It’s Halloween…what is the most frightening story you have ever read?
“I busied myself to think of a story, — a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. ……. I thought and pondered — vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story?” (Shelley, Preface)
Yes. Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s masterpiece drafted when she was18 years old. Teaching Mary Shelley’s “ghost story” always elicits the most interesting responses from my students. I have taught the novel every year for the past 12 years to students in grades 10-12, in AP or unleveled curriculums, and the results are always satisfying.
Note: I did not say easy.
Since I am now familiar enough with the text and the pitfalls that catch most students, I know that I will need to summon an enormous amount of energy to begin teaching Frankenstein. First, there is the baggage of the pop culture monster with its green skin, bolted neck and squared boots. That baggage must be “unpacked” first. Then, there is Robert Walton’s epistolary start of the novel, coupled with Victor Frankenstein’s lengthy autobiography. References to Cornelius Agrippa, Lake Geneva, and Galvanism are more stumbling blocks.
- “So, where is the Monster?”
- “When does this book get good?”
- “I’m sorry, but this is just boring!”
Okay, Chapter Five. On a dark and stormy night,
“With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs”(Shelley, 5).
The Monster lives! Like the Creator in Genesis who “formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:8), Shelley breathes life into her creation without regard to hard science. In both stories, the empirical data or formulas, which led to these creations, express leaps of faith understood by the reader. The spark of life is imbued; the creation lives and breathes. The Creator of Genesis differs immediately from Victor when he, “planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed”(Genesis 2:8), In contrast, the reader can hear Victor’s sudden gasp, “Beautiful!–Great God!” so repulsed is he once the creature comes to life. Victor weakly admits that all this work has been a failure, and comments almost apologetically, “The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature” (Shelley, 5). Unfortunately, the creation has been loosed upon the earth; he will not easily be unmade simply because his creator has changed his mind.
Exhausted, Victor sleeps only to be wakened by
“when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created… His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs” (Shelley, 5).
Rejection! Abandonment! Isolation.
The Creator in Genesis does not abandon his creations, despite their disastrous decision to disobey. Rather, the reader finds this Creator “made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them (Genesis 3:21) before banishing them from the Garden.Victor, in contrast, flees from the sound and the touch of the Monster who was trying to say….what? Creator?….Father?
- “Victor is a jerk.”
- “He ran away because he didn’t want the responsibility.”
Exactly. And that is why Frankenstein gets to the heart of so many of the issues that our students, our culture, our world must deal with today. There are questions of responsibility. The responsibilities of a creator for the created can be extended to include the responsibilities of parents to children, of scientists to inventions, of writers to literature, of politicians to policies, and of pundits to sound bytes. What happens when the “creation” goes bad?
- “If Victor kills the Monster, is it murder?”
- “It’s Victor’s fault that the Monster is a murderer.”
Is the Monster a human? Shelley allows that the Monster eats, reads, and pines for a companion; he is alone, and miserable. A critical scene has the Monster pleading with Victor for a friend, a companion, a mate. Shelley has her Monster claim to have a soul; is the Monster a human? What makes a human a human?
- “Having a mate will mean monster babies!”
- “Why didn’t Victor think about what the Monster would do?”
- “This is just like Jurassic Park !”
Shelley’s novel also considers related ethical questions. These include what is the result of unleashing a new technology on earth? Because the technology exists to create, should the technology be used? How far should technology go in helping humanity?
In our brave new world, the “lyger” has been created because geographically separated tigers and lions can be crossbred in labs. Genetically altered crops are in the mainstream food source. These technological advancements have moved into our world with a ripple. But what of the advancements that will follow? Will human cloning become a reality, and will society deal ethically with clones? How far are we from artificial intelligence and should-or can- this intelligence be controlled? What does Frankenstein teach the reader about making ethical decisions today or in the near future? Why is literature such a great predictor for what will happen in the future?
We feel pathos. The Monster’s story is one of tragedy.
- “Victor is the real monster.”
- “I feel bad for the Monster…he didn’t want to be a Monster.”
By the end of the novel, my students have dealt with some very profound ideas. They have asked some very important questions about responsibility, humanity, and ethical behavior. They feel a sense of accomplishment in reading a difficult 19th Century text. They have confronted contemporary issues through literature, and isn’t that what is supposed to happen in the classroom?
Mary Shelley was only 18 years old when she attempted to answer some of the questions about the limits of man. She was young and ambitious, like many of our students. Her “hideous progeny” is extraordinarily prescient; then novel is in every way a Modern Prometheus-a modern myth. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a must read, and a cautiously frightening tale, for Halloween or for any other day.