Q&A: Behrendt talks lore, legacy of ‘Frankenstein’

· 11 min read

Q&A: Behrendt talks lore, legacy of ‘Frankenstein’

Scott Schrage | University Communication

Long before the Hulk smashed his way into the minds of readers and moviegoers, Mary Shelley conjured the original avenger and changeling: Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s creature.

Stephen Behrendt estimates that he’s assigned his students to read “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” at least 15 times throughout his career at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. With Halloween approaching, the George Holmes Distinguished Professor of English sat down with Nebraska Today to talk about the story’s enduring appeal, the shifting perceptions of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, the novel’s links to the French Revolution, and the surprisingly profound insights of Mel Brooks.

When did you first read “Frankenstein”? Do you remember your initial impressions of it?

I was probably an undergraduate, so probably around 20 (years old). I liked it. I liked it partly because, like most of my students, I found (that) it wasn’t at all what I expected. I mean, everybody goes into it waiting for all of the machinery and the smoke and everything, and it’s really a very intellectual novel — even though it was written by a woman who was only 18. That’s the scary thing: She created a whole cultural icon (at that age).

What inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel?

All they wanted to do was make a little money. She and (future husband) Percy Shelley and Lord Byron and his doctor friend were over in Switzerland for the summer, and they literally had been reading ghost stories. They thought, “You know, if we could each come up with a good one, we could probably publish it and get a little money.” They all started one, and hers was the only one that ever got finished.

Stephen Behrendt
It’s interesting, too, because she was surrounded by all of these famous writers. Her mother was a famous intellectual and feminist, and her father was a novelist and a political theorist. And by the time she was with Percy Shelley, he was already a well-known author. Then there’s Byron, the first great British literary celebrity. She was really freaked about the fact that she couldn’t write. But all of these literary (giants) couldn’t do it, and she’s the one who came up with the thing that’s lasted forever.

Is it true that she literally dreamt up the idea?

She did. She wrote about it in one of her letters. Somebody — I think it was at Texas A&M — actually (assembled) a bunch of people from one of their science departments and figured out what night it must have been that she had her dream. Because she describes the moon coming through her bedroom window at their villa in Switzerland at a particular time and under particular conditions. They actually went back and got all of the meteorological data and established (that) it was this particular day or possibly the next night. They went over there and measured the angle of the moon coming through — you know, the whole thing.

The first edition of “Frankenstein” was published anonymously. Why?

Partly it would have been (because) she wanted to conceal that it was by a woman. It was kind of an interesting guessing game, because people wanted to know who it was. A lot of people assumed it was her husband, Percy. And of all people, Sir Walter Scott, who was then the famous novelist, guessed it right.

At that time — late 18th century, early 19th century — women writers, especially women who were writing fiction, were considered to be hacks. It was considered to be totally unbecoming of women to be writing this stuff. Many of them were writing real potboilers, partly to put some food on the table for their families. But they were paid terribly for doing it. There were only a couple of women publishing who were really making a living by it.

And (Shelley) knew that she had written something that was totally unlike any other fiction that had been done. I mean, this was just totally different. It’s steeped in classical literature, but it’s also steeped in science, politics, you name it. One of the reasons that the novel is taught in every imaginable kind of department is that it speaks to everything. I mean, it’s a standard in medical schools (for teaching) medical ethics.

How was the novel received by the English public?

They were fascinated. The reviews were pretty mixed, because the reviews were by-and-large organized by politics. Most of the contemporary reviewing journals were funded by political parties. The more conservative ones were just horrified: “There’s no redeeming value in any of this.” The more open-minded ones saw it as troubling, but they saw a lot of really good writing and powerful intellectual load there.

But it was recognized as something that would have some effect in the real world. It’s not something like the Harlequin novels, which everybody reads and then throws away.

How does the novel reflect the societal or literary influences of the early 1800s?

What we think of as Gothic novels really began in the 1760s. They became very popular partly because when the French Revolution happened in 1789, a lot of people in England sort of saw that as a kind of Gothic theater, because it was so bloodthirsty before it really got settled by Napoleon.

One of the things that I always find in teaching the novel is that it’s very political. I’ve always thought that Frankenstein's creature is supposed to be either the French Revolution or revolution generally. What happens when something that’s created for all the right reasons — to try to benefit humanity, to learn the secret of life — is not what you’re hoping for?

(Dr. Frankenstein) talks about it as it’s being created, and (he envisions) it’s this beautiful creature with this lustrous hair and everything. (Then) it comes to life. He’s terrified of it, he thinks it’s ugly, so he refuses to accept responsibility. He refuses to love it, is what it amounts to. The creature goes out and, because he looks so different from everybody else, everybody hates him. It’s almost a parable of today’s international politics, about people’s unfounded fears (of) what is not like them. But I do think that it’s what happens when a revolution happens and you’re not ready for the results.

What other themes especially resonate with you?

