GARDNER – About 200 years ago, four tourists gathered in a chalet outside Geneva, Switzerland, for a summer vacation. That summer was extremely cold and wet, and they spent most of their time indoors. This foursome, Percy Shelley and his fiance, Mary Wollstonecraft, Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori, decided to while away the time in a contest to write the best ghost story.
Twenty-year-old Mary prevailed with her novel, “Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus.” Little did she realize that her nightmarish story would resonate to this day.
Starting in September and continuing over the next several months, Mount Wachusett Community College will be presenting an interdisciplinary symposium titled “Myths, Monsters and Modern Science,” which will explore the scientific and cultural aspects of the novel and how they relate to the modern age. This is the second-year theme for the MWCC Humanities Project, an interdisciplinary and community study funded through a multiyear, matching $500,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities. The symposium is free.
“We were hoping that, whatever theme we chose, it wasn’t just going to end up being just a bunch of English teachers talking about it,” said professor Michelle Valois, chair of the MWCC’s Liberal Arts & Sciences programs and coordinator of the Humanities Project. “The idea was that it would appeal to members of the public outside the college, as well.”
Ms. Valois feels that the themes of “Frankenstein” are relevant today, with our concerns about where modern technology might take us.
“The book lends itself really well to a lot of different disciplines,” she said. “Of course, there’s the science aspect, with our growing concerns over genetically modified organisms, advanced technology or cloning. It’s really about science going too far, and who polices or controls what is being developed or discovered, and whether there are negative aspects to be considered.”
The novel explored the then-nascent science of galvanism, which deals with the effects of electricity on biological forms and was gaining a significant following at that time.
“Mary’s mother died in childbirth,” Ms. Valois said, “but her father would entertain meetings of all of the leading writers and scientists of the day. They were fascinated by the idea of galvanism, and the way that electricity could animate dead tissue. Even her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, would perform experiments himself. It’s kind of a strange concept for us today, that poets could be amateur scientists, and vice versa. They didn’t make those kinds of distinctions in those days, and entertained different ways of approaching a topic. That’s something that we find particularly interesting in the context of this symposium.”
The novel’s subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus,” refers to the Greek myth of Prometheus, a Titan who gave mankind the knowledge of fire and metalwork. The god Zeus punished him by chaining him to a rock, where he had an eagle feasting on his liver daily for all eternity.
“Both are stories concerning the dangers of overstepping your boundaries,” Ms. Valois said. “Prometheus felt that the gods shouldn’t have all the power, and Frankenstein was essentially doing the same thing. But, rather than the gods punishing him, the creature turns on his creator. In turn, he also rejects the creature, as he’s deformed and hideous to look at.
“One of our faculty members maintains that Frankenstein was a good scientist, but a really bad parent. The creature is really a rejected child. It’s interesting to observe that there are so many back stories of orphans throughout the book. We have to remember that Mary’s mother herself died in childbirth, so there’s a feeling, not so much of rejection but of loss, which must have haunted her throughout her life.”
Participating faculty and staff members include Julie Capozzi, Paula Pitkiewicz, Paul Swerzenski, David Wyman, Lara Dowland, Donalyn Schofield, Kathryn Smith, Candace Shivers, Tom Montagno, Kenneth Roy, Shelley Nicholson, Maureen Provost, Wanda Pothier-Hill, Daniel Soucy, Lorie Donahue, Susan Blake, Michelle Paranto, Constance Porter, and Jess Mynes.
Events will include a panel discussion on “Frankenscience – The Myths and Realities of Contemporary Science;” a Halloween hike for the Humanities at Wachusett Mountain; a book discussion with Elizabeth Young, author of “Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor;” and lectures by visiting professors Sonia Hofkosh of Tufts University, Robert Schwartz of Mount Holyoke College and Shelley Errington Nicholson of MWCC and Springfield College.
At Fitchburg State University, Joe Moser will be presenting a number of films, including Kenneth Branagh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Mel Brooks’ comedy “Young Frankenstein” and, of course, the 1931 version, directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff and Colin Clive.
“I think people will be really surprised at how much the creature has changed from Shelley’s original concept,” Ms. Valois said. In the novel, he’s articulate and entertains ethical and philosophical ideas. He isn’t just irrationally violent; everything he does is a premeditated revenge against his creator. In the movies, on the other hand, that just gets reduced to a lot of grunting and groaning and stomping around.
“Apart from the academic aspects of the symposium, we also wanted to do something that would engage the public,” she said. “There’s a lot of scholarly criticism about Mary Shelley, but we also wanted to make it approachable. I think this is going to do that, and people will be fascinated by this topic.”
Eric Stanway, Telegram & Gazette, July 24, 2015