelley: 96). The rage is triggered by others’ ingratitude and reinforced by the monster being denied a romantic relationship with one of his own kind. This leads to the monster murdering Frankenstein’s younger brother William and framing the Frankenstein family’s housekeeper, Justine Moritz, for the murder.
Justice and Resentment
The monster’s story comes to a climax at the end of Book II with the monster’s resolute demand of Frankenstein: “You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This you alone can do; and I demand it of you as a right which you must not refuse.” (Shelley: 98). Frankenstein initially rejects the demand, saying he would never consent to such a bargain. The monster pushes on, making the case for insurmountable barriers separating him from the sympathy of human beings. If he cannot inspire benevolence and gratitude in others, then he will seek out revenge against his creator for the injuries that he has suffered. The monster says, “Have a care: I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart, so that you curse the hour of your birth.”
Gradually, Frankenstein’s position softens. He begins to see the monster as being “a creature of fine sensations.” For the first time, Frankenstein considers what he as the creator owes the creature. The monster, sensing a change in Frankenstein’s feelings, expands upon his offer and proposes taking his newly created partner away from the neighborhoods of men, if only Frankenstein will bring her into existence. While resisting the creature’s offer, Frankenstein is willing to listen as the monster presents his case, explaining the precariousness of his situation:
If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion; the love of another will destroy the cause of my crimes, and I shall become a thing, of whose existence every one will be ignorant. My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affection of a sensitive being, and become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded. (Shelley: 100)
Frankenstein comes to feel a modicum of compassion for this pitiful creature who is all alone and was consumed by evil passions. Sympathy, along with a concern about the danger that the monster poses to himself and other humans, lead Frankenstein finally to consent to the monster’s request. He concludes that “justice” to both the creature and his fellow human beings demands it. With that, the creature quickly ends the conversation and leaves. Frankenstein is left wondering “perhaps (the monster) is fearful of any change in my sentiments.” (Shelley: 100). If so, the monster’s fears are justified because that is what happens in Book III.
From a Smithian perspective, at the end of Book II an important change has taken place in the relationship between Frankenstein and the monster. Until now, the question has been how sympathy binds—or does not bind—people together through the human passions of beneficence and gratitude. That world of shared feeling did not materialize for either Frankenstein or the monster. The flimsy sympathetic bonds between Frankenstein and the monster barely sustain a conversation much less allow for complex and adaptive forms of sociability to emerge. But another option for social cooperation is available: the world of contracts and justice where we bargain from positions of self-interest to get others to do things for us. The monster feels that he has been harmed by Victor Frankenstein and seeks to repair the damage by entering a formal contract.
Smith discusses the logic of this world of contract and justice in Part II of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and explains how it differs from that of beneficence and gratitude. This world looks at social interaction not through the kinder and forgiving passions but through the impartial lens of rights, injuries, duties, and obligations that are clearly defined in a complex social order and through which self-interest works its magic. Importantly for our purposes, the world of contracts and justice is backed up by a powerful and dangerous sentiment: resentment. People who violate the rules of justice and commit real harms to others find themselves exposed to the resentment of those they have harmed. For Smith, “The violator of the laws of justice ought to be made to feel himself that evil which he has done to another; and since no regard to the sufferings of his brethren is capable of restraining him, he ought to be overawed by the fear of his own.” (Smith: 82).
As readers familiar with the novel know, Frankenstein does not keep his promise to create a mate for the monster. After retreating to a lab in Scotland to begin his work, old fears arise about what he is doing. He ruminates that a newly created female might be “ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness.” (Shelley: 114) With its mate, this new fiend might spawn a whole new species to threaten humankind. Frankenstein has a change of heart. He reconsiders his promise and then decides to destroy the female creature, believing his duties and responsibilities to humankind outweigh his promise to the monster.
Watching this action from afar, the monster howls in “devilish despair and revenge” and withdraws from Frankenstein’s presence to plan his revenge. (Shelley: 115) And a wicked revenge it is. Spurred on by a growing resentment that he has been wronged and justice violated, the monster proceeds to nurse his resentment and seek revenge upon Frankenstein for his failure to fulfill his promise.
Book III of Frankenstein presents a playing out of the monster’s revenge upon Frankenstein. The monster kills friends, family and loved ones, and destroys Frankenstein’s reputation. Frankenstein responds in kind, seeking to kill his fiendish enemy, believing until the end of his life that it would be wrong to keep his promise to the creature.
Did the monster possess any rights that Frankenstein was compelled to recognize and act on? Probably not for Frankenstein, given that the monster existed outside the shared bonds of human fellow-feeling. From the monster’s perspective, there is a very different answer: A contract had been broken and rights had been violated. Resentment could be unleashed. In the end, Frankenstein and the monster are both consumed by resentments that drive their separate attempts to find justice in this world. The working out of Smithian sympathy and passion in Frankenstein is a great tragedy for all concerned.
Was Shelley a Smithian?
