The Monster and the Humanities

The Creation of a Pedagogy for the Humanities in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

By Eric Meljac, West Texas A&M University

One of the more remarkable points I find in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is when the monster, watching cottagers and their daily lives, stumbles upon books and reads these texts in an effort to make himself more “human.” The monster, a creation of scientific experimentation and not human by birth, seeks to become more human, more acceptable, and more understood. Indeed, the questions he asks of himself are central to the core of human self-understanding. He says, “My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them” (91). Most curious to me as I read these lines, and associating them with my position as an instructor of English, is that these questions appear to plague college students as they grow, mature, discover, and become functioning members of society. In fact, I am particularly struck by how Frankenstein’s monster could become an example for up-and-coming college students who, quite lost in the modern university, could discover themselves and learn about their own humanity through significant study in the humanities. The monster, feeling un-human (and quite honestly he really is) turns to the humanities to become a more functioning member of European society. His self-education is an attempt at creating selfhood. “Who am I?” the creature asks. He finds some answers in reading the classics of literature. And, while critics question the notion of how well this reading really humanizes the creature, I think it provides at the very least an example of how we can speak to our students about becoming educated and informed members of a modern and increasingly global, liberal society.

In “Teaching the Monster: Frankenstein and Critical Thinking,” Melissa Bloom Bissonette, a professor of theater, discusses how she uses Frankenstein as an educational tool in the creation of critical thinking. Studying the effect of the Frankenstein story on students (referring quite often both to the novel itself and film adaptations of the text), Bissonette discusses the natural sympathy students reserve for the monstrous creation of Victor Frankenstein. She notices that, “Armed with good-hearted native sympathy, students are quick to find parallels in our world” (108). Such an observation piques my interest. Obviously, students connect with the story. It is that connection that I encourage us to exploit in this essay. If students can find sympathy with the monster, perhaps too they can learn with and from the monster, and become not only better students, but also students who are, in a world where this is ever decreasing, well-versed in the humanities.

Bissonette’s essay provides interest, but her study does not speak to the whole of my project. Her concern is how to complicate students’ readings of Frankenstein and move beyond simple dichotomies and hasty generalizations. In her experience students are quick to reduce the novel and the monster to “this-and-that” analysis, rather than more complicated and probing analyses. Still, her work shows me that the novel can really promote learning for the college student. Complications in the novel reinforce the necessity of critical thinking, and in my estimation, one can look particularly toward what I call the “humanities portion” of the novel for a broader human education.

I assert that students can learn to learn from the monster. What does that mean? I attempt to avoid the vague and superfluous here. I am concerned with details and lessons. In searching for his humanity, the creature looks at particular texts, all of which have a keen critical eye. The monster reads Milton’s Paradise Lost, portions of Plutarch’s Lives, and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. While many critics examine the texts in terms of their relation to different Romantic literary movements, I am more concerned with the effects of these texts on the monster himself. What did he learn and how did he experience it? Perhaps it is best to use the creature’s own words to show exactly how he learns from these books and how the books affect his hopeful humanity. The creation says, “I learned from Werter’s imaginations despondency and gloom: but Plutarch taught me high thoughts; he elevated me above the wretched sphere of my own reflections, to admire and love the heroes of past ages” (91). He goes on, “But Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions” (92). In reading Milton’s masterpiece, the creature realizes his position as part of a creation: “Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature [. . .] but I was wretched, helpless, and alone” (92). Now, while the monster finds himself particularly troubled by reading Milton, his reading is not a total loss.

