Frankenstein's Progeny

Nov. 15, 2018

In Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, the scientist Victor Frankenstein refuses to obey the wishes of his monstrous creation and make a female of the same species. If the two creatures were to procreate, he reflects, “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.” In revenge, the monster hunts down Frankenstein and kills his bride on their wedding night, ensuring that Frankenstein’s only progeny remains the monster himself.

While both Frankenstein and his creation fail to produce children, the novel bearing Frankenstein’s name has spawned numerous progeny in the two hundred years since its publication. “Frankenstein’s Progeny” was the topic under discussion at a panel on Wednesday, Nov. 6, organized by Professor of English Susan Wolfson and featuring papers by Gunnar Rice ’17, Professor Emerita Joyce Carol Oates, and Madelyn Broome ’19, with Professor Peter Singer as respondent. The panel emerged from Wolfson’s Fall 2016 seminar, HUM 225/ENG 226: Frankenstein at 200, which explored the novel’s endurance as a “fable about modern science and its political, cultural, and social fallout.”

The first panelist was Rice, who majored in English at Princeton and wrote a senior thesis on Shakespeare and cartography under the direction of Professor Nigel Smith. Rice’s paper examined the “disciplinary permeability” of poetry and science in Frankenstein, noting that both Victor Frankenstein and his mentor at university, M. Waldman, view the two disciplines as almost interchangeable in their potential for creation.

Oates, the author of over 40 novels and a professor of creative writing at Princeton from 1978 to 2014, delivered a paper that focused on Frankenstein’s literary progeny, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” to H. P. Lovecraft’s scientist and professor protagonists. Oates reflected on the multiple genres of Frankenstein: not only Gothic novel, but also epistolary novel, didactic treatise, and theological tract. She proposed that the Gothic novel, unrestrained by the conventions of the realistic novel, is free to concentrate “single-mindedly on its subject.”

Broome, an astrophysics major, analyzed Frankenstein as a manifestation of—and, later, a catalyst for—“scientific fear.” She argued that Shelley’s novel criticizes early-nineteenth-century scientific rhetoric, which glorified experimentation but offered no “message of restraint.” This language was often gendered and sexualized, as when Sir Humphry Davy claimed that science enabled man to become “acquainted with the most profound secrets of nature . . . [in] her hidden operations.” Broome traced this strain of rhetoric up to the present day, observing that Frankenstein remains relevant as a commentary on the perils of attempting to conquer nature.

Finally, Peter Singer of the University Center for Human Values discussed Frankenstein in the context of modern concerns about genetic enhancement. Noting that Mary Shelley was the daughter of two philosophers, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Singer observed that Frankenstein raises a philosophical question that still endures: Is science itself the problem, or is the problem what we choose to do with it?