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One of the greatest horror novels was written almost 200 years ago by a 19 year old. “Frankenstein” was published in 1818 in London. Young Mary Shelley came up with the idea while she and her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, were vacationing with poet Lord Byron on Lake Geneva. The weather was dreary and Lord Byron challenged everyone to make up a ghost story. Mary came up with “Frankenstein.” Join us for a Readers’ Review discussion on why this cautionary tale about science and creation has never been out of print and has gone on to inspire legions of writers and filmakers.
- Paul Cantor Professor of English, University of Virginia.
- Roseanne Montillo Professor of English, Emerson College.
- Joel Achenbach Science reporter, The Washington Post; writer for Achenblog; author of "A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece” by Roseanne Montillo. Copyright 2013 by Roseanne Montillo. Reprinted here by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. That audio clip you just heard is from the classic 1931 film, "Frankenstein." It's just one of many works inspired by a novel written almost 200 hundred years ago. Here with me to talk about Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" for this month's Reader's Review, Paul Cantor, the University of Virginia, Roseanne Montillo of Emerson College and Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post. If you've enjoyed the movie, the books, the many publications about "Frankenstein," join us today.
MS. DIANE REHMCall us. 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Welcome to all of you.
MR. JOEL ACHENBACHGood morning, Diane.
MS. ROSEANNE MONTILLOGood morning.
DR. PAUL CANTORGood morning.
REHMIt's so good to have you all here. Paul, tell us about the origins of Frankenstein and the situation Mary Shelley was in at the time.
CANTORWell, this book probably has the most interesting origins of any novel. Mary Shelley had just run off from England with Percy Shelley, who was about to become a great English poet. They were not married at the time. In fact, Percy was married to a woman named Harriet, and they fled to Switzerland because they were having problems with Percy's father. And they linked up with Lord Byron, another great English poet, and one of the most famous people in Europe at that time.
CANTORAnd they were at something called the Villa Diodati in Switzerland, and one night, they got really into a ghost story contest. And they were each supposed to write a ghost story, and Mary came up with the tale of "Frankenstein." And it's the only one of the stories that has really lasted. Although, Byron's physician, John Polidori, was there as well, and he wrote a little tale called, "The Vampire," which ultimately became "Dracula." So, in a sense, the two greatest horror stories, "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," grew out of one pretty wild party in Switzerland.
REHMRoseanne, why do you suppose the book has lasted for 200 years? Why is there still this great fascination?
MONTILLOWell, it started off with being a warning book, the idea that you shouldn't be able to do things even though you feel the ability to do it. Perhaps you shouldn't run amuck, science shouldn't be able to run amuck. The idea that you should be careful, you should look at the consequences. You should be able to think things through, which Victor Frankenstein obviously didn't do. He liked the idea of being able to put together a creature without actually thinking of the consequences.
MONTILLOAnd 200 years later, science is still doing that quite a bit.
MONTILLOSo, 200 years later, people keep on doing the same thing over and over, and "Frankenstein" is a warning that, perhaps, you should be a little bit more careful, you should be a little bit more aware of where you put your mind into it. Just because you can do it doesn't mean that you should.
REHMJoel Achenbach, for you, as a science writer, this book must really resonate.
ACHENBACHYes. It's remarkable that you decided to have this discussion, because I, about a year or so ago, picked the book up because I've been interested in the question of, are attitudes toward science and this whole Prometheus notion that it's dangerous to go certain places, that certain kinds of knowledge is dangerous. There's this line in -- a famous line in the novel where Dr. Frankenstein is saying, learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world.
ACHENBACHThen he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. It's kind of, that issue of, you know, should we be doing these things, like synthetic biology, genetically modified organisms, nuclear energy even. Is this safe, is it the right thing to do, or is it gonna come back and bite us some day?
REHMWas that the first time you had read this novel?
ACHENBACHOh yeah. I had not read it before.
REHMI had not either.
ACHENBACHI was a little surprised, well, we were talking about this out in the lobby, how melodramatic it is. I mean, how full of anguish and torment.
REHMAbsolutely, because he is filled with anguish and torment over what he's doing, Roseanne.