Given my reading of Shelley’s novel, should we consider her a Smithian? Does the novel reflect the moral framework found in The Theory of Moral Sentiments? My review of the biographical literature did not reveal any direct link between Smith’s moral thought and Shelley’s novel. The modest secondary literature on Frankenstein and Smith mentions nothing specific either. Breashears notes in her lecture that Shelley could have taken in a Smithian moral framework through her parents or husband, all of whom were familiar with it.
What about any direct evidence that Shelley was influenced by Smith? I believe the answer to this question is embedded in Shelley’s understanding of the operations of beneficence and gratitude, particularly in the passage discussed above where the monster desires to do good deeds for the De Lacey family. The monster recalls his beneficent actions towards the family before he had been seen and rejected.
When I returned, as often as it was necessary, I cleared their path from the snow, and performed those offices that I had seen done by Felix. I afterwards found that these labours, performed by an invisible hand, greatly astonished them; and once or twice I heard them, on these occasions, utter the words good spirit, wonderful: but did not then understand the significance of these terms.” (Shelley: 76-7).
Shelley is playing with her reader in this passage by having the monster state that the De Laceys believed that “an invisible hand” has done something. Perhaps the De Laceys believe that an invisible hand, maybe God, is responsible for their good fortune. However, the monster knows that he did a good deed, not God or any other supernatural force. There is no “good spirit” operating in the novel. Why then does Shelley raise the question of the “invisible hand”? Clearly, Shelley is not referring here to the familiar idea of the invisible hand of the market that economists since the time of Smith see as coordinating the activities of self-interested creatures to promote a common good. The actions of the monster are not based upon self-interest at all, but upon beneficence. She is alluding to part of another “invisible hand” process running throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments: the invisible hand that coordinates the natural free-flowing operations of sympathy, beneficence, and gratitude working normally in human communities.4
A broader idea of “invisible hand” processes lies at the heart of much of Smith’s moral and economic thought. One of his few specific references to the actual term “invisible hand” occurs in Part IV of The Theory of Moral Sentiments where he explains how the passions work “to advance the interests of society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.” (Smith: 184-5). Smith fervently believes, and Shelley surely agrees, that the operations of sympathy and the passions can tie us together and, at times, drive us apart. For the passions to unite us, we must be able to sympathize with other people and imagine the situations they face in their lives. Human beneficence, in turn, needs to be reinforced by expressions of gratitude for this invisible hand to work its magic. When gratitude is missing, ingratitude emerges. A war of one person against another may not be far behind. In her approach to sympathy and the passions in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley was a Smithian.
Thank you to Caroline Breashears for her comments and suggestions of an earlier draft of this essay.
- An enormous literature on Frankenstein looks at the ways Romantic notions of sympathy influenced Mary Shelley. See Marshall (1988). Hatch (2008) and Britton (2009, 2019) are literary critics who draw upon the work of Adam Smith to understand the operations of sympathy in Frankenstein. Hatch looks at how shame and disgust disrupt and undermine the function of sympathy as conceptualized by Smith. Britton focuses on the role that sympathy plays on the shifts in narrative in the novel. My Smithian reading of Frankenstein is offered to complement theirs.↩
- I have discussed various aspects of Smith’s theory of gratitude in Harpham (2004, 2010)↩
- The second encounter took place in Book I after the murder of Frankenstein’s brother by the monster. There was no conversation between the two. Frankenstein was sure that the monster was the murderer after the brief encounter. (Frankenstein: 48). He learns that the monster killed his brother later in Book II during the third encounter.↩
- for an alternative reading, see Neff.↩
Adam Smith and the Horror of Frankenstein, a lecture by Dr. Caroline Breashears
Britton, Jeanne. 2009. “Novelistic Sympathy in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein.’” Studies in Romanticism. Spring 2009, Vol.48, No. 1 (Spring):3-22.
Britton, Jeannie M. 2019. Vicarious Narratives: A Literary History of Sympathy, 1750-1850. New York: Oxford University Press.
Harpham, Edward J. 2004. “Gratitude in the History of Ideas.” The Psychology of Gratitude. Edited by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough. Series in Affective Science. New York: Oxford University Press.
Harpham, Edward J. 2010. “Adam Smith’s Lost World of Gratitude.” Political Science as Public Philosophy: Essays in Honor of Theodore J. Lowi. Edited by Benjamin Ginsberg and Gwendolyn Mink. New York.
Hatch, James C. 2008. “Disruptive Affects: Shame, Disgust, and Sympathy in Frankenstein.” European Romantic Review: 19.1: 33-49.
Hume, David. 2000. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Neff, D.S. 2012. “Invisible Hands”: Paltock, Milton, and the Critique of Providence in Frankenstein.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews
Volume 25:2, pp.103-08.
Shelley, Mary. 1996 Frankenstein. A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by J. Paul Hunter. New York: W.W. Norton.
Smith, Adam. 1982. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics.