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Shelley's story 'Frankenstein' turns 200

Barry McNamara
11/13/2018
MONMOUTH, Ill. – As the “dreary nights of November” set in, it’s the perfect time to remember that 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Frankenstein.

Monmouth College has commemorated the bicentennial with a display at the east entrance of Hewes Library, assembled by Public Services Librarian Anne Giffey after she learned about the book’s 1818 date of origin from Dean of Students Laura Hutchinson.

“I thought it would work well with Halloween,” said Giffey, who said the display includes a link to a digitized version of Shelley’s manuscript, with notes from both her and her editor/husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. “Mary Shelley lived a very interesting life, and there was a lot going on with her when she wrote Frankenstein in her late teens,” the age of many of Monmouth’s current students.

One of those interesting elements was her relationship with Percy and his close friend, fellow poet Lord Byron. Together, the three challenged each other to write a ghost story. It’s safe to say that Mary Shelley won the competition, as Frankenstein has stood the test of time. In today’s parlance, her horror tale went viral.

“It’s a great novel about education and knowledge and what makes someone human versus being a monster,” said Monmouth Assistant Professor of English Katarzyna Bartoszynska, who teaches the novel every spring in her British literature survey class. She’s also used it when teaching the freshman-level course “Introduction to Liberal Arts,” as have several other ILA professors.

In addition to serving as an appropriate time to acknowledge the importance of the work by Shelley – who Bartoszynska called a “fascinating figure – the Frankenstein bicentennial is an opportunity to address several common mistakes the public makes when thinking about the novel.

“Everyone thinks they know a lot about the Frankenstein story,” said Bartoszynska. “That it was the monster who was named Frankenstein, and that he was a big green guy, mumbling incoherently. But the story is not like that at all.”

Frankenstein was the name of the scientist who created the monster, and its skin color was normal. As for mumbling incoherently, the opposite was true of the well-educated creation.

“The monster read Milton and the history of ancient Greece,” said Bartoszynska. “In the book, he’s a very eloquent speaker. And the monster is never named in the story. There’s also no Igor, the scientist’s assistant. He’s not in the book at all.”

What is in the book are several memorable passages, including one that Giffey uses in her display, in reference to the time of Victor Frankenstein’s famous creation: “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.”

Bartoszynska shared one of her favorite passages, which explained Frankenstein’s motivation:

“A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.”

“So it’s about curiosity, but it’s also about power,” said Bartoszynska. “That makes it really interesting. Frankenstein has been called ‘a male pregnancy story,’ but he turns out to be a terrible father. He creates him and then abandons him.”

Bartoszynska said the family dynamic is also an important element of the book, including Frankenstein’s parents adopting a late friend’s daughter, essentially with the purpose of giving Frankenstein a bride.

“The book makes you think a lot about family and what makes a family,” she said. “Some of the servants actually became members of the family, so there are just a lot of weird family relationships in the book. It makes you think about what’s normal and what’s not.”