Frankenstein: It’s ComplicatedPosted: February 19, 2017
Even if you have never read Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, you know the name. The image of the monster (perhaps of the scene when it comes to life, lightning crashing, the mad scientist screaming, “It’s alive!”). Those of you who have read the novel know–and for first time readers, it won’t take long to see–that such images from film don’t match up with the original novel. [more on the history of Frankenstein in film]
We don’t get to the famous creation scene until 5 or 6 chapters in. And, of course, by then we know that Frankenstein is not the monster; it is, rather, the name of its creator–though could also be the monster, since it is unnamed, and technically the son. And a bit later in the reading, we wonder how the monster ever became the green hulking, inarticulate thing from the movies. Hint: the monster reads Paradise Lost.
A keyword I will be using as we discuss the novel and explore it with our second writing project in mind (we focus on intertextuality and close reading of text): complication. We will work on complicating our reading of this novel. That doesn’t mean we will make it difficult or harder than it needs to be. It means recognizing that the novel, as a text, is already a layer of complications–stories and images and other texts woven and folded in to its narrative. As we will see in reading Mary Shelley’s original draft of the novel, the layers of complication include the fact that she is not the only one reading and writing, since her husband Percy Shelley edits the manuscript that would be published in 1818 (the second edition is published in 1831 by Mary alone).
A literary term for this condition of the layering of writing is “intertextuality”; for more on that, consult this reference from the University of Wisconsin. As we think more critically about the literary significance of intertextuality in Frankenstein–a focus for our next writing project–we will do so in order to think further about the rhetorical effect of intertextuality in our writing: the fact that in the texts of our essays and projects we use and transform the texts of others. Joseph Harris refers to this as “forwarding,” our critical focal point for the project. So, we will be reading Frankenstein as critical readers, but also as student writers, seeing what we can learn from Shelley.
There are two marks of those complications (of text as woven materials) even before we begin the story. The first comes in the author’s introduction–where we learn of the complex origins of the story. And more to the point, it seems to me, we learn of the complication that our author, Mary Shelley, views her creation of the novel in very similar terms as those used by Frankenstein concerning his. She concludes the introduction bidding her “hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” The novel, apparently, is also a monster.
A second location of complication: the title page. Look at the intertextuality–the presence of one or more other texts within a text–we are confronted with before we even get past the title. As we will see, this is only the beginnings of a text that is woven by numerous connections, links, echoes, allusions to other texts.
The point I will be making in the face of this complication–of this multiplicity of texts and voices and narrators and stories–is that we need to do close reading not to find some sort of hidden meaning. I know that is what it often felt like in high school English. The problem of this novel–the problem that makes it compelling and engaging, it seems to me–is that there is too much meaning. It is hard to know what to do with it all.
By the way, speaking of this multiplicity, I wonder what you think of the Electronic Frankenstein site. It strikes me that it could help with the of kind layering of text that we start to get as early as the title page. One way to think of things–perhaps Shelley’s novel is a hypertext of sorts. Is it better to read the novel in digital form? At the same time, we can think about various “remediations” (remakes in other media, other versions) of the novel that are basic to this story–well before we get to the digital age. In particular, there is the incredibly rich film history (and before that even, theater history) in which Shelley’s story is, in a word, mashed up and retold. The first film is 1931, directed by James Whale, starring Boris Karloff as the ‘monster’. In addition to film, there are also variations on the story in print, such as The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein and The Case Book of Victor Frankenstein. Another retelling and reimagining of the novel, from other perspectives, is the well-known hypertext novel (more on this later in the term) called Patchwork Girl.
Here is a recent article that notes some of these intertextual implications (the novel as creation myth), locating the complications as early as the author’s introduction and in her biography: “Was ‘Frankenstein’ Really About Childbirth?” And finally, an article about “frankenwords,” our tendency to create words out of hyrbrids, including words with “franken” as a prefix, such as reference to a “frankenstorm.”
All of these retellings and remediations, from print to film to digital, I would argue, in fact build upon, and are inspired by, an original story that is already, and at heart, about the idea of remediation and the power and influence of telling (which is to say, retelling) a story. Like I say, it’s complicated. And that’s a good thing.
- An astronomer who claims that the night Mary Shelley conceived of her story (as discussed in her introduction) really did have the shining moon she describes.
- Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature. NIH site that explores Frankenstein and science.
- Mary Shelley: My Hero, by Neil Gaiman.
- Frankenstein It’s (Still) Alive: writing contest, bicentennial.