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Frankenstein at 200: A Literary Celebration

28.56 Frankenstein at 200: A Literary Celebration

Edited by: Cassandra Falke and Jessica Allen Hanssen

Volume: 28
Issue: 56
December 2018


Jessica Allen Hanssen , Cassandra Falke
Helena Feder
Transhumanism, Frankenstein, and Extinction
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Shelley’s novel has been fertile ground for ecocritics over the last two decades. In Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture (2014, 2016) I wrote about Frankenstein and culture’s dialectical horror of nature. As a narrative of failed continuity, Frankenstein also exhibits our fear of culture, its machine determinism, of monstrous production in place of sustainable reproduction. Victor, the isolated, compulsive scientist is not unlike the figure of the lone programmer, coding for the “enhanced” human or cyborg of his uncritical posthuman dreams. Our world and its problems demonstrate that Frankenstein continues to be a prescient novel: before Darwin’s theory of evolution, and long before genetic modification and what we call information technology, Shelley imagined the creation of a being as an assemblage of contingent “natureculture” in a bildungsroman that juxtaposes its creator’s. While the novel invites us to consider the political promise of the monster (as I’ve argued elsewhere), it is also a commentary on the dangers of solitude, the dangers of failing to honour the social and ecological contingency, the entanglement, of all things in the pursuit of knowledge.
Stephen Dougherty
Victor's Responsibility and the Monster's Favourite Books: Allegory, Technology, and Romantic Ideology in Frankenstein
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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is frequently read as a moral fable and a cautionary tale: Victor Frankenstein fails to think through the consequences of his “experiment” in creating life through science and technology, and catastrophe results. This strict moral dimension of the novel rests uneasily alongside its allegorical dimension. My thesis is that there exists an infinite distance between the novel as moral fable and the novel as an allegory of technology. Frankenstein is both moral fable and allegory, but they are absolutely different stories. As moral fable, the lesson of the novel is that the hideous creature might have turned out to be kind and gentle and good, if only Frankenstein had not abandoned him. In the world of Frankenstein as allegory, the question of individual responsibility possesses no value. Here, Victor Frankenstein is up against something new, unanticipated, and clearly beyond his control or cognizance. The hideous creature’s inception is a singularity – an event. In my reading, Frankenstein is only cautionary through our willful occlusion of its allegorical dimension. Frankenstein constitutes an aberration in allegory: not only is the allegorical story in Frankenstein an ‘other’ story; weirdly, it also rivals the literal story, or delegitimates it.
Erin Goss
Frankenstein, Dismembered Women, and What It Takes to Be a Man
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This article places Frankenstein within a legacy of spectacular violence against female bodies. Focusing on Shelley’s depiction of the climactic moment in which Victor Frankenstein “tore to pieces” the female body he was in the process of producing, the essay reads Frankenstein as not only condemning a fragile masculinity that cannot survive the imagination of an active female will but also as demonstrating that masculinity’s reliance on the destruction of women’s bodies to forge homosocial relations. The body of the female creature that Victor refuses to complete becomes a stage for Victor’s enactment of his own insistent sovereignty, called into question by his failure to contain and control the male creature that he has made. Ultimately, the novel appears as an exploration of masculinity in its reliance on a sociality that not only excludes women but also uses the spectacle of their destruction as a means of communication and self-assertion.
David Sigler
"Doomed to Live": Reading Shelley's Frankenstein and "The Mortal Immortal" with Derrida's Death Penalty Seminars
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Drawing upon Jacques Derrida’s recently published two-volume seminar on the death penalty, this essay analyzes two parallel cases from Mary Shelley’s fictions: on the one hand, Elizabeth’s objection to the death penalty in Frankenstein, as she visits Justine Moritz in prison; and on the other hand, the eternal life bestowed upon Winzy in the short story “The Mortal Immortal.” In both cases, the calculations at work necessarily incorporate something incalculable as the punishment becomes “capital.” Shelley objects not just to the cruelty of the death penalty or to the possibility of wrongful conviction, but also to the ways that the law is permitted to draw equivalencies between persons and subject them to a calculation. By thinking of the death penalty and “life penalty” as two sides of the same coin, Shelley effectively deconstructs the logical framework for capital punishment and articulates a complex abolitionist position. Shelley offers, in her fictional interrogation of life sentences and death sentences, a contradictory and bleak set of meditations upon the injustice inherent in human equivalence.
Cassandra Falke
Frankenstein's Reader as Judge and Confidant
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This article examines the tension between two modes of listening presented in Frankenstein. Characters sometimes receive others’ stories as a confidant responsible to the storyteller and sometimes as a judge responsible to a predetermined ethical norm. Drawing on the ideas of Emmanuel Lévinas, the article shows how these two forms of listening correspond to two ethical models – the ethics arising from the face-to-face encounter and the ethics arising from an imagined totality of ethical norms. Each of these ethical modes is evoked by the act of reading as readers are positioned by the text as both second-person addressee (the “you” to whom the novel seems to speak) and third-person judge (a he or she with no relation to the text). Although these two ethical modes are present in all acts of novel reading, Frankenstein dramatizes the tension between them by contrasting intimate listening scenes with institutionalized scenes, affirmative acts of listening and dismissive acts of listening, written stories as evidence and spoken stories as the conduit of friendship. Comparing the novel’s multiple representations of characters receiving another’s story, the article explores the novel’s emphasis on being heard as a central part of being human.