Indeed, all of his reading manifests in itself a very pertinent lesson for teachers of higher education and beyond, for it is through this reading that the creature realizes his position in the world. Is this not what we ask of our students? Putting this question aside for the moment, I would like to turn to Andrew Burkett’s wonderful essay “Mediating Monstrosity: Media, Information, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” In this essay, Burkett mentions that “the text’s themes and structures themselves generate, if not beg for [. . .] analysis, research, and application” (583). This is an important observation. If we can teach our students these skills, and if we can use the styles of texts the creature uses to become “humanized,” can we not develop and indeed “create” students who have a better understanding of the necessary humanist skills necessary for innovative critical thinkers? As Burkett suggests, “Having ‘continually studied and exercised [his] mind’ upon Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter—not to mention Victor’s own journal of his creation—the creature has become a wise and deeply self-conscious subject” (594). Such wisdom and self-consciousness seems to me to be precisely what we expect of our students. Everyone has heard of the demise of the humanities, so I will not need to address this here; armed with this knowledge, however, couldn’t we look to Frankenstein as an example of what we can do with literature and the humanities to give students a greater understanding of themselves as human, social, political, and independent subjects in a widely democratic nation and world where self- consciousness becomes an essential tool for negotiating an increasingly political climate? I think we can. And, furthermore, I think we must.

Of course, not everyone agrees with my assessment of the lesson of the humanities in Mary Shelley’s masterwork. While we disagree on fundamental levels, I admire Maureen Noelle McLane’s splendid essay “Literate Species: Populations, ‘Humanities,’ and Frankenstein.” For McLane, Shelley’s novel is a one of “pedagogic failure” (959). As she puts it, the novel exhibits “specifically a failure in the promise of the humanities, in letters as a route to humanization” (959). She goes on, “The novel demonstrates, perhaps against itself, that the acquisition of ‘literary refinement’ fails to humanize the problematic body” (959). Instead of the humanities acting as the victor in Shelley’s novel, it seems as though McLane promotes the advent of modern science as the victor. In fact, she mentions what she calls the “ruse of the humanities” as a particular danger for Frankenstein’s monster. As she puts it, “In entertaining humanist fantasies, the monster forgets his corporeally and nominally indeterminate status: the community of letters presupposes a human community, and the humanities presuppose humans. The monster presupposes his potential humanity; in this he succumbs to the ruse of the humanities” (975). For McLane, the humanities only enable the monster to realize his own marginality. He is a non-being, and in reading the humanities, from what McLane suggests, the monster only marginalizes himself more. In a very deep and difficult study, McLane suggests that Frankenstein is a novel that appears to promote the sciences over the humanities. For, it is through science that the monster gains his being; the humanities only complicate his situation and make him realize that, indeed, he is not human, and as a creation of science he is simply not what he hopes to be.

While I admire McLane’s study, and in many ways can understand her thesis and evidence, I still think that the lesson one can learn from the novel is that the humanities can immediately humanize an individual who otherwise finds him- or herself awash in a world that excommunicates the individual and enforces conformity. Shelley promotes individual thought, and the monster’s knowledge gained by reading core texts in the humanities enables him to understand, at the very least, his position in the world. This is what we expect of our students. Each essay assignment, each argument, is an opportunity to promote individuality and self-development. We insist upon this in our classrooms, and our reading of Frankenstein can help to promote this in our students.

As educators, we value critical thinking. What the monster finds in his reading is just that. As the monster puts it, “[These books] produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings, that sometimes raised me to ecstasy, but more frequently sunk me into the lowest dejection” (91). While I am sure McLane would argue that the dejection shows the failure of the humanities to educate an individual (again the “ruse of the humanities”), I argue that this becomes evidence of completing the human individual. One cannot be completely and constantly affirmed.

Unlike McLane, I believe the monster learns how to be human. I suggest that this is a product of studying the humanities. Science and technology may represent progress, but the humanities teach one how to feel, how to cope, how to experience life, and also how to nurture a sympathetic imagination.

