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?


Project 1 Review

Our focal point in the first project was developing ethos through reflection. There are two places you can see this critical reflection emerge in an essay and think about, going into the next project, how you can continue to develop it: a strong set up of your argument, its clarity and complexity (a statement in brief form of your argument as a response to a problem, a focused and arguable thesis); strong coherence of that argument as it moves through your body paragraphs (the elaboration of the problem/response and your keywords or terms–in other words, how you support, complicate, and reiterate the argument through critical and personal reflection ).

Some examples to consider from a selection of writers from past classes; these are not the only way to do it, but they offer some good models for practice.

Clarity and Complexity of the Argument 

  • Keita: Note how the title initiates the “problem” that the first sentence also wraps into the given. By the end of the first paragraph, the key term “conversation” identifies the essay’s response to the problem.
  • Valerie: Example of a two paragraph set up, beginning with a narrative (placing the reader in a detail from the story), then pulling back for the statement of the problem and response.
Coherence and Development of Reflection 
  • Kassie: Note the development of reflection in the second paragraph (first body paragraph), spending time (not racing through nostalgically) a particular experience, then using a critical quotation to reiterate her key terms.
  • Jacob: a good example of using a critical quotation (first Birkerts, then Graff) in a body paragraph to elaborate and complicate the argument. Take a look at the second body paragraph where he uses Birkerts as part of his conversation–both to agree initially with him, but then to take his argument toward a different view of intellectual reading. This is a good example of what we will work on in the next project–forwarding someone else’s text.
  • Alicia offers a good example of developing the critical reflection to elaborate an example within a body paragraph that also supports/reiterates/complicates the argument and thesis. Paragraphs 3-5 are particularly strong–and notice the ways she uses the critics (Harris and Birkerts) to develop the personal reflection.
Conclusions [Arrangement]
We will be working on conclusions that go beyond merely repeating/restating what was already argued; instead, I want you to think of larger implications–give your reading something to think about beyond the essay, what follows from this new or different way of thinking.
  • Strong example from Jillian–notice how she moves out from her argument with a new image/scene, but in doing so reiterates the argument. This helps send the reader from her particular argument with thoughts of other places/implications for the argument.

Confusion [Language/Usage]

  • We are talking about complicating our critical and rhetoric–developing the layers of our argument. That sort of complication is a good thing in our writing. In terms of grammar and style, we also want to give some attention to clarifying aspects of our sentences that might be confusing. This is something for you to consider when editing. For some useful guidance on confusion in writing and grammar, in addition to Professor Harvey’s book,  see this section of the Guide to Grammar and Writing on Eliminating Confusion.

Screenwriting an Argument

Argument and counter-argument reflect the dramatic nature of academic writing. We argue with ideas and with texts and with other authors/critics much as characters interact in a play or film. The rhetorician Kenneth Burke emphasized the dramatic origins of critical thinking–and thus of the critical writing that follows–by writing: An essay is an attenuated play.

I propose that the three-act narrative structure of a traditional film can be an effective way to think about developing the narrative as well as the dramatic logic of an academic thesis. Why? Because the basis of a thesis is: the setting up of a problem (introduction); offering a surprising or unusual or unconventional way to think about that problem (thesis statement); considering complications along the way to solving the problem (supporting examples; counter-argument); the solving of the problem (conclusion as climax); larger implications—where this new way of viewing things leaves us (conclusion as resolution). I suggest that the following structure (or in rhetorical terms, heuristic) could be helpful both at the composting stage, when you are trying to develop ideas for the argument, working toward a thesis, as well as at the revision stage, after an initial draft, when you are working on refining your thesis.

One of the key lessons from film writing I want to borrow can help us with organization: everything in the film must relate to the turning point—the second act complications as well as the climax. At each stage of developing the script, the writer should be able to answer how a particular scene relates back to the turning point. It also emphasizes that strong writing not only relates to a central idea, but moves an audience through the argument, is dynamic (hence: three acts, action). Academic narratives deal with ideas, but still need action and movement to make the ideas/argument work; like a film, critical narratives need an audience engaged.

Another lesson can help us rethink the way a thesis needs to be imaginative, but not necessarily “original”—if by original we take that to mean an idea that no one else has thought or said before. In fact, a good premise or turning point in a film is not entirely new: it takes the old, the familiar, and provides a surprise, an unusual way of thinking about the old. The effect of the turning point in The Wizard of Oz is not Oz by itself, but Oz in relation to Kansas, the technicolor imagination of Oz rethinking the grey familiarity of home. This is also what we do with academic arguments: rethink conventional ways of thinking about various ideas, arguments, texts, problems.

