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Dissecting a Classic: Class Explores and Examines Shelley’s “Frankenstein”

By Laurie Laker ’12

First published in 1818, Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece “Frankenstein” is celebrating its bicentennial this year. In honor of that celebration, Associate Professor of English Jared Richman’s Block 3 class, Issues in British Romanticism: “Frankenstein” at 200 explored the novel as a historical, cultural, and literary phenomenon.

“We spent five class periods on the novel itself, moving later into various adaptations across film, literature, and graphic novels,” says Richman. “The course allowed us to look at ‘Frankenstein’ from critical and theoretical lenses, across everything from feminism to Marxism to race and ethnic studies to environmental and eco-criticism.”

Shelley’s classic novel tells the harrowing tale of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a salient and sentient being, the Creature, pushing up to and beyond the boundaries of scientific, ethical, moral, and spiritual inquiry. The novel is considered by some as a foundational text of science fiction, but more widely read as a gothic and horror fictional tale.

“Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’ when she was just 18, so she’s around the same age as some of the students in this class,” Richman says. “There are multitudes, to paraphrase Whitman, in the text, and it engages aesthetics, law, morality, science, and so on — all the questions it asks feel more relevant every day to me and, I hope, to my students.”

Noah Smith ’20, an Art History major and English minor, and Madison Prince-Judd ’20, an English major on the Creative Writing track, both took the class; they’ve been friends since their first year at CC.

“‘Frankenstein’ is a book that I never really appreciated until this class,” says Prince-Judd. “I’ve read it three times now and each time it felt like I was being forced into doing so. I didn’t appreciate it in high school, nor when I was 18, but I do now. It’s a text I’ll definitely come back to, particularly as a creative writing major looking to improve narrative voice, storytelling and incorporating accessible ideas into my work.”

Spending one whole block (three-and-a-half weeks) exploring one text, with additional contextualizing and scholarly works is, in many ways, the ultimate example of what the Block Plan is all about. “Frankenstein,” as a monumental work of creativity, social commentary, and vision, serves as a canvas for huge varieties in interpretation and exploration.

“This has felt like the ultimate Block Plan class,” says Smith ’20.

“It’s one of those experiences where you’re so rooted in one text that anything else you read, watch, or investigate almost seems like a distraction. What that extra material does, though, is it focuses you on the story that much more. For Jared, he always brings it back to Mary Shelley as author and creator.”

As part of the bicentennial celebrations going on around the world, nearly 50 CC students, staff members, faculty, and alumni gathered in Tutt Library to read passages from the novel in a “Frankenreads” marathon event, from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on October 31, joining another 700 partner organizations around the world, from universities in Japan to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

“Frankenstein” was also this year’s CC Common Book Read text for incoming first-year students, with the text serving as a jumping off and diving in point for literary analysis, scientific morality, and exploring the social and ethical aspects of exploration, creativity, and investigation.