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  • Hi, I'm John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and today we continue our discussion

  • ofFrankenstein”. Oh, Me From the Past didn't even come to

  • school today. Isn't that fantastic? Well we're going to learn something without him.

  • Last time we talked a little bit about the Romantics, “Frankensteinis often cited

  • as the definitive Romantic novel, but ehhlet's get a little bit deeper into it.

  • Capital “R” Romantics don't have a lot to do with lower case 'r' romantics, unless

  • your idea of romance involves like ecstatic descriptions of nature and a revolutionary

  • spirit that often ends in bloodshed. And if that's your idea of romance, don't

  • put it in your OK Cupid profile. However, pro tip, do say that you're 6'3”.

  • Knowing more about the capital “R” Romantics will help you be better at lower case “r” romance so stick with me here.

  • [Theme Music]

  • So Romanticism was a movement originating in the late 18th century and it's typically

  • understood as a reaction against both the Industrial Revolution's devaluing of the

  • individual human spirit and embracing of like the soulless assembly line. And also the Enlightenment's

  • claims of scientific certainty. Romanticism prizes intuition over rationalism,

  • and nature and wildness over classical harmony, and emotionsespecially difficult emotions

  • like horror and awe and terror and passionare preferred over intellect.

  • And there's an emphasis on the unconscious and irrational part of humans. There's a

  • lot of talk of dreams and stuff. So isFrankenstein” a Romantic novel?

  • Well, if you take a course in Romantic lit in college then you will almost definitely

  • read it. So, yes. “Frankensteinis interested in difficult,

  • uncomfortable emotions the wonder and awe and horror of encountering the radically other.

  • And it's certainly in many ways also a response to the Enlightenment's emphasis on scientific rationality.

  • I mean people at the time really thought that we would eventually be able to

  • reanimate the dead and other people were rightly troubled by that.

  • Then again, you can also read the book as a critique -- and a pretty stern one --

  • of the kind of thinking and acting that Romanticism encourages, right?

  • I mean Romanticism preaches a radical self-involvement that privileges the individual's pursuit

  • of knowledge and glory but for all of Victor and Walton's encountering nature and going

  • with their gut it's pretty disastrous. . Another popular reading is to interpretFrankenstein

  • autobiographically, a reading that was encouraged via 1970s feminist criticism of the novel.

  • Earlier readings along these lines situatesFrankensteinas a tale of monstrous

  • birth and look to Mary Shelley's own experiences with birth, which were pretty terrible..

  • I mean Mary Shelley's mother died while giving birth to her and Mary and Percy's

  • own first child, a daughter, died when she was just a few weeks old.

  • And in her journal, Mary recounted an incredibly sad dream about this daughter: “Dream that

  • my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it before

  • the fire & it lived.” So, of course, the idea of bringing the dead

  • back to life had occurred to her even before she listened in on Percy Shelley and Byron

  • discussing new developments in electricity. Mary Shelley even refers to the book itself

  • as a child. In her intro to the 1831 edition, she wrote, “I bid my hideous progeny go

  • forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days.”

  • That's a very tempting reading, but it's also really literal and reductive.

  • First off, and I'm saying this partly defensively as a novelist, novelist don't write exclusively

  • from their own experience. More importantly, I'm not at all convinced

  • that making an author the central character of a novel is a particularly helpful way to

  • read it. So if you readFrankensteinas merely

  • as Mary Shelley working out her own personal issues you miss the great and terrible questions

  • at the center of the book. The questions that really can change you.

  • There's in fact a term for trying to do this kind of reading—“intentional fallacy”—in

  • which we believe we can know exactly what the author was thinking when they wrote a

  • book. But putting aside those biographical readings

  • there are still some pretty interesting feminist critiques ofFrankenstein.”

