Synopsis of Class: February 11, 1999

We began class by discussing some of the psychological explanations for Mary Shelley's story. As Lorne Macdonald writes in our edition's introduction, "Frankenstein is a book whose roots go deep into the psyche" (11). We discussed a number of psychological issues, particularly those revolving around the act of female reproduction, since a number of elements tie in to this issue, both in the story and in Mary Shelley's life: the dream Mary Shelley has of her dead baby (see p. 11); the death of Mary's mother soon after her own birth; the dream about the creation of the monster that Elizabeth describes in her 1831 Introduction (364); Victor's dream of his fiancée, Elizabeth, turning into the rotting corpse of his mother (86), immediately following his "birthing" of the monster; the fact that, in creating the monster, Victor is seeking to usurp the female power of reproduction (see, for example, the bottom of p. 82); the fact that Victor rips up the monster's companion with his bare hands because of the fear of her ability to reproduce; even Mary Shelley's description of her own work in her Introduction: "I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days" (365). Could we also say that the monster acts out some of Victor's most repressed unconscious desires, thus functioning as a doppelgänger for Victor. Due to Victor's rather incredible misreading of the monster's warning (I will be with you on your wedding-night!) Victor could be said to make his dream come true. That is, in the end, through the monster's murder of Elizabeth, Victor does "embrace" the dead corpse of Elizabeth on p. 220. Could it be that Victor is not far off when he cries out on p. 122, "I, not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer."

I followed this discussion with an introduction to the important historical changes that were occurring in Shelley's day, with a mind to the following question: "why does the first ever science-fiction story appear in this particular time period?" I described the eighteenth century and the major elements of that period: emphasis placed on the status quo; the power of the aristocracy after the Reformation; the valuation of order, decorum, etiquette; the importance of self-presentation; desire to control nature, emotion, the body; neo-classical architecture, with an emphasis on order, balance, symmetry; the heroic couplet, with similar values; Newton; the Great Chain of Being; the clockmaker God.

I then suggested some of the major changes occurring around the Romantic period that threatened the values of the previous period (click here for a time-line of the period), including:

The final question that we explored was: "what does all this have to do with science fiction?" We thus began to discuss why this generic form first comes to the fore in this period. Here are some of the reasons that were suggested, plus a couple that I offer up myself:

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