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‘Frankenstein’ turns 200

By Staff | Sep 14, 2018

From left, Shepherd University Associate Professor of Sociology Amy DeWitt, Associate Professor of English Carrie Messenger, Professor of Biology Carol Plautz and Assistant Professor of History Benjamin Bankhurst talk about "Frankenstein at 200." Photo by Tabitha Johnston.

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Mary Shelley published her most famous novel, “Frankenstein,” on Jan. 1, 1818. And, 200 years later, that novel’s infamous monster is not only a character — he is a pop culture symbol of what can go wrong when humans “play God.”

According to Shepherd University Associate Professor of English Carrie Messenger, “Frankenstein” still resonates with readers today because of the complexity and depth of its themes.

Messenger was one of four professors featured Friday evening at the Robert C. Byrd Center during “Frankenstein at 200: An Interdisciplinary Panel Discussion,” which was the first of two events being held this semester in honor of the novel’s monumental anniversary.

According to panel moderator Shepherd University Professor of English Heidi Hanrahan, the Department of English and the Modern Languages knew it needed to do something to recognize the anniversary of the novel.

“It’s the 200th anniversary of ‘Frankenstein.’ Our department wanted to do something in honor of that,” Hanrahan said, mentioning the panel included professors from various disciplines, because of the breadth of the novel’s applications. “It’s a very appropriate way to discuss ‘Frankenstein,’ with an interdisciplinary committee.”

According to Assistant Professor of History Benjamin Bankhurst, many people wonder where an upperclass women in the 1800s got the idea to write about human corpse experimentation. Bankhurst said the author’s husband may have had something to do with her inspiration.

“It’s clear that Percy Shelley, when he was at Oxford, saw experimentation on human corpses,” Bankhurst said.

Professor of Biology Carol Plautz said today’s bioethical concerns — such as stem cell research and genetic engineering on humans — mirror the core of the bioethical concerns discussed in the novel.

“Ethical concerns are being raised, with the potential altering of human life — of ‘playing God.’ The fear of unintended consequences may also be troubling,” Plautz said.

Plautz explained that, just as Frankenstein the monster was the unintended result of scientific experimentation, modern experimentation with things like tissue bioengineering and releasing sterile insects into the environment may have unforeseen results. However, Plautz said one safeguard is in place to control experimentation in the modern day, which didn’t exist in Dr. Frankenstein’s time — the peer review process.

“The peer review process is the process by which scientists are held accountable. Scientists need to weigh the potential benefits, versus the potential risks to the world as a whole,” Plautz said. “Just because we can do something, certainly doesn’t mean that we should.”

A second modern issue — social isolation — can also be found in the book. Dr. Frankenstein refused to be a companion to his first creation, and destroyed his second creation, Frankenstein’s bride, who might have satisfied the monster’s loneliness.

“It’s definitely a story about abandonment and the lack of family, and what that does to somebody,” said Professor of Sociology Amy DeWitt. “If we examine the monster’s early socialization, he didn’t stand the chance when it came to socialization. Victor didn’t seek to be a father — he sought accolades. When Victor’s creation comes to life, he leaves — the worst depiction of an absentee father. The desire for familial intimacy is why Frank asked Victor to make him an equally ugly mate.”

The second event in honor of the novel’s anniversary will be the showing of “The Bride of Frankenstein” in Reynolds Hall on Oct. 26 at 7 p.m., followed by a post-film discussion by Assistant Professor of English James Pate.