Quick, who are the three all-time great Halloween monsters? Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman, right?
You would be wrong because Frankenstein was not the monster; he was the university undergraduate (not a doctor) who animated the nameless creature. Most people make this mistake, and Princeton professor of English Susan Wolfson has organized the perfect Halloween event to bring the true story of Frankenstein and his creation to life.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus,” Wolfson presents Frankenread: A Festival. Seventy-one readers from the Princeton community and the university, including this writer, will meet at the Chancellor Green Rotunda for three nights beginning on Halloween to read the entire original work. The public is encouraged to attend for some or all of the readings.
The festival begins each night at 6:30 p.m. with refreshments and ends at 10:30 p.m. A continuous screening of the 13-minute 1910 Edison Studios film “Frankenstein” is an added highlight.
“Readers will bring their own performance perspectives to the event,” says Wolfson. “Great literature is great because it is never the same work twice. It provides material that speaks across the generations and preserves its relevance over the years, or centuries.”
Most people are aware of Shelley’s enduring work only from the movies, beginning with the iconic Boris Karloff version from 1931. But the original book is far more nuanced.
The tale arose from a throwaway challenge, a parlor game of sorts, among a rather bohemian gathering at the villa of Lord Byron during a rainy spell.
The published book was instantly popular, selling out its initial run of 500 copies. Within a very few years, stage plays were all the rage.
Shelley was a businesswoman as well as author and recognized the value of the work’s popularity. Her father arranged a second printing in 1823, and she herself proposed a new version for 1831, with a memorable Introduction on the novel’s origins. This edition ran into the thousands and was reprinted many times.
Frankenread is a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded initiative of the Keats-Shelley Association of America and partners. It promotes a series of events, festivals, and initiatives, featuring an international series of readings of the full text of the novel on Halloween 2018. As darkness falls across the globe on Wednesday, October 31, readers will begin the tragic journey of a despised creation.
“We are excited to be part of a world-wide marathon reading of Mary Shelley’s extraordinary novel,” says Wolfson. “‘Frankenstein’ is the most widely taught book in the world and has never been out of print. Shelley tapped the cultural mainframe in writing this novel. Every issue of the day is channelled in some way. The tale speaks to the concept of ‘the other,’ that being that is feared because he is different. That fear leads to a conviction that because he is not like us, he should be eliminated.”
Some of those issues related to the idea of the other include slavery and the status of women. The latter was a topic at the heart of Shelley’s upbringing. The seminal work by her mother, author Mary Wollstonecraft, was the 1792 book “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Wollstonecraft died of childbirth-related complications 11 days after giving birth to Mary.
Shelley’s father was the social philosopher and journalist William Godwin. Though a noted advocate of anarchy and individualism and an influence on the era’s Romantic poets, he broke relationships with Mary when she eloped with married poet Percy Shelley, taking her half-sister with her to Switzerland where she wrote her famous novel. Father and daughter were eventually reconciled and Mary “respectfully” dedicates her novel to him.
“The story also speaks to abandonment and the loss of parental love. Frankenstein creates life and then repudiates it,” says Wolfson. “The creation therefore is abandoned by both mother and father in the form of the single parental entity, Victor Frankenstein. This goes to the heart of the question of who is the monster. Indeed, Frankenstein had intended to create a super race, which would owe its presumably superior state to him and accordingly bless him; blasphemy of the highest order and a delusion that blinds him to the horrors going on in his laboratory long before the creature is enlivened.”
Permeating the work is the implications of Victor Frankenstein creating life without a mother. This parthenogenesis elevates the man and eliminates the need for woman or family. The norm of a domestic world is denied the creature. “Nature is spoken of as ‘she,’ and it is something to be conquered. Frankenstein is barely out of his teens when he becomes excited by science, and that excitement is physical as well as intellectual,” says Wolfson.
Wolfson is uniquely qualified to address the deepest meanings of Shelley’s work. In 2012 she and her husband, Ronald L. Levao, associate professor of English at Rutgers, edited “The Annotated Frankenstein,” a meticulously researched explication of the original. With the original text and copious notes alongside, the book guides the reader to a fuller understanding of the interwoven and interlocking themes that are far more complex than the familiar Halloween tale. The rich black-and-white and color illustrations of woodcuts, engravings, and reproductions of playbills and art works bring the world of “Frankenstein” in all its iterations and evolution to life. Pun intended.
The volume won a 2013 New England Book Show award for design and production. Of especial value, the detailed introduction explores the novel’s enduring presence in both popular and academic spheres as well as the novel’s genesis and composition. Wolfson and Levao draw their observations from years of studying and teaching the novel. Labyrinth Books will offer discount coupons for “The Annotated Frankenstein” at the Frankenread.
“The Annotated Frankenstein” provides a fascinating look at how the image of the creature evolved. Shelley has Frankenstein describe his creation in Volume 1 Chapter 3, and it is not pretty. Interestingly, the earliest representations of the creature in playbills show a beautiful human-looking entity, gigantic and erotic. Over time the representations morph into the grotesque we recognize and love.
Wolfson was born in Seattle, the child of an editor at Holt and McGraw and a housewife who had been a classics major at Hunter College. They met during World War II at the USO. The family moved to Connecticut in the 1950s, and Wolfson eventually headed to Pembroke College. Rather than spend her junior year aboard, she headed west to the University of California, Berkeley, and the lure of the counterculture in the late 1960s. “I was such a child of the times, and I loved the environment at Berkeley. Needless to say, I transferred there to finish my degree and was horrified to think I would have to leave after graduation. I realized that graduate school was the perfect way to stay there and move into teaching to remain in this wonderful lifestyle.”
She met her husband and co-author of “The Annotated Frankenstein,” Ronald L. Levao, while doing her PhD. They came to Princeton when he was offered an assistant professorship at Princeton and she secured one at Rutgers. Fast forward and their positions reversed with her taking a position in the English department at Princeton in 1991. “My husband actually took over my old office at Rutgers. His specialty is Shakespeare and Milton.”
Her own specialization is the Romantics and their contemporaries — writers in Britain from 1780 to about 1850. She serves on several editorial boards of professional journals and on the board of directors of the Keats-Shelley Association of America. In 2016 she received the Phi Beta Kappa award for undergraduate teaching, elected by students from the Princeton chapter. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and American Council of Learned Societies. And she has received the Distinguished Scholar Award from the Keats-Shelley Association.
Her interdisciplinary seminar on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is another aspect of her deeper exploration of the work. It includes selections from “Paradise Lost” to which much of the book alludes, Enlightenment science, other Romantic-era texts (Coleridge, Wordsworth, P.B Shelley, Byron), and the period’s polemics on the rights of woman and abolition.
Frankenread: A Festival, Chancellor Green Rotunda, Princeton University. Readings begins October 31, 6:30 p.m., and continue November 1 and 3, 6:30 to 10 p.m. Free. arts.princeton.edu/events/the-frankenread/2018-10-31
Wednesday, November 7: Princeton University panel “Frankenstein’s Progeny” featuring Peter Singer, Joyce Carol Oates, Madelyn Broome (Princeton ’19), and Gunnar Rice (Princeton ’17), East Pyne, Room 10, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Thursday, November 8: Wolfson presents “Frankenstein and The Dreams of Science, Then and Now” at the Lewis Library, 4:30 p.m.
Wednesday, March 27, 2019: John Bugg, Fordham University Professor, and Adam Potkay, Rockefeller Teaching Fellow at the Center for Human Values at Princeton, participate in the discussion “Frankenstein, Ethics, and Teaching across the Disciplines” in East Pyne 10, 4:30 p.m.