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Teaching a Monster

I read Frankenstein for the first time a few years ago. I could not believe how boring it was, how lumbering and prolix. I found the very shape of the novel exhausting: The conceit of Frankenstein and then his creature talking, endlessly, for page upon page, left me weary and raw, like a long train ride with a seatmate who will not shut up. Of course, the fact that the creature spoke at all, let alone in the high-flown language of a classical rhetorician, was a bit of a shock, as it must be for many contemporary readers.

My first exposure to Frankenstein's monster was (unless you count many sweet, pink bowls of Frankenberry) watching James Whale's 1931 picture on a long-ago Saturday afternoon. Boris Karloff's dumb, halting creature elicited a confused sympathy in my childish heart, like an ugly baby or a puppy who pees on the floor. His inarticulate roars and mewlings—his desperate and doomed attempts to connect—made him pitiful instead of grotesque. Mary Shelley's monster was, by comparison, exasperating: precocious, malevolent, and too longwinded to be charming. I don't remember why I even finished Frankenstein, but I do remember being relieved when I finally did.

When I decided to teach a class called "Monsters in Literature", it was obvious that I would not be able to avoid Frankenstein. I was trying to figure out if I could conceptualize skipping it as a bold break from the monstrous canon, rather than a selfish and irresponsible omission, when I looked at the customer reviews at Amazon. There were a lot of them, most of them raves, and most of them obviously written by youngsters. It occurred to me that there must be something to this strange, difficult, awkward book that I was missing. In deciding to teach Frankenstein, I hoped that my students could help me understand it.

Teaching Frankenstein did change my relationship to the novel. Not only did my students provide me with alternate approaches to the text, but my research enriched my reading immeasurably. Frankenstein remains a frequently infuriating and generally unmanageable text, but I have to appreciate those characteristics as aspects of its genius. As I embark upon the perilous adventure of teaching it to a new group of students, I hope to discover new wonders in its unruly and inexhaustible wilderness.

December 7, 2003 | Permalink