  • For instance, the novel clearly shows what harm comes to women (and families and relationships)

  • when men pursue single-minded goals. In fact, thanks to Victor's lack of work-life

  • balance, pretty much all the women in this novel die. I mean Victor's creation of the

  • monster leads to the hanging of the servant Justine, the murder of Victor's bride Elizabeth

  • on their wedding night. And occasionally in the novel Mary Shelley

  • refers to nature itself as female, suggesting that Victor is violating it, as when Victor

  • discusses how withunrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places.”

  • I mean you can say I'm reading sex into that if you want butunrelaxed and breathless

  • eagerness.”? And there are also plenty of suggestions that

  • Victor might not like women very much. The creature says that he will leave Victor and

  • all mankind alone forever if Victor just creates a mate for him and Victor begins work, but

  • then he gets freaked out over what it will mean to create a lady monster.

  • Now admittedly that's partly because it might mean monster progeny but just look at

  • the text, “She might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate,” thinks

  • Victor, “and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness.”

  • He worries, “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence

  • of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.”

  • So Victor destroys the female creature while the monster watches. He recalls, howtrembling

  • with passion, [I] tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged.”

  • I don't think I'm being too weird to point out the sexy stuff there: “trembling with

  • passion.” Anyway, Victor claims to love his cousin, Elizabeth, but he deserts her

  • for years at a time and even though the creature saysreally, really, really clearly—“I

  • will be with you on your wedding-night,” he leaves her alone on his wedding night.

  • Now we can all wonder why Mary Shelley didn't create any strong female characters here and

  • instead a collection of suffering, passive, doomed ones, but we can certainly read the

  • novel as an exploration of what happens when men fear, distrust, or devalue women so much

  • that they attempt to reproduce without them. I mean in some ways Victor is trying to bypass

  • the feminine altogether. He's creating life without recourse to egg or womb. Now you could

  • counter this by saying that Mary Shelley's original CreatorGoddid the same thing.

  • But that's precisely the point. Victor is not God.

  • And perhaps this is whereFrankensteinis still most relevant, in its discussion

  • ofplaying God,” of the single-minded pursuit of science without an accompanying

  • concern about you know, morality. Now, obviously, the experiments that Victor

  • undertakes are extreme, but Mary Shelley was basing them on some of the scientific debates

  • and discoveries of her day. And even if the book is largely science fiction, there's

  • a certain amount of scientific fact in it, and a lot of scientific questioning.

  • And part of why this book has survived is because the questions she was asking were

  • important in her day, but they're also pretty important now.

  • I mean there was a recent book on genetic modifications in animals calledFrankenstein's

  • Cat”, those who object to GMO foods often label them Frankenfoods, which only makes

  • them sound like Franken-berry cereal - which is delicious!

  • So Mary Shelley was influencedohit must be time for The Open Letter.

  • Oh look, it's Frankenstein's monster. No, wait, it's the Hulk. It actually occurs

  • to me that they're quite similar. Both monsters created by failed scientific

  • experiments who only really become monstrous when they're rejected by society.

  • Anyway, an Open Letter to scientists: Dear Scientists, here's a little rule of thumb.

  • Anytime you're doing any kind of experiment, ask yourself the question, “Could this create

  • a monster?” Even if the chances are relatively low, I'm going to advise against that experiment,

  • because what I have seen from the movies and from books is that if it can become a monster it will!

  • But I will say scientists that I think you've been a bit unfairly maligned by poor readings ofFrankenstein.”

  • Frankenstein is not like the Hulk because his story isn't, at least not simply, about

  • about science run amok. It's an oversimplification scientists.

  • You are doing good work with you lab coats and your chemicals and I thank you. Don't turn

  • anyone into a monster. Best wishes, John Green. Right, but anyway, Mary Shelley was influenced

  • by several scientists, but chief among them Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to Charles, and

  • Luigi Galvani. Darwin published a long poem calledThe

  • Temple of Nature,” because back then poetry was a totally reasonable way to share scientific

  • ideas. He had an idea that lifeat least on the

  • microscopic levelcould be restored to seemingly dead matter or created out of inert matter,

  • a phenomenon he calledspontaneous generation.”

