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.” This is the ways that we use the ideas and texts of others in our writing, not merely to quote those sources or provide evidence, but to develop our own argument in response to what comes 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 a terribly effective one. What does that make his creation, his creature?



Strategies for Revising

Strategies for Revising

In Chapter Five of Rewriting: How to Do Things With Texts, Joseph Harris suggests several ways to think about revising based on the concepts he develops in earlier chapters: Coming to terms, Forwarding, Countering, and Taking an Approach. Below is a summary of the strategies he offers on pages 108-121.

Coming to Terms with a Draft: What’s Your Project?

Create an abstract of your draft: An abstract is a brief summary (usually around 150 words) that sometimes appears at the beginning of an academic article. Once you’ve finished an initial draft, try summing up the entire piece in just a few sentences, making sure to include all the most essential points. Doing this will help you identify key words that might help you focus your draft, and it will help you clarify the real purpose of your paper.

Create a sentence outline of your draft: In the margins of your draft, try to sum up each individual paragraph in one sentence (or two at most). The result will be a kind of outline that shows how you move from one point to another in your paper. Reading back through the summary sentences by themselves will give you a quick version of the draft you’ve written, and it should also point out moments where ideas aren’t connected or logical moves need to be strengthened.

Revising as Forwarding: What Works?

Highlight the strengths of your draft: Look for the moments that you consider to be the strongest in your paper and consider ways that you might bring those moments forward and give them greater emphasis. Also, think about how you might replicate those strong moments in other weaker spots in your draft.

Revising as Countering: What Else Might Be Said?

Identify questions that a reader might have: As you look back through your draft, think about moments where a reader might question you. This strategy might simply make you aware of spots where you need to go into further detail, or it might open up a whole new line of thought for you. As Harris describes it, this process is more than just playing “devil’s advocate.” Instead, it’s an opportunity to look for alternate lines of thinking your draft might open up.

Revising as Looking Ahead: What’s Next?

Look at your final paragraphs to see how you’ve expressed your main idea: When we’re drafting, it often takes several paragraphs (or pages …) for us to “warm up” and begin doing our best writing. Often, the clearest, most articulate statements of purpose occur at the end of a rough draft rather than at the beginning. Take advantage of that by looking at your final paragraphs to see if some of the language there can help you to shape and refocus the earlier parts of your draft.

Look ahead to see the implications of your draft: Once you’ve reached the end of an initial draft, you might think about what the implications of your ideas are. Your conclusion should suggest why your ideas matter and what they suggest for further study. Harris suggests the questions “What’s next?” and “So what?” That last question is particularly powerful. Why should your reader care about what you’ve said, and why does it matter? Those are tough questions, of course, but they’re an essential part of making an interesting point.


Rubric: Think of the rubric I will be using as a guideline/checklist for revision. It identifies important terms and characteristics of effective writing (logic, rhetoric, grammar). I will be looking for them; and so you can also look for them in your writing as you revise.

Argument Set-Up: you got a problem with that?

With help from Joseph Harris and Gerald Graff, we have begun to think and rethink argument as something both social and dynamic–something that moves and responds to other arguments, other ideas. I agree with Joseph Harris–this is a crucial element of intellectual or (if we must call it this) “academic writing,” and this stands in stark contrast to the kinds of static essay writing many of us have come to associate with a “thesis statement.” Here is a basic definition of a thesis statement, provided by the writing center at UNC:

A thesis statement:

  • tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
  • is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
  • directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
  • makes a claim that others might dispute.
  • is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.

That works for me. However, a problem I often encounter with student writing: students can quote this definition but have difficulty getting two key elements of a thesis into their argument: that it is a matter of interpretation (not a statement of a topic); that it is a matter for disputation. In other words, a thesis is an argument, it must be arguable. It’s not a fixed answer: rather, it’s the pursuit of a possible answer or resolution in response to a question, a problem. Responding to a problem is what makes an argument dynamic rather than static.

Consider the ways Harvard University Press emphasizes this as basic for any type of scholarship they might publish:

Questions to consider as you prepare a book proposal:
  • What problems are you setting out to solve?
  • What confusions do you wish to clarify?
  • What previously unknown or unfortunately neglected story are you planning to tell?
  • How is this book different from all other books?
  • Why does that matter? To whom?

