The problem of lecturing Frankenstein


Lecture Outline


LECTURE 1: Frankenstein and Gothic literature

The problem of lecturing Frankenstein

The pervasiveness of the Frankenstein myth in 20th-century culture (especially in film; see

Terminator, The Incredible Hulk); the overwriting of the novel with its mythic refiguration.

Origins: the Jewish myth of the golem.

The appropriation of Mary Shelley by feminist criticism.

The social context

The historical context to the nineteenth century, as a time very aware of upheaval and change.

Important factors include:

– the French Revolution, and its effect on notions of class and identity;

– Darwinism and his effect on religious thought;

– the Industrial Revolution, with its ambivalence towards technology as both exciting and

dangerous, and its profound effect on social class with the possibility for acquired rather than

inherited wealth;

– Colonialism, and the British Empire’s expanding wealth and influence;

– the influence of Romanticism as a unified intellectual movement.

Gothic literature and Romanticism

Neo-classicism and the Romantic reaction against social order and rationality.

Gothicism as a lunatic fringe version of Romanticism’s celebration of the emotional (terror as the

most extreme form of emotion)

Common themes: Nature, the emotions, the exotic, medieval nostalgia, a celebration of the self.



The Gothic novel

The function of Gothic as a cult literature of the late 18th and early 19th century

A popular, romance form – stylised, non-realistic, idealised, with an adventure format

Gothic as an extreme form of romance – the imagination run wild.

The implications of Gothic as mostly a pulp genre, the equivalent of the modern horror movie.

Jane Austen’s parody in Northanger Abbey of the titillation of the “horrid”.

Some characteristics of Gothic

MELODRAMA – stereotype, moral polarisation, one-dimensionality, excess.

EXOTICISM – wild/remote locations, other cultures such as the Oriental.

TRANSGRESSION – fear of barbarism, of unleashing human passion beyond social constraings.

Gothic’s operation as a literature of the unconscious, of transgressive desires.

ALIENATION – the genre’s interest in identity and subjectivity, but of an alienated self, set apart

from society.



LECTURE 2: Frankenstein as a novel of identity

Romanticism and selfhood

Shelley’s position firmly within the Romantic movement

The importance of the Romantic emphasis on the self as distinct from society

The exaggeration of Romance’s sense of individuality into alienation in gothic.

Selfhood as a process of deliberate artistic construction.

The distinction between the physical and spiritual selves.

The family in Frankenstein

The family as a representation of society.

Physical and metaphorical orphans: the theme of alienation from the family.

Excessive reactions against alienation: the theme of incest.

The influence of Milton’s Paradise Lost

– the Promethean myth: the symbolic process of stealing fire from the gods, and its invocation of

themes of pride, forbidden knowledge and the over-reaching of boundaries.

– The Monster’s attempt to establish an identity through Paradise Lost – the opposite archetypes

of Adam or the fallen angel.

– Miltonian archetypes as patriarchal symbols. The strong/interesting individuals are male, and

woman is the agent of the fall.





LECTURE 3: Frankenstein as a woman’s text

Gothic literature and feminism

Gothic operates as a genre with particular significance for women: it has a tendency towards

female writers and readership, but also embodies a peculiarly patriarchal nightmare in which

violence is continually enacted on the female body.

– The importance of Mary Shelley’s identity as the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. She was a

woman living in a tradition of literary women who explicitly criticised patriarchy; it is therefore

logical to look for criticism of Gothic and patriarchy in Frankenstein.

– The maleness of Frankenstein is a particular problem here: within the Miltonian archetypes,

men are dominant, women are weak and passive playthings and possessions, or self-sacrificing

mother/nurture figures.

– Shelley’s use of the exaggerated misogyny of the genre can be seen as being in many ways

subversive and critical.

Birth in Frankenstein

Birth and procreation are concepts important for women and are central themes in the novel.

– Mary Shelley’s own experience of difficult pregnancies while writing offers a psychoanalytic

perspective on some of the book’s events.

– Also important is the contrast between Romantic ideals of spiritual/artistic creation and the

gross physicality of the body in the novel.

– The implications of Shelley as woman writer who usurps the male (spiritual) act of creation

– The horror of Frankenstein is Dr. Frankenstein’s appropriation of the intrinsically female birth

process, and his eradication of the need for women.

– Nature is presented as a feminine principle penetrated by the male, but has the power to punish

the transgressive penetrator.

The monstrous and the female other

The female operates as the other to the patriarchal self. This is a transgressive other: the figure of

Eve typfies all women as fallen. The novel deals with the notion of female otherness in various

implicit ways.

– Both Frankenstein and Walden are also Eve figures in their reaching after forbidden


– The monstrous other comes to stand for the feminine other – the monster himself is a feminised


– The novel thus uses its patriarchal gothic structures subversively – the horror elements of the

genre energise an attack on patriarchy.





LECTURE 4: Frankenstein as science fiction text

Science fiction and Gothic

Frankenstein is often claimed as the original science fiction novel.

– Aldiss in Ch. 1 of Trillion Year Spree argues that in fact all sf functions in the gothic mode. He

argues that the genres have numerous points in common:

– both are social genres, concerned with the individual’s place in society

– both are interested in the distant and unearthly

– both depend on a horrid revelation at the heart of the tale (I’d disagree here – only some kinds of

sf do this).

But there is also a fundamental opposition between sf and gothic, in that they represent the

opposing ideas of the rational and the irrational.

– Unlike gothic, sf projects the boundaries of knowledge but does not necessarily violate them.

There are other obvious intersections between the genres:

– both are popular genres

– both are marginal, regarded as non-literary

– both tend to follow an adventure/discovery format

– both have an interest in identity and humanity

– both tend to marginalise/objectify women.

Frankenstein and science

Shelley demonstrates an overt interest in science for its own sake.

– Much of this reflects the context of Industrial Revolution, and the simultaneous excitement and

threat of new technology

– The danger of science is a classic sf theme, and here Gothic provides the framework and tone

for the horror of failed science, the experiment gone wrong.

– This is in many ways opposed to Shelley’s Romantic influences – the Romantics tend to insist

on the value of emotion rather than rationality, and thus reject the materialism of science.

Scientist as Promethean figure

The Promethean myth offers a paradigm for the self-destruction of the scientist through reaching

after forbidden knowledge.

– The novel also deals in subtext with the Promethean myth of Faust, although in inverted terms:

Shelley’s painstaking denial of magic and rewriting magic as science explicitly assaults the

Faustian archetypes.

– Her “modern Prometheus” is literally that – an updating of magical to the science lab.



Science and identity: what is humanity?

Frankenstein’s issues of constructedness, and exploration of the nature of humanity are

precursors to modern sf’s aliens, robots and AIs – the novel has become a paradigm for

explorations of identity under science.

Science and feminism

Shelley’s novel is particularly interesting in that it uses science as way to think about issues of

sexuality and motherhood.

– This can be contrasted to more modern sf in which science is seen as having the potential to

release women from biological determinism.

– In Shelley’s view, however, technological birth is monstrous, a further scientific appropriation

of women that is doomed to disaster.

One cannot deny the influence of Frankenstein on modern sf, but in fact the Gothic implications

of the novel are probably not as important as Shelley’s interest in science for its own sake. While

the Gothic mode has inspired a powerful image of science as threatening, Shelley’s exploration

of the relationship between science and the individual is probably more influential than Gothic


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