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Penetrating the 
Secrets of Nature
  Study Guide
Part of the Cornell Freshmen Reading Project
    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been a popular text ever since its first publication in 1818.  Though, as the Norton edition's preface notes, the novel has never been out of print, “it had little reputation as ‘literature’.”  However, “contemporary criticism is almost unanimous now in regarding Frankenstein as not only canonical, after years of academic neglect, but paradigm-breaking and exemplary: it is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the nineteenth century or the making of the modern consciousness” (p. xi).

    There are many reasons for its popularity: the intense, gripping plot; the morbidly fascinating monster; the multiple narratives which guide and manipulate us; and perhaps most importantly the conspicuous moral dilemma of Dr. Frankenstein himself.  It is a text in which students of any discipline can find an object of study: scientific questions about the origins and mechanics of life; ethical questions about giving life and taking responsibility for it; literary questions of structure, mood, and phrasing; cultural and historical questions about Frankenstein’s travel and studies across Europe; educational questions about the acquisition of language and the development of cognition and identity.

    Most intriguing, perhaps, is the fact that this novel cannot easily be pinned down.  Shelley’s own life experiences and tragedies, as noted in the Norton edition's preface, could not but have influenced her work: “Her mind was full of powerful (and conflicting) hopes and anxieties; and she often saw in traditional opposites – birth and death, pleasure and pain, masculinity and femininity, power and fear, writing and silence, innovation and tradition, competitiveness and compliance, ambition and suppression – things that overlapped and resisted easy borders and definitions” (p. viii).  The comments below, drawn from critiques in the Norton edition, offer some starting points for those deliberations.

    “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is famously reinterpretable.  It can be a late version of the Faust myth, or an early version of the modern myth of the mad scientist; the id on the rampage, the proletariat running amok, or what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman.”  -Marilyn Butler, “Frankenstein and Radical Science”

    “When Victor Frankenstein identifies Nature as female – ‘I pursued nature to her hiding places’ – he participates in a gendered construction of the universe whose ramifications are everywhere apparent in Frankenstein.  His scientific penetration and technological exploitation of female nature…is only one dimension of a more general cultural encoding of the female as passive and possessable, the willing receptacle of male desire.” – Anne K. Mellor, “Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein

    “Frankenstein is one of the first in a long tradition of fictional overreachers, of characters who act out in various ways the myth of Faust, and transport it from the world of mystery and miracle to the commonplace.  He is destroyed not by some metaphysical agency, some supernatural intervention…but by his own nature and the consequences of living in or rejecting human community.” – George Levine, “Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism”


Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature was developed by the National Library of Medicine in collaboration with the American Library Association.

It has been made possible by major grants from The National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, D.C., and the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Md. The traveling exhibition is based upon a major exhibition produced by the National Library of Medicine in 1997-1998.

American Library Association National Endowment for the Humanities National Library of Medicine

Local program support has been generously provided by Cornell University, M&T Bank, and Borders Bookstore.

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We have also benefited from many local partnerships with community groups including the members of the Discovery Trail.

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Last Revised September 7, 2002