January 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, and the occasion has been commemorated with celebrations, conferences, retrospectives, editorials, and more. Clearly, the book belongs to the twenty-first century, as much as it did the nineteenth and twentieth. This Entitled Opinion episode, featuring Inga Pierson, explores how Shelley's astonishing novel is a parable for our times.
The story was born on the shores of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816, the coldest summer on record. The 18-year-old Mary Godwin had eloped with the poet Percy Shelley, “at that time, more of an incorrigible trouble-maker than a poet...the nineteenth-century equivalent of a rock star.” She had been disowned by her family and was still haunted by the death of her infant first child. One stormy night, the couple huddle in a villa with the poet Lord Byron and a few others. Their discussion is fueled by the era's cutting-edge discussions of evolution, materialism, electricity, and the animating principle of life. They cite Coleridge and talk about their dreams. Finally, they devise a contest to create a ghost story during their Swiss sojourn.
In a feverish “waking dream,” Shelley envisioned Frankenstein, about an experiment to recreate life that ended sadly and violently. “It's the great question of the novel: What goes wrong? He's the perfect being, according to rationalist, Enlightenment principles,” says Pierson. Yet even Victor Frankenstein himself is never won over by his own creation, who nevertheless craves his acceptance and love. “The monster, for better or for worse, has what we call a soul, and it could have been turned into a beautiful soul,” says Entitled Opinions Harrison.
“You wonder if this is a comment on all the Enlightenment ideas,” says Pierson. “Victor says he's an Enlightenment intellectual. He's not afraid of graveyards, he doesn't believe in ghosts, he's doesn't worry about God.” He attends the University of Ingolstadt, which was famous in its day for "natural philosophy – “that's the 19th century term for STEM.” Victor is monomaniacally steeped in mathematics, chemistry, anatomy, physiology. The Creature is a humanist, however, and Mary Shelley gives him all the best books: he finds Paradise Lost, Sorrows of Young Werther and Plutarch's Lives under a tree. Who, in the end, is more humane?
“The monster comes to life very much like a human child would,” she notes. “There's a wonderful discussion of him opening his eyes for the first time, and Mary Shelley knew what that looked like. She'd had infants.”
“While he's learning to distinguish one sensation from the next – hunger, thirst, cold. In the same passage where he's distinguishing cold from hunger, he looks up and sees the moon. To me that's evidence of a soul of sorts – the poetic inclination of the mind, the religious inclination, or maybe those are the same.”
According to Pierson, “Mary Shelley is a dissenting voice in an era when people were very excited about scientific discovery. It's easy to get excited, and when it goes bad, disclaim responsibility.” In that sense, Frankenstein is still out in the world in so many ways.
At the end of the novel, the Monster is floating away on a block of ice to the ends of the world. According to Pierson. “He is a creature who is alone, adrift, and friendless – motherless and friendless.”
“The Monster comes to life very much like a human child would.”
“There is something in the Creature that yearns for the heavens.”
“There's a wonderful description of him opening his eyes for the first time. Mary Shelley knew what that looked like. She'd had infants.”
“Victor is a failure, a disaster, and you really don't have characters like that until the 20th century.”
“Mary Shelley questioned that kind of grandiloquence that her husband Percy embraced. She saw it as a form of hubris.”
“Mary Shelley is a dissenting voice in an era when people were very excited about scientific discovery.”
Inga Pierson has taught Shelley's "Frankenstein" at Stanford, where she was a fellow in the humanities and a lecturer in the "Thinking Matters" program. She also taught interdisciplinary seminars such as “Humans and Machines” and “Epic Journeys, Modern Quests."
She received her PhD in Italian Studies from New York University in 2009. and she was visiting assistant professor at Colgate University in Romance languages, as well as film and media studies. She has taught courses in Italian literature, language, and culture, as well as film history and media theory. She is currently working on a book, "Towards a Poetics of Neorealism: Tragedy and Modernism in the Italian Cinema from the Late Fascist-era through the 1950s."
She teaches humanities at Sacred Heart in Atherton, California.