Reading Frankenstein

For some time now I’ve wanted to write about Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s classic tale, first published in 1818, has long struck me as one of those works whose brilliance has been dulled by familiarity (and, more often than not, a familiarity stemming not from the novel itself but from its myriad pop cultural incarnations). It is, to speak anachronistically, a story that explores technology as force in human affairs, and it is typically read as a cautionary tale. It is that, to be sure, but I think that leaving it there sells the novel considerably short.

I’ve failed, however, to follow through on the impulse to write about the story mostly because the task grew larger and larger the more I thought about it, and it was, consequently, easier to put it off than to begin it. But now, as I’m reading the novel again, I’ve decided to make a go of it. Rather than write a single post on Frankenstein, however, I’ve decided (naturally) to blog through my reading of it.

What I’m envisioning is a series of posts that will each take a handful of chapters under consideration (there are 24 altogether, not counting the letters that frame the story at the outset). With each post I’m intending mostly to think with the novel as it were, chiefly by articulating my understanding of the multiple threads that Shelley weaves together throughout the story. And, of course, I invite you to think along with me and make it a conversation if your so inclined.

I’m not sure what kind of pace I’m going to be able to keep up, but I hope to wrap up the posts within three weeks or so. If you don’t own a copy of the book, Project Gutenberg offers the novel in a variety of formats. Sometime tomorrow (Monday) I’ll kick things off with the first post on the letters that frame the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation. The letters are written by a man named Robert Walton, who is leading an expedition to the North Pole, to his sister. The narration of the story is then passed off to Victor Frankenstein, who tells his story to Walton. There is later another shift at the heart of the novel as the monster tells Frankenstein about his experience. Frankenstein then assumes control of the narrative again, and finally it passes once more to Walton.

A couple of disclaimers: First, I am not a literary critic by training, so take what ensues as the scribblings of an interested amateur. Secondly, I am not familiar, at least not in any serious way, with the secondary literature on either Shelley or her novel. If you do want a little background on Shelley’s life, you might consider the biographical essay at the Poetry Foundation. Finally, I won’t be making any serious effort to avoid spoilers as I write about the story.

More to come.

3 thoughts on “Reading Frankenstein

  1. This should be fun! I’m toying with assigning the book to an intro to STS class this coming semester. I always liked this quote:

    “Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proven yourself unworthy of my condescension. Remember … You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!”.

    The slave-master relationship, as a metaphor for understanding how we relate to our inventions, is powerful. Yet having just finished reading Carr’s The Glass Cage maybe we shouldn’t avail ourselves to much of it (pages 224-226). As Carr says:

    “The master slave metaphor….distorts the way we look at our technology. It reinforces the sense that our tools are separate from ourselves. That our instruments have an agency independent of our own.”

    This passage and the others on page 224-226 of Carr are worth considering as one reads the novel.

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