Frankenstein: Intertextuality

A working definition of the literary concept of intertextuality, forwarded from the Bedford edition of Frankenstein (ed. Johanna M. Smith, 2000):

The condition of interconnectedness among texts, or the concept that any text is an amalgam of others, either because it exhibits signs of influence or because its language inevitably contains common points of reference with other texts through such things as allusion, quotation, genre, stylistic features, and even revisions (455).

We have seen that the complications–the layerings, or amalgamations–of meaning in Frankenstein begin even before you finish the title: the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus.” This is where the intertextuality of the novel begins. (And it continues, as you know, with the epigraph taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Intertextuality can be defined as the presence in a literary text (in our case, the novel Frankenstein) of elements from other texts. That presence can be a direct or indirect quotation, an allusion, an implication, an echo–in some way, a previous text or story is forwarded into the text you are reading. In contemporary music terms, intertextuality is sampling. In  digital parlance, it might be viewed as the mashup.

Intertextuality is a version of what Joseph Harris calls “forwarding.” When we put one text/idea into conversation with other texts, including the text we are writing, we do so with some critical purpose and with rhetorical effects: it creates opportunities for rereading, rethinking, reinterpretation, rewriting. For more on the rhetorical effects of intertextuality, read this discussion.

For further reading on Prometheus:

“Hesiod and Plato on Prometheus.” An overview of the myth of Prometheus as evident in the classical sources of Hesiod and Plato, by the writer/blogger Neal Burton. Note that this extends the myth of Prometheus to the invention of the arts, most particularly the arts of discourse and reason, in Greek known by the word “logos.”

Plato’s Prometheus. Summary of Promethus myth, with links to Plato’s use of the myth in dialogues, including Plato’s “Protagoras.”

Another intertextual complication in the novel:

Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”

Other possible places to go with the idea of intertextuality (that is, dealing with the amalgam-like quality of the novel, the recognition that there are multiple layers in the novel): Dante, the author’s introduction, Paradise Lost, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” medieval science. Lots of places.

In the second project, you are pursuing a close (slow) reading of key parts of the novel; but you will still be making an argument–there is a problem of some sort that you are exploring and (in your thesis) attempt to respond to and resolve. You can think of the problem/response in this way:

Many people tend to think of Frankenstein in simple terms, as a story about ______; however, there is a more complex story suggested by the intertextual relation to ___________. This complication points to the larger significance of Frankenstein as a novel about _______.

A link to the full poem of “Mutability.” And another, different poem also titled “Mutability” by the same poet.

Some ‘machines’ you might find useful in your intertextual reading of Frankenstein:

Electronic Paradise Lost (Milton, 1667).

Electronic Bible (from UVA’s Electronic Text Center)

Electronic Frankenstein.

Many of the annotations in the edition of The Annotated Frankenstein edited by Wolfson and Levao point us toward intertextual relations; all of the annotations point toward the complexity of this novel and can help in the project–why and how (in your reading of the novel) such complexity is significant. And a final reminder, a resource useful for close reading, and for thinking more critically about keywords and terms in the reading–as well as in our writing–is the OED. It focuses on the inherent intertextuality in our language by highlighting the etymology and evolution of our words.

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Close Reading Template: How to Slow Down

We have talked about close reading as a crucial component of the ways we strengthen several rhetorical elements of our compositions that we will focus on for the second writing project: Development and Coherence. Joseph Harris can guide us as well with his conception of “forwarding” a text. Here is a template you can use to think about forwarding as a process for annotating a text as well as a structure to build upon in developing your evidence across the body of your essay, a structure that is dynamic, not static, moving us (to use Harris’s terms) from illustrating to authorizing to borrowing to extending.

  1. Set-up [illustrating]: Introduce the quotation briefly with basic summary or paraphrase: what’s the context; who is speaking and from where? Don’t throw the quotation at the reader. You can also begin to integrate/anticipate the interpretation you will be getting into after the quotation. Examples: While traversing the Alps Victor echoes the words of the poem “Mutability” in saying, “…”;  or even better: Victor’s fear of change is particularly evident when he echoes the lines from Mutability, “…”
  2. Close-up [authorizing/borrowing]: The quotation. Choose a portion from the text that is not just relevant but rich, worth focusing on for your interpretation. In other words, your quoting should reflect the selective reading you are doing, moving your reading to the interpretation and development of your argument. You don’t quote to prove that you have read; you quote to read (with your reader) what you are proving regarding your argument.
  3. Follow-up [extending]: Put the quotation to work and explain/elaborate how it speaks to and supports and develops your critical vision (thesis). Extend from the quotation. Highlight key words, phrases, images. Don’t assume the quotation speaks for itself. Make it speak to your vision and how you want your reader to see it. Use suggestive imperatives: Notice that Victor (or Shelley or Walton) uses the word….  This is the place for interpretation, not summary. Slow the scene down and look at a specific frame. Think 3-5 sentences or more of good follow-up to the quotation.

To consider one example, Denise, a student from the course several years ago, writes about Frankenstein’s  intertextual link with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Here is a specific paragraph that is effective in its close and slow reading–notice how she notices the particular word ‘serpent’ and puts that to work.