  • Act 1: Introduction/set up
    • Given: normal or conventional view; the context of your focus; where things stand right now with the issue you are taking up
      • Frankenstein, both novel and film, has long been viewed by many in terms of the horror genre. Critics…
  • Problem: a disturbance to the conventional; some initial problems with things that perhaps have emerged more recently (other critics starting to take up); or contradiction/flaw in the conventional view that have been forgotten, neglected
    • However, as suggested by more recent films (or more recent criticism), Frankenstein for some is more in the science fiction genre and not about horror…
  • Thesis: your premise or turning point, a real but unusual or surprising way of thinking about the problem and setting out to solve it.
    • What if Frankenstein were to be viewed not in terms or horror or science but in terms of romance, something few would associate with the title? While I would agree there are important elements of both horror and science in the novel and its film adaptations, I would argue, instead, that the story is at heart a love story. Shelley’s real concern, it seems to me, is with the monstrosity of the human heart, the dangers not of science but of falling in love. In particular…
  • Act 2: Complications
  • First main example or complication directly relating to (and elaborating) the thesis/turning point
    • The danger of falling in love is perhaps first evident when…
  • Second example
    • This particular danger of love [discussed in last paragraph] becomes even more problematic when we see…
  • Second Act turning point: a further complication or even challenge for your thesis; counter-argument
    • However, there are good reasons to think of this work not as a love story; clearly there are key elements critics have rightly discussed in terms of horror and science. For example…While I don’t disagree with the sentiment (or critical point), it also seems to me that the very example she/he addresses has more to do with love than horror…
  • Act 3: Conclusion
    • Climax: how the problem of your thesis is finally solved/answered
      • The horror of science in this story is in fact made horrific by love, not the reverse. It is love that gets in the way of science and love that leads to the tragedy…
    • Resolution: where this leaves us—a reminder that a conclusion should not merely re-state what was given in the introduction; it should provide a more conclusive answer to the various complications (second act) as well as point the reader out to thinking about implications for other or related text. Thinking: what’s next?
    • Speculation on how this rethinking of Frankenstein as love story might be taken up in future film versions; or why the novel has not been traditionally viewed this way—why love has been neglected—and how it might lead to larger implications for rethinking the gothic/horror genre…


Act 1: Introduction/Set UP



Thesis/Turning Point:

Act 2: Complications

Complication #1:

Complication #2, #3, etc.

Second Act Turning Point: [further complication; counter-argument]

Act 3: Conclusion

Climax: answer to question/solving of problem

Resolution: new normal—where this leaves us; larger implications

Ethos, Pathos, Logos: focusing your conversation

I want to introduce three terms from classical (Greek) rhetoric that can be useful to think about as we go forward in the course–and apply both to our critical reading and our writing. In classical rhetoric, where the focus is on an orator and his/her presentation to a live audience, there were three main appeals or ways of relating to your audience. Appeal meaning the ways an orator (now writer) gets his audience to listen and be compelled; ways to focus on the kind of conversation you are having and ways to engage your audience.

Ethos: as in ethics; where the stature and character of the speaker is what persuades and convinces. One way to think of ethos now–the credibilty or authority or expertise of the writer.

Pathos: as in sympathy and empapthy; where the orator/author appeals to the emotions of the reader–focuses on convincing by way of feeling.

Logos: as in logic; where the author follows the laws of logic to convince–and must be careful not to be illogical: for example, contradictory.

I wrote further about these three in relation to Birkerts in this post from last year. Alissa Vechhio’s blog last semester on chapter 2 in Gutenberg focuses on empathy (and begins to questions Birkerts in terms of contradiction): thus she has her eye on pathos and logos. We will continue to think about these as we go on. As you will note from my blog, I have issues with Birkerts mainly in terms of his logos–that is, I think his argument is weak logically but powerful in terms of pathos.

You can think of these ideas as a sort of template to use in your composting–think of ways you might develop one or more of these areas–as well as a tool for revision: identify a place where you can strengthen your pathos or logos, for example. In a larger sense, the word (and study that goes with it) rhetoric is about how to structure and build arguments by using these kinds of templates. Thus, the Graff’s are focusing on rhetoric when they talk about templates; but do so without using the Greek terminology.

