At only 19, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the groundbreaking novel widely credited as the first work of science fiction. Even now, 200 years after its publication, her story retains its power, continuing to spin off retellings in films, books, and graphic novels.
Why does this story captivate us?
“Frankenstein has a vivid presence still today,” says Professor of English Tamara Ketabgian. “The book addresses so many issues that remain urgent. It has to do with autonomy and autonomous life, and it relates them to important questions around ethics and difference and knowledge. It survives because it’s not just a work of fiction, it’s a metaphor, it’s a meme, it’s a myth.”
Last fall, Ketabgian taught a writing course called Frankenstein 200: Monster, Myth, and Meme. She points to Frankenstein’s particular relevance to college students because much of the story revolves around education. “The novel invites us to ask: What is knowledge, what is wisdom, and what is the right way to learn?”
In fact, Ketabgian says Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about highly specialized education and the limits of learning in isolation. Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who creates the nameless monster, first studies alchemy before latching onto chemistry with single-minded tenacity and cordoning himself off to pursue his dream of creating life.
“Victor is a good example of someone who’s really determined and also specialized,” Ketabgian says. “He doesn’t think about the consequences or ethics of his actions, and he doesn’t think about creating collaboratively.”
Teaming up with Jennifer Esperanza, a professor of anthropology and faculty director of Beloit’s Initiatives program, Ketabgian organized a special interdisciplinary conversation about Frankenstein, held on campus the day before Halloween to honor the novel’s 200th anniversary.
The event, designed especially for first-year students, featured Ketabgian, Esperanza, and two of Beloit’s science professors sharing their perspectives on the novel and its literary and film progeny. Many of the students who took part in the conversation had read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, of course, but they’d also read Victor Lavalle’s Destroyer, a 2017 graphic novel that taps Frankenstein’s monster in the context of contemporary sociopolitical tensions.
At the conversation, Esperanza, a cultural anthropologist, talked about the importance of stories in understanding cultures, including the stories that articulate fears.
Shelley was writing Frankenstein at a time in Europe when large segments of the population were moving from rural areas to cities to work in factories for wages, Esperanza explained. “Frankenstein addresses 19th century fears about capitalism and how it would drastically transform notions of work and social relationships,” she said. “Frankenstein’s monster can be interpreted as people’s fear of capitalism, an economic system that was new but slightly familiar. It’s an altered, menacing version of what was once familiar.”
Esperanza said Frankenstein also expresses anxieties about race, and, in the United States, articulates the fears white people had of black slaves rising up, demanding rights, and intermingling with whites. Despite the end of slavery, Esperanza argues that the remnants of those social anxieties are still alive in our stories, citing the 2017 film “Get Out,” which riffs on Frankenstein. Esperanza talked about this film—featuring white characters transplanting white brains into black character’s bodies—and how it takes the racial anxiety narrative and flips it. “It’s about black people’s fear of white supremacy, the ways in which it has co-opted black bodies, and the ways in which it continues today,” she said.
Robin Zebrowski, a professor of cognitive science, pointed out that the themes in Frankenstein—of creation, difference, empathy, monstrosity, and control—are the themes of artificial intelligence. Zebrowski pointed out that early robot stories are about Frankenstein. “They’re about building something no one can control once it’s unleashed,” she said. She noted that the first work of literature ever written about robots—a 1923 Czech play called R.U.R.—is a story about a robot uprising.
Britt Scharringhausen, a sci-fi aficionado and professor of physics and astronomy, put Frankenstein into context by considering what was happening in science circa 1818—including discoveries around magnetism and electricity—and the anxieties these discoveries were causing. Nature, too, was beginning to seem like something that could be brought under control, and advances in sustaining life, such as resuscitating drowned people, had started blurring the lines between life and death. “Frankenstein expresses anxieties about the boundary between life and death and the tension between creation and destruction,” she said.
Scharringhausen pointed to the novel’s significance in launching an entire genre. She read a passage from the author’s introduction that explains the narrative as more than merely fantasy because of its grounding in the science of the time. Scharringhausen said that’s what science fiction does: It places characters in speculative situations, opening up new ways to explore human nature.
“Frankenstein got the whole ball rolling,” she said.
Professor of English Tamara Ketabgian recommends the 1831 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as well as these adaptations of the story.
By Victor LaValle, illustrated by Dietrich Smith
In this compelling graphic novel, LaValle transforms Frankenstein for our postmodern age of Black Lives Matter. LaValle explores the “mad science” of an African-American inventor—and mother—who mourns her young son’s death through police violence. His comic also features the original Frankenstein’s monster—still alive and wreaking havoc after 200 years.
By Hubert Haddad, translated by Alyson Waters
Originally published in French, this novel explores an intriguing but also chilling medical scenario: the grafting of one man’s living head onto another living body. Haddad explores this Frankenstein hybrid in an eccentric
neuro-novel that combines medical memoir, romance, and philosophical mind-body dialogue.
This Monstrous Thing
By Mackenzi Lee
Students highly recommend this YA steampunk retelling of Frankenstein in an alternate history world where human bodies are brought back from the dead with clockwork pieces.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
By Philip K. Dick
No Frankenstein list is complete without this post-apocalyptic science fiction classic, which restages Shelley’s tale through the ethically vexed relationship between humans and androids created to serve them. Dick’s novel also famously inspired Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner.