Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
Literature, and today we continue our discussion of “Frankenstein”.
Oh, Me From the Past didn’t even come to school today. Isn’t that fantastic? Well
we’re going to learn something without him. Last time we talked a little bit about the
Romantics, “Frankenstein” is often cited as the definitive Romantic novel, but ehh…
let’s get a little bit deeper into it. Capital “R” Romantics don’t have a lot
to do with lower case ‘r’ romantics, unless your idea of romance involves like ecstatic
descriptions of nature and a revolutionary spirit that often ends in bloodshed.
And if that’s your idea of romance, don’t put it in your OK Cupid profile. However,
pro tip, do say that you’re 6’3”. Knowing more about the capital “R” Romantics will help you be better at lower case “r” romance so stick with me here. [Theme Music] So Romanticism was a movement originating
in the late 18th century and it’s typically understood as a reaction against both the
Industrial Revolution’s devaluing of the individual human spirit and embracing of like the soulless assembly line. And also the Enlightenment’s claims of scientific certainty.
Romanticism prizes intuition over rationalism, and nature and wildness over classical harmony,
and emotions—especially difficult emotions like horror and awe and terror and passion—are
preferred over intellect. And there’s an emphasis on the unconscious
and irrational part of humans. There’s a lot of talk of dreams and stuff.
So is “Frankenstein” a Romantic novel? Well, if you take a course in Romantic lit
in college then you will almost definitely read it. So, yes.
“Frankenstein” is interested in difficult, uncomfortable emotions the wonder and awe
and horror of encountering the radically other. And it’s certainly in many ways also a response to the
Enlightenment’s emphasis on scientific rationality. I mean people at the time really thought
that we would eventually be able to reanimate the dead and other people
were rightly troubled by that. Then again, you can also read the book as
a critique — and a pretty stern one — of the kind of thinking and acting that
Romanticism encourages, right? I mean Romanticism preaches a radical
self-involvement that privileges the individual’s pursuit of knowledge and glory but for all of Victor
and Walton’s encountering nature and going with their gut it’s pretty disastrous. .
Another popular reading is to interpret “Frankenstein” autobiographically, a reading that was encouraged
via 1970s feminist criticism of the novel. Earlier readings along these lines situates
“Frankenstein” as a tale of monstrous birth and look to Mary Shelley’s own experiences
with birth, which were pretty terrible.. I mean Mary Shelley’s mother died while
giving birth to her and Mary and Percy’s own first child, a daughter, died when she
was just a few weeks old. And in her journal, Mary recounted an incredibly
sad dream about this daughter: “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it
had only been cold & that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived.”
So, of course, the idea of bringing the dead back to life had occurred to her even before
she listened in on Percy Shelley and Byron discussing new developments in electricity.
Mary Shelley even refers to the book itself as a child. In her intro to the 1831 edition,
she wrote, “I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for
it, for it was the offspring of happy days.” That’s a very tempting reading, but it’s
also really literal and reductive. First off, and I’m saying this partly defensively
as a novelist, novelist don’t write exclusively from their own experience.
More importantly, I’m not at all convinced that making an author the central character
of a novel is a particularly helpful way to read it.
So if you read “Frankenstein” as merely as Mary Shelley working out her own personal
issues you miss the great and terrible questions at the center of the book. The questions that
really can change you. There’s in fact a term for trying to do
this kind of reading—“intentional fallacy”—in which we believe we can know exactly what
the author was thinking when they wrote a book.
But putting aside those biographical readings there are still some pretty interesting feminist
critiques of “Frankenstein.” For instance, the novel clearly shows what
harm comes to women (and families and relationships) when men pursue single-minded goals.
In fact, thanks to Victor’s lack of work-life balance, pretty much all the women in this
novel die. I mean Victor’s creation of the monster leads to the hanging of the servant
Justine, the murder of Victor’s bride Elizabeth on their wedding night.
And occasionally in the novel Mary Shelley refers to nature itself as female, suggesting
that Victor is violating it, as when Victor discusses how with “unrelaxed and breathless
eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places.” I mean you can say I’m reading sex into
that if you want but “unrelaxed and breathless eagerness.”?
And there are also plenty of suggestions that Victor might not like women very much. The
creature says that he will leave Victor and all mankind alone forever if Victor just creates
a mate for him and Victor begins work, but then he gets freaked out over what it will
mean to create a lady monster. Now admittedly that’s partly because it
might mean monster progeny but just look at the text, “She might become ten thousand
times more malignant than her mate,” thinks Victor, “and delight, for its own sake,
in murder and wretchedness.” He worries, “a race of devils would be propagated
upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious
and full of terror.” So Victor destroys the female creature while
the monster watches. He recalls, how “trembling with passion, [I] tore to pieces the thing
on which I was engaged.” I don’t think I’m being too weird to point
out the sexy stuff there: “trembling with passion.” Anyway, Victor claims to love
his cousin, Elizabeth, but he deserts her for years at a time and even though the creature
says—really, really, really clearly—“I will be with you on your wedding-night,”
he leaves her alone on his wedding night. Now we can all wonder why Mary Shelley didn’t
create any strong female characters here and instead a collection of suffering, passive,
doomed ones, but we can certainly read the novel as an exploration of what happens when
men fear, distrust, or devalue women so much that they attempt to reproduce without them.
