I love finding new ways to approach classic literature. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those books I knew about but was never required to read. I finally read it over the summer thanks to my Nook and free classics. Was I ever dumbfounded! Every conception I had about the book was completely off base, as it was tainted by pop culture and cinema. Here was a book written by a 19 year old girl in 1818 with a multitude of 21st century conflicts. I won’t teach a book that is no longer culturally relevant because I want ALL my students to love reading. Classics that are restricted by time period are often wonderful, but I prefer to recommend those to my students who want to read everything–twice.
Frankenstein, however,may be more culturally relevant now than in 1818. One of the key elements for current readers is the question, “Just because we are able to do something, does it mean we should do it?” In 1818 electricity was a new concept, and the practical and cheap applications were years away. That Frankenstein was able to infuse life into something he assembled from multiple parts (particularly grotesque when envisioned) was purely fantasy. Today, however, that idea has plausible elements to it. Cloning, transplants, and stem cell research open that Pandora’s Box of possibilities heretofore unimaginable.
The geneticist Barbara McClintock once said of her research, “I was just so interested in what I was doing I could hardly wait to get up in the morning and get at it. One of my friends, a geneticist, said I was a child, because only children can’t wait to get up in the morning to get at what they want to do.” (http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4917&page=1) McClintock explains the passion of research and experimentation in the same way Frankenstein might have as he created his new “species.” He was so caught up in his idea and the potential glory he could receive that, like a child, he didn’t think through the consequences.
Whether it is practical science, economics, politics, or any other science, modern practitioners often lunge forward into experiments without fully thinking through the consequences. Students entering the college and work world need to understand the long term ramifications of their decisions and discoveries. Running with new concept may seem like a great plan, but the ultimate outcomes may be contrary to the vision.
Of course, Frankenstein contains more timeless lessons than the conflict of science and ethics. The importance of companionship, the danger of isolation, and the tragedy of hubris are all themes appropriate for the contemporary teenager. The focus will vary depending on the interests of the particular students in the class. The primary idea is to make the literature relevant.
Science, ethics, and literature: they are connected.