101 E. Green
of the Cornell Freshmen Reading Project
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”
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.
We have also benefited from many local partnerships with community groups including the members of the Discovery Trail.
Frankenstein image from: http://www.creativescreenwriting.com/articles/essman12_99.html
Last Revised September 7, 2002