MONTILLOHe is, very much so. But there is also a certain excitement about the idea that he might be the first one to bring back something from the dead. Not just an individual from the dead. The idea that he can patch things together from so many different people. He could be the very first one to be able to do that, the excitement in that. The ability that resonates within him to be just the first individual to do it without actually thinking of the consequences.
REHMPaul, talk about how he acquires this individual he hopes to experiment with.
CANTORWell, he hunts around in graveyards and picks up the parts, and decides to put them together. It's one of the funniest things in the book that Mel Brooks picked up on in "Young Frankenstein," that Frankenstein says, since the minuteness of the parts inhibited my progress, I decided to make the creature eight feet tall and the organs proportional. That's a perfect example of what Roseanne was talking about. The lack of thoughtfulness.
CANTORHe doesn't consider what it's gonna do to this creature he's creating, that it's gonna be eight feet tall. And this is before the days of the NBA. There's no advantage to being eight feet tall. So, it really makes life miserable for the creature by his unwillingness to use any forethought.
REHMTell us about Victor Frankenstein, the scientist who creates this creature. I mean, he seems, at the start, a quite reasonable, thoughtful man who has studied in many different disciplines. But then he takes another track.
MONTILLOHe does. He actually tells you, very often, that he starts things off with very benign intentions. His mother had passed away, so he wanted -- it was grief that prompted him to do this. He was very much feeling sorrow and sadness because of his mother's absence, so he wanted a way to bring her and bring the dead back to life. The ability to being able to connect to those people over again. So, this started off as a good thing. There had to be something good about that.
MONTILLOEventually, it takes a turn for the worse when, again, he doesn't consider the possibility that maybe they don't want to come back. He doesn't consider the possibility that what he brings back may not be the same person. He doesn't consider the possibility that society might have an issue with this at all. And he doesn't consider the possibility that eight feet tall, the creature will stand out, so right away, he's pitting him off against a world that will really dislike him, be disgusted by him, be really -- there won't be anything good about that.
ACHENBACHThis Doctor Frankenstein is definitely the prototype of the mad scientist. If you read the book, you see him becoming more obsessive. When he starts hanging around graveyards and charnel houses, he gets -- he goes all the way down the rabbit hole of trying to, you know, create this artificial life. And just in the way it's written, it's very crafty, by Shelley, that you can detect his madness in the fact that he doesn't know where the off switch is. I wanted to add one just quick little historical footnote to something that Paul said earlier.
ACHENBACHThis ghost story contest. I believe it was the summer of 1816. The previous year, a volcano in Indonesia, or in that part of the world, Tambora, erupted, and spewed all this dust and sulfates and things into the atmosphere and changed the climate on the planet for the next couple of years. And so 1816 was the famous year without a summer. And this pops up in a lot of literature, actually.
ACHENBACHThe year -- it was just so cold and miserable. So, they were at Lake Geneva, trying to have a nice summer holiday, and it was cold and rainy the whole time, and what comes out of that is "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," eventually.
REHMAnd isn't it also true that Mary Shelley could have been reflecting her own loss of mother. Her mother died, what, seven to 14 days after she was born? So, she had no mother, and, perhaps, that came into her own thinking about bringing back the mother she lost.
MONTILLOShe did. She never knew her mother. She only knew her by the work she had left behind. She was also very attached to her in a spiritual sort of way. She spent an awful lot of time in the graveyard where her mother was buried in a way to, not really communicate with her, but in a roundabout way, to get to know her. Reading her work, reading her poetry, reading the work she had left behind. And the only mother she knew was her stepmother. And with her, she really never got along all that well. She was never attached to that woman.
MONTILLOShe was actually -- it was a typical, I suppose, young child hating the woman who comes into her life and takes away her father. Her father's love, her father's attention. So her dead mother, even though she was gone, she was present in a fashion. So she was always there. Her ghost was always there. So, she was grieving her mother. She wanted to bring her back. And her book allowed her to do that. It's not by coincidence that she found herself in Switzerland. It's not by coincidence that she followed the same road that her mother had done before, so it is very much like Victor trying to bring back a dead person.