Consider for instance the following lines spoken by Frankenstein’s monster; in these lines I think we get an idea as to what the monster really learns by studying the humanities:

As I read, however, I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition. I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read, and to whose conversation I was a listener. I sympathised with and partly understood them, but I was unformed in mind; I was dependent on none, and related to none. “The path of my departure was free,” and there was none to lament my annihilation. (91)

The effects of these lines, of course, are mixed. At once there is the experience of education and the emotional trigger of brutish sadness. Of course, the monster is alone, a scientific creation almost solely. Such is McLane’s trigger; she would argue that the humanities fail the monster because they bring him to pity. Still, this is what I see as valuable in the monster’s growth as a thinker, one with a sympathetic imagination. Despite this “ruse of the humanities,” I think the monster actually gains a rational, emotional, and critical-thinking mind, which I believe anyone devoted to the humanities would argue is one of the most direct aims of studying the arts. The monster says, “I read of men concerned in public affairs, governing or massacring their species. I felt the greatest ardour for virtue rise within me, and abhorrence for vice, as far as I understood the signification of those terms, relative as they were, as I applied them, to pleasure and pain alone” (92). One cannot argue that the monster is not learning human emotion. In fact, he develops a sympathetic imagination—a sympathetic imagination that gives him knowledge to contemplate the very nature that afflicts him.

His brief (and rather incomplete) course in the humanities allows the monster to understand his own position in the world, a position he tries to establish by observing the cottagers to no avail. After gaining language and reading (which many critics cite as a hole in Shelley’s story—how does this creation learn to read without tutorial?), the monster finally becomes able to decipher papers that discuss his creation. Reminding the reader of the journal he finds in the pocket of what are now his clothes, he says:

At first I had neglected them; but now that I was able to decipher the characters in which they were written, I began to study them with diligence. It was your [here he speaks to Victor Frankenstein] journal of the four months that preceded my creation. [. . .] Every thing is related in them which bears reference to my accursed origin; the whole detail of that series of disgusting circumstances which produced it is set in view; the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person is given, in language which painted your own horrors, and rendered mine indelible. (92-3)

Now armed with knowledge, the monster renders himself able to colloquially “put together the pieces” of his quasi-humanity and understand his mind and spirit, just as those who study the humanities do by reading Wordsworth’s “The Prelude,” by studying Picasso’s “Blue Period,” by navigating the history of saints’ lives in pursuit of religion, or any multitude of examinations into the liberal arts and humanities.

Once again, armed with this knowledge, the monster says in one short sentence, packed with power, “I sickened as I read” (93).

How else but by studying could the monster learn to have a visceral reaction to words on a page? This transformation, from pure tactile experience to complex critical thinking, comes as a result of a pedagogy of the humanities. By learning from books, from the arts, the monster becomes informed enough to detest himself in an entirely different way. He sees his spirit, his mind. He learns to appreciate—and abhor—his creation.

This is the teachable moment. Bringing this back to the classroom, much as Bissonette does, students can see that through reading these classics the monster gains capability. He matures from pure beast to critical thinker. He moves from the realm of bodily experience to mental configuration. The humanities—as exhibited by Milton, Plutarch, and Goethe—give the monster the capability to ponder his existence in an entirely new way, and if we can show our students that these few—merely four or so— pages of Shelley’s work reveal how the humanities can transform the mind, we can envision a pedagogy that helps us to nurture critical thinking and a sympathetic imagination in the minds and spirits of our students. This is how we can create a pedagogy of the humanities with Frankenstein. Urging our students to follow the monster’s lead will lead them to wonder about their own place in the world, and this is the lesson of the humanities. How the students use that knowledge is a lesson for another day, time, and essay, but clearly, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein provides evidence that the humanities are not lost, are not a ruse, and are certainly essential for mature intellectual growth.

Works Cited

Bissonette, Melissa Bloom. “Teaching The Monster: Frankenstein And Critical Thinking.” College Literature, vol. 37, no. 3, Summer 2010, pp. 106-20.

Burkett, Andrew. “Mediating Monstrosity: Media, Information, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 51, no. 4, Winter 2012, pp. 579-605.

McLane, Maureen Noelle. “Literate Species: Populations, ‘Humanities,’ and Frankenstein.” ELH, vol. 63, no. 4, Winter 1996, pp. 959-88.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Dover, 2014.