The plots, themselves, are inherently similar: an older man tells a younger man about something tragic that has occurred in his life in a first person, story frame format. The stronger tie, however, is the distinct air of warning that pervades both tales. In anticipation of his narrative, Frankenstein says, “I had determined, at one time, that the memory of these evils should die with me; but you have won me to alter my determination. You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been” (18-19). Frankenstein has been stung by a metaphorical snake in his past – and not just any metaphorical snake, but a metaphorical serpent. The connotation of the word “serpent” calls to mind certain evil; this word choice was very deliberate.  The ominous, cautionary nature of these words immediately strikes both Walton and the reader. This nature primes Frankenstein’s audience to listen carefully to his tale and take what moral each can. The Ancient Mariner, too, stops the wedding guest of his tale to relate his own morbid experiences, in the hopes that the guest will, like Walton, become wiser.  Both stories are told to impart a specific message to both their internal and external audiences. The Mariner warns that one should love everything that exists, something that clearly does not happen in Frankenstein. This negligence allows horrible events to occur in both stories; thus, Frankenstein echoes the Mariner’s warning. Likewise, one of the messages of Frankenstein seems to be on the dangers of knowledge, both in general and in its misuse. Like Frankenstein, the Ancient Mariner abuses knowledge by using it to kill an albatross and is then punished for it. 


For these reasons, I suggest a better term for close reading is slow reading. It is also, as you can see, a form of re-reading. And finally, it is a form of composition, in that it is a way to develop an argument, add to its complexity and coherence. Remember: just before that dreary day in November, Victor Frankenstein is building an “argument” for a way to rethink the act of human creation. He, like us, is developing his evidence and reasons across the body of his work. He does so, initially, carefully–and then inexplicably, gives that up in the name of “speed.” In his haste, Victor was not a good close reader.


The Argument of Frankenstein: Lessons in Slow Reading

Mary Shelley

In our reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we will focus on the concept that Joseph Harris calls “forwarding.” Harris means by this a reader’s use of the ideas and texts of others in writing, not merely to quote those sources or provide evidence, but to develop an argument in response to ideas that come before it. We write and argue by means of rewriting.

This rhetorical conception of how we get others to read and sympathize and relate to our ideas–by effectively amalgamating those ideas with others, particularly other ideas and texts already established–can be aligned with pathos. This is our focal point for the second writing project. And it is also, it seems to me, a focal point in Shelley’s novel. Shelley, as we know from the title page, is engaged in forwarding and rewriting other established texts and ideas about creation. To that extent, I would argue that her novel presents an argument: it seeks, in its forwarding of various texts and amalgamation of a story out of those texts, to persuade us, to have us listen and read closely, carefully. What is her argument? I will ask the question now, and return to it once we have finished reading.

On the way to getting there, we can do some close reading, or as I prefer, slow reading, to give more attention–as I think Shelley is asking us to do–to the complications inherent to the project of rewriting an argument/narrative from her materials. (You can return to her “Introduction” for more on how she views her novel as an invention that rewrites). Here is a passage where slow reading, it seems to me, is necessary for readers. What makes it necessary is the fact that Victor, our creator and “author,” presents his creation and invention in rather rhetorical terms that we might recognize from our discussions of effective writing. [This passage comes from chapter 6 of our edition; there is no difference between the 1818 and 1831 editions in the case of this paragraph; forwarded from the Electronic Frankenstein.]

When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it. Although I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation, yet to prepare a frame for the reception of it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins, still remained a work of inconceivable difficulty and labour. I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself or one of simpler organization; but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man. The materials at present within my command hardly appeared adequate to so arduous an undertaking; but I doubted not that I should ultimately succeed. I prepared myself for a multitude of reverses; my operations might be incessantly baffled, and at last my work be imperfect: yet, when I considered the improvement which every day takes place in science and mechanics, I was encouraged to hope my present attempts would at least lay the foundations of future success. Nor could I consider the magnitude and complexity of my plan as any argument of its impracticability. It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being. As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large. After having formed this determination, and having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began.

As I slowly read–which for me includes rereading this passage more than once, returning to it–I notice this time the language of argument. Victor is making an argument for his creation; what’s more, he is thinking about his creation as a kind of argument, as something to be received by an audience, a way to publish the discoveries of his research to the world. Victor begins to consider carefully the argument that he should think through the implications of this discovery, a discovery that proposes to rethink creation. Victor thinks about the complexity and clarity and coherence of what he has in mind, and its importance to his intentions, to how his invention (i.e., his argument) would be received by his readers, his audience: the practicality of his “argument” and the proportionality of the creation, making it something that people could understand. He even considers what I read as a counterargument: “I prepared myself for a multitude of reverses.” And then, inexplicably, Victor, to this point a good, slow reader of his work, taking care to focus on the rhetorical effects of his argument and consider its implications–inexplicably, Victor gives it up in an insight and works against these “intentions,” doing so in the name of “speed.” Slow reading and careful, rhetorical thinking are tossed aside for creating something faster and bigger.

Why, suddenly, the need for speed? And why should this negatively affect his judgment, his interpretation, his argument?

My own rewriting of Shelley’s novel, the way I want to read it, sees in Victor’s quick decision to opt for speed over clarity and complexity a cautionary tale that resonates to this day. I recognize this resonance in the fast company of technological invention, where we seem to have little time to think through what “multitude of reverses” might follow. And I think of its potential in any argument we might make, or not make, in response.

Victor, on my reading, is a writer and rhetorician. And he is, alas, not always a terribly effective one. In fact, in the key moment of his creation coming to life, he is downright hideous. What does that make his creation, his creature?