REHMRoseanne Montillo. She's Professor of Literature at Emerson College. She's the author of "The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece." Short break. I hope you'll join our conversation. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd as we talk about Mary Shelley's brilliant novel "Frankenstein," here with me Joel Achenbach. He is science writer at the Washington Post. Roseanne Montillo is professor of literature at Emerson College. Paul Cantor is professor of literature at the University of Virginia. He's written several articles about Frankenstein and Mary Shelley.
REHMOur first email from Barnard here in Washington, D.C. says "We're studying the Frankenstein theme in modern culture this semester at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. What are the major differences between the 1818 text and the 1831 revision? Why did Mary Shelley make the changes? In particular we wonder about the apparent differences in Frankenstein's motivation and attitude toward making the creature and the female characters in the book," Paul.
CANTORWell, this is the sort of thing I think professors get obsessive over. Personally I don't think there are that many differences.
REHM...except for the introduction...
CANTORThere's the introduction and for...
REHM...that Mary Shelley wrote.
CANTOR...yeah, for example in the original 1818 version, Victor and his soon-to-be beloved Elizabeth are actually cousins. Mary Shelley toned that down for the 1831 version. And they just grew up together.
REHMShe was adopted.
CANTORYeah, so it's still pretty incestuous, if you ask me. But the line among people who stress the differences is that the 1831 edition is more conservative than the first. I really...
CANTORIn the sense that it shows you that people try to go beyond human limits, fail and create disasters. But I think that's already there on the 1818 version. And I have to say, although there's hundreds of little differences, added paragraph here, subtract a paragraph there, I really don't think they're fundamentally different works.
MONTILLOI agree with that but I also think the 1818 edition had Victor being more outgoing. He was the one. He was the maker of his own destiny. He was the one who created the creature. He knew the consequences. He didn't look back. He didn't really take any action to make sure that the creature was right. In the 1831 edition it's a little bit different. Mary Shelley's playing around a little bit more with the idea that maybe destiny has something a little bit to do with that. And maybe you're not entirely in possession of your own motives for doing it. That maybe a higher power is leading you on.
MONTILLOSo it's not surprising either. By 1831 she was already -- you know, she had lost her husband. Everybody that had been important to her by then had come and gone.
MONTILLOSo she knew that perhaps, you know, maybe a higher power has something more to do.
ACHENBACHHave we mentioned that she was 19 years old when...
REHMI did indeed -- when she wrote it.
ACHENBACHJust thinking about what I was writing at the age of 19. And I actually do want to read a quick little passage...
ACHENBACH...and just make one point for people out there who haven't read the book. It's really...
REHMIt's so worth reading because more of us -- myself included, this is the first time I have ever read this book -- more of us are familiar with that Boris Karloff portrayal.
ACHENBACHThat is precisely the point -- the Boris Karloff portrayal weighs so heavily on our imagination.
REHMAnd listen to this email before you read this. Marian in Grand Rapids, Mich. writes, "My mother, now 81, still talks of how a neighbor teen took her to see the movie when she was about eight years old and how she slept with my grandparents for a week. And she still will not watch it again."
ACHENBACHSo, yeah, you picture Boris Karloff but in the novel the monster is huge but long raggedy hair. First of all, there's no neck bolts.
ACHENBACHThose neck bolts...
REHMThose neck bolts, you'll never forget them.
ACHENBACH…they're not there. He doesn't have the high forehead and the -- maybe he has the stiff gait but, you know, Karloff I think was 5'11" and they made him look huge with his big...
REHMIt made him look 8' tall.
ACHENBACHYeah, but I just want to read this one little passage.
ACHENBACHThis -- it's very sophisticated in the way it's written. This is fairly early in the book when he's created the monster and the monster awakens. I started from my sleep with horror. A cold dew covered my forehead and my teeth chattered and every limb became convulsed. When by the dim and yellow light of the moon as it forced its way through the window shutters I beheld the wretch, the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed in his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened and he muttered some inarticulate sounds while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.
