Archives For Frankenstein

No sooner are essays on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein handed in, then the copies of Paradise Lost are handed out to the Advanced Placement English Literature Students. Yes, there are over 10,000 lines of blank verse in the poem, but don’t shudder for them…they will be fine. This epic poem is a trip to the “dark side” like no other in literature. All it takes is a reading of Book One; a reading that says “Welcome to Hell”!

The connection is obvious. In her novel, Shelley has Frankenstein’s Monster explain how he gained his knowledge, not with the help of his “father”, but instead by reading several books while he hid from humanity. One of the books in his possession was the epic poem Paradise Lost. When the Monster finally confronts his creator, Victor Frankenstein, on a mountain glacier on Mount Montanvert, the Monster dramatically intones:

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”

Originally published as 10 books, Milton expanded the epic poem to 12 books in later printings.

Originally published as 10 books, Milton expanded the epic poem to 12 books in later printings.

The “fallen angel” the Monster references is a hero/anti-hero of Paradise Lost: Satan, aka Lucifer, aka the  “infernal serpent”, aka the ‘Arch-fiend’ (and a myriad of other Miltonic epithets).

Students in previous classes have always found Satan the most memorable character in this epic poem since he is given the most memorable lines. They have been particularly intrigued that John Milton’s purpose in writing the poem, “to justify the ways of God to man,” is soon drowned out by the creation of Pandemonium (Hell’s Seat).  From the moment in Book One of Paradise Lost when Satan frees himself from the adamantine chains that bind him to a burning lake, students are taken with his attitude and his defiance as read in his great challenge:

Here at least
we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven. (PL 1 258-263)

No matter that in Book Six’s battle scenes in heaven are an exercise in futility, known as  the “great pie fight in the sky”, students root for the former archangel. They understand the sentiment in his statement,

‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…” (PL 211-214).

Paradise Lost was only one of Milton’s great contributions to literature. He was not only a brilliant poet, but he was also a powerful statesman and a Puritan. He became associated with the Puritan partisanship in Parliament, which was credited with banning Christmas in England in 1644. This would seem to be a contradiction since he was already known for the beautiful Christmas Ode, “On the Morning of Christs Nativity Compos’d 1629”. Perhaps it was the general Puritan aversion to Christmas carols that could be blamed for such a heinous act!.

His political career experienced the extreme highs of an appointment as Secretary for Foreign Tongues (1648) and his association with Oliver Cromwell in the execution of Charles I (1649). In contrast there were the lows of an imposed exile upon the return of Charles II and the arrival of the Restoration in 1660. One of the reasons he was not executed for his implicit participation in Charles I’s regicide was that he was struck blind in 1654, and there were many who argued that this blindness was punishment enough. Milton was used to pain and suffering as the deaths of his first and second wives and several children were tragic interludes throughout his life.

Like another blind poet, Homer, Milton achieved greatness with an “inner sight”. Critics generally agree that his best poetry came after he became blind and dictated all the lines of verse to his remaining daughters. A painting by Mihály Munkácsy (1877) hangs in the New York Public Library (NYPL) and depicts a scene of a head-bowed Milton reciting to one daughter who is scribing lines into a book.

Milton & daughtersThe picture is an apt illustration for his opening thesis in Paradise Lost:

What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men. (PL I:18-22)

In 2008, the NYPL held an exhibition, “John Milton at 400: ‘A Life Beyond Life'” which featured illustrated etchings by Gustave Doré for Paradise Lost. One illustration was of Satan on his flight to the Garden of Eden. As he travels, Satan pauses to tell the Sun how conflicted he is over his fallen state:

O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy Spheare;
Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down
Warring in Heav’n against Heav’ns matchless King:
Ah wherefore! he deservd no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard. (PL IV:37-41)

Speaking these lines is a tragic Satan, fully aware that he has brought himself to ruin, as told by a poet, who had also come to political ruin. The reader can sympathize with such a character, and isn’t that the role of great literature? To draw on the reader’s empathy?

By the end of the poem, however, Milton restores the balance of sympathy towards Adam and Eve. They walk bravely, hand-in-hand, out of the Garden, into the sunset, ready to begin “his-story”.  In contrast, the character of Satan is reduced to a hollow hero, receiving accolades from a hissing mob of demi-devils. He is cursed, and like the Monster in Frankenstein, he is unreconciled with his creator.