By the way, I have found that Birkerts occasionally posts on a blog run by Encyclopedia Britannica. Perhaps that is a contradiction (logos problem)? Or perhaps he is strengthening his ethos and pathos in doing so? See what you think.

Overall, thus far, where do you think Birkerts is strongest–in terms of ethos, pathos, or logos? Where is he weakest? And why?

Workshop: Introductions

An infamous introduction:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

There is more than one way to do an effective introduction to an essay, just as there is more than one way to do a poor one. That’s lesson number one. Lesson number 2 is the focus for the workshop in class. A good way to improve upon the kinds of introductions (and related to these, the conclusions) you write is to think about writing more than one. Experiment with a different way of getting the reader into your essay, your argument, your narrative. Think of film as a relevant analogy: all films need to introduce and set up and even establish, so to speak, a thesis; but there are different ways to do it. And I would suggest, as with film, the way to find out how best to do the introduction is to have more than one to select from. Explore alternatives.

One basic way to introduce: begin generally and move toward your more specific focus and thesis statement. This establishes the context for the reader. The trick here is that you need to be careful not to be too general, too broad in your beginning. Context helps; generality hurts, distracts. For example, starting with sentences like this:

There are many films. Some are made from novels while others are not. Blade Runner is an example of a film. It is not made from a novel, but it can be viewed in relation to one….

A related danger is that in this introduction, you wander so far into generality, even when you think you are stating a thesis, it comes off as not specific. Something like: Blade Runner has lots of ideas that are also in Frankenstein (which, based on the last project, doesn’t directly answer the question given).

An antidote to being too general and vague is to start from the reverse position: challenge your reader directly with a close-up, something so specific it is not clear (yet) where the essay is going. Then back out to a middle-distance, where you state your focus and your thesis. In the case of an essay on Blade Runner, this would be to start in directly with an image or scene, then offer what the Graffs call ‘meta-commentary’: “What does this eyeball have to do with my focus?As I will argue in this essay, the eye…” I think of this as the ‘in media res’ approach: starting in the middle of the story, as it were, and using the specificity to focus your reader’s attention. This is also a way to borrow some rich, vivid imagery and language from your text and put it to work in your introduction, engage your reader with it.

Another option would be to do some combination of the two, the close-up and the distant/general view–to stay with film terminology, this is a tracking shot: where you follow a character into or out of a situation. This strategy provides context for the overall focus of your writing, but does so by also moving directly toward some specific points and questions. It locates your reader in the context of your argument before you get them to your specific statement of the argument. I found an example of this in a recent book review by Elizabeth Kolbert in ‘The New Yorker’ (a review of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer).

Americans love animals. Forty-six million families in the United States own at least one dog, and thirty-eight million keep cats. Thirteen million maintain freshwater aquariums in which swim a total of more than a hundred and seventy million fish…[continues with several more sentences about pet-related expenses]

Americans also love to eat animals. This year, they will cook roughly twenty-seven billion pounds of beef, sliced from some thirty-five million cows. Additionally, they will consume roughly twenty-three billion pounds of pork… [more statistics]

How is it that Americans, so solicitious of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious. This inconsistency is the subject of Johanthan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals.”

In addition to the structure of your introduction, you can and should also consider other poetic and rhetorical  issues–that is, your use of language to create and convey. Thus, consider being specific with your language; consider also using variation of your sentences, shifting from long to short deliberately. On that score, consider this example, the opening of a recent essay about Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. Notice how the shift from longer to shorter sentences conveys the argument–that Rwanda has shifted, has changed. This rhetorical strategy (a matter of his style) thus also helps introduce his essay effectively. In this sense, he can show us what he is writing about.

When I began visiting Rwanda, in 1995, a year after the genocide, the country was still pretty well annihilated: blood-sodden and pillaged, with bands of orphans roaming the hills and women who’d been raped squatting in the ruins, its humanity betrayed, its infrastructure trashed, its economy gutted, its government improvised, a garrison state with soldiers everywhere, its court system vitiated, its prison crammed with murderers, with more murderers still at liberty–hunting survivors and being hunted in turn by revenge killers–and with the routed army and militias of the genocide and a million and a half of their followers camped on the borders, succored by the United Nations refugee agency, and vowing to return and finish the job. In the course of a hundred days, beginning on April 6, 1994, nearly a million people from the Tutsi minority had been massacred in the name of an ideology known as Hutu Power, and, between the memory of the slaughter and the fear that it would resume, Rwanda often felt like an impossible country. Nowadays, when Rwandans look back on the early years of aftermath, they say, “In the beginning.”

