Frankenstein, Encore! (Or not?)

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I , like Katherine, have also been teaching Frankenstein, in my case in the “Romantic Poetry and Prose” survey I’ve been conducting since September. It’s hard to imagine a version of that course that could dispense with Frankenstein.

For a start, the novel itself enacts a kind of retrospective postmortem on the Romantic period, with its quotations from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Tintern Abbey” and Percy Shelley’s “Mutability.” At this stage in the academic year, I’m urging my students to look back and survey the literary history we’ve covered and, wonderfully, Shelley herself can look to be doing just wht I’m asking them to do.

Frankenstein is also--as all of us who have taught it know-- capable of seeming forever timely and relevant. This year, in my lecturing I followed, as I often do, the many scholars who have described the novel as Mary Shelley’s critique of the myth of solitary authorship and individual genius --a critique she enacts in the 1831 Preface especially as her recollections of the group ghost story contest, the books that fell into their hands that inspired it, the conversations about science to which she was “a devout but nearly silent listener,” all combine to diffuse authorial authority and sideline singular identities. (Mary Favret’s chapter on Frankenstein Romantic Correspondence still strikes me as the indispensable interpretation of Shelley’s project in these terms.) But this year I was able to refer to the film “The Social Network” as mounting a similar critique while it traces the lawsuits that call into question an account of Facebook as Mark Zuckenberg’s “baby” and nobody else’s. And, of course, rather more grimly, in thinking about Shelley as prescient critic of the costs of scientific progress my students couldn’t help but draw connections to the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan.

BUT . . . I also feel very slightly suspicious of my own attachment to the novel and worried about how often it’s taught in all manner of courses (with the result that very few of my students this year were Frankenstein-virgins.) So here is my question: what other novels do readers of this Blog assign or refer to alongside Romantic-period poems? What route do others take to supply the Prose for Romantic Poetry and Prose classes? In the autumn term I taught Castle Rackrent--a tonic dose of irony to offset all the sincerity of 1790s verse!. There are also great connections to be made, I think, between Edgeworth’s Preface and Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. But Edgeworth didn’t shape our subsequent discussions the way it’s clear Shelley will be shaping them.

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7 Comments

Just a comment (other than to

Just a comment (other than to say "yes" to all of the above): There are all kinds of people in my department who teach Frankenstein for various reasons, from a composition course to the senior honors seminar on textual variants (taught by a Shakespearean). Since I often run an entire semester on Frankenstein, this becomes a real issue in terms of my course "making" to the satisfaction of our administrators. I'm thinking that I'll have to let go of Frankenstein at some point. But, this semester, we'll get into it from Patchwork Girl with the hope that students will see the novel in a new light.

I think we'll need to

I think we'll need to reconceptualize important books/authors for courses that aren't simply "single books or single authors" courses. For example, yes the course you teach on Frankenstein is a single book course, but it is also so much more. The way you conceptualize the novel as a form of hypertext make it seem so much more like a cultural cipher than a single book. You aren't simply studying M. Shelley - you're showing how Frankenstein participates in a larger cultural discourse. I treat Blake in much the same manner. We read Blake, but not as a single person. Instead, we read Blake more like what Benjamin would have called a "constellation" - showing how he becomes a transforming symbol for other artists to create their own visions in the late 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries.

This isn't an answer to your question, but may look at a similar problem in a different light?

Thanks, Katherine and Roger.

Thanks, Katherine and Roger. One of the attractions of "Frankenstein" is precisely the ease with which it lends itself to treatment as a hypertext or constellation, to use Roger's helpful terms. That said, I worry a bit about a downside to that treatment: how it has the potential to reinforce the discipline's tendency to portray Romantic culture as a kind of family affair. I'm old enough to remember that not so long ago the only women who were taught in Romantic courses were women who happened to be some one's sister (Dorothy Wordsworth) or some one's wife (Mary Shelley). (Since that time, of course, the role of kin networks in literary production in the era has been interestingly theorized by people like Julie Carlson --in "England's First Family of Writers"-- and Michelle Levy --"Family Authorship and Romantic Print Culture": "family authorship" is, it occurs to me, a domesticated version of Roger's "constellation" or "hypertext.") "Frankenstein" teaches like a dream, but I still worry a bit about what I'm not teaching and what I'm excluding as a result of giving it a starring role--which is all those fictions by people who aren't tied to the poets by familial alliances.

@Deidre Lynch Deidre, I

@Deidre Lynch

Deidre, I worry about this too. So, I begin the semester with some Charlotte Smith and try to incorporate Hemans and LEL and, of course for me, the literary annuals (or a sampling from my personal collection) as well as some periodicals (held in our Special Collections). The Gothic is always on my mind (though it's still considered frivolous by many of my local colleagues). One day, I'd like to teach a Romantics undergrad course where I let students loose on the period to discover poetry and prose for themselves that's not in the anthologies. Perhaps next time?

In my undergraduate Romantic

In my undergraduate Romantic poetry survey for the fall ("British Romantic Poetry"), we're reading one novel--Frankenstein. I've toyed with the idea of adding another novel or switching away from _Frankenstein_, but I stick with it for the reasons Deidre enumerates: it teaches so wonderfully, it works like a funhouse mirror reflecting back all the poetry we've read, and it incorporates so much of that poetry itself--and the course is officially "British Romantic Poetry" (and I just got the official course catalog title changed from "English" to "British"). Also, though F. does get taught outside of Romanticism, as Katherine observes, I tend to think students deserve our own (better!) perspective on it, and I'm reluctant to cede it to others. In the undergrad poetry survey, we usually do read some non-fiction prose too--Wollstonecraft (which doesn't help with the family affair problem, I realize), Burke, Hazlitt, etc.--but we have so little time for all the poetry I want to teach, and the students at my institution don't, I think, get enough poetry elsewhere in their coursework, so I'm happy to concentrate on that. For my graduate seminar in the fall, which I'll be structuring largely as a survey (of "British Romanticism"), I've ordered a few novels--Castle Rackrent, Persuasion, Zofloya, and Guy Mannering--and we'll split our time between novels and poetry, again with some non-fiction prose as well. These novels touch on topics we'll be pursuing across the various readings in our seminar--e.g., revolution & sexuality; ideas of history & time--but I'm also hoping to give students a strong sense of the range of Romantic writing across genres, styles and modes, so I tried to choose novels that might work well together but that would each feel unlike the others, too. Here, I decided against ordering Frankenstein--in part so that I could give more time to "fictions by people who aren't tied to the poets by familial alliances," as Deidre nicely puts it (although of course that depends which poets one means--I think we'll read at least some of the Lay of the Last Minstrel and maybe some of Charlotte Dacre's poetry too!).

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