So happy Birthday, John Milton, (December 9th), but let us not forget, that while your character Satan may dwell in evil, it was you who helped to cancel Christmas!

House of the ScorpionThere they were. Four used copies of Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion, and they were my find of the day at the Friends of the Danbury Public Library Fall Book Sale last weekend in Danbury, Connecticut. The unmistakeable bright red-orange and black spines were scattered in the author-alphabetized “F” section of the fiction offerings. They should have been in the young adult (YA) section, but a volunteer’s shelving error was probably why they were still available when I arrived. In this case, chance favored me.

I first became acquainted with Farmer’s science fiction novel two summers ago when I heard the plot involved cloning. I was looking for YA literature that could be used as a companion pieces to  Frankenstein; novels that incorporated many of the ethical questions raised by recent advances in the science of cloning. Science fiction was the genre that offered the most obvious choices. Farmer herself recognizes how science fiction anticipates the problems created by real science, saying:

“Science fiction allows you to approach a lot of social issues you can’t get to directly. If you wrote a book about how cloning is horrible, it would read like a sermon and no one would pay attention to it. “

The genre of science fiction is amazingly prescient in predicting technological advances.  H. G. Wells’ offered  The First Men in the Moon in 1901, 68 years before Neil Armstrong exited Apollo 11 and took steps on the lunar surface.  Digital books, submarines, droids and robots were features in science fiction novels before they became real nouns in our vocabulary. Credit for dreaming up the Internet is given to a wide spectrum of  fiction writers, from Mark Twain to Arthur C. Clarke, and manipulating human life has its genesis with 18 year old Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Therefore, Farmer is following the successful literary tradition of predicting man’s future. Her prediction takes the form of another dystopia, the equivalent of a political science crash course in failed nation-states for young readers.

Her opening mimic another great science fiction read, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. His great satire’s opening scene is in a factory that is manufacturing embryos. With streamlined industrialized precision, conveyor belts carry embryos that are then deprived of oxygen in order to create a caste of mindless workers. Farmer borrows some of Huxley’s ideas and begins her story with images that recall that frightening scenario:

A dull, red light shown on the faces of the workers as they watched their own arrays of little glass dishes. Each one contained a drop of life. (1.2)

In addition, Farmer’s predictions of a territory between the United States and Mexico controlled by drug cartels is plausible. That is the setting for her “coming of age” story of a young clone named Matt. The medical breakthroughs that create Matt, a clone of the drug lord El Patrón, are also feasible. Matt is unaware that his life is both protected by his status as the clone for the most powerful man in the land of Opium and endangered by El Patrón’s mortality…and at 146 years old, El Patrón is very mortal.

Farmer combines the issues of organ-harvesting, the economics of drug use, and adds a few Zombies for an exciting read that contains several amazing plot twists. I remember my jaw dropping…I didn’t see one twist coming at all. Farmer’s inventiveness with plot and skills as a storyteller resulted in the book receiving both a National Book Award for Young Adult Literature and a Newbery Honor in 2002. 

Last year, we offered 7th grade independent choices in literature circles centered on their interest in dystopias. The House of the Scorpion was one title offered along with other science fiction novels including Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, Neil Shusterman’s Unwind, and several of Scott Westerfield’s selections from his Pretties series. Students fresh from reading Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Game Trilogy were ready for other predictions for the future, and those who had not completed the series were given the opportunity to read these as well.

The cost for the four gently used copies at the book sale was $8.00; copies normally retail for $8.10, so this was a “buy one get three free” bargain in comparison. Based on other used book sales, we now have a class set (30) of The House of the Scorpion. The novel could be an all class read, however, as some of the topics in the novel require mature readers, we opt to make this and the novel Feed independent choice books.

The ethical questions raised in Frankenstein and The House of the Scorpion makes them good companion pieces, but that is not the only reason to pair them together. Our English Department’s essential question is “What does it mean to be human?” Literature gives students the language and the models for answering that question. The Monster in Frankenstein and the protagonist Matt in The House of the Scorpion are “non-human” characters that make students consider that being human may not be limited by the definitions in science, but by the possibilities in science fiction.

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?

  • Daddy.”
  • “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.