& His World

Course Description

This course explores the cultural context of and future cultural uses for Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Course Overview

Mary Shelley's masterpiece, the 1818 novel Frankenstein, is a classic of speculative fiction and one of the five or six most important and influential novels ever published in English. In addition to inaugurating the entire genre of science fiction, as Brian Aldiss has claimed, the novel's depiction of a scientist's effort to create artificial life has shaped our understanding of a whole host of scientific practices and stands as the most important statement on scientists' responsibilities for their creations. From debates on cloning and artificial insemination to our basic perception of monstrosity in fantastic fiction, Frankenstein stands as one of the landmark achievements of Western culture.

In this class, we will explore this hugely influential novel in its cultural fullness. We will begin by exploring the cultural, scientific, and political ferment of the early 19th century in England. Shelley's novel emerges from her life oscillating between the pro-technoscience intellectuals of the Midlands Enlightenment and the anti-industrialist Romantic poets. As such, beyond capturing our own fears about science gone too far, the novel specifically responds to a European civilization beginning to emerge from a fully agrarian society to one dominated by science and industry. From these beginnings, we will look at the novel in the very specific circumstances that birthed it: the Year Without a Summer and Shelley's summer spent by a frozen Lake Geneva during a volcanic winter with George Gordon, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John William Polidori. We will then consider the responses to the novel, first as a subversive and aethestic sensation, then as an ur-text for the modern monster movie, and finally as a potent touchstone for feminist understandings of technoscience. All told, this class will provide you with the opportunity to see how one novel has had huge ramifications for our culture and shaped the ways we still think about scientific progress and monstrosity.