ACHENBACHIt just -- I mean, it's really good writing. It's very powerful. I assume there's some symbolic imagery there about the curtain of the bed maybe being the consciousness of the monster as he awakens. It's -- but throughout it, the name Frankenstein, we often refer to the monster as Frankenstein. Of course it's the doctor who's Frankenstein.
ACHENBACHThe monster's just the creature, the wretch, the demon...
REHMExactly. How does Dr. Frankenstein bring this creature to life, Paul?
CANTORWell, he does it with electricity. This happens in the movie. It's one of the few ways in which the movie follows the book.
CANTORMary Shelley had been hearing about some of the early experiments with batteries, people who used electricity to get a dead frog to move its legs. It seemed very exciting. And it's interesting, both Lord Byron and her husband -- soon-to-be husband, Percy Shelley, were very interested in science. They were romantic poets. We think they weren't interested in science but they found science very romantic. They felt it was opening up great new possibilities for humanity. And that's what Mary Shelley's playing with here. So it actually had some basis in real science at the time.
REHMBut didn't the idea of creating the perfect man come out of the French Revolution?
ACHENBACHYes. I'm interested in the political elements of the story, that it's not just a story of science gone wrong but of the whole idealism gone wrong. What Mary Shelley sees in Dr. Frankenstein is a desire to make man better. And that actually is rooted in the whole spirit of the French Revolution, 1789. It was the greatest event in European history up to that point. The French renamed the mums. They started the calendar anew as 1789 as year one. They created the metric system. It was one of the first examples of science coming up in politics and trying to create a new world. And Mary Shelley was very skeptical about what would result from that.
REHMBut now, Roseanne, aren't there some similarities between Shelley's husband and Victor Frankenstein? Shelley used drugs. He was experimenting.
MONTILLOHe did. He was an interesting character. He was -- he believed that by using drugs he could achieve a higher knowledge of god and the spirits as well a higher power so to speak. So the name Victor is not unusual. It's not out of coincidence that she has taken Victor. Percy Shelley used to use the name Victor as one of his nicknames for himself as well. So she's using that name as an homage to her husband. So there are many similarities. He also suffered from waking dreams as well.
MONTILLOHe took drugs. He did experiments with galvanic batteries as well. So he is your real live creator -- if you want to call him that. And he would bring her into seeing these sort of experiments. He would allow her to know all these things. And he was fascinated by everything going on around him. In fact, he tackled with the idea that perhaps science should be something studied. Back then, the idea of studying science and poetry at the same time was not that unusual. Today you see that sort of divide between the disciplines. But back then, people studied a great many things at the same time.
CANTORI just want to add one quick note, which is if you think about that year 1816, what the world looked like then. It's hard for us today -- because it's almost 200 years ago -- it's hard for us today to realize that was, you know, the modern present and changing world that they were living in. So up until -- maybe up through the 18th century, technology had not pressed on people's imagination quite as much as it does to us today.
CANTORBut by 1816 you've got steamboats suddenly are shrinking distances. You've got -- Erasmus Darwin and others are talking about early ideas involving evolution. And this idea is in the wind about the evolution of life on earth. Of course it's his grandson who later -- you know, Charles Darwin who promotes the theory and figures it all out.
CANTORBut the world was changing and you had -- you know, Ben Franklin's experiments in electricity were famous and so I think they felt like, as we do today, that the world was shifting beneath their feet a little bit. And that, you know, the millennia of the cycle of life and the cycle of history was being changed. And the world was being altered.
REHMRoseanne, talk about the monster. He is a creature who in some ways desires to be loved. He seeks love and yet he ends up murdering people. How do you explain those two parts of his soul, if he has one.
MONTILLOWell, he starts with a clean slate. We don't know where his desires come from. Mary Shelley tells you that Victor Frankenstein plucked things out from cemeteries, different pieces of bodies from different people. So you don't really know what belongs to whom. So you don't know if he has the brain of a criminal, the mind of someone else, the heart of a nun or anything like that. So very much what you have is an 8' tall baby that really wants to be loved and cared for and needs all of the attention that a newborn would need.
REHMDoes he strive to be good?
MONTILLOHe strives to be good. He also tells you that he starts off with benign intentions. And the first thing that he receives is disappointment. Victor, at the moment that the creature opens his eyes, he runs away.