On the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide, Rwanda is one of the safest and the most orderly countries in Africa. Since 1994, per-capita gross domestic product has nearly tripled, even as the population has increased by nearly twenty-five per cent, to more than ten million. There is national health insurance, and a steadily improving education system. Tourism is a boom industry and a strong draw for foreign capital investment. In Kigali, the capital, whisk-broom-wielding women in frocks and gloves sweep the streets at dawn. Plastic bags are outlawed, to keep litter under control and to protect the environment. Broadband Internet service is widespread in the cities, and networks are being extended into the countryside. Cell phones work nearly everywhere. Traffic police enforce speed limits and the mandatory use of seat belts and motorbike helmets. Government officials are required to be at their desks by seven in the morning. It is the only government on earth in which the majority of parliamentarians are women. Soldiers are almost nowhere to be seen…. And Rwanda is the only nation where hundreds of thousands of people who took part in mass murder live intermingled at every level of society with the families of their victims.

beyond revision?

This moment from chapter 7 of The Gutenberg Elegies engaged me, but also jarred me. I think it sheds light on where he is coming from in his vision of reading, and why he views books (or at least, books he thinks we should be reading) as though they were sacred objects. I also think it offers a view of writing that is, simply put, unsustainable. In other words, I will urge you in this course (and beyond) not to follow Birkerts’s vision of how one writes.

First, here is the passage in which Birkerts describes a vision of writing that is “beyond revision.”

When we begin to write our description, then, we find that we already have a sense of the kind of shape we want, and some intuition of the pace. This is not because these are necessarily properties of the reality we would render; rather, because we have a very particular expectation built up from everything we have read and internalized. We know just the feeling–the effect–we want. In a sense we proceed toward our expression by trying to read in ourselves the very prose we are about to write. Writing, then, becomes a kind of matching up of the right words to the specific word-impulses that are lined up inside. This is all very Platonic–to see the act of discovery less as an inventing than a recovering, an anamnesis. In writing we grope toward what we think of as the inevitable wording, as though the prose were already finished in an inner place we can just barely reach. And when we do succeed, when from time to time we reach it, we know we are beyond revision. [112]

The reference to Plato reiterates Birkerts’s vision of perfection: writing, or at least what he implies is successful writing, writing that is worth our time and attention, is discovered or recovered whole (Plato’s notion of the ideal–coming out of the cave and into the light of truth); writing is thus not invented (rhetoric) or made (poetry)–Plato banishes the poets and rhetoricians from the republic of letters, or wishes to. Put another way, Birkerts believes that true writing is not made through the process of revision. I would most directly disagree with Birkerts here by asserting that writing and revision are synonymous, that there is no beyond revision, that the ideal is to make and invent the discovery of writing through the process of revision. To that extent, I suggest that Birkerts, oddly–but perhaps the strangeness can be located in his strange family dynamics with reading?–defines a vision of writing that seeks to remove much of the material, even mechanical, process of writing from its view. Wanting to be a writer without having to write.

This, I would argue, is a perfectionist vision of writing that we get from reading great books. The vision is misleading if we believe that those books dropped from the sky. If we don’t get behind the curtain and see the not-so scary man (who doesn’t look that different, when you think of it, from the guy back home in Kansas) working the machinery of poetics and rhetoric. If you wait around for the right word to come, you won’t do much writing, possibly won’t write at all. Perfectionism, it seems to me–and this comes from my own experience, from the voice of a recovering perfectionist–might lead to perfect writing but it also leads to lots of weakened writers, writers afraid to get messy in writing, unwilling to write if they have to revise–in other words, leads to writers who don’t write.

A better goal, the one we are after in this course: to go through revision, get a better grasp of the poetic and rhetorical potential of writing, of mediating our thought through language, print, electronic signals–through various processes of mediation. And perhaps in that better grasp, to become stronger writers in knowing where and how to revise; and perhaps even, therefore, needing to revise less. But wanting to get ‘beyond revision,’ since very little writing takes place there, at least on earth.