The Science of Frankenstein

The Science of Frankenstein

There is little doubt that Mary Shelley’s ‘Creature’ from Frankenstein is a well-embedded symbol in contemporary literature, television and film. He has been recast as a comic book superhero; inspired TV cartoons and characters like Milton the Monster; and featured in pop-art, manga, films, apps, games, band names and songs.

But it’s not just the Creature that inspires people’s imaginations. If you Google ‘Frankenstein’ about 43,800,000 results will be returned. A slightly narrower search – ‘What is Frankenstein an allegory for’ – brings about 175,000 results.

Students often want a definitive answer to the question ‘what is it really about?’, but there is no single answer for such a complex novel. The range of interpretations of the text discussed online, for example, include: the perils of meddling with science, the dangers of ignoring moral codes, a retelling of the Biblical fall from grace, an examination of the hazards of pregnancy and childbirth, an exploration of the male desire to procreate without women, the futility of seeking personal fulfilment in a meaningless world, a warning about the perils of ending slavery, a celebration of homosexual love, the importance of embracing people with disabilities, a warning about the danger of political dissent in response to the French revolution, and a narrative exploring the tension between reason and imagination.

Frankenstein offers the opportunity for some substantial discussions about validity in textual interpretation and the multiple allegorical meanings that can be gleaned from a text, but those discussions are difficult without some understanding of the cultural context in which Shelley wrote, particularly with regard to how science and scientists were perceived. The information students find if they search for extra material about this might be more overwhelming than enlightening; Google results provide no indication of a resource’s quality.

I’ve focused this week’s post on two relatively recent resources that explore the influence on and representation of science in the text. The first is an article by Alan Levinovitz, Assistant Professor of Religion at James Madison University, discussing the intersection between literary archetypes and science. The second is a segment from ABC Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor, featuring Suzanne Burdon discussing attitudes to science in the early 1800s and how they relate to our understanding of science in the modern era.

I have also narrowed down the 43,800,000 search results to a list of interesting additional references. Your students might be curious to see the original manuscripts of Frankenstein (The Shelley Godwin Archive) and may also enjoy Germaine Greer’s passionate piece refuting the claims of John Lauritsen – who wrote The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (2007) – that Mary Shelley did not write Frankenstein but that her husband, Percy, did.

In the interests of full disclosure, however, I should say that I didn’t assess all of the 43,800,000 search results for their usefulness.

Scroll down for a content breakdown that will help you to assess if these resources are right for your school context or class, and for a free downloadable PDF of guiding questions and writing tasks. Please note that all links below and in the PDF will take you to third-party sites.

We’ll resume posting after the Easter break; until then, best wishes and happy holidays.

Sandra Duncanson
Senior Editor

The resources

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Download includes content for:

  •  Year 12 Text study: Frankenstein

 Suitability and relevance

1. ‘The curse of Frankenstein: how archetypal myths shape the way people think about science’, by Alan Levinovitz

  • Form: article
  • Central ideas: discusses the power of archetypes in modern attitudes to science (and law)
  • Cross references and prior knowledge: Dolly the sheep, the concept of genetically modified foods and IVF
  • Content warnings: none

2. ‘Frankenstein and modern science’, by Suzanne Burdon

  • Form: radio segment
  • Length: 10:52
  • Central ideas: explores public attitudes to science in the early 1800s, and the key ideas held by many about scientific experimentation at the time
  • Cross references and prior knowledge: Boris Karloff; alchemy; Galvani experiments, Sir Humphry Davy and a range of other 18th century scientists; 1816 Mt Tambora eruption in Indonesia
  • Content warnings: none

Additional resources

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March 20, 2016

Analysing radio interviews: Neil Mitchell cuts off anti-halal protester

March 20, 2016