Putting together Frankenstein: Trine symposium to look at science, fiction behind novel

Celebrating the bicentennial of its publication this year, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reflects both the science of its time and the influence of classical and contemporary literary works, according to Indiana University professor Monique Morgan, Ph.D.

During her presentation Thursday, Feb. 22, as part of Trine University’s Humanities Symposia, Morgan also will discuss how the work explores themes that continue to resonate today.

Frankenstein raises questions about scientists' responsibilities to their test subjects and to society,” she said. “How should scientists weigh the potential benefits of an experiment against its potential dangers? How can we disentangle a mix of motives that might include a real desire to help others, a desire for knowledge for its own sake, and a more egocentric desire for fame and personal accomplishment? Frankenstein also raises questions about what it means to be human, and what responsibilities we have to other sentient creatures (of our own making, or not).”

“The Science and the Fiction in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” begins at 3:30 p.m. in Wells Theater inside Taylor Hall. The presentation is part of the statewide One State / One Story: Frankenstein program conducted by Indiana Humanities.

Though free and open to the public, event seating is strictly limited to 75.

Morgan, associate professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, said Frankenstein “was influenced by many literary works, some from the late-18th century or early-19th century, and some much older.”

Frankenstein builds on the tradition of the gothic novel and the fear it produces from seemingly unnatural phenomena and from characters' darker obsessions and urges,” she said. “Mary Shelley was especially influenced by her father's novel Caleb Williams, which imported philosophical notions about social justice into a gothic story — a mixture of philosophy and the gothic that Frankenstein shares.”

She said the novel also references John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost in its themes of the relationship between a creator and a rebellious creation, and the question of human free will versus predetermined behavior.

“And Shelley refers to the myth of Prometheus, who suffers as a result of his attempted benevolence, and who, in different versions of the myth, either creates humanity or gives them the gift of fire and technology,” she said. “Victor Frankenstein is portrayed as a Promethean overreacher, a creator-figure who masters technology but suffers as a result.”

By blending contemporary science with fiction, myth, and philosophy, Morgan said Shelley had a lasting influence on later science fiction, “which depends on that blend.”

“According to some literary critics, Frankenstein is the first work of science fiction in English,” she said.

The One State / One Story: Frankenstein program is funded in part by a grant for the National Endowment for the Humanities and in partnership with the Indiana State Library and Indiana Center for the Book. Published anonymously in 1818, Frankenstein tells the story of a young scientist who discovers the secret of giving life to non-living matter and creates a grotesque, but intelligent, humanoid creature.