Brecht de Groote
"Old Familiar Faces": Frankenstein, Anachronism, and Late Style
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Describing herself at the age of twenty-six as an “aged person” and “the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me,” Mary Shelley was late before she ever managed to be early. The present article argues that Shelley’s first exploration of lateness predates even these remarks. Briefly examining the oft-noted biographical and historical grounds for Shelley’s interest in lateness, as well as its more definitive articulation in such works as The Last Man, this article demonstrates that Frankenstein offers a highly prescient examination of lateness and late Romanticism. My analysis centres on the novel’s use of narrative technique to create a distinctly late-Romantic style, in which anachronism takes pride of place. Thus situating the narration in a tense space between a shattered past and a disappointing future, the novel establishes a frame in which Shelley can examine the ways in which a late-Romantic movement may emerge that at once honours and critiques its Romantic forbears. The paper subsequently examines the use of further techniques expressive of lateness, including the trope of bequeathed narration, and closes by analysing the novel’s principal characters as quintessentially late-Romantic.
Frederick Burwick
Frankenstein: The Elements of Setting
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Mary Shelley’s geographical/historical readings and her tours of 1814 and 1816 have immediate relevance to the places and settings of Frankenstein. This article investigates the importance of place and settings, as Shelley moves from Geneva to the Ravine of Arve, from the old university town on the banks of the Danube to a rocky island in the Orkneys. Shelley renders these shifts pertinent by making the historical past impinge on the altering relationship of Victor and his creature. Neither of her tours took her into eastern Bavaria. Nor would she, had she made the trip to Ingolstadt, have found more than vestiges of the once influential seat of the Illuminati, for the university had been closed and converted to barracks for Napoleon’s occupying army in 1800. In this setting, Victor isolated himself from the intellectual life of the place in order to surround himself with the stench of the dismembered dead. The setting in the Orkney Islands provided an equally apt environment for assembling the monster’s bride. Recalling that Shelley’s first generation of readers would have recognized her settings as significant, the article charts the implications of the broader historical legacy these settings evoke.
Jessica Allen Hanssen
"Unnatural" Narratology, Frame Narrative, and Intertextuality in Frankenstein
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The confident narrative presence of Frankenstein’s creature presents several challenges to a conventional linear reading. His eloquence, and the speed at which he gains this eloquence, is by definition “unnatural,” and far exceeds the reader’s initial expectations for supposedly such a crude and elemental creation, especially as set up by the novel’s various frame narratives and their relatively “natural” narrations and timelines. Brian Richardson began working with idea of, although never using the term, unnatural narratology in 2006 as a way of reconsidering the impact of narrators speaking from “odd, unusual, or impossible” perspectives, and the impact of this discovery, and its ensuing critical controversy, continues to generate and transform readings of everything from familiar texts to computer-generated storyworlds. Frankenstein treats literary convention as malleable, and also emphasizes the role of the reader, who will have to consider both Victor’s reliability and her own metafictional complicity in the creation of the creature and its eventual estrangement. Frankenstein therefore represents a significant early example of how an “unnatural narratology” is deployed and manipulated to explore the boundaries of storytelling.
Stephen Behrendt
"All Men Hate the Wretched": Teaching Frankenstein in 2018
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The article examines the recent shift in sympathy among student readers away from the Creature and toward Victor Frankenstein, whom they increasingly characterize as a victim, rationalizing away his exaggerated ego and his pretensions to divinity. This shift may reflect changing cultural attitudes evident among the post-gen-X population, which has grown steadily more intolerant of all “otherness,” an intolerance that echoes the seeming inability to love unselfishly that plagues the uncompassionate Victor himself. When the Creature declares in Book X that “All men hate the wretched,” he paradoxically identifies both the victims and the agents who inflict their misery. This paradoxical connection relates to the analogous condition in 2018 of refugees, immigrants and victims of domestic violence, racism, sexism, or other social, cultural, political and linguistic/semantic depredations whose otherness is underscored within the general culture through rhetorical strategies like demonization. Perhaps the diminishing sympathy among more recent students for the Creature reflects the contemporary culture of victimology that has encouraged many of them to rationalize their tacit exclusion of otherness and to accept and normalize the aberrant, authoritarian behaviors of modern-day Victor Frankensteins.


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