REHMWe heard that.
MONTILLOYes. And this should be the moment where Victor realizes all of his dreams, all of his desires. It should be a huge achievement. Instead he runs away.
REHMWhy does this happen to him, Paul?
CANTORWell, one theory is that he's the double of Frankenstein, that he secretly acts out what Victor really wants to do. Victor has a peculiar psychology. When he loves people he wants to put them at a distance. He's got this woman Elizabeth that he should be marrying. And he keeps putting it off so he can go off and create life. he actually seems to want to be alone. And in that sense the creature acts out his desire to be free of all his obligations. He's a man who doesn't want obligations to other people. And the monster makes sure he doesn't have to have them.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to hear, once more, the awakening and how Victor Frankenstein himself reacts.
VICTOR FRANKENSTEINLook, it's moving. It's alive. It's alive. It's alive. It's moving. It's alive. It's alive. It's alive, it's alive, it's alive. Oh, in the name of god. Now I know what it feels like to be god.
REHMAnd you know there is both that joy and fear in that voice.
CANTORWhen they filmed that, did they realize how iconic that moment would be and how imitated it would be?
REHMIsn't that extraordinary? Isn't it...
CANTORWhen I heard it I thought, I wonder if that's Gene Wilder in "Young Frankenstein."
ACHENBACHIt's interesting to compare this with the book because here's what happens in the book at that moment. Victor says, "how can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe or how to delineate the wretch who, with such infinite pains and care, I endeavor to form. His limbs were in proportion and I had selected his features as beautiful" -- beautiful, great god, his yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.
ACHENBACHVery interesting that moment because we have the manuscript. And we know that Percy changed it here. Mary had written handsome and he changed it to beautiful. It shows that he was more interested in the aesthetics of the moment than Mary was. But, you see, it's very much an aesthetic moment there. He's like an artist. I thought I'd created something beautiful and now look, it's ugly.
REHMWhy does the monster begin killing people, Roseanne?
MONTILLOMary Shelley gives you the idea that perhaps he does so. He was a -- he started off being good but he was visited by things that were very unpleasant to him. So he really didn't mean to. Just because it was a reaction as to how people reacted to him as well. So he -- there isn't...
REHMBut doesn't he also become jealous of the people that Victor Frankenstein loves?
MONTILLOHe does and he tells you. There is a moment when he realizes that up until this point, being good doesn't serve for anything. So he makes the conscious choice to become evil and to destroy everything that matters to Victor because if he can't have it, well, Victor perhaps shouldn't either. So he starts off by killing off everyone else that really matters to Victor because he knows that in the end Victor will be lonely, sad and feel some of that loneliness that the creature was feeling himself.
MONTILLOAnd in this sense, they will become one. They'll both be the one in the same person. Their loneliness will bring them together. And it is the one way that he can take revenge and become attached.
ACHENBACHIt's kind of a sick bromance in a way.
MONTILLOIt is very much so in a 1800s sort of way.
REHMA sick bromance.
ACHENBACHIt's a sick bromance. I mean, these two -- even when the doctor is chasing the monster, the monster's leaving clues as to where he is because he doesn't want the -- he wants to be caught. You know, ultimately they're going to wind up together.
MONTILLOYes. And he tells them, you have created me but now I control you. So they know that they're going back and forth. Just because Victor was the one to create him doesn't mean that he owns him anymore. It doesn't mean that he has anything to do with how he deals with him. He has a mind of his own, which Victor didn't anticipate.
REHMSo, Joel, as a science writer, how much does this put you a little bit in fear of what we're doing today?
ACHENBACHWell, that's -- you know, the question of synthetic biology, genetically modified organisms and nuclear power, you know, fracking, all these things are issues that we're going to, as a society, have to figure out what do we want to do? What's safe? In general I think the Frankenstein story speaks to our somewhat perhaps deep fear that we shouldn't tamper with nature. That it's -- that this is -- there's a boundary that we're going across. And -- but there's 7 billion people on the planet. We're probably going to need science and technology to survive in the coming, you know, thousand years.
