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The following is an extract from Frankenstein; I'd like to know whether or not the clause in bold contains a religious image. And what does it mean? Does it have anything to do with being saintly?

The saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home. Her sympathy was ours; her smile, her soft voice, the sweet glance of her celestial eyes, were ever there to bless and animate us. She was the living spirit of love to soften and attract: I might have become sullen in my study, rough through the ardour of my nature, but that she was there to subdue me to a semblance of her own gentleness. And Clerval—could aught ill entrench on the noble spirit of Clerval?—yet he might not have been so perfectly humane, so thoughtful in his generosity—so full of kindness and tenderness amidst his passion for adventurous exploit, had she not unfolded to him the real loveliness of beneficence, and made the doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition.

I'd appreciate your help.

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“Her sympathy was ours” is ambiguous between two meanings:

  1. “her sympathy was [the same as] our sympathy”, that is, she was sympathetic to the same things that we were sympathetic to (whatever they were);

  2. “her sympathy belonged to us”, that is, she was sympathetic with us.

In both readings, “we” and “us” refer to the narrator, Victor Frankenstein, and his friend Henry Clerval. In the second reading, “sympathy” is being used in this sense:

sympathy, n. 3a. Conformity of feelings, inclinations, or temperament, which makes persons agreeable to each other; community of feeling; harmony of disposition.

Oxford English Dictionary

and not in sense 3c, “the quality or state of being thus affected by the suffering or sorrow of another”.

The remainder of the sentence, which says that her smile, voice, and eyes “were ever there to bless and animate us”, inclines us towards the second meaning: if these attributes were always there for us, then presumably her sympathy was always there with us too.

Clearly the whole passage is making use of religious images: Elizabeth is described as having a “saintly soul” which shines like a “shrine-dedicated lamp”; she has “celestial [heavenly] eyes”; she “blesses” us, and so on.

However, I don’t find any specific Christian reference in “her sympathy was ours”. The word “sympathy” in the sense used here is an early modern coinage, and is not found in the King James Version of the Bible, which uses “pity” or “compassion” instead. Moreover, the suggestion, made in comments, that the Catholic doctrine of intercession of the saints is being alluded to, seems quite implausible:

  1. Intercession is a process in which the believer asks the saint to influence God on their behalf, but Frankenstein does not seem to be asking anything of Elizabeth in this passage.

  2. Mary Shelley was not especially sympathetic to Catholicism. For example, she wrote:

    we are disgusted by the Catholics setting the corruption, profligacy and imbecility of Papal Rome, in comparison with her ancient glories.

    Mary Shelley (1829). ‘Modern Italy’. In The Westminster Review, number XXI.

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  • What was Elizabeth sympathetic to? – Apollyon Jun 14 at 12:00
  • @Apollyon: See updated answer. – Gareth Rees Jun 14 at 12:14
  • I'm asking about the first reading. Btw, if the "sympathy" was used with the same meaning as it has today, it implies there were misfortunes for Elizabeth to feel sympathy for. But the passage does not mention any. – Apollyon Jun 14 at 12:30
  • @Apollyon: See updated answer – Gareth Rees Jun 14 at 12:39
  • Does your second interpretation of sympathy conform to the characterization of Elizabeth as a saintly figure? – Apollyon Jun 15 at 1:05
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It means that they had her sympathy as if it were a possession of theirs.

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  • They had her sympathy or she had their sympathy? – Tsundoku Jun 11 at 13:32
  • I'm contemplating the possibility that the sympathy was a two-way sentiment, like intercession of saints in Catholic belief. Catholics pray through saints, who they believe understand their feelings of anxiety, etc., and whose love and help they claim to have experienced. – Apollyon Jun 11 at 15:00

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