As someone who has devoted much of her academic life to the work of Mary Shelley, the relationship between Frankenstein and Halloween has always interested me. In the 21st century, it is hard to think about Halloween without thinking about some of the iconic characters associated with the holiday: the Mummy, Dracula, and, of course, Frankenstein’s monster.
If there was one thing* I was completely unprepared for in my pursuit of a PhD, it was the toll grad school would take on my body. After working for several years post-college, I found returning to student life more physically draining than I expected: I hadn’t fully anticipated that my slightly older body would need more sleep and better food than it did in college, that the fonts on my computer would require some magnifying, or that my right wrist would come to demand the support of a carpal tunnel brace. While I realize the hardships of excessive sitting pale in comparison to, say, those of transportation to Botany Bay, that awareness couldn’t fully stop me from dwelling on the chair-bound grad student lifestyle’s surprising tendency to hurt, in places expected…and unexpected.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that as I learned how to take better care of myself as a grad student, I found myself gravitating towards health-related topics in my research. Or perhaps I simply felt vindicated by medical opinion new and old, both of which emphasized the evils of too much sitting. Indeed, Swiss physician Samuel August Tissot’s Essay on Diseases Incident to Literary and Sedentary Persons (1768; translated into English, 1769) would not seem out of place among the numerous recent articles detailing the threat posed by chairs, comfy and otherwise. Tissot’s medical advice is far from the only text that calls to mind current health preoccupations. In this post, I want to highlight a few of my favorites:
One of the great advantages we have as scholars is the opportunity to form communities beyond our institutions — not just at annual conferences in remote locales, but also in ongoing conversations on the web. These online communities are fora for scholarly dialogue and informal queries, requests for crowdfunding special projects and historical sites, and repositories of archival material. Here’s a brief roundup of selected sites, listservs, and communities available to Romanticists (and if you know of more, please get in touch!).
(1) NASSR List — the list of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (subscription required). The list is frequented by many major scholars in the field, but also graduate students and junior faculty; this is a particularly excellent resource for answers to obscure and arcane historical questions, and for links to major awards and opportunities in the field. Continue reading Romantic Web Communities
Like Arden, I, too, have been burning with curiosity about the recent critical reactions to several Frankenstein adaptations. But rather than valiantly sacrifice my time to the gods of Hollywood mediocrity as she so nobly does in her last post, I managed to escape the sub-par recreation of I, Frankenstein and instead turned my intrigue towards a much more mainstream and accepted performance: Danny Boyle’s 2011 National Theatre stage production of Frankenstein, featuring the incomparable Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. Continue reading More Frankenstein(s): Cumberbatch, Miller, and the National Theatre
This unapologetic lead balloon of a film has created controversy among Romanticists. What gives? I sacrificed myself to find out.
For the last number of months, I’ve been surprised by how often I, Frankenstein has reared its malformed CGI head in discussions about Romanticism. The film, which came out in January 2014 and has a 3% approval rating among critics, seems oddly difficult to dismiss. The film’s “near viral” negative response has resulted in a curious sort of academic Whack-a-Mole, as dismayed scholars continually reject any influence of anything “like this” on their work and teaching. But like any supernatural villain, I, Frankenstein always comes back — and so, it is lamented, the film is bound to make an eventual appearance on some ill-fated undergraduate syllabus. Continue reading I Watch I, Frankenstein
Here are the facts as I know them: 1. There are never enough hours in a day; 2. I have students who still think I don’t know that changing their font from Times to Courier adds at least a page to their essays; 3. The long 19th century is such a joy to study.
I didn’t always know these facts. When I was an undergraduate English major, using Courier in every paper I wrote about books that I only partially read, I was aimless. I took classes in order to get my degree, I earned A’s, and I didn’t minor in anything. You could say that I wasn’t the most pragmatic person on the planet. At the time, I wasn’t fully focused on school or my future; my older brother had left for Israel instead of attending law school as he had originally planned, and I struggled, trying to understand his decision. Later, as I pondered what I might do after my B.A., I was torn between graduate school and law school. A Romanticism seminar in the fall of my senior year tipped the scales.
