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Frankenstein, 200 Years Later: AU Lit Professor Explores Shelley’s Classic

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Painting of an alchemist discovering phosphorus by Joseph Wright of Derby
From the cover of Richard Sha's forthcoming book, Imagination and Science in Romanticism. The painting is Joseph Wright of Derby's "The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus."

“Let your compassion be moved, and do not disdain me. Listen to my tale: when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve.” That was the monster talking to his creator, Victor Frankenstein. The tale of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a rich tapestry of ideas, almost impossible to judge without deep reflection.

Published to mixed reviews in 1818, the book became a literary classic that still resonates today. In Frankenstein’s bicentennial year, American University Professor Richard C. Sha will publish his own book, Imagination and Science in Romanticism, which grapples with Mary Shelley’s book, her husband Percy’s Prometheus Unbound, and many other relevant texts.

In the College of Arts and Sciences, Sha is a literature professor, affiliate professor of philosophy, and a member of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience. While writing his new book—to be released in August—he drew on that interdisciplinary background. In an interview, he discusses his own research and the indelible legacy of Frankenstein.

“There’s probably no other work of fiction that has had more influence on the way that we think about science and technology,” he says.

Unexplored Avenues

Even for a book that’s 200 years old, Sha almost certainly breaks new ground in his Frankenstein research.

“It’s daunting to think of how much has been written on Frankenstein. If you actually thought about that, you would not choose to write about it. That said, there are all of these unexplored avenues, and that’s something that I try to impress upon my students. You ask an important question, and then figure out how you’re going to get an answer to that question,” he says.

In Imagination and Science in Romanticism, he looks at Mary Shelley’s interest in obstetrics and embryology. Shelley lost three of her four children, and her mother, noted feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died soon after giving birth to her. Sha says these existential questions of life and death influenced Frankenstein.

Sha starts with the notion that Frankenstein is about a man trying to give birth. Since Shelley was seeing obstetricians during this period, this would have been significant to her writing. She was seen by the Clarke Brothers, the same midwifery firm that treated her mother. “Mary Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever, which is an infection because these midwives didn’t realize the importance of washing their hands when they were treating patients,” he says. “What makes this story really horrific is that Mary Shelley is attended by the same brothers.”

Sha is possibly the first scholar to apply the Clarke Brothers’ work to the novel. He also discovered the writings of Dr. George Furnivall, who discussed treating Mary Shelley in his patient records that had been sitting in the Cambridge University Library.

Midwifery and Feminism

In his broader look at midwifery, Sha notes that men frequently replaced women as midwives because they were deemed “scientifically trained.” In actuality, men used instruments to crush the skull of the new baby, if the mother’s life needed saving.

“When Victor Frankenstein basically says, ‘I collected the instruments of life so that I could infuse being into the monster,’ instruments of life would have been understood during the time as instruments of death. Male midwives’ instruments were only brought out when the labor was complicated,” Sha says.

At the time, people believed that if a pregnant mother watched an execution, her imagination could imprint that on her fetus and cause birth defects. “It’s blaming the mother for monstrosity,” Sha says. “But maybe the blemishes occurred because you mishandled your instruments. Given that the culture is always pointing to the mother being at fault, Mary Shelley is trying to redress this.”

Is Frankenstein a feminist book? Sha says yes, but it’s a bit complicated. “Mary Shelley is critiquing the ways in which society makes women responsible for all of the emotional work. So Victor’s idea of parenting is, ‘I’m going to bring you to life, and then mission accomplished, I’m done.’ There’s no need to educate or nurture,” he explains. “And being the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft—who was one of the most important feminists of the day—she is very much thinking about her mother’s work and its ramifications.”

A Path Forward for Science

Frankenstein is often called the first science fiction novel. Yet the book is certainly not anti-science, Sha says. Science was extremely important to the Shelleys, as husband Percy conducted chemical experiments and helped finance a long-distance steam engine in Italy. Instead, Frankenstein explores real science and what we’d now call “junk science.”

“It’s not for or against science. It’s looking at how you know bad science from good science,” he says.

The Romantics were also wary of the speed and unconscious nature of the imagination. Sha notes that Romantics wanted the imagination and reason to cooperate with one another.

“When people think about the imagination, they think of its powers of creativity. And it’s not that the Romantics didn’t admire the imagination’s ability to be an engine of discovery. But they also recognized that if you cannot distinguish between what is imagined and what is real—if you can’t make these kinds of distinctions—then you have no basis for knowledge,” he explains.

In the novel, Victor Frankenstein repeatedly fails to recognize that there’s a potential difference between signs of life and life, Sha says. Even the monster is more precise, saying he attempted to restore animation while rescuing the girl from the river.

“If you don’t have a way of distinguishing between the symptoms of life, and life itself, how good of a scientist can you be?” Sha says, explaining the thinking. “With arguments like this, Mary Shelley is trying to indicate a path forward for science.”

Endless Fascination

On October 24, the Literature Department will hold a special colloquium on Frankenstein. Sha is currently teaching a course on Science and Romanticism, and they recently discussed the novel. He attempts to convey to students Mary Shelley’s erudition and curiosity. For instance, Shelley once wrote about the death of her child, and in the next sentence mentioned reading Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And given Frankenstein’s depth and profundity, it’s remarkable that Shelley started drafting the novel at age 17.

Sha has read Frankenstein some 30 times, and he finds it endlessly fascinating. “I’m sure on the 31st time of reading, I will start thinking about a passage that I’ve never really thought about before.”