Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly


This post was developed and authored by Catherine Engh, Ph.D.

Summary

In this gothic masterwork, Mary Shelley tells the story of an arrogant scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who brings to life a being assembled from dead body parts. The promethean aspirations that impel Frankenstein are disappointed when he beholds the ugly and monstrous appearance of his creation. Neglected by his creator, the creature seeks acceptance from other human beings, but all who see him respond to his approach with violence. Traumatized and enraged by these experiences, the creature commits a series of murders against Frankenstein’s friends and family. Convinced that no human will sympathize with him, he asks Frankenstein to build him a female companion. Frankenstein agrees but backs out at the last minute because he fears a new race of monsters will endanger the future of humanity. In response, the creature kills Frankenstein’s best friend and bride. Now bereft of friends and family, Frankenstein pursues the creature to the Arctic where he meets Robert Walton, the captain of a ship on a voyage of exploration, and dies. In the novel’s final scene, the creature appears before Walton, expressing remorse for his monstrous deeds and a determination to extinguish his own life. Ecocritical scholarship in the past ten years has increasingly recognized the importance of the climate crisis caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 to Shelley’s novel. 

Teaching Resources:

  • D’Arcy Wood, Gillen. Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World. Princeton University Press, 2014. This book gives a history of the global subsistence crisis that followed the 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora. The ash that the volcano shot into the stratosphere created atmospheric aerosols, contributing to drastic temperature changes and violent storms, winds, and draughts across many parts of the globe. The disaster was largely borne by the global poor, who were exposed to hunger, starvation, and disease. In the chapter that I read with students, “This End of the World Weather,” Wood focuses on the impact that Tambora had on Western Europe. He takes an interdisciplinary approach to telling the Tambora story, combining research in contemporary science and the history of meteorology with a discussion of the literature that the Shelley circle produced in Geneva during the 1816 “year without a summer.” I found it productive to discuss with students both Wood’s analysis of Frankenstein and his method for analyzing the Tambora climate disaster itself as a global phenomenon and “case study in the fragile interdependence of human and natural systems.”
  • Garrison, Alysia. “What ‘Frankenstein’ Can Tell us About Climate Change.” Wbur.org. May 4, 2016. Garrison opens her 2016 piece by observing that Frankenstein continues to signify in American political discourse. The Clinton campaign, for instance, employed images from Frankenstein to discredit Trump and the Republican party as “mad scientists” and climate deniers. Pointing out that radical temperature changes and extreme weather were, historically, an inspiration for Shelley’s novel, Garrison asks what Frankenstein might tell us about climate change as we know it today. She posits that, from the perspective of our present, the monster’s body might represent “any number of environmental atrocities,” including toxic sludge and extreme weather, while Frankenstein might stand in for a “technology-mad” humanity that unleashes lethal forces into the world and then denies their existence. Because the piece is short and written for a non-academic audience, it was highly accessible to my undergraduate gen-ed students. The contemporary issue of climate denial gave them a new way to connect with Frankenstein and its key theme of moral (ir)responsibility, even if such a connection was, in Shelley’s time, “not yet named.”  
  • Eileen Hunt Botting, “Mary Shelley Created ‘Frankenstein,’ and Then a Pandemic: Her novel ‘The Last Man’ predicted the political causes of and collective solutions for global plague,” New York Times, March 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/opinion/mary-shelley-sc-fi-pandemic-novel.html.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. How did the 1815 Tambora eruption affect the weather in Western Europe? How did it affect European society? 
  2. What meteorological ideas did Tambora give rise to?
  3. How is Frankenstein’s theme of a “want of sympathy” relevant to the Tambora emergency? 
  4. Why do you think Garrison interprets the creature as a repository of out-of-control forces? What does Frankenstein tell us about climate denial, in her view?
  5. Which approach to reading do you prefer, Wood’s historical analysis of Frankenstein and climate crisis or Garrison’s more presentist analysis? 

Possible Essay Questions: 

  • Evaluate an analysis of Frankenstein that is already a part of the scholarly discussion. Your paper should present evidence from the novel that explains how a reader might arrive at this particular interpretation. Feel free to refute the argument given in the prompt and/or illuminate its blind spots. It may be productive to call attention to aspects of the novel or of climate change that your chosen lens fails to make visible.
  • Gillen D’Arcy Wood argues that the appearance of Frankenstein’s creature was inspired by the poor whose lives were endangered by climate disaster during the “year without a summer” and Alysia Garrison suggests that the creature might seem to represent the out-of-control forces unleashed by humanity in an era of climate change. Choose one of these frameworks and explain what aspects of the novel and of environmental history it brings forward for attention. Does the argument have any weaknesses?

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