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. In searching for his humanity, the creature looks at particular texts, all of which have a keen critical eye.
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? While we disagree on fundamental levels, I admire Maureen Noelle Mc Lane’s splendid essay “Literate Species: Populations, ‘Humanities,’ and Frankenstein.” For Mc Lane, 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).
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. In fact, I am particularly struck by how ’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.
Indeed, the questions he asks of himself are central to the core of human self-understanding. The monster, feeling un-human (and quite honestly he really is) turns to the humanities to become a more functioning member of European society. He finds some answers in reading the classics of literature.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. Now, while the monster finds himself particularly troubled by reading Milton, his reading is not a total loss. 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).He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature [. 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. 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 [. Such wisdom and self-consciousness seems to me to be precisely what we expect of our students. Of course, not everyone agrees with my assessment of the lesson of the humanities in Mary Shelley’s masterwork.The monster presupposes his potential humanity; in this he succumbs to the ruse of the humanities” (975).For Mc Lane, the humanities only enable the monster to realize his own marginality.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.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). 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?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. 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. What the monster finds in his reading is just that.