  • And Galvani, became famous for conducting experiments with electricity, in which he

  • showed that electrical impulses could animate the muscles of dead creatures like the legs

  • of a deceased frog. Did you get it? “.. conducting experiments

  • in electricity”, anyone? Conducting electricity? No? OK.

  • Galvani's followers did even more macabre experiments, like in 1803 test in which several

  • scientists attached electrodes to the body of an executed murderer in the hope of restoring

  • it to life. Because they were like, “Oh, man. Who should

  • we bring back from the dead? I know, a murderer!” Anyway, they,of course, didn't succeed,

  • but they did succeed in making a few of the murder's muscles convulse.

  • These experiments clearly influence Victor's attempt to reanimate dead flesh and in fact

  • Victor's experiments weren't that much radical than ones that were actually happening

  • at the time. That said, the novel itself is clearly pretty

  • skeptical about these pursuits. I mean even before he animates the monster, it's clear

  • that his studies are exacting a tremendous toll on Victor's health, and his well being,

  • also that of his friends and family. Let's go to the Thought Bubble.

  • Victor describes howMy cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become

  • emaciated with confinement,” which is a pretty good passage to show your parents when

  • they're pushing you to go pre-med. And things only went downhill once he began

  • to assemble the creature. Victor, “dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or

  • tortured the living animalcollected bones from charnel-houses; and disturbed, with profane

  • fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame,”

  • But Victor thinks that this digging around in slaughterhouses and graveyards will be

  • worth it; he says “I might in process of timerenew life where death had apparently

  • devoted the body to corruption.” And that's an amazing and laudable goal (unless you've

  • ever seen any zombie movie ever, in which case you would know that it's a TERRIBLE

  • idea). But in that same passage, Victor says that

  • the creatures he makeswould bless me as its creator and source…. No father could

  • claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.”

  • So it's clear that his desire is actually selfish and that he's pursuing this knowledge

  • not for universal good, or so that the dead may live again, but for his own gratification.

  • And then of course there's his reaction when his experiment does succeed. I mean,

  • even though he's assembled every facet of the creature and made him huge on purpose

  • so that all these fiddly bits like veins and eyelashes will be easier to work with, he

  • responds to his creature with utter horror. And what is Victor's mature, responsible,

  • heroic reaction to this situation? He runs away, making all the dads onTeen Mom

  • look amazing by comparison. Thanks Thought Bubble

  • So, the monster blames this initial abandonment for all the murders that result, right?

  • And Percy Shelley agreed, writing that while the creature was initially affectionate and

  • moralthe circumstances of his existence were so monstrous and uncommon, thathis

  • original goodness was gradually turned into the fuel of an inextinguishable misanthropy

  • and revenge.” But is the tragedy inherent in the creation

  • of the monster or is there a way to pursue knowledge without responding in horror?

  • Frankenstein is more than a little relevant today as we struggle to figure out where technologies

  • like stem cell therapy, or genetically modified foods, or cloning land on the ethical and

  • moral scales of the social order. The pursuit of knowledge is good, right, because

  • that's how I'm even able to talk to you through like the magic of the Internet. That's

  • why we aren't hunger/gathers anymore. But we don't actually know the outcome yet.

  • Sometimes we forget that we're still in the middle of history.

  • I don't think Mary Shelley condemned science outright, or explicitly discourages learning

  • the secrets of life and nature. Now the experiment definitely fails. The question

  • is why? Is it because Victor's aims are just unnatural

  • and evil? Is it because he can't love the creature he's created? Or is it because

  • he let's his ego run amok dictate his motivations? That's a non-rhetorical question by the

  • way. I look forward to reading your answers in comments. Thank you for watching. I'll

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  • we say in my hometown, "Don't forget to be awesome!"

Hi, I'm John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and today we continue our discussion

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Frankenstein Part II: Crash Course Literature 206

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    April Lu posted on 2016/11/03
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