As Festival Events Begin, Professor Talks About Shelley's Frankenstein

October 10, 2018

Professor Cynthia Williams sits at a desk

Assistant Professor Cynthia Williams sits for a Q&A related to the Fenway Frankenstein Festival taking place Oct. 24-31 (PHOTO BY SAMUEL KIM)

Wentworth Institute of Technology and the Colleges of the Fenway (COF) have teamed up to hold the Fenway Frankenstein Festival from Oct. 24-31, to celebrate the art and science of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece and mark the 200th anniversary of its publication. The conference was planned and organized by Wentworth Assistant Professor Cynthia Williams of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. She speaks about the event in the following interview.

What do you teach at Wentworth and what is your academic expertise? 

Every semester I teach English II, which I love, and I often teach one section of an elective I’ve called “Frozen! The Climate Crisis of 1816 and Its Lessons for Today.”  That’s an interdisciplinary course that explores the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815.  It plunged the planet into a three-year crisis of cooling temperatures and failed harvests.  We look at the eruption itself and also at amazing and unexpected responses catalyzed by the emergency—including Frankenstein itself, which Mary Shelley wrote when she and her friends were confined indoors by the torrential weather of 1816. 

Those dramatic events happened during the period I study. I’m a scholar of nineteenth century English and American literature, especially the Romantic era. Mary Shelley has been an abiding interest for me, as has a poet by the name of Felicia Hemans, who is not nearly as well-known as Shelley.  But Hemans was at one time the most popular poet in the Anglophone world.

What motivated you to plan and launch the Fenway Frankenstein Festival, to which you’ve devoted hours and hours of time?

I was marveling over how thoroughly infused our culture is with the myth of Frankenstein and was struck by its renewed relevance to our lives right now, in ways Shelley certainly could not have foreseen.  That’s what a myth is, I suppose—a story that takes on a life of its own and becomes ingrained in multiple cultures through subsequent generations.  What’s all the more remarkable is that the novel was written by a young woman still in her teens.  It’s a singular and enduring accomplishment, and the bicentennial seemed like something to celebrate in a really dynamic way. So I began to explore the possibility of creating a festival to commemorate Shelley’s achievement and its importance to us.

You have spoken of your fascination with Mary Shelley and her work, particularly Frankenstein. What first sparked that interest for you?

Frankenstein is a work of tremendous compassion.  We can’t help but empathize with the creature, who’s summarily abandoned by the man who brought him to life.  “I ought to be thy Adam,” he says; in other words, I ought to be uniquely precious to you, but you’ve driven me away for no reason. It’s a searing indictment.

So as fascinating as the story is for how it challenges scientific ambition, it also compels us to think compassionately about isolation and rejection.  I say this because the creature’s only the most obvious instance of marginalization in the story.  At its very center is Safie, the daughter of a Turkish merchant and a Christian Arab, who has to flee to Germany, where she intersects with the creature.  That subplot is a bit complicated, but my point is that the dynamic of displacement is as compelling a theme as the quest for greatness.  It’s this depth and resonance that has continued to fascinate me, and in fact Shelley pursued many of the same lines of thought in later work:  what does it mean to be fully human?  Are we fully human if we don’t take responsibility for our actions?  How do we welcome those who are “foreign” or different or whose bodies may not look the way ours do?

How many times have you read the book and how old were you when you first read it?

I came to the book relatively late; I didn’t read it until graduate school.  Before then, I think I knew more about Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, than I did about Shelley herself.  I probably read Frankenstein four times during my course of study, and I’ve read it at least once a year since about 2009. 

What are the top highlights from the conference—the things that have you most excited about it?

What I’m really excited about is our opportunity to build community around a text and the questions it poses for us.  It’s fun to anticipate students and faculty and staff crossing back and forth across Huntington to participate.  In particular, I’m eager for the marathon read over the radio, which will launch the festival with readers from many walks of life here at Wentworth.  The Faculty Panel on the 25th will feature talks by four stellar Humanities and Social Sciences profs. Students will be in the spotlight at the Spoken Word event and the Poster Session.  And of course our keynote address by award-winning biographer Charlotte Gordon on October 29 will be a very special opportunity.  She’ll be talking to us about Mary Shelley and her mother.

What makes Wentworth and the COF such a great setting for the festival?

Because Wentworth champions an interdisciplinary culture, it’s a natural fit.  After all, the book engages with an incredibly broad range of fields, from science to ethics to gender politics to philosophy.  Being part of a five-college consortium can really enhance our appreciation for the many “ways in” to the story.

Give us the top two or three things about the book Frankenstein that people don’t realize—for instance, talk a little about the fact that Frankenstein’s monster isn’t described in the text at all.

It’s true, the creature is not described with much detail in the novel; he certainly doesn’t resemble Boris Karloff, who played the part so indelibly in the early Frankenstein films as an oversize green figure with short black hair, scars, bolts in the neck. That image instantly comes to mind.  Yet in Shelley’s novel, the creature has yellowish, transparent skin, watery eyes, and “lustrous” flowing black hair, pearly teeth, and straight black lips.  We know that he’s large, but we don’t really know much beyond those few details.  So as we read the text, each of us can conjure up a rather different idea of the creature’s physical appearance.  There’s room to envision him in many different ways.

Another thing that surprises readers is how eloquent the creature is.  He has a nimble grasp of language and in fact learns to read the classics.  He himself narrates several chapters of the novel, telling his own story.  Of course, this is in contrast to the films and parodies, which often present him as either completely inarticulate or able to speak only in short sentences.  His conversations with his creator are, to my mind, the most moving passages in the novel. 

A third thing I’d mention is the frame that Shelley constructed around the story we know so well.  The novel begins with letters written by a fictional English explorer named Robert Walton, who’s trying to reach the North Pole.  He’s plagued by the same kinds of ambitions that drove Victor Frankenstein, whom he meets on the ice up in the Arctic circle.  Aboard Walton’s ship, Frankenstein tells his tale, and that’s the story we read.

--Dennis Nealon


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