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Honouring Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary: U of T scholars hold week-long celebration

Close up photo of the original Frankenstein manuscript.

The original manuscript of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was exhibited at the University of Oxford in 2010. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images.

More than two centuries ago, inspired by a frightening daydream, Mary Shelley wrote a novel called Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Published in 1818, the story of a scientist who brings to life a monstrous patchwork humanoid would become a classic, and the book has never gone out of print. Two hundred years after Shelley published her novel, its questions about the meaning of human life and society are as freshly compelling in an age of artificial intelligence as they were in the Age of Steam.

On this bicentennial anniversary of Frankenstein’s publication, University of Toronto Assistant Professors Paolo Granata and Jean-Olivier Richard, both at University of St. Michael’s College, and  Terry F. Robinson, an assistant professor in the department of English, are making sure the book receives a worthy celebration. With the sponsorship and support of the Jackman Humanities Institute, the trio has spent months organizing a week-long interdisciplinary program Reading Frankenstein: Then, Now, Next, which will run from Oct. 24 to 31. The itinerary includes film screenings, special exhibits, a day-long academic symposium and a marathon reading of the novel at the Toronto Reference Library.

“No Western novel past or present has had the same kind of popular, intercultural and interdisciplinary impact as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” says Robinson. On the most basic level, the book remains relevant because it “translates an ancient warning for a modern context – for a society no longer governed by myth but by technology.” That warning? “That unreflective hubris can produce dire consequences.”

Granata, who will chair a global conference on media ethics at St. Michael’s in June of 2019, also finds the book’s ethical dimension to be the key to its ongoing relevance, particularly when it comes to today’s rapid advances in technology. “It’s time to take ethics into account for a critical interpretation of the role of technology in today’s world and the future,” he says.

This call to action has been associated with Frankenstein since its publication. Richard refers to a paper in which philosopher Heather E. Douglas uses the Manhattan Project – the scientific collaboration that led to the creation of the first nuclear weapons – to illustrate the moral stakes of the book’s ancient warning. (Publishers Weekly quotes a reporter after Hiroshima as saying, “We have created Frankenstein.”)

Screen capture of Boris Karloff in the Bride of Frankenstein.
Boris Karloff in the Bride of Frankenstein: Nearly 100 years before the film, Frankenstein was adapted for the London stage. Photo: John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images.

Perhaps little known to modern readers is the fact that Frankenstein’s earliest adaptations were for the stage, notes Robinson, and its malleable narrative entertained popular audiences in London “nearly 100 years before Universal Studios introduced Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster.” The book also presents readers with “multiple generic styles [and] narratives” that “serve the deeper philosophical purpose of the novel by providing insight into multiple perspectives.” While the ethical questions have been clear and urgent from the book’s publication, its variable form has made it possible for each generation of readers to respond to the book in markedly different ways.

Portrait of Mary Shelley.Frankenstein helped to establish the genre of science fiction. On Wednesday, a panel presentation at the Merril Collection’s special exhibit “200 Years of Mad Science” at the Lillian H. Smith Library will kick off the week-long program. The story by Shelley (pictured left) reflected Romantic-era anxieties about the progress of scientific reason; the moment Dr. Frankenstein’s creature comes to life demonstrates Shelley’s familiarity with “Galvanism,” says Richard – the study of so-called “animal electricity,” a hot scientific topic at the time. (“The specific reanimation of decapitated bodies” using electric currents became a spectacular galvanic fad at the beginning of the 19th century, he says.) A century later, early-20th-century film adaptations would reflect Progressive-Era beliefs about eugenics and biological determinism, with the doctor’s assistant Igor sealing the creature’s villainous fate by mistakenly stealing a “criminal” brain for it from an anatomy lab.

Frankenstein continues to spur engagements with contemporary issues. The Cinema Studies Institute’s professor Brian Jacobson will introduce the film Ex Machina (2014) before a screening on Thursday, at St. Michael’s; the movie updates Shelley’s mythology for an era of artificial intelligence. The story has also given expression to new questions about race, justice and society. Novelist Victor Lavalle’s graphic novel Destroyer (2018) continues Shelley’s story in an age of widespread concern over police violence in communities of racialized residents.

Richard notes that though Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a frightening ghost story, the novel has lost some of its fear factor. He will introduce a screening of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) on Monday in order to show a more lighthearted side of the book’s cultural reception. The Halloween marathon reading on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at the Toronto Reference library – with interlude music from film adaptations – will serve a similar purpose.

But even if Frankenstein doesn’t frighten modern readers, it provides an endless source of fascination to scholars and specialists, many of whom will participate in a daylong “academic campfire” symposium on the book at St. Michael’s on Friday. Presenters from across Canada and the U.S. will discuss topics as diverse as cybernetics, the history of the book’s interpretation, the prospect of “responsible” science and the way that theatrical stagings changed the reception of the book.

In celebrating the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, one question seems particularly apt: “Who are the Victor Frankenstein’s of today’s world?” In response to this question, Granata suggests looking into a recent television show – Black Mirror.

Reading Frankenstein: Then, Now, Next begins Wednesday. All events will be free and open to the public.