Two hundred years ago, a number of English expatriates decided to wile away the night time hours of their time in Switzerland by coming up with ghost stories.
Two hundred years ago, a number of English expatriates decided to wile away the night time hours of their time in Switzerland by coming up with ghost stories. Among them were two famous Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. But even these two illustrious writers were eclipsed by the work of another member, Shelley’s wife Mary.
Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley was the daughter of philosopher, novelist and journalist William Godwin and early feminist writer and educator Mary Wollestonecraft. Not long after her birth, her mother died and according to some young Mary spent many hours at the grave while growing up.
While searching for a story idea, Mary Shelley was said to have had a nightmare dealing with a scientist successfully animating a creature of dead human flesh. This was the genesis of one of the most famous horror stories of all time — “Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus.”
Most of us are familiar with the movies, particularly the Boris Karloff portrayals. But, as is often the case, the movies do not accurately reflect the book.
First, Frankenstein is not the name of the creature but the scientist who created him. The confusion began with the sequels to the first movie production, particularly the third movie titled “Bride of Frankenstein,” which made it appear Frankenstein was creating a bride for himself rather than the creature.
(Interestingly enough, in the movie Elsa Lanchester, who played Mary Shelley, also portrayed the female creature. Many writers believed the filmmakers deliberately did this to point out Mary Shelley may have seen some resemblance to herself in her literary creation.)
Second, the unnamed creature is not the monosyllabic brute grunting inarticulately as he stumbles through the countryside terrorizing villagers. Rather, the creature learns to speak fluently, shows signs of intelligence and empathy and is even capable of acts of kindness and nobility.
Halloween is a time when Frankenstein’s creature is prominent, from the movies with Karloff to the Hammer films with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to comedies with Abbott and Costello and “Young Frankenstein” crowding the television schedule, not to mention all the trick or treaters in green masks with flat heads and electrodes and the posters and even a cereal. However, the popularity of Frankenstein and his creature is not simply a case of our loving a good, scary story. Mary Shelley’s creation continues to haunt us because it is more than just a seasonal classic we pull out at the end of October. There is something there that, pardon the irony, refuses to die.
The popularity of “Frankenstein” points out what I consider a most disheartening aspect of our modern educational system. Yes, we need to train students for productive employment in the future. We need young people to be able to think scientifically, rationally, to adapt to our ever-changing technology, to be able to meet the needs of jobs which have not yet been created. But there is another aspect to education which the STEM programs do not address.
Sadly the new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) curriculum forces teachers to limit exposure to novels and poetry in their reading programs, focusing on non-fiction works, especially scientific pieces. The feeling is students need to know how to glean information from practical writing, not waste time with fanciful nonsense. After all, we live in the real world and the made-up world of romantic delusions and flowery language has nothing to do with keeping up with scientific discoveries and advancing technology. Put simply, it doesn’t put money in the bank account.
There is, thankfully, a little softening in this view. We now talk about STEAM programs, stuffing in Art as an afterthought, giving a nod to less practical aspects of education while still making sure the main emphasis is on what will get a student work in the future.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s see how this “practical” approach to education is working.
We are living longer, but those extra years don’t have the promise they seemed to offer. More years do not always translate into more quality of life and advances in medicine and technology mean we need more money to have more years of existence rather than real, enjoyable, meaningful lives.
We have more things but less real satisfaction. We are obsessed with new and improved, even when these are only slight improvements. And the complexity of these items increases stress and makes us more dependent on things, rendering us less able to live without what are in reality luxuries turned into necessities.
And our advanced tools often undermine the very purposes they were intended for. Our mass communications, rather than bringing us together is the very instrument which is tearing us apart, putting people in camps of “them” and “us.” Instead of talking to each other, we look down at a screen and ignore the people right in front of us. And instead of increasing our access to knowledge, to ideas and information, Internet sites and cable news channels present only one side of any issue and distort rather than clarify.
Even our demand for the “new” and “improved” is belied by the fact we use this new technology to relive the past. We pack our new digital television stations with reruns of old shows, our Spotify and Sirius radio stations with songs from our youth. We recycle movie plots and television premises, remaking “A Star Is Born” with new peformers and reviving old favorites like “Will and Grace” with the original actors.
Ironically, the 200-year-old “Frankenstein” offers a solid argument for the practical use of reading fiction.
After being abandoned by his creator, the creature finds himself in a shanty adjacent to a cottage of a family fallen on hard times. By listening to them, he learns how to speak. And when they teach a visitor how to read, the creature learns to equate the marks on a printed page with the sounds they represent.
One day the creature finds a discarded bag containing, among other things, three books — “Paradise Lost,” “Plutarch’s Lives” and “The Sufferings of Young Werther.” For most, the mere titles conjure up images of stuffy, flowery language and romantic, unrealistic stories which do more to distance the reader from the “real” world than help him find his place in it.
But the creature, employed in basic, “real” activities such as getting food and keeping warm, uses these three books to understand the world, not just his small patch of ground but people and places and ideas beyond his immediate location.
From “Paradise Lost” he learns there are such things as good and evil, that these principles are in conflict with each other, not just in men’s lives but in the world as a whole, and that what we do tells us which side we are on.
From Plutarch he learns people can have an impact on the lives of others and that offering help to those in need can have important consequences, not just for immediate acquaintances but, potentially, the entire human race.
From “Werther” he finds that man is not just a rational being but one with emotions and feelings which need to be addressed and that a passionate person is a force to be reckoned with.
Having read all three, I realize these are not the easiest of books for many. They, like “Frankenstein,” are full of overblown speech, superfluous descriptions and cliches which seem stilted to our ears. But being exposed to what we may consider “artificial” language may actually help us to better understand those who don’t communicate the same way we do with our limited emails and Facebook emojis. It could actually improve our ability to interact with other cultures, a skill desperately needed in our modern world.
But what interests me most about “Frankenstein” is that it addresses some of our most current problems. Over the next few days I plan on using this Halloween classic to highlight some of the ways Mary Shelley’s nightmare can have more meaning to us than just a good scare.
But as much as I enjoy being “practical,” I can’t pass this up.
Mary’s husband, Percy Shelley, drowned when she was still young and his body was cremated. However, the story goes, one of his friends rescued Shelley’s heart before it burned.
Some say the heart was later buried with his son.
Others say Mary Shelley kept the heart with her, carrying it around in a drape of black cloth. One day, the story goes, she placed it on the kitchen table. The house cat jumped on the table, grabbed the heart and ran out the door before anyone could stop it.
There is no real practical benefit to this story. But it is interesting.
Which is also an important part of education.