I mean in some ways Victor is trying to bypass the feminine altogether. He’s creating life
without recourse to egg or womb. Now you could counter this by saying that Mary Shelley’s
original Creator—God—did the same thing. But that’s precisely the point. Victor is
not God. And perhaps this is where “Frankenstein”
is still most relevant, in its discussion of “playing God,” of the single-minded
pursuit of science without an accompanying concern about you know, morality.
Now, obviously, the experiments that Victor undertakes are extreme, but Mary Shelley was
basing them on some of the scientific debates and discoveries of her day. And even if the
book is largely science fiction, there’s a certain amount of scientific fact in it,
and a lot of scientific questioning. And part of why this book has survived is
because the questions she was asking were important in her day, but they’re also
pretty important now. I mean there was a recent book on genetic
modifications in animals called “Frankenstein’s Cat”, those who object to GMO foods often
label them Frankenfoods, which only makes them sound like Franken-berry cereal – which
is delicious! So Mary Shelley was influenced… oh… it
must be time for The Open Letter. Oh look, it’s Frankenstein’s monster.
No, wait, it’s the Hulk. It actually occurs to me that they’re quite similar.
Both monsters created by failed scientific experiments who only really become monstrous
when they’re rejected by society. Anyway, an Open Letter to scientists: Dear
Scientists, here’s a little rule of thumb. Anytime you’re doing any kind of experiment,
ask yourself the question, “Could this create a monster?” Even if the chances are relatively
low, I’m going to advise against that experiment, because what I have seen from the movies and from
books is that if it can become a monster it will! But I will say scientists that I think you’ve been a bit unfairly maligned by poor readings of “Frankenstein.” Frankenstein is not like the Hulk because
his story isn’t, at least not simply, about about science run amok.
It’s an oversimplification scientists. You are doing good work with you lab coats and
your chemicals and I thank you. Don’t turn anyone into a monster. Best wishes, John Green.
Right, but anyway, Mary Shelley was influenced by several scientists, but chief among them
Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to Charles, and Luigi Galvani.
Darwin published a long poem called “The Temple of Nature,” because back then poetry
was a totally reasonable way to share scientific ideas.
He had an idea that life—at least on the microscopic level—could be restored to seemingly
dead matter or created out of inert matter, a phenomenon he called “spontaneous generation.” And Galvani, became famous for conducting
experiments with electricity, in which he showed that electrical impulses could animate
the muscles of dead creatures like the legs of a deceased frog.
Did you get it? “.. conducting experiments in electricity”, anyone? Conducting electricity?
No? OK. Galvani’s followers did even more macabre
experiments, like in 1803 test in which several scientists attached electrodes to the body
of an executed murderer in the hope of restoring it to life.
Because they were like, “Oh, man. Who should we bring back from the dead? I know, a murderer!”
Anyway, they,of course, didn’t succeed, but they did succeed in making a few of the
murder’s muscles convulse. These experiments clearly influence Victor’s
attempt to reanimate dead flesh and in fact Victor’s experiments weren’t that much
radical than ones that were actually happening at the time.
That said, the novel itself is clearly pretty skeptical about these pursuits. I mean even
before he animates the monster, it’s clear that his studies are exacting a tremendous
toll on Victor’s health, and his well being, also that of his friends and family.
Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Victor describes how “My cheek had grown
pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement,” which is a
pretty good passage to show your parents when they’re pushing you to go pre-med.
And things only went downhill once he began to assemble the creature. Victor, “dabbled
among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal…collected bones
from charnel-houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human
frame,” But Victor thinks that this digging around
in slaughterhouses and graveyards will be worth it; he says “I might in process of
time…renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” And that’s
an amazing and laudable goal (unless you’ve ever seen any zombie movie ever, in which
case you would know that it’s a TERRIBLE idea).
But in that same passage, Victor says that the creatures he makes “would bless me as
its creator and source…. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely
as I should deserve theirs.” So it’s clear that his desire is actually
selfish and that he’s pursuing this knowledge not for universal good, or so that the dead
may live again, but for his own gratification. And then of course there’s his reaction
when his experiment does succeed. I mean, even though he’s assembled every facet of
the creature and made him huge on purpose so that all these fiddly bits like veins and
eyelashes will be easier to work with, he responds to his creature with utter horror.
And what is Victor’s mature, responsible, heroic reaction to this situation? He runs
away, making all the dads on “Teen Mom” look amazing by comparison.
Thanks Thought Bubble So, the monster blames this initial abandonment
for all the murders that result, right? And Percy Shelley agreed, writing that while
the creature was initially affectionate and moral “the circumstances of his existence
were so monstrous and uncommon, that… his original goodness was gradually turned into
the fuel of an inextinguishable misanthropy and revenge.”
But is the tragedy inherent in the creation of the monster or is there a way to pursue
knowledge without responding in horror? Frankenstein is more than a little relevant
today as we struggle to figure out where technologies like stem cell therapy, or genetically modified
foods, or cloning land on the ethical and moral scales of the social order.
The pursuit of knowledge is good, right, because that’s how I’m even able to talk to you
through like the magic of the Internet. That’s why we aren’t hunger/gathers anymore.
But we don’t actually know the outcome yet. Sometimes we forget that we’re still in
the middle of history. I don’t think Mary Shelley condemned science
outright, or explicitly discourages learning the secrets of life and nature.
Now the experiment definitely fails. The question is why?
Is it because Victor’s aims are just unnatural and evil? Is it because he can’t love the
creature he’s created? Or is it because he let’s his ego run amok dictate his motivations?
That’s a non-rhetorical question by the way. I look forward to reading your answers
in comments. Thank you for watching. I’ll see you next week.
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