It’s also a kind of parable on bad parenting. Feminist scholars often argue that this is what happens when a man tries to be the mother and give birth by this weird process. He builds the world’s first hot rod, is what he does. It’s all spare parts.

The other thing that I think is most important is the consequence of a failure to love, which is about a failure of sympathy — a failure to identify with something other than yourself and realize that it, he, she, whatever, has feelings, pains and pleasure, as well.

What would you consider the biggest misconceptions surrounding the novel?

People assume that the creature is genuinely monstrous, because that’s how he’s always portrayed, especially in the more modern (incarnations). The culture has made him into a monster, but he’s not. He’s decent. His inclinations are to help people.

(Mary Shelley) refuses to call the creature a monster. Her word for it is always “creature,” which is morally neutral. Everybody else calls it “monster” and “fiend” and “demon” and all of these things, because that’s what they see. Modern theorists say, “Oh, it’s the Other (with a) capital ‘O.’” Well, it’s what’s different. Everybody’s afraid of what’s different.

Last year was the 200th anniversary of the publication. I was invited to give a lecture down in Missouri, so I talked about something that’s begun to happen in teaching it over the years, and that’s the fact that students used to sympathize with the creature. They associated with the creature and felt that he had gotten the short end of the straw. In recent years, it’s gone the other way. The sentiment is strongly against the poor creature. And the creature is the most sympathetic character in the book. I mean, he’s inherently good. He turns nasty because of the way he’s treated. It’s a case study in behavioral psychology.

I thought it was so interesting, and I talked about the fact that this lack of sympathy for the creature is kind of like the cultural climate in the past 10 years, where we’re so afraid of immigrants, and we’re so afraid of physical deformities and anything that doesn’t fit our model. I find it really kind of disturbing.

When I teach the novel with undergrads, I split them into two groups. One group is the board of judges for the Nobel Prize in Medicine. I say that Dr. Victor Frankenstein has been nominated for this, and we’d like you to study about whether he’s eligible, and whether it should be bestowed. The other one is a group of judges in a civil case where Mr. T Creature has laid a lawsuit against Victor Frankenstein for illegally creating him. Oh, they just have a hoot with this. But there’s a very strong sentiment to give all of the rewards to Victor and to rule against the creature because he doesn’t behave very well.

Are there parallels between the tragedies in Mary Shelley’s life — the death of her mother in childbirth, the premature deaths of her husband and two of her children — and those in the novel?

Well, one of the profoundest ones is what happens to all of the women. The women in that novel are silenced. Victor is engaged to Elizabeth Lavenza, and on their wedding night, the creature shows up and tears her apart. Victor has created the creature’s mate and decides (against it) at the last moment, so he rips that apart while the creature is watching. Justine (the nanny of Victor’s brother) is killed. Victor’s mother dies. And this is another thing that feminist criticism has pointed out: It’s so puzzling that a woman author would do that to all of the women in that novel. But then it becomes a sort of parable of what happens in a totally masculinized world.

(Mary Shelley’s) father, William Godwin, would never let her forget that if she hadn’t been born, her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, would still have been alive. So when Percy was courting her in London, they would go to the cemetery where Mary Wollstonecraft was buried and read to one another and God knows what else.

Why do you think the story has endured in Western culture?

Well, my generation grew up with it in the black-and-white movies. My students, for the most part — especially in the last 20 years — didn’t have that. They got the third wave of movies, so they got the Christopher Lee (version), and then there was the Kenneth Branagh one that was just an abomination.

The other thing, though, is that I don’t know that students enjoy reading any less today than they used to. People still say, “I’m doing an English major because I love to read.” (The book) speaks to young people because it’s (full of) bad parenting. It’s what a kid goes through when a parent doesn’t want to invest in understanding them. They find that terribly painful.

And of course, as we get older and go back to it, we see it with different eyes, and we see more stuff. What I always find when I go back and teach it: It’s like peeling an onion or watching a peony open up. It’s just layer after layer, and there’s more stuff and more stuff.

This is one of those works that is kind of like an intersection that has all of these roads leading into it. And the more you read, and the more you know, and the more you teach it, the more you realize (that) there are more roads leading into it than you thought. I mean, there are little pathways and underground passages. Mark Twain had a famous story about running away from home when he was 18, because his father was so stupid. And he went back three years later and said, “I was amazed at how much he had learned in three years.” That’s kind of what it is.

What are your favorite adaptations of the story?

Well, I'm squeamish, so I don't like things like the gory, nasty ones. I like the old black-and-white movies — the two Boris Karloff (films), “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein.”

Strangely, the two movies that did the best job were “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “Young Frankenstein.” Mel Brooks got it! You know the scene where Gene Wilder’s character gets up there (on stage) with the creature, and they’re doing “Puttin’ on the Ritz”? And then everybody’s throwing stuff? (Wilder’s) down there with the creature, and he says, “I want everybody to know that this is a mother’s baby! And we love him!” And the creature’s (crying), “Yaaauuuggghhh!” That’s the point! He got it.