REHMJoel Achenbach, science reporter for the Washington Post. Your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back to our monthly Readers' Review. This month we have chosen the novel "Frankenstein," by Mary Shelley. Created nearly 200 years ago on a dreary night near Lake Geneva when Lord Byron challenged Mary Shelley to -- and others to create a mystery story. It came out of her -- I wonder, do we know how many revisions she actually made before the book was published, Paul?
CANTORYes. There must've been substantial revisions 'cause in her account she said it began with "It was a dreary November," and that's not the way the book begins.
CANTORSo we have the manuscript and we have some of the page proofs and we can see lots of changes, some of them in Percy's hand, so he was like the editor of the volume.
CANTORI mention one example where he changed handsome to beautiful, and he actually corrected her, she confused Roger Bacon with Francis Bacon, and he wrote a rather patronizing note to...
CANTORBut, again, that's led to the theory that he should be considered the co-author. I think that's way exaggerated.
CANTORIn fact, he'd be just like a good editor.
REHMLet's go to Chuck in Detroit, Mich. You're on the air.
CHUCKHi, thanks for taking my call.
CHUCKI was just curious, years ago I saw an old black and white...
REHMWait a minute, Chuck, are you on a speaker phone?
REHMOkay. If you could get a little closer to your phone, I can hardly understand you.
REHMGo ahead, sir. All right. He's gone.
CHUCKHello, is this better? Is this better?
REHMYeah. Go right ahead.
CHUCKI saw an old black and white film at the art institute years ago. I think it was called the "Gollum," and it was an old Jewish story that a monster was created and eventually turned on everybody and, you know, so on.
CHUCKAnd I just wonder if that had anything -- if that story might've had any impact on Mary Shelley writing this book.
CANTOROkay. Well, that film had a tremendous influence on the movie of "Frankenstein," the James Whale movie. There's no question that he had that movie in mind. It was a very famous film from Germany expression cinema. As for Mary Shelley, there's no evidence that she knew of the Gollum myth. Some people have speculated that she might've heard about it, and Percy was very interested in mysticism and the Jewish Kabbalah, and so he may have mentioned it. But in her case, it's really questionable that she knew it.
CANTOR(unintelligible) no question.
REHMTo Judy in Chapel Hill, N.C. Judy, you're on the air.
JUDYHi, Diane, thank you so much for taking my call.
JUDYI'm really happy you're reviewing this book. It's one of my all time favorites. And it's been 20 years since I've read it, but I loved how it opened up with the letters. But my question for your panel is the -- what I learned -- I don't know if I learned it or made it up, but I think I learned it in college was the greater metaphor from Mary Shelley's book was that the monster was this -- represented mankind, which is we're all a patchwork of each other and that Frankenstein, the scientist, was God, and that the monster was sort of angry.
JUDYHe -- the monster of mankind has good intentions, but was ultimately frustrated with life on earth and was angry with God and ultimately just became evil. And I don't know if there was any intention from Mary Shelley to create that metaphor. And I'd just like to hear your panels' perspective on that.
REHMAll right. Roseanne.
MONTILLOI don't think she intentionally went about doing that, but it certainly works. The creature often tells -- makes the comparison between himself and Adam from the bible as well, the idea that he started off very much like the very first man on earth. And he calls Victor his creator as well, so you do have that comparison between...
MONTILLO...between God and humanity as well. So the many questions that come up from that is the idea of whether or not the responsibility that God has on his people, on his creatures, the idea or responsibility that you have on each other as well, how responsible are you for the well being of everybody else as well. And whether or not the creature was taking revenge on God because of what he had imposed on him was perhaps unintentional, but it worked in that fashion.
REHMAll right. To Grand Rapids, Mich. Hi, Brian, you're on the air. Please turn your radio down, sir.
REHMGo right ahead.
BRIANHi, Diane and guest. I'd just like to admit my favorite monster Frankenstein is from "The Addams Family." But the question is I'd like to examine the notion of mankind's quest of knowledge and science has sometimes shown us the results are not exactly what we expect. And I know you touched on it with eugenics or like super storm Sandy, what we're doing to the atmosphere and things like that.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling. Joel.
