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Frankenstein comes to life at Columbia

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Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster in the 1931 film Frankenstein.

Beware! A monster was spotted on campus. Fearless and powerful, he has exerted an overwhelming influence on literature, the stage, the screen, comics and literary discourse.

He is, of course, the central figure in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's groundbreaking novel Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus . On October 22nd, faculty from the Department of English and Comparative Literature met at the Columbia Society of Fellows and the Heyman Center for the Humanities to discuss the cultural heritage of this classic, marking the bicentenary of its publication.

Written by 18-year-old Shelley in a ghost story contest with the greatest poets of the time - Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley - the book set the stage for modern horror stories, according to Arden Hegele, a Society of Fellows Fellow who created the Panel .

In the two centuries since it was first published, readers have interpreted it differently Frankenstein as a warning story of scientific hubris, as an allegory of motherhood, as a political commentary and as a Gothic horror, said Hegele. More than any other novel, Mary Shelley's book deals with the joys and dangers of braving death.

Mary Shelley wrote the book with contributions from Percy Shelley, whom she married while working. He shaped the place of the novel in the literary canon and wrote the foreword, which emphasized the intellectual seriousness of the Frankenstein said Hegele.

That year - 1816 - was significant for another reason. A volcanic eruption in Indonesia last spring spat so much ash into the sky that particles spread around the world, blocking the sun on several continents. Temperatures dropped, harvests failed, people starved to death and it was pouring rain. Many called it the year without a summer.

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On a stormy night on Lake Geneva, Shelley, her future husband and Byron started their writing contest. Yours depicts a creature brought to life in a laboratory and rejected by society, which then kills its creator, Victor Frankenstein. (The creature is not given a name.)

There is an odd entanglement of climate and narrative that is integral to the structure of the narrative, said Joseph G. Albernaz, a professor whose specialty is romantic poetry. There are dark reflections of our future climate. Both Victor Frankenstein and his creature die from extreme temperatures.

The panel was part of the Society of Fellows' Explorations in the Medical Humanities series. The Heyman Center sponsored the event along with the Columbia Nineteenth Century Colloquium.

James Eli Adams, whose interests include 19th century British literature and culture, as well as gender and sexuality, said the monster is absolutely desperate for a sense of connection. That's part of what makes the experience of his loneliness in this novel so terrifying and compelling.

The original creature was cultured and learned. He learned English, could read German and French, and knew literary works such as Milton; a far cry from largely inarticulate renditions in subsequent spin-offs - thousands of movies, TV shows, plays, books, music, comics, videos, merchandise and toys. But the original and its subsequent iterations usually share the same fate of loneliness and rejection.

At the Heyman Center's panel discussion, PhD student Milan Terlunen pointed out that if you filter out all the images from movies (neck studs, scars, and green skin) and focus on the description of the novel (tall and stout with flowing black hair), He is hot.

One of the most enduring cultural interpretations plays against this reading of the novel. The most famous image for modernism is the portrayal of Boris Karloff in the films Frankenstein (1931), The son of Frankenstein (1939) and The bride of Frankenstein (1942), the last of which featured actress Elsa Lanchester carrying a now iconic beehive with lightning-shaped white stripes. She, too, rejects the creature - Karloff in 48 pounds of clothing and makeup protruding on four-inch elevator boots.

Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) demonstrates Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) how the monster (Boris Karloff) understands commands.

Frankenstein's monster first hit the screen in a silent film in 1910. Subsequent films featured directors as diverse as Roger Corman, Mel Brooks and Kenneth Branagh with stars as famous as Robert De Niro and John Hurt and as unlikely as Abbott and Costello. Another film version is being planned, this one by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who won the Oscars in 2018 (Best Director and Picture) for The shape of the water .

In popular culture, the monster refused to die. He's messed with Bugs Bunny, inspired characters in 1960s sitcoms The Minster and The Addams family , played opposite The flints; 'The Flintstones as Frankenstone, appeared in the Beatles' animated film in 1968, Yellow submarine , and even reached the kitchen table for strawberry-flavored muesli, Franken Berry.

If the last 200 years have taught us anything, it is this Frankenstein is an immortal book, said Hegele.

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