Welcome to MOSOunds!
Today, we will talk to Dr. Zak Watson, associate professor of English and chair of the English and Philosophy Department at Missouri Southern State University and to Dr. Amy Gates, assistant professor of English. We will also be hearing from Elisa Bryant, a Development Officer at MSSU.
The book Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus was written in 1816, by Mary Shelley and published two years later.
HOST: In the book, scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a humanoid figure as a result of a scientific experiment, which is somewhat different from the movie versions we have seen.
Dr. Watson says an event dedicated to Frankenstein is scheduled for later this spring.
Dr. Watson: So the name of it is Frankenstein Week. It is the first time we are doing it and we hope to continue doing it in future years. It will be held March 5th through 10, so that first full week of March, before spring break, when it is warming up a little bit, but when it is also in the springtime which is when the book was initially released back in 1818.
HOST: We associate the book with castles and dark locales but the actual book starts somewhere near the North Pole, isn’t that right?
AMY GATES: The book is structured as a frame narrative, so the outer frame is Walton who is doing his own discovery through trying to look for a north passage through the ice and he sees a strange creature and shortly thereafter he sees a sort of strange creature who is Victor Frankenstein himself.
And then he writes letters to his sisters and within the letters, Victor Frankenstein tells his story and within Victor Frankenstein’s story, the creature himself gets to speak.
HOST: Frame narrative: Could you define that?
GATES: It means that the central core of the story is, in fact, is the creature’s story in his own words and containing that is a frame. In this case, it is that the scientist Victor Frankenstein telling his story and when he heard from him and then containing that – this is a double framed story – we have Walton’s letters holding the whole thing together. It is sort of a nested narrative.
Host: We asked Dr. Gates what activities are planned for the week.
GATES: Well, we are really excited that we have an outside guest speaker coming to campus. Her name is Dr. Elisa Beshero-Bondar and she’s a digital humanist. That means she works in digital humanities. She is working on updating Frankenstein, the digital version of Frankenstein from its original web one point O version to new coding that will be more accessible for new technologies. She is a romanticist, a scholar of Romanticism, so she knows Frankenstein well from that perspective but she also this interest in making it accessible through technology.
HOST: Can studying a book with the name recognition of Frankenstein a good way to get students interested in literature?
GATES: We think so. We hope even more than students, people in the community. Frankenstein feels very familiar to people because they know it from Scooby Doo and from movies, but the novel itself is much more complex so we have not only our guest speaker but we’ll have a panel of scientist and our philosopher who has talking about medical ethics. So we will talk about the history of anatomy in form and scientific education. We have other things planned that will appeal to different constituencies as well.
HOST: The novel came to be written in a somewhat unusual fashion. Could you tell us about that?
GATES: Well it was … it started in 1816, which is famously known as the year without a summer. The previous year Mount Tambura in Indonesia had the biggest volcanic eruption in history and sent lots of dust into the atmosphere. So the skies were dim. They had record colds that year. During this year, 1816, Mary Shelley, who was not yet Mary Shelley. She was still Mary Wellstone Craft Godwin. She and her lover, the poet Percy Shelly, her step-sister all went to the Swiss Alps. They ran into the poet Lord Byron and his friend and physician Dr. Polidori. And they were hanging out in the cold wet summer. So, they read, they talked about scientific experiments and then they decided to have a ghost-story writing contest to fill the time.
And so the two famous poets didn’t do much of anything. Dr. Polidori wrote a novella. It became a novella known as “The Vampire” and the really famous successful story that came out of this was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She published it 19 months later.
HOST: Was the book an immediate hit?
GATES: It was. It was published anonymously so people had thought a man had written it. Because it was so scientifically oriented they couldn’t imagine a woman could write it. But it was very popular and adaptations began rather quickly thereafter. [End at 6:27]
HOST: The potential of what science could do provides a springboard for the events in Frankenstein. Talking about the creation of a human being outside the womb is a very modern thought isn’t it?
