“The World To Me Was A Secret, Which I Desired To Discover”
A Tribute to Frankenstein On Its Bicentennial
Let’s start with the text itself. How would you define your relationship/history to Mary Shelley’s canonical text, with regards to your work, be it creative, academic, and so on?
ADDIE TSAI: This answer, for me, is complicated. I first was introduced to the text when I took a Romantics Literature course in college. I was young, and I had just moved out of my father’s house. I had never, up to this point, ever read a novel that felt addressed so many parts of my identity—my biraciality as both White and Chinese, my splitting and joining around my identity as a mirror twin, and my experience with being raised by a narcissistic father and an abandoning mother. But, after the course, I let the novel go, and went about my business. Roughly ten years later, I began to explore it creatively as a text—the epistolary framework, but also the ways in which Shelley interwove into the text her personal life, her political views, and ideas around creation that were occupying the public imaginary at the time. Around that time, I co-created a dance theater adaptation of Frankenstein and its connections to Shelley’s life with a contemporary ballet company, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, Victor Frankenstein, and I also began writing poems and hybrid nonfiction with regards to my own relationship to the text and to her life. I have also taught courses on the popular impact of Frankenstein.
EMILY AUGUST: I first began to engage in depth with Frankenstein during my Ph.D., when I was reading my comprehensive lists and taking my exams. My subspecialty is in medical humanities, and I was specifically looking at how surgery is represented in 19th-century literature, and how its discourse is used as a lens to grapple with ideologies about the human body. I was drawn to the way Shelley’s text registers contemporary anxieties about the body and its anatomical parts. The sewn-together, reanimated body of Frankenstein’s monster is an analogue for the social body that sits at the heart of my current academic book project.
DOUGLAS RAY: Frankenstein became one of those texts I often turned to when I started teaching in boarding schools. As I started to re-read the text in order to prepare to teach, I kept seeing moments of queerness, as the story questions fundamental or normative boundaries. I’ve also thought that the novel inspires great conversations about teaching and learning, the process of education.
JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: Frankenstein was a book that I first read as an obligation, before I really knew how to read. I read it as an engaged but sheltered high school student in an English course where many of my peers struggled with literacy. There were texts that engaged me at this age; I was obsessed with Antigone. Frankenstein actually wasn’t one of them.
I returned to the book in and after college and found an entirely different world. I returned to the book again after I started writing seriously, and I found a book that taught me about narrative structure, about craft. It’s a text that, like human bodies, grows and changes and shifts over times. It depends on how we look at it, on our structures for seeing, which, of course, are made out of bodies and culture, both.
For those of you who bring Frankenstein into the classroom, please speak to the ways in which you do so, and to your pedagogical experiences when teaching this text. What interventions do you attempt when teaching this text in new ways? Do you teach this text alongside other texts, be they historical or contemporary? What texts, and how are those intersections received by your students?
ADDIE TSAI: I have taught Frankenstein in two literature courses – one that aims to think of the cultural and popular impact of Frankenstein and a Western World Literature survey course that uses a particular annotated edition of Frankenstein, titled Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds (MIT Press, 2017) as the central text and aims to look at the many texts that informed some of the ideas in Frankenstein, or texts that Frankenstein inspired. Some of the academic intersections for that course vary from Aristotle and Plato to Freud’s case study of hysteria and psychological works on narcissism. The conversation that seems to resonate the most with students is that which centers around hysteria—not only the problematic hysteric studies that were performed on women at the time, but also the ways in which Shelley casts both Frankenstein and the Creature as male hysterics themselves. One of the voices useful for this conversation is Juliet Mitchell, who rather defines hysteria as the external pathological that occurs when the subject is caught between love and hate towards their object of attention. This is a state of mind you can see in both Frankenstein and the Creature, albeit from different energies and contexts.
