Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is over 200 years old, so why are we still teaching it? It’s so difficult, dense, and dramatic. Aren’t there newer, livelier books that could better stimulate our students’ minds? Isn’t it time to bury Frankenstein once and for all?
I’ve heard all of these arguments before, and I’m not going to go into why the classics are still—and always will be—relevant. (That’s a post for a different day.) But here’s the bottom line: Even with over two centuries of age on it, Frankenstein still continues to evoke emotion and provoke important conversations. So, without further ado, here are five reasons to teach Frankenstein.
- Frankenstein is a story everyone knows—and doesn’t know at the same time. The story of Frankenstein is almost universally known—even if people typically confuse the monster’s name by calling him “Frankenstein,” instead of his creator. Even the common phrase, “I’ve created a monster!” is a reference to the story; however, most people are familiar with the 1930’s film version of Frankenstein, not the novel. Boris Karloff’s funky flattop and bolt-ridden neck or even the saying “It’s alive!” do not appear in the original novel. So most people who think they know Frankenstein are often surprised by the novel. Shelley’s creature doesn’t grunt inarticulately and stagger around like a stiff-armed zombie. Sure, he’s ugly, but he’s also eloquent, well-read, and downright philosophical. Little surprises like this are what make Frankenstein fun to teach. It’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
- Frankenstein gives an important warning. “I’ve created a monster!” Victor creates human life without considering the consequences. Then, after realizing the enormity of his actions, he releases his malformed creature into the world—hoping it will simply fade away. Instead, he begins a cycle of death and destruction. The books that endure do so because they teach important lessons. Frankenstein serves as a warning: Science must be at the mercy of morals and ethics. Just because science can do something, doesn’t mean it Unfortunately, it is a warning that is too often ignored. In 1945 when the scientists working on the Manhattan Project detonated the first atomic weapon in Alamogordo, New Mexico, they still weren’t sure the bomb wouldn’t ignite the world’s atmosphere, consume the earth in fire, and literally bring about the end of the world. They did it anyway. In our modern world, where technology and science are moving faster than ever, we need the story of Frankenstein to remind us to exercise caution.
- Frankenstein is the inspiration for some really great films. In Jurassic Park the genetically-engineered dinosaurs run amok—turning a theme park into a terror zone. Jurassic Park is just one of many modern variants of the Frankenstein story, which feature everything from resurrected dinosaurs to mutant sharks to human-fly hybrids. Although the details of the science-experiment-turned-monster may change from story to story, the theme remains the same: Ethics must govern science. In Jurassic Park, Ian Malcom tells park owner John Hammond, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.” It’s a line that could have been lifted straight out of
- It has one of the most famous protagonist switch-ups of all-time. In spite of its original premise, the story of Frankenstein could have been a run-of-the-mill gothic horror tale except for an unconventional choice: a protagonist switch-up. For several chapters the novel follows the story of Victor. Admittedly, he’s not the most likeable protagonist. He robs graves and creates human life basically just to prove he can. Then he abandons his creature to the cruel world. Then halfway through the novel, Shelley turns the entire narrative on its head by allowing the monster to tell his side of the story. The reader is allowed (and even encouraged) to feel sympathy for the creature and his life of abuse and neglect. (Can you imagine the velociraptors in Jurassic Park getting all weepy-eyed—explaining why they didn’t ask to be genetically engineered? But I digress.) By the time the creature reaches the end of his tale, we wonder: Who is more of a monster—the half-human creature or his inhumane creator?
- It asks important questions about nature vs. nurture. Are monsters born or made? From the moment of his “birth,” Frankenstein’s creature is on a quest for love and acceptance. Yet, time and time again, humans reject him because of his monstrous appearance. In the end, he feels that he has no other choice but to embrace the monstrosity that others see in him. If he cannot inspire love, he will instead inspire fear. So are monsters born or made? I would say that the novel presents both sides: Yes, the world has treated the creature cruelly, but he chooses to embrace his monstrosity—eventually murdering three victims (one a child) and framing an innocent servant and bringing about her death. In the end the creature regrets his actions and expresses love for his creator. It’s a dark—and deep—ending. That’s why we’re still talking about it to this day.
- Bonus: The novel was written by a teenager. I know I said five, but I can’t resist. The final reason to read Frankenstein is this: Mary Shelley was only eighteen years old when she came up with the “nuts and bolts” of the story (bad pun). If you teach high-schoolers like I do, encourage them with this fact. See? Mary Shelley can write one of the greatest novels of all-time while she was still a teenager. You can, too!
I hope this post has given you some good reasons to dig up Frankenstein and give it a try with your students. If it’s still feeling lifeless, reanimate it by using our Reader’s Theater script-story version of Frankenstein. It’s completely faithful to the novel and retains Mary Shelley’s storytelling style while making it more accessible to modern students. To find out more, click here.