We can also think about the “problem” that an argument needs, and needs to focus its response, its purpose, as the “stakes”: what’s “at stake” in the argument, as we (academics) like to ask? I also refer to this as the “urgency” for the argument–we spoke of the urgency that Birkerts introduces in the opening paragraphs of his book. Here are some options for ways to address the stakes.

A related way to think of this more dynamic kind of academic argument (it’s also the vision Graff has) as opposed to what you might have encountered previously in school–where ‘academic’ as an adjective unfortunately meant ‘dry’ or ‘boring’: think of what we value in the liberal arts, and think of how that contrasts with a focus on narrow specialization. A good argument has the flexibility of moving and responding. Here is a recent description of the liberal arts that made me think of our discussion of the elements of academic argument and writing:

The second, slightly less utilitarian defense of a liberal-arts education is that it hones the mind, teaching focus, critical thinking, and the ability to express oneself clearly both in writing and speaking—skills that are of great value no matter what profession you may choose. It’s not just that you are taught specific materials in a liberally designed context, but more generally, the way your mind is shaped, the habits of thought that you develop.

These skills were well described by a former dean of the Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold, cited in a recent speech by the current dean, Martha Minow. Griswold was discussing an ideal vision of the law school, but his arguments fit a liberal education wherever it is provided: “You go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts or habits; for the art of expression, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time; for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and mental soberness.” [The Liberal Arts as Guideposts in the 21st Century, Nannerl Keohane]

Artful argument of this sort needs a structure, a set-up; it can’t emerge out of a vacuum. In order to be set up effectively, to be dynamic and responsive, it needs three things: a conventional view (the sources, what others have previously argued), a problem with that conventional view, and a response to that problem (the argument or thesis that leads to the resolution of the problem). One of the central limitations professors often find with student essay writing: a writer delves into the argument without identifying the problem. In other words, there is no thesis. Recall that I indicated that I have found this even amongst advanced student writers–including a student writing a senior thesis.

To help visualize this set-up structure, and particularly the importance of a problem, I suggest we consider film–a dramatic structure that builds on conflict and its resolution. We will later in the semester consider the full structure of a film’s text, that is, the screenplay, as a structure for our writing project. For now, let’s focus on the beginning: the introduction or set-up of a film in relation to the introduction of an argument.

Basically, the introduction of a film (Act 1), the first 15-20 minutes leading up to the ‘thesis statement’ of a film, known as the turning point or promise (sometimes called the “hook”) follows this three step structure.

  1. Given/Conventional View [the normal world of the protagonist]

    1. think of this as the conventional view, the context of the argument–where things stand right now with the particular topic
  2. Problem [in film, a disruption or problem that confronts the protagonist, disturbs the normal world]

    1. think of this as some initial problems with the conventional view of things, perhaps emerging more recently, something that has been neglected by others, not fully considered, etc.
  3. Response [in film, a real but surprising or unusual/unconventional way of thinking about the problem, responding to it, and leading the viewer through the various plot complications that will have to be solved by the end]

    1. your thesis: your response to the problem, also an unconventional or surprising way of re-thinking things, leading to a resolution of the problem and new understanding of the topic. Recall how we saw Gerald Graff’s version of this in “Hidden Intellectualism”: intellectualism is more complicated than the intellectual vs. anti-intellectual terms we tend to use, a complication he argues for by way of this surprise–he realizes that he wasn’t the anti-intellectual as a child that he thought he was.
For practice, we can apply this structure to one or more of the chapters in Birkerts, see how he sets up his argument in each case. I want you to think about this basic rhetorical structure as you being to compost and then draft your first writing project.
Some examples for further reading…

As an example of the set up of an argument that we have begun to discuss in class, consider the following example, an Op-Ed from the NY Times by Lawrence Summers. While an Op-Ed has features that differ from essays and academic research (namely, much shorter, with less quotation of text, no citations), we can see that Summers focuses his “opinion” as an argument in setting up [1]a given issue; [2]a problem with that given; [3]his response to that problem.

A PARADOX of American higher education is this: The expectations of leading universities do much to define what secondary schools teach, and much to establish a template for what it means to be an educated man or woman. College campuses are seen as the source for the newest thinking and for the generation of new ideas, as society’s cutting edge.

