Frankenstein Then and Now


Although the novel Frankenstein was published two hundred years ago, in 1818, it is simultaneously very old and very new.  As the first work of science fiction, it has been a powerful vehicle for cultural history. As its rich film history suggests, this novel has offered a powerful and still resonant exploration of the impact of modern science on traditional values, institutions, and relationships. 

Today Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) is the most often taught novel in the US. The eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley here single-handedly created a myth that resonates powerfully with contemporary science - the story of a scientist who produces a monster capable of destroying him and all he loves. “You are my maker; but I am your master – obey!” says the Creature to Victor Frankenstein.This myth is so culturally well-known and so powerful that the National Geographic Society has designated Mary Shelley as its next "genius," following its programs on Einstein and Pablo Picasso.

Shelley's myth has two separate dimensions. On the one hand, it is a story of parental abandonment, of a scientist who fails to take responsibility for the predictable consequences of his work. It is the story of a man who tries to have a baby without a woman, of a father who fails to "mother" his new-born baby. On the other hand, it is the story of human arrogance and presumption, of a (male) scientist who tries to become "god," to create life out of death.  

In this SDG, we will explore both dimensions of Shelley's myth. We will look first at  the origins of the novel in Shelley's biography, in the radical climate change that occurred in June, 1816 (the summer she conceived of her novel), and in the scientific, literary, political and social cultures in which she lived. We will examine in detail the ways in which the novel comments on the 18th century scientific revolution initiated by Francis Bacon; on Romanticism and the poetry of Byron and Percy Shelley; on the revolutionary politics of the French Revolution; on the feminist debates concerning the rights of women set in motion by her mother Mary Wollstonecraft; on motherhood and the education of children; on gender, sexuality, race and disability; and on the philosophical discussions of nature (ontology) and perception (epistemology) of her day.  We will then look at the after-life of the novel, first on the stage and then on the screen, where the novel’s rich and varied film history has had the greatest impact upon the popular (mis)understanding of Shelley’s creation. We will end with an examination of the most recent scientific developments in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence to discover whether Dr. Frankenstein is "alive and working" today.  

Weekly Topics 

Week One : Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's life and the influence of her parents, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the political philosopher William Godwin, and of her husband the poet Percy Shelley - why did she have the "waking dream" that inspired the novel on June 16, 1818? What role did the eruption of Mount Tamboro play in the origin of the novel?

Reading: "Introduction" to the third edition of Frankenstein (1831), pp. 165-169;

Lord Byron, "Prometheus" (online)

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (selections, online)

William Godwin, Enquiry concerning Political Justice, summary (online)

Week Two: Frankenstein and Science: What science did Mary Shelley know? How does Shelley represent the psychology of the modern scientist?

Reading, Frankenstein, Vol. I: ch. 1-4 (pp. 1-40)

Week Three: Frankenstein and Politics: How does the novel comment on the major political and literary events of the late 18C and early 19C? Why is Victor Frankenstein "the Modern Prometheus"? 

Reading: Frankenstein, Vol. I, ch. 5 thru Vol. 2, ch. 7 (pp. 41-95)

Week Four: Frankenstein and Gender: How does the novel represent gender relations, sexuality, and the roles of women?

Reading, Frankenstein, Vol. 2, ch. 8- Vol. 3, ch. 3 (pp. 96-125)

Week Five: Frankenstein and Philosophy: What philosophical, psychological and sociological positions does the novel finally embrace? Is the Creature innately good (as he says)? Or innately evil (as Victor says)? How does the novel define the relationship between man and nature (ontological reality)? Between perception and reality (epistemological truth)? What role do race and disability play in the novel?

Reading: Frankenstein , Vol. 3, ch. 4 - end (pp. 97-161)

Week Six: Frankenstein on the stage - how was the novel changed in these stage adaptations?

Reading: Richard Brinsley Peake, Presumption; or the Fate of Frankenstein (1823);online

 Nick Dear, Frankenstein (script for the National Theatre of London Production, 2011)

Week Seven: Frankenstein on the screen – the beginning: How did James Whale reshape the popular understanding of Shelley's story? 

View: Frankenstein, 1931, dir. James Whale (with Boris Karloff)

Optional: Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, dir. James Whale; 

Gods and Monsters, 1998, dir. Bill Condon (with Ian Mackellan) [this film is a bio-pic of James Whale]

Week Eight: Frankenstein on the screen – later versions: How have the numerous cinematic reinterpretations of Shelley's novel structured the modern versions of the story of Frankenstein? Why do these films range from Gothic horror to screwy comedy? 

View: Young Frankenstein, 1974, dir. Mel Brooks; 

Optional: Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein; Frankenweenie

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, 1994 (dir. Kenneth Branagh) 

Week Nine: Frankenstein and Artificial Intelligence / Robots - what roles should the technological development of silicone-based machines play in our future?

View : Ex Machina , 2014, dir. Alex Garland

Optional: Blade Runner, 1982, dir. Ridley Scott

Selections from Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and the Modern World, ed. Brad King

Week Ten: Frankenstein and Genetic Engineering / CRISPR-Cas9 and the advent of Designer Babies - what ethical issues are posed by this new technology in stem-cell engineering? 

Reading: Jennifer Doudna, A Crack in Creation, pp. 185-240

Optional: Bernard Rollin, The Frankenstein Syndrome – Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals; 

Henry Greely, The End of Sex


Core Books: 

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (the 1818 edition), ed. Paul Hunter (Norton Critical Edition, second edition), 

SBN 978-0-393-92793-1

Nick Dear, Frankenstein - based on the novel by Mary Shelley (Faber and Faber, 2011) - this is the script for the National Theatre of  London production in 2011

Jennifer Doudna, A Crack in Creation

Additional Bibliography 

Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters

Miranda Seymour, Mary Shelley

Emily Sunstein, Mary Shelley – Romance and Reality

The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennet

Mary Shelley (with Percy Shelley), The Original Frankenstein – Two New Versions:

Mary Shelley’s Earliest Draft with Percy Shelley’s Revised text, ed. Charles

Robinson (Vintage)

Gillen D'Arcy Wood, Tamboro

Steven Earl Forry, Hideous Progenies - Dramatizations of Frankenstein

David Skal, Horror Shows – A Cultural History of Horror Films

C. Miller and B. Van Riper, The Laughing Dead – the Horror-Comedy Film from the

Bride of Frankenstein to Zombieland

Bernard E. Rollin, The Frankenstein Syndrome – Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals

Brad King, ed. Frankenstein’s Legacy – Four Conversations about Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and the Modern World

Henry Greely, The End of Sex

Leslie Klinger, The Annotated Frankenstein (Norton, 2018) plus numerous other published and online sources