One of the first books that we read was Frankenstein, the first assigned book of my undergraduate career that I read cover to cover. What sold me on Mary Shelley’s work wasn’t the fact that she wrote in response to a ghost story competition—instead, it was an anecdote shared by my professor. He told us how he had inscribed the creature’s words: “I will be with you on your wedding night” in a card at his friend’s wedding. How clever, I thought. I, too, wanted to be that witty, literary friend at weddings, but I realized that I should not and could not quote a book that I had not read. It was the first time that I fell in love with a canonical work.
We read a lot of other interesting works in class, and– in case you’re wondering–I did actually read them in their entirety. However, it was the last assigned work of the semester that changed my life. But Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice didn’t grab my attention right away. So, to make it more animated, I began reading it aloud to my cats with different voices. Soon, I was invested in the characters. And then I brought my interpretation of the novel to class: I said there was an erotic attachment between Darcy and Bingley. My classmates reacted with violent disagreement. They took it personally—that is, they were uncomfortable with any reading of a famously heteronormative text that involved queer desire. In all honesty, their disagreement delighted me. It motivated me. It led me to attend office hours and read literary theory for the first time. I read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Freud, Lauren Berlant, and Michael Warner. I wrote multiple drafts of my end-of-semester paper. And I realized that—just as my brother had done something unconventional that he loved—I loved writing about literature that I had actually read and thought about in unconventional ways; I needed to read for intellectual engagement, not just for pleasure or for finishing an assignment.
I didn’t know it then, but I had stumbled upon the subject I am most passionate about, the deconstruction of heterosexist interpretations of texts. You could say that Pride and Prejudice was my patient zero. As a MA student, I continued working with Austen; the next text that I plunged into was Persuasion, and then it was Emma. In my M.A. thesis, I argued that the heteronormative relationships depicted in Austen’s three novels are built and premised upon queer desire.
As a Ph.D. student who will enter into her final semester of coursework in January, I am actively compiling my exam lists and just as actively kicking myself for not actually reading for my first three years of college. The list of works that I’ve read, while growing, is woefully underdeveloped, and I see my exam lists as an opportunity to atone for my undergraduate sins. Even though I’ve been exposed to theory and a variety of tropes and texts, I remain interested in looking at texts—especially famous heteronormative love stories—and analyzing the ways in which desire functions. My dissertation will be a transatlantic study of desire and will further the ideas that I’ve been so passionate about since that seminar on Romanticism in my senior year of college.
PS. In case you’re curious–I have read Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and therefore feel okay about using parts of Hogg’s title.
In the past week, dozens of tributes to Scottish writer Iain Banks, have appeared online— hundreds, if you count the smaller, no less poignant, expressions of grief and thanks via social media. Banks died of cancer on June 9th, two months after releasing a statement to his readers announcing his illness and the devastating news of his short life expectancy. Publishing consistently since the early 80s, he leaves behind a significant body of work, including both general fiction and science fiction under the name Iain M. Banks. Though we were “prepared,” the loss hits his fans hard and sooner than expected. Here is my tribute to this Great writer, one that I feel both unqualified and strongly compelled to write. Banks is certainly not a Romantic writer, so it may seem strange for me to write about him here. I discovered his novels only within the past few years, and I’ve still only read a handful of them. Yet, these works have made a lasting impression on me and, more to the point of this post, on my classroom, often paired with Romantic texts.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been analyzed and interpreted in many different contexts, providing endless possible readings and uses. For some students, the possibilities are exciting, but, for others, they are also overwhelming. Frankenstein is one of the most teachable Romantic novels for the college classroom, but it can be difficult to convince students not accustomed to reading nineteenth-century texts (or not used to reading much in general) to have the patience to tread through unfamiliar prose styles in order to appreciate the novel’s worth. I think I can assume that many of us have taught this novel and had this experience at some point. There are many strategies to prepare students for the foreignness of earlier texts, but one that I frequently use is to pair a Romantic novel with a more contemporary novel. Twice, I have taught Frankenstein with Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory (1984) in my freshman literature and composition classroom, a combination that exposes students to two types of literature: both qualify as Gothic, but we see it from two very different time periods and styles. After a week or so of feeling their way through Frankenstein, keeping characters straight and starting to construct understandings of settings and major themes, students develop a tenuous relationship with the text. Then I introduce them to a character named Frank.