ACHENBACHWell, I'm not sure what the question is exactly, but I think that this is -- this is what we're all talking about as a society, not just here but around the world, which is what are we doing to the planet, to what extent is science the solution or is it the source of some of the problems. I would say that with -- I actually just was reading this book "Cloud Atlas," this novel by David Mitchell, which became a movie with Tom Hanks. And in it there's a scene in the future where -- actually I wanna read just a brief sentence from it...
ACHENBACH...if I could...
ACHENBACH...where this is, you know, a couple centuries in the future where someone's explaining what went wrong with the world, why there was this fall that caused civilization to collapse. And the character says, "More gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lives, easier lives, more power. The hunger, what made the old ones rip out the skies and boil up the seas and poison soil with crazed atoms and donkey about with rotted seeds so new plagues was born and babies was freak birthed." They basically are saying in this novel that the diseased fruits of science came back and destroyed the world.
ACHENBACHAnd I think that's an enduring fear we have. I personally try to be more optimistic than that, but I think that's a discussion that people will be having in 50 years too. I think people have been talking about that. I mean, go back over 100 years to H.G. Wells "The Island of Dr. Moreau," where, you know, the villainous character is creating new life forms sort of in a Frankenstein like way. This is not a new idea, but it's -- it is a very persistent one in our culture.
REHMAll right. To Javier here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
JAVIERThanks for taking my call...
JAVIER...letting me on the show.
JAVIERI took a literature class in college several years ago, and my instructor suggested that "Frankenstein" was actually symbolism for the disenfranchisement of women. I just wanted to know if your guests agreed with a feminist interpretation of the book.
REHMPaul, what do you think?
CANTORWell, Mary's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was the first great feminist theorist. She attacked Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his book about "Emile" because it was about education, but the young woman in "Emile" does not get as good an education as the man. Her name's Sophie. It's curious that in "Frankenstein" there's an Arabian woman named Safie who doesn't get a good education. And, in fact, education's one of the great themes in the novel. The monster learns to speak, he learns to read by overhearing Safie's education, an attempt to bring her into the European orbit reading classics of European literature.
CANTORSo, yes, I think one of the issues of the book is education, and it raises -- most people don't know there's a whole sort of middle story about this woman who is oppressed and then has to make up for the limitations of her education. So, indeed, I think there's a form -- a strong feminist streak in the work, and it's true to form. Her mother was a feminist.
REHMBut, Roseanne, Shelley also lived a rather macabre life near gallows.
MONTILLOShe did. She lived near a courthouse and a courtyard where people were hung every Monday, where people were brought from the courthouse to be done away with, so to speak, to be on the gallows. So this was something that she would hear on a weekly basis. And she could also see as well because thousands of people would gather to watch people die. And back then, this was a sport, almost like a spectacle. People today go to the theater, back then they would go and watch someone pass away, someone die. And it became something very routine for a lot of people.
MONTILLOBut strangely enough, after these people were -- after they were dead, they were carried off to the medical school where many, many experiment would be going on. They were dissected. They were electrocuted. Bodies were used to try and advance science. So on the one hand you will be watching someone die in a very horrific way, and 20 minutes later or an hour later, you could watch someone else try to bring that person back to life once again.
MONTILLOSo you will have life and death...
MONTILLO...all in the span of one hour. It never quite worked out, but the intention and the idea was there.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Nancy who's in Raleigh, N.C. You're on the air.
NANCYI would like to remind you of another chilling later story about bringing back the dead that has a similar theme about unintended consequences and using powers that people shouldn't have, and that is "The Monkey's Paw," which I've read dozens of times and still terrifies me, although the woman, the character in "The Monkey's Paw" having the choice, having to decide whether to bring back her dead son, in the end makes the wise decision because she realizes that what she would be bringing back, this mangled body, is not what she loves. Just wanted to make that comment, anybody want something good to read this weekend. Bye.
REHMAny thoughts? Any comparisons in your own mind between that and "The Monkey's Paw," Paul?