WATSON: I’m trying to think of other novels of the time. Yea, I think it’s fairly new at that moment to be thinking about those scientific questions in the form of a novel, right? It is less domestic than other novels of the time. I mean, in ways. Yea, I think it is pretty different. To find other people writing sort of fictional texts about “sciency” ideas, you have to go almost a hundred years earlier to people like Jonathan Swift. He’s definitely not writing novels. [End at 7:28]
HOST: The events of the novel – the creation of a human-like figure only referred to as “the creature” or “it” seems rather bleak. Does science come out on the good end in Frankenstein?
WATSON: Well, one of the sort of most immediate responses and people still read it this way, is to think the whole problem is that Victor, the Scientist, is trying to play God. He’s trying to create a human in his own image and it goes horribly wrong so certain that is one prominent reading. But Mary Shelley herself and her friends were really interested in science and the potential for science. So it’s not an “anti-science” novel but it’s more about…… She’s interested in what happens when science isn’t part of a community….. part of conversation and discussion. Victor hides himself away and creates this without thinking or having any tempering conversations with people.
Lots of questions in the novel about nurturing. He ends up being kind of a bad parent. She was a new mother and she understood what babies are like and the Creature is very childlike and charming, at first. He had a chance, had he had a better parent. Many people read this less about the science in some ways and more about nurturing.
HOST: One particularly affecting part of the novel is when the Creature comes to Frankenstein and asks him to create a female counterpart for him. That desire to express love or to reach out is very touching. Is that really human moment for this humanoid something that “gets” to most readers?
WATSON: Well yea, he gets started on it and then he destroys the female creature in a fit of rage before he is finished her. But that is an effective moment for students. They are usually surprised when they see that in the novel and its one of the things that makes the novel so different from the films is that human quality that the Creature has. We can see things from his perspective so much.
HOST: And we also hear from him.
GATES: But in the novel, he is quite articulate, well-read and makes a very strong case for himself when he asks Victor to create a companion for him.
HOST: Now physically, the Creature is extremely tall – around eight feet and not physically attractive in any way, was he?
GATES: According to Victor he is not. He was created from what Victor thought were the most beautiful parts but when he enlivened those parts don’t come together well, apparently.
HOST: Gothic literature often uses dark scenery, melodramatic narrative devices and an atmosphere of dread to convey stories. The novel Frankenstein has a scientific emphasis to it but is it a Gothic novel, Dr. Watson?
WATSON: Absolutely. The ah… particularly the nested stories is a prominent part of the Gothic Novel. The narrative structure of this looks very Gothic with the interruptions and the repeated shifting of narrators. I would say also the concern for social connection is an important part of the Gothic novel. That theme of isolation. That the real problem that Victor has is that he doesn’t have a lot of people around him is typically Gothic and maybe the third thing that qualifies it as a Gothic Novel is that the family structure turns into a site of pure horror. So we have this strange family, just a father, no mother, a strange creature that eventually wants to kill all of Victor’s family: This is a typically Gothic sort of family, I think.
HOST: Dr. Gates says Frankenstein provided ripe subject matter for a drama.
GATES: Well, I will tell you that the first stage adaptation was actually 1823 and Mary Shelley herself went to see it and approved of it. She thought the story wasn’t handled terribly well, but she liked the way the actor portrayed the creature and she wrote positively about that.
WATSON: The earliest film adaptation was Edison’s adaptation in 1910. So the man who brought the light bulb to us wanted to sort of imitate Victor Frankenstein who brought life to us in this strange way. I think it is really interesting that … the beginning of narrative filmmaking, really. 1910. This was early and one of the first texts we have to put on film is Frankenstein. One theory about why this had to be done is because the text itself doesn’t describe the Creature much. It creates this great desire to see the Creature, but we don’t see him very often. So we almost need cinema to come and supply the images the book can’t – or the book actually teases us with and refuses to give us. We need movies to show us this is what Victor saw that night. This is that hideous creation that was a mistake, that wasn’t beautiful.
