Current Issue Article Abstracts
Volume 83, Number 4 Winter 2020
Special Issue: Frankenstein and Its Environments, Then and Now.
Edited by Jerrold E. Hogle
The Environments of Frankenstein
Jerrold E. Hogle
This prolegomenon to a collection of eleven essays provides a setting for them all by explaining the ongoing significance of Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein two hundred years after it was first published; the theme of multiple “environments” that imbues Frankenstein and its offshoots and that is common to all these essays; the novel’s emergence from a generic environment of fiction (the Gothic) that established itself in the 1760s and continues to this day; the history of interpretations of Frankenstein generated by the various theoretical environments in which it has been analyzed; and how all of the following essays, including the particular environments of Frankenstein they treat, both advance that history and fit into the overall scheme of this special issue.
Susan J. Wolfson
Of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus—as the or (appositive or alternative?) may suggest—origins are in such oversupply, such over-determination, as to make a question of origin itself. Its complex multiples extend to a report from the decade in which Frankenstein is cast, the 1790s: J. M. Itard’s De l’éducation d’un homme sauvage (1801), about a feral boy of mysterious origin. Susan Wolfson investigates the several origin-stories for, in, from, and around Mary Shelley’s durably dynamic novel, including the question of “monstrous” assignments and the riddle for Enlightenment thought about whether primitive existence is ideal innocence, or savagery.
The Volcano That Spawned a Monster: Frankenstein and Climate Change
Gillen D’Arcy Wood
The volcanic period of 1816–18 is the most recent and vivid case study we have for worldwide climate catastrophe, evident from archival and geological records of sustained extreme weather, including drought, floods, storms, and crop-killing temperature decline. The signature literary expression of this historic climate crisis occurred in Switzerland, where teenage Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in the midst of the disastrous “Year without a Summer,” 1816, a season of floods and food riots caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora thousands of miles away. This essay, combining climate science with historical and literary sources, reexamines the literary legend of that direful, stormy summer, which Mary Shelley spent on the shores of Lake Geneva with the poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, with a new and original emphasis on its climatic context. The writers huddled indoors and wrote ghost stories, while the cataclysmic weather and humanitarian emergency unfolding around them weaved its way into Mary Shelley’s imagining of a tragic monster brought to life.
The goal of this essay is to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a “bioethical” novel that draws upon several Romantic-era discourses that powerfully combined medical environmentalism, ecology, and political reform to criticize the “biotechnology” of her era. In her novel, Mary Shelley engages in a critique of the selective breeding that farmers of her era used to create new biological beings, as Victor Frankenstein does, by building on the role that new breeds of livestock played in the industrialization of late eighteenth-century British agriculture and the greater consumption of animal food in England. At the same time, Frankenstein also points up the problematic links between such breeding schemes and two other factors of the same period: the greater mobility of peoples and animals made viable by wide-ranging, seagoing trade, and the multiplicity of different-colored races made more apparent by how this mobility enabled the possibility of more human, as well as animal, crossbreeding.
A white, wealthy, educated male, Victor Frankenstein spends a good portion of Mary Shelley’s novel complaining about being a slave to his Creature. Victor’s laments draw attention to Frankenstein’s engagement with debates about race, slavery, and abolition. The novel seems to ask what a slave is and thereby challenges notions about racial difference and the ideals of cultural/intellectual superiority that support enslaving populations. Foundational studies by H. L. Malchow and others on race in Frankenstein have defined the views of Shelley’s father, William Godwin, as well as the pervasive ideas of the era, to clarify the ways in which the Creature is racially coded to align with stereotypes about Blacks in particular. Using these studies as a starting point, Maisha Wester specifically examines the ways in which Shelley’s text engages the anxieties born out of slave insurrections and Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. To this end, she explores Shelley’s depiction of the turbulence in British society arising from these issues, showing how the Creature’s attacks metaphorize the insurrections that disturbed the era’s notions of racial difference. Ultimately, her essay explains how Victor is, indeed, a “slave”—as are many others like him.
