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Anniversary lecture explores the evolution of Frankenstein

Zoe Covey

Features Editor

Last Friday, Dr. Irene Herold, head librarian for The College of Wooster, gave a lecture on the enduring relevance of Mary Shelley’s most famous work, “Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus,” for its 200 year anniversary. The inspiration for the lecture was an exhibit produced by the National Library of Medicine entitled “Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature,” which gave an overview of the environment, genesis and development of Shelley’s novel. Herold planned her talk before learning that the Wayne County Public Libraries were also holding events in collaboration with the exhibit. 

Herold was a teacher prior to becoming Wooster’s head librarian, and taught about novels that were in the same genre as Frankenstein. She said that the first time she encountered the novel, she did not get everything out of it that was possible to detect. “I thought I had read the novel shortly after I graduated, but I think I only read part of it.  I was teaching eighth grade and we read ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ and then saw a theatre production of ‘Frankenstein.’ I realized as I read the novel, preparing for the lecture that I had not read it before.  There was so much more to the novel than I knew — characters, murders (three), how the Creature became educated, all of the various locations, the narrative structure with Walton the ship captain, the trials, etc.,” Herold said. 

The lecture largely focused on the environment in which Shelley’s novel came into being, as well as the faithfulness of film and theatrical adaptations. The environment included biblical stories that feature tales of rebirth and rising from the dead, such as “The son of the widow of Nain” (Luke 7:11-17), “Lazarus” (John 11:1-44) and of course, the famous story of Christ’s resurrection. Herold explained that these famous stories created a place for Shelley’s work to fit into. Shelley’s personal background also influenced her writing. 

Shelley grew up in a family of writers and was surrounded by friends of her parents, who were political scientists, artists, doctors and chemists who cycled through her life since her mother’s passing at a young age. Their discussions and sharing of work influenced her later on when she was writing Frankenstein. Herold said that she thought one of the most interesting parts of Shelley’s background was her relationship with her mother. 

“I knew that Mary Shelley was from a mother who was a feminist, but I had not realized Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin had died 10 days after giving birth to Mary Shelley, so her mother’s influence on her life was via reputation and not directly. The whole theme about life and parenting was familiar,” said Herold. 

Adaptations of Frankenstein have often been less than faithful to the original text. According to the National Library of Medicine website, in these adaptations, “The monster underwent a transformation. From a sensitive, reasoning and articulate being whose crimes resulted from his mistreatment at the hands of humanity, the creature mutated into a grunting brute, whose violent and cruel nature could only be understood as the product of science daring to usurp the god-like power of creation.” 

Though these adaptations are so different from the novel, many people’s main experience with the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature has been through films or cartoons retelling the tale. 

Herold said, “The film versions are beloved, but they do the Creature an injustice by making him speechless and unfeeling.” 

Herold started the lecture by asking the audience some light warmup questions, such as “What does it mean to be human,” and, “What is the meaning of life?” She also stopped speaking several times during the lecture to leave room for discussion with the audience about these big questions. 

Audience members spoke about how they couldn’t understand the rejection of the Creature by the doctor and how they had always believed that the monster’s name was Frankenstein, as the doctor’s name and his monster have become synonymous. Discussion of the controversy surrounding breakthroughs in science, even today, prompted thought about what it must have been like for the people who first read the story of the doctor and his creation. People in attendance discussed Mark Zuckerberg’s senate hearings, enhancing the human genome and the militarization of the human brain. 

When asked what she believed we are meant to take away from the novel, after 200 years and many retellings and all of her research on the topic, Herold said, “I can only speak to what I took away from the novel. That’s the great thing about literature — we each bring our own experiences to the text and take away what is individually meaningful. My lecture highlighted a few of the major themes that I took away from it, but others will find what resonates for them as they read it.  It is a lovely, complex work with multiple depths that is a really good read today, as it was when published 200 years ago.”

(Photo courtesy Zoe Covey)

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