Say the name “Frankenstein” and the picture that comes to mind is a grunting, lumbering creature, flat-headed, neck-bolted and grimacing, as first portrayed by Boris Karloff in the 1931 movie.
And that picture could hardly be more wrong.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was published 200 years ago, and New College of Florida is marking the anniversary with a series of events, including discussions, movies, lectures, a concert and even a computer game-writing marathon.
The reason is even two centuries later, the book – though known for spawning the horror genre – explores some issues of science, psychology and philosophy still debated today.
“People don’t really know the book,” says Miriam Wallace, professor of English at New College and ringleader of “Frankenfest,” as she’s dubbed the event series. “The first time I read the book, I was completely surprised. It was not at all what I expected.”
The essential points are the same as in the movies: A scientist, obsessed with conquering death, creates a human form and brings it to life. But the similarities end there.
As Shelley wrote it, the creature is more god-like than monster, supremely strong, quick, and intelligent. He reads, learns multiple languages and engages in debate. But its creator finds it revolting from the outset, as does almost everyone the creature meets.
Soon after, the novel turns, and the creature begins telling the story of his own awakening, and of the people it encounters. He sees firsthand political and religious oppression, and becomes the target of hatred itself.
The story allows Shelley to examine questions that were asked then and are still asked today.
“She’s playing with some of the theories about childhood education of her time,” Wallace said. “Do children start as a tabula rasa, a blank slate? Are they more driven by nature or nurture?”
Wallace notes that the creature’s “father,” his only parent, abandons him at birth, and leaves the creature to make his way through the world. “So is the creature bad because he’s monstrous, or is the creature made monstrous because he has no nurture?”
And that’s just the beginning. Wallace continues:
“If you create a new creature, what is your duty to that creature? Do you have the duties of a parent? What are the duties of a parent? What does it mean to abandon your child? What does it mean to raise it properly?”
“Can we work by rationality alone? Rationality might get us to creating life, but should we do it just because we can?”
Then there’s the overarching question:
“One of the questions that my students and I can never really answer is, is the creature human or not?”
Though she was just 18 when she started writing the novel, it makes sense that Shelley would raise these questions. While her mother, writer, philosopher and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after her birth, Wallace notes that Mary grew up in an intellectual hotbed.
Her father was William Godwin, a political philosopher known as the founder of modern anarchism. Their home had frequent visitors, from Joseph Priestley, the theologian, chemist and discoverer of oxygen, to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to Erasmus Darwin, a poet, botanist and the grandfather of Charles Darwin.
And at 17 she met and later married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. While she was traveling with him and the poet Lord Byron, one night they had a competition to write ghost stories, and Frankenstein was the result. Two centuries later, its ideas still resonate.
“Part of why I think the book matters is I really think you can come at it from almost any angle,” Wallace said. “You can come at it from the sciences, you can come at it from literature, you can some at it from thinking theatrically, you can come at it thinking about gender relations…”
And after a talk with her colleagues, Frankenfest – much like the titular creation – began to take form.
“It kind of made sense to me… a creature that may or may not have been put together from multiple pieces of things, that we should have a project that was trying to pull together multiple things,” Wallace said.
“So it seemed the only way to do this was to try to give us as many voices, as many angles as possible. And that includes some of the weird, contemporary, revisionary versions.”
Frankenfest began with a small discussion with New College faculty on January 18. The public kickoff is Thursday, January 25, with a showing of the original 1931 Universal Studios’ “Frankenstein.” Ringling College of Art and Design is participating by having Frankenstein as the theme of its spring film series.
“We had to show films, because who doesn’t want to see movies?” Wallace said. “And I was really lucky that Susan Doll at the Ringling College of Art and Design is an art historian who specializes in horror film. I learned more at one hour of lunch with her about horror film than I have ever known.”
Other “Frankenfest” films include the Hammer Studios’ 1957 “The Curse of Frankenstein,” the 1998 Academy Award-winning “Gods and Monsters,” and Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic “Young Frankenstein.”
There are two upcoming lecture and discussions events. The first, “Frankenstein and Genesis: Birth and Faith,” with Dr. Susan Marks, professor of religion at New College, is on February 15.
And on March 13, Dr. Marilyn Francus of West Virginia University, will give the New Topics lecture titled “O Mother, What Art Thou? O Mother, Where Art Thou? Frankenstein at 200.”
New Music New College, the long-running concert series, also is getting in on the act, with “It’s Alive! A Monstrous Circus on Frankenstein,” a multimedia performance that uses a system devised by avant-garde composer John Cage to turn the text of Frankenstein into a performable script. It will be on March 4 on the College’s Koski Plaza.
On March 31, Rick Dakan, professor of creative writing at Ringling, will run a day-long workshop teaching participants how to write viable computer game narratives, focusing on Frankenstein. Participants will present their work at the end of the day.
Frankenfest concludes April 26-29 with a dramatic performance, being written and performed by New College students, based on the text of Frankenstein.
For a full schedule and links to make reservations, visit www.ncf.edu/frankenfest
Wallace hopes that the anniversary events will remind people of the relevance of Frankenstein.
“What I’m hoping is, this being the 200th anniversary of the original publication in 1818, it will actually turn some people back to read the book, and I think they’ll be surprised too,” she said. “Even though the book is really old now, it touches on a lot of really contemporarily important issues, maybe more pressing right now than they were then.”