Two centuries ago, a young woman wrote what some have called the world’s first science fiction novel—a story that has since been adapted into everything from plays to TV shows to Halloween costumes, and that continues to reflect and shape societal attitudes about scientific innovation, reproduction, gender, race, slavery, disability and belonging. This semester, Assistant Professor of English Amelia Worsley marked the 1818 publication of Mary Shelley’s most enduring creation—what the author called her “hideous progeny”—with a course on “Frankenstein: The Making of a Monster.”
Co-taught by Worsley and Smith College professor Lily Gurton-Wachter, the course meets alternately at Smith and Amherst. Like fans around the world participating in the bicentennial Frankenreads celebration, the students began the semester with a close reading of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
Then they delved into Shelley’s writing of the novel—at age 19, while on holiday in Switzerland, shortly after the death of her first child and the birth of her second—and her family influences, particularly her parents, feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft and radical political philosopher William Godwin, and her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The course also involves texts by Margaret Atwood, Susan Stryker and Mary Jacobus that relate Frankenstein to issues of gender and sexuality, and a screening of James Whale’s 1931 film with an iconic portrayal of the creature by Boris Karloff.
Let’s pause here for a clichéd but important reminder: the title character, Victor Frankenstein, is the scientist who assembles the creature and brings him to life. Called “monster,” “enemy” and “slave” in the text, the creature is never given an official name. “I use ‘the creature’ because I think it’s the most sympathetic,” says Worsley.