200 Years of Frankenstein: The 2019 Graduate Symposium
The 31st Annual Graduate Symposium celebrated the 1818 publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a novel whose intellectual energy shows no sign of waning, even after 200 years. From bolt-necked Halloween masks to denunciations of “frankenfoods,” iterations of Frankenstein—no matter how disparate—are commonplace. But alongside these cultural markers have emerged countless artistic revisions and adaptations, many of which challenge us to think critically not only about the moral and philosophical implications of Victor Frankenstein’s story, but also the existential questions, dangers, and injustices of our contemporary world. The essays presented at the Symposium reflect the remarkable endurance Shelley’s work.
One could argue that Frankenstein’s power lies not in its depiction of creation per se but instead its aftermath (the novel even refrains from describing the precise means of the creature’s animation). In this vein, the fist panel of the Symposium, “It Lives,” featured essays that reflect on decisions and their consequences, particularly the decisions made by artists who have adapted Shelley’s text in other media. Teresa Kurtz ‘s “She’s Alive!: Anxieties and Animations of the Female Monster” considers the ways in which Frankenstein’s female creature, left unanimated in Shelley’s text, has been brought to life on screen. Through astute close readings of the novel and its adaptations, Kurtz reveals the extent to which depictions of Frankenstein’s female creature tend to be shaped by anxieties related to gender, sexuality, and control. Stephanie Lopez’s essay, “’Is This Gentle and Lovely Being Lost For-Ever?’: Hypermasculinity and Heteronormativity in Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” also examines the ways in which the novel has been transformed in film, focusing on the dynamics of Victor’s relationship with Henry Clerval in Branagh’s 1994 production. Lopez convincingly argues that the film erases the novel’s original model of male intimacy between Victor and Henry in order to make room for a more hegemonic and, ultimately, toxic depiction of heterosexual masculinity. Finally, Eric Berman’s timely essay “Move Fast, and Break Things: Frankenstein as Exploration of the Supposedly Enlightened Individual,” critiques the Enlightenment underpinnings of Victor Frankenstein’s work vis-à-vis the work of Shelley’s father and husband. With a keen focus on the novel’s themes of isolation and recognition, Berman asks us to use Frankenstein’s bicentennial as an occasion to re-evaluate the current “disruptive” discourses emerging from present-day Silicon Valley.
The second panel of the Symposium, “Afterlives,” focused exclusively on 20th and 21st-century works that are haunted by Frankenstein in both form and content. First, Nicole Halabuda brought the 20th anniversary of David Chase’s pioneering television show into conversation with the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s novel in “Narratives that Stick: Frankenstein and The Sopranos.” Drawing on Anna Clark’s theory of “protagonism,” Halabuda’s persuasive essay argues that the show’s construction of Tony Soprano as a protagonist borrows from Shelley’s frame narrative, using representations of consciousness to create an antihero formula that pervades contemporary “prestige” television. Next, in a shift that demonstrates the global reach of Frankenstein and its descendants, Sabrina Lopez’s essay, “The Monsters We Create: Shifted Responsibility and Means of Creation in Frankenstein in Baghdad,” brought our attention to Ahmed Saadawi’s 2014 novel, which is set in contemporary Iraq. Lopez’s fascinating analysis of the relationship between creator and created in the novel illuminates the ways in which Saadawi’s text repurposes Frankenstein’s original construction of monstrosity in order to depict the complex relationships between responsibility, community, and justice in an occupied land. Concluding the panel was Patrick Derilus’s compelling essay, “Victor LaValle’s Destroyer: an Afropessimist-Leftist Conviction in an Afrofuturistic Transhumanist World,” which showcases the ways in which Frankenstein emerges in LaValle’s graphic novel about Dr. Josephene Baker and her reanimated, cyborg son. Reading the text within the framework of Frank. B. Wilderson III’s theory of Black subjectivity, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, the paper teases out the historical, racial, and maternal strands of Dr. Baker’s utopian vision and compares it to the material consequences of her work.
Preoccupied as it is by questions of epistemology, ethics, and virtue, it’s no wonder Frankenstein persists in the cultural imaginary. As Dr. Jared Richman noted in his response to both panels, all of the essays presented demonstrate the extent to which Frankenstein is “a meditation on the very nature and definition of humanity itself.” Moreover, as a “meditation,” the novel critiques the human condition in the wake of the Enlightenment with a clear respect for its (often irresolvable) contradictions and ambiguities. Yet even as the novel calls into question linear notions of humanity’s “progress,” it still argues for the necessity of improvement. That we still regard Shelley’s tale as not only relevant but worthy of adaptation to our own moral dilemmas is evidence of this continued imperative.