EMILY AUGUST: I teach a British literature survey that covers the literary movements of Romanticism, Victorianism, and Modernism, and I use Frankenstein as the keystone Romantic text. It’s so useful because it encapsulates almost everything the Romantics were obsessed with: brooding, tortured geniuses; forbidding natural landscapes that produce states of sublime emotion; the ways in which science and technology were reshaping what it meant to be human; &c. In ways both explicit and nuanced, the text is also rife with Orientalism, so it provides a rich conduit into discussions about race and empire in the Romantic period. My students learn to identify the ways that whiteness structures the Romantic encounter with bodies; etched into their memories of the text are our discussions of the pale, aristocratic Elizabeth, with her blond halo-like hair, who possesses a natural superiority over her darker-skinned playmates. We also critique the character Safie and her refusal of her Turkish identity on feminist grounds. Safie waxes poetic about how much more liberated western women are than eastern women: she “aspire[s] to higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet,” and she “sicken[s] at the prospect of again returning to Asia and being immured within the walls of a harem.” I ask students to draw parallels to the ways in which 21st-century feminist discourse has inherited these Islamophobic tropes about the perceived liberation of western women, and how certain performances of white feminism talk over or at Muslim women rather than listening to them and learning from them. I love this text, and I deeply admire its author. But to think about an English woman occupying the subject position of an “Arabian” who praises the superiority of western society? It’s troubling, and it’s an excellent opportunity for guiding students to more nuanced levels of cultural criticism.
DOUGLAS RAY: I have taught the novel several times at different independent boarding schools. I typically teach it to sophomores early in the year. Through the study of the novel, I want the students to ask several essential questions: What are the limits of human exploration and creativity? How do we use science and technology (and knowledge) ethically? What qualities make something / someone monstrous? Who gets to decide what’s monstrous and what’s civilized or ‘normal’? What is the best way to learn? I want the students to interrogate themselves–applying these questions to their own lives and opinions as well as to the novel.
To start the conversation, I usually show my students Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer Above the Sea and Fog (1818) to introduce students to ideas of Romanticism, exploration, and reckoning with the unknown. As we conclude our study of the novel, I always remind them that this particular text is one to revisit at different points in their lives.
How can the themes of Frankenstein (and Shelley’s engagement with those themes) give insight to the current political climate?
ADDIE TSAI: Certainly, I think that Frankenstein is one of those timeless texts because the issues that the text gives birth to continue in our culture—the ethics of creation, the dangers of narcissism, how the ego is reflected onto the child from a parent. Another important issue that the text addresses is that of alienation towards the strange or the unfamiliar. When I first read the text as a young woman, I remember how strongly I related to the Creature’s plight. What I found most striking was what Shelley does with the Creature’s name (even as nameless he remains) once the family he tries to care for and the outer world turn on him. From that point on, the Creature begins to be referred to by names that reflect how the world sees him—the Wretch, the Fiend, the Ogre, the Daemon, etc. I think it is a brilliant and beautifully-made point of how one can become a product of the world’s rejection. It is an interesting dynamic to think of in these times when immigrants, people of color, queer and trans people, and so many others find their lives and what they need to thrive threatened in this new divisive world. Or, perhaps it is not new, but only that the exposure to what this word is, in fact, is clearer than it has been before.
EMILY AUGUST: Most of the highly politicized questions with which Frankenstein engages are still very much a part of our current cultural conversations. Thus, the novel provides such a great opportunity for readers to think of these questions as perennial rather than fixed, and it enables us to historicize our own political moment.
Related to its rehearsal of Orientalist tropes, which I mentioned above, I think the novel also stages some really interesting questions around immigration and “the foreign”. I think about the different groups of people who engage in movement and travel throughout the novel, and how each group experiences travel so differently. I think of the Frankenstein family, whose members traverse Europe, from Scotland to Italy and several countries in between. I think of Safie and her father as fugitives or refugees. And the De Laceys, forcibly exiled from one home and then another. Which of the text’s characters can travel freely through Europe, and which characters’ movements are policed?
I think there’s also a lot to be said for Victor’s immense privilege, and its similarities to how privilege works in today’s society. Victor is, essentially, a very bright guy who’s doted on, petted, and placated. He persistently abdicates responsibility for his crimes and suffers virtually no consequences. When he does manage to briefly get tangled up with the law, the judicial system is shockingly easy on him—students get a lot of mileage out of discussing the differences between the two criminal trials in the text, and how Victor’s position as a white, upper-class male works in favor of his exoneration.