CANTORWell, I'll just say more generally that in some ways "Frankenstein" is the first zombie narrative, and zombies are all the rage in our popular culture now, and we can trace even that back to Mary Shelley.
ACHENBACHDid she have any idea, do you think, how powerful this was going to be?
CANTORNo. And it was published anonymously originally. She didn't want to be associated.
ACHENBACHShe didn't Tweet it out or anything.
ACHENBACHShe didn't put it on her Facebook page.
CANTORNo, she didn't.
REHMYeah, right. She did not.
MONTILLOIt wasn't her intention to even be famous. She was doing it to please her husband who really wanted her to go out and fulfill what he believed were her given right to be famous. And she was the daughter of two very important people, so appropriately she was meant to be famous.
REHMAll right. To Ryan in Fairfax, Va. You're on the air.
RYANHi, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
RYANI love your show. And when I read this story, I read it as more of a social commentary. The monster who is created is ignorant of what life is at the beginning of the novel, and by the end has experienced all the horrors of society. And I was wondering to what extent you or your viewers thought that the point of this story might have been as much about the evils that exist within society that turn the monster into a monster, versus the, I mean, the being that it is when it's created. I always felt like the monster was more Dr. Frankenstein than the actual monster itself who is...
RYAN...kind and gentle at first, and then becomes a monster, as one of your guests pointed out, observed the education and learned through that and tries to help the old man who is blind and who is being accosted, and then kind of becomes what he is as an exposure to society, and from being shunned by society as well. I'm sorry for being...
REHMAll right, Ryan. Thanks for your call. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Paul.
CANTORI'll give you a specific example of a social issue that the novel raises, and that's slavery. The words master and slave are used quite frequently in the book, and in many ways portrays what it is to be a slave, to have someone who has complete control over you. And this was recognized at the time, as early as 1824 in a debate about slavery and the British Parliament, someone referred to the book "Frankenstein" saying, look what happens when you set slaves free. They're too dangerous.
CANTORIt shows you that the people at the time saw there was a much more in this book than just a horror story. They saw it applied to contemporary political issues, and slavery was the main one in its own day.
ACHENBACHI have a question for the professors here. To what extent was she just trying to write a scary story that was a rollicking yarn with all kinds of locales and dramatic events and all these people dying?
MONTILLOShe did. She said it more than once that what she wanted was to write a book that would stand the test of time. So she had no big expectations of what would happen, no social interactions, no...
REHMBut you cannot believe...
REHM...that her own life experience...
REHM...did not come into it. I would agree with you that, you know, she perhaps had no idea what was going to happen to it. But living near the gallows, having a husband who's a drug addict and a brilliant poet who experimented with electricity, I mean, how can you -- how can you not assume that that's part of it?
MONTILLOI think she tries to be modest about the whole ordeal, but I think deep down she had an awareness that this would raise questions, that people will be talking about it. Not only at the time of the publications, but afterward as well. So deep down she must have had a sense that just maybe, just maybe it would stand the test of time as she set out to do. And she also wanted to prove herself to these big, two giant guys, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley.
MONTILLOSo she was...
CANTORYou know, we're talking about Mary Shelley as if she was a one trick pony. She did write other novels, and one of them is called "The Last Man," and it's about a plague that engulfs the world and wipes out humanity.
REHMSo she's still thinking about science in a different way.
CANTORYes, yes. So it shows that she was very serious as a thinker and was very concerned about the problems of her world. And I would recommend if you like "Frankenstein," you also should read "The Last Man."
MONTILLOHardly anybody knows about any of her other books.
MONTILLOMary Shelley's only known for "Frankenstein," so...
REHMWell, I hope you will read "Frankenstein." It's I think just a marvelous tale and a great book. Paul Cantor, he's professor of literature at the University of California -- of Virginia, pardon me. Roseanne Montillo, professor of literature at Emerson College. Joel Achenbach, science reporter at The Washington Post. Thank you for a rousing good discussion. I enjoyed it.
REHMAnd for our next Readers' Review, a novel about eight soldiers returning to Iraq for another tour. The men are media stars at home, but their painful reality is obscured as they're honored during a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game. So join me Wednesday, November 20 for a discussion of "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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