Synopsis of Class: February 9, 1999

I began class by asking how Mary Shelley's novel met the class' expectations, given the many pop cultural representations of the monster (from Kenneth Branaugh's recent film to Phil Hartman's version on Saturday Night Live to Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (a scene from which you are seeing to the right of this text, specifically of the monster and Elizabeth in bed together). As various students stated, the original monster is quite different from these later clichés. For example, the monster cannot be characterized as simply evil; he is also certainly not ignorant or inarticulate, as Marcus Knotts pointed out, at least not once he teaches himself about history and literature. One point that I brought up at the end of class is that the monster is not himself called "Frankenstein." Could it be that, in misattributing the name of the monster's creator to the monster itself, pop culture could be said actually to have underlined one of Mary Shelley's points: that Victor Frankenstein is himself in many ways more monstrous than his own creation. Craig Stalbaum also alerted us to the fact that Shelley's tale is presented to the reader in a much more complex way than Hollywood presents the story to the viewer. This led to a discussion of the narrational frame structure of Frankenstein and the reasons for this complex structure. (Shelley thus dramatizes the transmission of the tale and, as in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," one could say that we are thus led to wonder if "truth is as subjective as reality.")

One of the things to note about the beginning of the nineteenth century is that the novel was increasingly becoming an important generic form, even if in Mary Shelley's time it was still looked down upon as a lesser form than poetry. This is significant given Mary Shelley's intimate connection to the major Romantic poets of her day (her husband, Percy Shelley, as well as Lord Byron and John Keats). To give a sense for this relation I read excerpts from her 1831 Introduction to Frankenstein. It was also true that an increasingly large percentage of novels were being written by women often for a predominantly female audience. Following in the tradition of Samuel Richardson (who wrote the hugely popular novels Clarissa and Pamela in the eighteenth century), female novelists increasingly represented scenarios and issues of interest to women: domestic situations, powerful feelings, motherhood, and the search for a husband. (Think, for example, of the many Jane Austen cinematic adaptations of late; Austen was writing around the same time as Mary Shelley.) Romantic poets, on the other hand, were interested in quite different things: they too wrote about their feelings but they tended to explore extreme states of emotion; the "Romantic hero" tended to be a character who spurned the conventions of the city or the family, searching instead for divine inspiration in the sublime landscapes of Switzerland or of the North. Their inspiration is Milton's Satan or the mythological Prometheus, a Titan who went against Zeus in stealing fire for man. Prometheus becomes a "symbol and a sign/ To mortals," as Lord Byron states in the poem named after the Titan; he is the figure for "a firm will, and a deep sense,/... Triumphant where it dares defy,/ ...making death a victory." Prometheus thus becomes a prototype for the Romantic hero. We also discussed J. M. W. Turner's paintings as an example in art of the sublime and of the Romantic sensibility.

As the class correctly pointed out, Mary Shelley could be said to have an uneasy relationship both to the generic female domestic novel and to the Romantic ideology, which she critiques to some extent through her representation of Victor, Walton, and even the monster. For example, we can easily see Victor as a sort of Prometheus figure (stealing the fire of life from the gods in order to give it to mankind) but he is clearly a Prometheus figure that is only ambiguously heroic. Once you hear the monster's side of the story, it is difficult not to see Victor as egotistical, misogynistic, and hubristic. As already mentioned, his stupidity could be said to lead to the death of his entire family. Victor's final speech to Walton's crew--"Be men, or be more than men!" (239)--also suggests that he himself has not learned the dangers of allowing one's desires for glory overshadow the concerns of others (one's family, for example, or one's crew). One could say that Mary Shelley is offering the reader an "alternative Romanticism" that is embodied perhaps in the figures of Clerval and Elizabeth, specifically a love of poetry, a dedication to one's family, an acceptance of one's responsibilities, and compassion for all creatures. As Rocky Moore suggested, she even seems to present us with an alternative vision of nature, best exemplified perhaps in Clerval's preference of pastoral English landscapes over the sublime landscapes of Switzerland (pp. 182-183). Could Mary Shelley be subtly critiquing such Romantic values as solitude, the sublime, power, and the search for the unknowable? Could she be following in the footsteps of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, by providing a feminist critique of the male Romantic poets, as Kelli Allen suggested. The fact that Mary Shelley first published her novel anonymously and that her husband, Percy Shelley, later wrote the Preface to the book in her own voice serve further to underline just how uneasy her relationship to both the novel and Romanticism really is.

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