And the world is changing very rapidly. Think social networking, gay marriage, stem cells or the rise of China. Most companies look nothing like they did 50 years ago. Think General Motors, AT&T or Goldman Sachs.

Yet undergraduate education changes remarkably little over time. My predecessor as Harvard president, Derek Bok, famously compared the difficulty of reforming a curriculum with the difficulty of moving a cemetery. With few exceptions, just as in the middle of the 20th century, students take four courses a term, each meeting for about three hours a week, usually with a teacher standing in front of the room. Students are evaluated on the basis of examination essays handwritten in blue books and relatively short research papers. Instructors are organized into departments, most of which bear the same names they did when the grandparents of today’s students were undergraduates. A vast majority of students still major in one or two disciplines centered on a particular department.

It may be that inertia is appropriate. Part of universities’ function is to keep alive man’s greatest creations, passing them from generation to generation. Certainly anyone urging reform does well to remember that in higher education the United States remains an example to the world, and that American universities compete for foreign students more successfully than almost any other American industry competes for foreign customers.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate: Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different? Here are some guesses and hopes.

Summers provides a useful example for us in the signals he uses to establish his argument: [1]the given is the understanding that the world is changing; and the [2] problem is the “paradox” that (“and yet”) undergraduate education has changed little; his [3] argument in response is to “speculate” and “suppose” (recall I suggested a thesis is a sort of “What if? we find in film) that the educational system could/should be different.

You will note that in this example, Summers doesn’t offer a thesis statement ahead of his “guesses and hopes” (the supporting examples or body of his argument). It is, in effect, half of his thesis, guided by his rhetorical question, with the second half of the thesis (his answer to his question) to come at the end. That’s one model for a thesis statement. The model more familiar to you is the one where the last sentence would answer the question, identify the key elements of his argument that will be explored in the body (we see Sven Birkerts doing this in his introduction to The Gutenberg Elegies). Though I invite you to try some alternative approaches to stating your thesis, since there is more than one way to state one, I will be emphasizing the importance of providing a map of your argument to your reader, giving the reader some keywords for your argument, language that will reappear in your body paragraphs and in transition sentences. In this case, given the brevity of an Op-Ed, Summers has more flexibility in not indicating specifically where he’s going. He does, however, clearly tell us what he is responding to–that he is arguing for change.

In other words, a key to establishing the “thesis” (however it may be stated) is to engage the reader’s focus on a problem and response. This example shows us how one does that very basically and simply–even in the pages of the NY Times by the former president of Harvard. In fact, one of my favorite examples of the set up of the problem/conflict needed for an academic argument comes from Summers. I read once that he set up an economics paper that argues against the convention of the “efficient market hypothesis” (the prevailing view that markets are rational because people are rational) with the following two sentences: “There are idiots. Look around.”

An Op-Ed from a newspaper is a compressed argument. It is not merely one’s opinion; it is an arguable claim that must be supported by a reason and some evidence. For some further discussion on the rhetorical elements of an op-ed that we can learn from, see “Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers,”  by Bret Stephens, The New York Times. Stephens addresses the key element of ethos, the standing or credibility of the writer. But he also notes that a good argument to be effective needs to address counter-positions and move toward more complicated understanding of what we already knew. He calls this “standing with surprise.”

Project 1: initial revision workshop

Joseph Harris writes of “revising as a knowable practice, as a consistent set of questions you can ask of a draft of an essay that you are working on” (Rewriting 99). Throughout the course, we will be using Harris’ four questions to guide us in the practice of revision; this is a strategy for getting a better grasp on where we are in a draft, of talking/listening to our work in progress. Here are the questions:

  • What’s your project?
  • What works?
  • What else might be said?
  • What’s next?
In addition to tracking our own revision (you will be keeping a revision log in your notebook), we will be getting guidance from the writers in your group. The Writing Center offers an extension of that sort of peer response. We will also be looking at some samples from students in this course, current and past. We can learn by thinking about, and looking into, what sorts of revision strategies others have used. Think of this as another way to pay attention to what’s going on behind the curtain.
For example, consider Emily’s project from one of my courses last year. Once again, I invite you to read through what other writers in this course are doing or have done with these same projects.