Frankenstein and the Sciences of Self-Regulation
This essay argues that Romantic-era concepts of regulation help us to understand both how and why Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein provided a critical commentary on the sciences and political theories of its time and why the novel has continued to serve as a cultural touchpoint for understanding the implications of new technologies (for example, genetic engineering). Concepts of regulation appear at key points in Frankenstein, including in Robert Walton’s hopes that his trip to the North Pole will result in a scientific discovery about magnetism that can “regulate a thousand celestial observations” and in his and Victor Frankenstein’s reflections on the relationship between their education and their identities. Concepts of regulation were also central for many eighteenth-century and Romantic-era natural scientists, philosophers, political economists, and political theorists (including Antoine Lavoisier, Immanuel Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Godwin), and they were paramount to the development of “liberal” economic theory, which aimed to use the science of political economy to limit the power of the state. Robert Mitchell argues that Frankenstein takes up these concepts of regulation in order to critique this linkage of liberalism and the sciences, with the end of encouraging its readers to reimagine the components of liberalism in more equitable forms.
Only recently, with the rise of critical animal studies, have readings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begun to do full justice to the hybrid nature of Frankenstein’s Creature, constructed (as Victor tells us) from materials found in the “slaughter-house” as well as the “dissecting room.” Yet even animal-studies scholars view the Creature’s brain as “human,” in the absence of any supporting evidence from Shelley’s text. Here, Alan Richardson traces the Creature’s horrific effect to dual anxieties that came to ferment during the early nineteenth century, both of them amply documented in the brain science of Shelley’s era and in published reactions to it. First, the line between human and animal was becoming notably porous, in natural history, in comparative anatomy and physiology, and even in such areas as the controversy over vaccination. Second, a new discourse of instinctive and innate mental tendencies had come to compete with both creationist and tabula rasa accounts of the human mind—a development that further eroded the border between human and animal. Frankenstein’s Creature, a literally monstrous hybrid, both embodies these anxieties and exaggerates them, as a fully material and yet rational humanoid entity with body parts, and perhaps neural organs and instincts, traceable to animals.
Adapting the Unthinkable: An Interview
Nick Dear, Anne K. Mellor
This segment consists primarily of a transcript of the question-and-answer exchange conducted at the Huntington on May 12, 2018, between Nick Dear, the author of the 2011 adaptation of Frankenstein first presented by the National Theatre of Great Britain, and Dr. Anne K. Mellor, Distinguished Research Professor of English at UCLA. The interview was then and is here preceded by general remarks from Mr. Dear, for which he provides the following abstract: “I first remind our readers that I am a playwright, not a scholar, and that I identified a ‘gap in the market.’ Whilst there are many movie versions of the novel in existence, there has not been, to my knowledge, a stage version that was a good play. I wanted to do justice to Mary Shelley’s ‘handbook of radical philosophy’; at the same time, I stress that it’s a fairy tale, not a work of science. I then focus on the decision made with the director, Danny Boyle, to reframe the narrative from the Creature’s point of view. I go on to discuss some of the issues that this raised and the dramaturgical decisions that were subsequently made (for example, losing the framing narrative in the novel of Robert Walton on the ship). Finally, I talk about the difficulties of ending the story onstage—and my solution—given the ambivalent ending of Shelley’s novel.”
Frankenstein and Modern Bioscience: Which Story Should We Heed?
Henry T. Greely
Frankenstein presents us today with two different stories and two different lessons. The book, especially in the 1818 first edition, tells the story of Victor Frankenstein’s neglect of his parental duties and the harms that followed. The more lasting myth that succeeded the novel, however, became popular as early as the 1823 production of the first theatrical piece based on the book, Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein. This play’s different lesson is that Frankenstein dared too much, presumed to divine powers, and thus instigated the harms that followed. Modern bioscience affords us many unprecedented and disconcerting possibilities through, among other tools, genetics, neuroscience, stem-cell biology, and assisted reproduction. Which lessons should we apply to those possibilities, and from which of the two Frankenstein stories? Henry T. Greely argues that we should mainly fulfill the novel’s views of our duties of care. We should indeed, in Bruno Latour’s words, “Love our Monsters,” though we also need to heed the allure to the public of the myth of presumption.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Genetic Engineering
Anne K. Mellor
Looking back over the essays in this collection, as well as the two-hundred-plus years since Frankenstein was conceived and published, this postscript asks us to recall that Mary Shelley’s own life experiences, especially childbirth, were sources for her story, even as it incorporated many other ingredients from her milieu. And today, the possibilities for creating artificial life that Frankenstein reflects on and prefigures so vividly are echoed directly in much bioscience. Shelley’s tale haunts our minds when we learn of the development of the Non-Invasive Prenatal Diagnosis, which can genetically scan a pregnant woman’s blood to make detailed predictions about her fetus, and especially CRISPR technology, which could be used to edit the genes of a human embryo. More than Victor Frankenstein did with his creation, we must take responsibility for both the intended and the unintended consequences of human germline engineering.