Finally, the novel is very invested in thinking about the dangers of science and technology; it is, in some ways, a parable of how science and technology become weaponized. And it’s a dirge that mourns the fallout from that weaponization: the human cost, and the abdication of responsibility on the part of those who manufacture, distribute, and preserve access to those weapons. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a topic more relevant to today’s political climate than that!
JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: I absolutely agree that the work hasn’t become less pertinent to politics and culture, both. The questions it asks are central ones, not just to a time and place, but to our shared condition. What makes a body? Does a body make a spirit? What are the consequences for experimentation? Can one and should one create, or alter, life? Where are the boundaries between human and non-human? Conscious and non-conscious? When does a hybrid cease becoming a hybrid at all? What characteristics define being inside (being alive, being human, being sentient), and who, in the end, gets to decide?
As a working scientist, I see this playing out more and more. New technologies are creating – for the first time – the very real possibility of human hybrids. The CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technologies allow us to literally cut and paste DNA inside an egg or embryo. We can use this technology to humanize pig organs for potential transplant. CRIPSR has been shown to be (somewhat) effective in human embryos that are pre-programmed to die, although this technology remains outlawed in most countries and won’t be published by leading scientific journals.
So, the central questions of Frankenstein are being (re)considered now, here, in 2018, and the text still can guide us to and away from possibilities.
How does/has Frankenstein inform/ed your creative work? Has that influence changed over time? If so, what would you attribute that change to? In other words, does your impression of the text change over time and in what way does it?
ADDIE TSAI: There a number of ways that Frankenstein continues to inform my creative work. In the beginning, it was the content that stuck with me and the themes I saw that connected with my own feelings about my hybridized identity. From there, I also began to be struck with the power of the epistolary, of the address to the second person. At some point, however, the way the hybrid body of the Creature (as well as the text) speaks to the way in which I choose to form my work. I am a cross-genre artist—I work in hybrid forms and I also work with both image and text. In that regard, Frankenstein continues to be an influence on the way collage, just as Frankenstein collaged his Creature, just as Shelley collaged her text, informs everything I make.
JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: For me, I can address this in one word: hybridity. I still look to Shelley’s work when I think not about what type of story I want to tell, but how I want to tell it. The monster in the story is pieced together, and the narrative is too; it’s told from different points of view and through different media. As a writer, this has long guided how I think about craft, how the story I want to tell can be reflected in how the essay or book or poem is built.
Addie Tsai teaches courses literature, writing, and humanities at Houston Community College. She has collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater. Addie received her MFA from Warren Wilson College, and she is currently pursuing a doctoral candidate in Dance at Texas Woman’s University. Her queer Asian young adult novel, Dear Twin, will be published by NineStar Press in 2018. Her writing has been published in Banango Street, The Offing, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. She is the Nonfiction Editor at The Grief Diaries, and Senior Associate Editor in Poetry at The Flexible Persona.
Emily August is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Stockton University, where she teaches courses in British literature, medical humanities, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on depictions of surgery and theories of embodiment in 19th-century literature and art. Her poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination, and has appeared in Callaloo, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Southern Humanities Review, Quarterly West, and elsewhere.
Douglas Ray is author of He Will Laugh, a collection of poems, and editor of The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South, which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. He is currently editing Supporting Transgender Students: A Guide for Schools and Teachers. A graduate of the MFA program at The University of Mississippi, he teaches at Western Reserve Academy, an independent boarding school in Hudson, Ohio.
Joe Osmundson is a scientist and writer based in New York City. He has a PhD from The Rockefeller University in Molecular Biophysics. His research has been supported by the American Cancer Society, published in leading biological journals, including Cell and PNAS, and he’s currently a Clinical Assistant Professor of Biology at NYU. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Gawker, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, The Lambda Literary Review, and The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere, too. His book, Capsid: A Love Song won the POZ Award for best HIV writing (fiction/poetry) and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. His second book, INSIDE/OUT is now out from Sibling Rivalry Press (January, 2018). He is represented by Katie Kotchman at Don Congdon Associates. With three other queer writers, he co-hosts a podcast, Food 4 Thot.