HOST: What are two of the best films that are based on the book?
WATSON: Well, we hope the two we’re going to show on our movie night are good. We have the 1931 James Whale Frankenstein and Mel Brooks’s 1974 Young Frankenstein. I think both of those are great films. There, they’re really provocative. They have things to say about how we represent the creature. We get pre-code horror violence from Whale. And actually from Brooks we get some surprising meditations on why we enjoy the creature. So we’re going to hope that both these films give the Creature a chance to put on the Ritz for us.
HOST: When you teach this, do you have good discussions about robotics and genetic engineering and test-tube babies, and similar topics we hear about today?
GATES: I teach this regularly in my British Literature 2 class, the survey class. We never have time to talk about all the things we would like to, but those questions certainly come up. At the end of the semester, I teach a book by Kazuo Ishiguro called Never Let Me Go, which is also about clones. It came out after the Dolly the Sheep cloning experiment. So we’re able to come back to Frankenstein and think about that we’re still grappling with what humans can do and what they should do and what the possibilities are so this does capture the imaginations of students, who … the literature students of course but even the students who are taking this class as a general education class have things to think about and say about this novel.
HOST: Why, in the larger sense, are we having Frankenstein Week at Missouri Southern?
WATSON: Well, Dr. Gates was the originator of the idea I think it’s going to be a worthwhile effort for us because it lets us connect. This connects thematically with Frankenstein itself. This is a book about a man who didn’t connect. This gives us a chance to connect across different departments, hopefully to the community in various ways through our story-writing contest, through our panel of experts who will speak on these topics and will give us a chance to think about the role literature plays in the topics we’re still sort of concerned about now.
HOST: Activities for an event like Frankenstein Week have a monetary cost.
It costs money to bring in a guest speaker, money to pay for travel and lodging and an honorarium. It also costs to obtain the movies the planners want to show and to pay for the rights to show these films.
In order to raise the funds to meet these expenses, Missouri Southern is turning to something called crowdfunding.
Elisa Bryant is a development officer at Missouri Southern State University.
We asked her to explain just what crowdfunding involves.
BRYANT: Crowdfunding is fundraising for a project or a venture with a larger audience that you can do across internet-based traffic so website, email, social media and so you raise a large amount of money from many different audiences.
HOST: How is crowdfunding being put to work on this project?
BRYANT: Frankenstein Week will need six thousand dollars to help bring the idea of Frankenstein Week to fruition. So, six thousand dollars will help with many events, [and so] we will do a wide amount of fundraising, the first being crowdfunding. We will also reach out to English alumni because the English and Philosophy Department will be fundraising for this. We will be fundraised on crowdfunding through many, many different forms.
HOST: What will the crowdfunding pay for?
BRYANT: The crowdfunding can and will pay for their speaker who is going to come in for the Frankenstein Week. It will pay for many of the activities and events. We’re reaching out to many different local high schools to get involved in the ghostwriting contest. [and so] It’ll help pay for many of the ideas and concepts of Frankenstein Week and it’ll help bring it all together.
HOST: If someone wants to help to the crowdfunding effort, how can they do that?
BRYANT: Yes, we are, we will have a page that will go live around February first. That page will be shared hopefully through the English Department Facebook page, our university and so you can just jump online and donate through our crowdfunding page.
HOST: The words of Elisa Bryant of the MSSU Development Office. We have been talking to Dr. Zak Watson and Dr. Amy Gates of the Missouri Southern English & Philosophy Department about Frankenstein Week, scheduled for March 5 through 10 on the campus of Missouri Southern State University.
To visit the crowdfunding page, go to lionspaw.mssu.edu/frankenstein.
For Missouri Southern State University, I’m Stephen Smith.