“I represent a crime…” (10).
The Wasp Factory tells the story of this disturbed, sixteen-year-old, first-person narrator and his daily routines as he recounts his experiments and murders (that’s right, murders) on his family’s isolated Scottish land. His father, himself a reclusive mad scientist of sorts, has been seminal in Frank’s unstable (my students use the word “insane”) character. Frank, a god in his domain, spends his time fabricating and performing private rituals involving small animals and insects, creatures whose lives and deaths Frank orchestrates in order to tell the future or reinforce his surveillance and control over his island. The crowning glory of these devises is, of course, the wasp factory, a machine constructed from a giant clock face that holds twelve possible deaths for the wasp Frank releases into it. The death chosen by the wasp holds a wealth of information for our narrator. Frank is a powerless character desperate for power, abandoned by his mother and brother. Sound familiar? Frank, despite his age, has killed three times, and the twist ending blows my students’ minds.
“My dead sentries, those extensions of me which came under my power through the simple but ultimate surrender of death, sensed nothing to harm me or the island” (19).
Following up Frankenstein with The Wasp Factory solidifies students’ understandings of both novels by comparing and contrasting. Both texts are inherently about the construction of monstrosity on different levels, as well as human agency in matters of life and death. The creature and Frank are both considered to be monstrous outsiders for their behavior and appearances, but both have also been “created” by their father figures, practically devoid of any female influence. They are not unlike Victor in this sense, as well. They generate power through manipulation of their limited resources with conventionally inacceptable (again, “insane”), behaviors. All three construct their own forms of justice and morality based on adversity, environment, self-delusion, and a striving for power. The students compare and contrast these elements with little prompting from me as Frank and his world accentuate the choices and characteristics of Victor Frankenstein and his creation, not to mention the common themes of nature, science, motherhood, destruction, revenge, madness, etc.
“The factory said something about fire” (23).
The Wasp Factory is not a Romantic text, and that is what makes it so useful in this context: accessible and entertaining, it acts as a stepping stone between the students’ own interests and experiences and those of the early nineteenth century. Students have told me that The Wasp Factory is “the first book I’ve read that has actually made me think.” Another student became so fascinated with the spatial descriptions of Frank’s island that he went out and found a map of the book online, then did the same for Frankenstein. Banks’s novel is incredibly visual, and students want to visualize other texts just as clearly. They squirm at the more graphic, gruesome parts in the novel, but they can’t stop talking about them. The book complicates their own assumptions regarding characters as likable/unlikable and right/wrong and what those judgments are based on. They find Frank frightening and (again) “insane,” yet develop such an affection for him, one that they find themselves extending to the Creature and even to Victor. Writing about both texts together, they explore the complexity of character motives. They learned that liking a character does not mean that they can trust him, and that brings them even closer to that character.
“The wasp factory is beautiful and deadly and perfect” (154).
The strangeness of Banks’s novel, set in a familiar time and told with accessible and beautiful language, opens up a door to welcome other types of strangeness into the classroom, even a strangeness going back almost 200 years. A monster and his creations are always in good company. Iain Banks, thank you for your monsters and your creations. They will continue to teach us so much, not least to enjoy brilliant and important literature.
Banks, Iain. The Wasp Factory. 25th Anniversary Edition. London: Abacus, 2009.