Happy birthday, Frankenstein!
The famous monster turns 200 this year, so English Department Chairman Todd Avery is devoting his popular class, Monsters, Apes and Nightmares, to a close reading of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, the first horror story about science and technology run amok. Avery’s students are also viewing major films about Victor Frankenstein and his “creature” and discussing news stories that pop up on Google Alerts because they include the term “Frankenstein.”
For English majors who want to delve deeper into ideas of monstrosity and its relationship to race, ethnicity and gender, there’s Asst. Prof. Maia Gil’Adí’s new upper-level class, Monsters, Hauntings and the Nation. It’s an exploration of Latina and Latino literature – often referred to by the gender-inclusive term “Latinx” – in which ghosts and monsters portray anxieties about cultural conflicts and personal and social upheavals.
Recently, Avery and Gil’Adí, the university’s first professor of Latinx literature and culture, sat down to talk about their favorite monsters, how they’ve evolved over time and what students can learn by studying them.
Q: Who is your favorite monster, and why?
Avery: Frankenstein. From a kid, I was always interested in science and literature. I even majored in mechanical engineering in college until I realized I was more interested in literature and philosophy.
I saw the classic Boris Karloff version of “Frankenstein” when I was 6 or 7 years old, and I remember the scene when he kills the little girl. I was terrified, but I think I did feel sympathy for the creature as well.
My first crush was the Bride of Frankenstein. Please don’t print that. (Laughs.)
Gil’Adí: My first crush was more typical. I was 12 or 13 years old when I read “Interview with the Vampire,” by Anne Rice. There was something so overtly sexy about these creatures, and I was like, “Yes!” And then I saw the movie, with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise at the height of their sex appeal.
Q: Todd, why are you devoting an entire semester to “Frankenstein”? Don’t you usually teach other books, too?
Avery: Yes, but this is the 200th anniversary of the publication of “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” Monsters are projections of our anxieties, and Frankenstein is a perfect image for the power of science and technology out of control. The lesson is so simple: Be careful what you create, and care for what you create – or it will become dangerous.
Students can access the novel in other ways, too. For example, “Frankenstein” also embodies the author’s own anxieties about motherhood. Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote one of the earliest English-language treatises on women’s equality, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” in which she argued that women weren’t inferior to men, but only lacked their education.
Mary Wollstonecraft died giving birth to Mary Shelley, who was raised and educated by her father, William Godwin. So Mary Shelley was a kind of monster herself – not only did she grow up believing that she’d killed her mother, but she was an educated woman when women weren’t supposed to be educated.
Q: Maia, what monsters interest you the most right now?
Gil’Adí: I’m fascinated by zombies, which have their origins in slavery. African people were first brought to the Americas to cultivate sugar on large plantations. They worked under appalling conditions, and many of them died. The first “zombies” were believed to be these dead slaves, called up by the magic of a voodoo priest to work the sugar plantations in Haiti.
At the same time, the abolitionists in New England declared that consuming sugar was like drinking the blood of slaves, because the slaves died producing it – so if you ate sugar or molasses or drank rum, you were a cannibal. These two ideas get combined in the contemporary idea of the zombie – as a body raised from the dead that consumes other humans.
Without taking anything away from the horrors of slavery, there are all kinds of updates to that theme in popular culture. As a kid, I saw George Romero’s classic 1968 horror movie “Night of the Living Dead.” That was inspired by the 1954 book “I Am Legend,” by Richard Matheson, which was all about the Red Scare. “The Walking Dead” TV series in our times is about the fall of capitalism and the rise of white supremacy.
Q: Todd, a lot of your students aren’t English majors, and they’re taking Monsters, Apes and Nightmares as one of their Core Curriculum requirements. What do you want them to learn?
Avery: A lot of my students are majoring in science, engineering, business or health sciences. “Frankenstein” dramatizes ethical issues in science and technology, so it’s a great way for them to think about how important it is to imagine both the positive and potentially negative implications of science and technology.
I also want them to think about the relative values and merits of a scientific education versus a humanistic education, especially about the value of stories as a way of making sense of the world. Many of my students think that science and business are more “valuable” than the humanities. So I ask them to go for a day without telling a story. They can’t do it. They can’t even go for an hour without telling a story.
Q: Maia, your students are mostly upper-level English majors. What do you want them to learn, beyond traditional literary analysis?
Gil’Adí: The larger question I want them to ask is about how we define “monsters” in terms of race and ethnicity, of who belongs and who doesn’t belong. Is an illegal immigrant a monster? Is a boy who’s half-Latino and half-white a monster? A brown teenager who’s gay – where does he fit into our notion of who’s American?
Some of the books we’re reading have traditional monsters, like the graphic novel “Feeding Ground,” by Swifty Lang, in which a little girl becomes a werewolf on the Mexican border. Others, like “We the Animals,” a coming-of-age novel by Justin Torres about a boy who’s half-Puerto Rican and half-white, deal with more abstract ideas about monstrosity.
Basically, I’m teaching them about Latinx history in our country and its development as literature. I want students to think about how Latinx authors deal with the repercussions of colonization and racialized language, how fathers are nearly always portrayed as violent and how queerness is represented as a lack.