Smith College symposium to celebrate 200th anniversary of ‘Frankenstein’

  • The 1935 film “Bride of Frankenstein” was shown on Halloween, preceding Smith College’s two-day symposium, “Creativity and the Creature: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at 200.” Contributed image

  • Devi Snively’s 2017 film “Bride of Frankie” will be shown Friday night as part of a two-day symposium at Smith College called “Creativity and the Creature: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at 200.” CONTRIBUTED IMAGE/Justin Benzel

  • Devi Snively’s 2017 film “Bride of Frankie” will be shown Friday night as part of a two-day symposium at Smith College called “Creativity and the Creature: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at 200.” CONTRIBUTED IMAGE/Justin Benzel

  • Devi Snively’s 2017 film “Bride of Frankie” will be shown Friday night as part of a two-day symposium at Smith College called “Creativity and the Creature: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at 200.” CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • A depiction of Victor Frankenstein’s lab, by artist/illustrator Barry Moser. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/31/2018 2:40:58 PM

Halloween may be over, but “Frankenstein” is very much on the minds of those who will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the science fiction/Gothic novel on Friday and Saturday at Smith College.

At least 13 scholars, writers and artists, whose work was inspired by author Mary Shelley’s “hideous progeny” (as the book calls him) will show alternative film versions of Frankenstein, and talking about “the otherness” of the creature, that has resonance in today’s life.

From 1818 ...

Shelley’s original book title was “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus.” And it’s not so much about the monster as it is about the man who created him — Victor Frankenstein, who takes the power of creating life into his own hands, and must pay lifelong consequences for “playing God.”

The two-day symposium “Creativity and the Creature: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at 200,” will explore many aspects of the novel, which continues to both shock and inspire new generations of artists to put their own spin on the story with new interpretations in film, novels and art.

“It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils,” Shelley wrote, in the voice of Victor Frankenstein, in the 1818 edition of her book.

“How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?” Frankenstein says of his creation. “His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! ...”

After describing the thin skin and “dull yellow” eyes that so repulsed him, Frankenstein goes on to say: “The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. For this, I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”

Inspired by a nightmare, Shelley started writing the story at age 18, but the book “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus” wasn’t published until 1818, when she was 20. It was published anonymously, in an age when women weren’t supposed to be writing books, and when that particular book was said to be scandalous and disgusting.

Frankenstein Castle, overlooking the city of Darmstadt, Germany, may have been part of the inspiration, since Shelley had traveled near it before the book with published. In the 1600s, an alchemist had allegedly been involved in science experiments in that castle. While traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, Shelley and her future husband, Percy, along with the poet Lord Byron, had a competition to see who could tell the most frightening story. Shelley had dreamed about a scientist who had created a life and was horrified by his creation, so that was the story she told.

... To 2018

Planning for the symposium, which is sponsored by Smith’s Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, began about a year ago, Smith College literature professor Lily Gurton-Wachter said. In honor of the book’s 200th anniversary, she and Amherst College professor Amelia Worsley have been co-teaching a literature course on Frankenstein to students from both colleges.

Gurton-Wachter said her students are surprised to learn that a woman their age had written this still-popular classic, which some literary scholars consider to be the first science fiction novel ever written.

“There are a lot of different ways in which people have read the novel as about identity — or lack thereof,” she continued.

In the 1931 movie “Frankenstein,” the creature is shunned by its creator and goes through the movie without the ability to talk. But in the book, the exiled creature secretly watches a family and learns their language, and later even learns to read and write.

“In the movie, he’s a scary monster who is stupidly hurting people,” Gurton-Wachter said, referring to when he accidentally kills a child.

“But in the novel, he is eloquent and intelligent and able to explain that he has no friends or identity,” she continued. “He is driven away because of his ‘otherness.’ ... It’s kind of amazing how people read the novel as an allegory for so many different things, like science, technology, race, gender, sexuality, disability, childhood and parenting.”

In the novel, Shelley never gave the creature a name, and its namelessness reflects how this being has no identity.

“The symposium aims to galvanize discussion and debate about why a text about creation and miscreation, written by a young woman with very big ideas, continues to be so extraordinarily generative and transformational,” a news statement about the symposium reads. “How can Shelley help us to think through contemporary questions about race, gender, sexuality, disability, identity, bioethics, reproduction, the environment, the human and the nonhuman?”

Staff reporter Diane Broncaccio has worked at the Greenfield Recorder since 1988. Her beat includes West County. She can be reached at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 277.

Schedule of EventsFriday, Nov. 2

■The college’s “Frankenstein” rare book collection will be on display from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Mortimer Rare Book Room, Young Library, second floor. This collection includes a first-edition copy of the book.

“The Smith rare book room has an incredible Frankenstein collection, which we are putting on display on Friday afternoon,” Smith College literature professor Lily Gurton-Wachter said. “It includes some really beautiful artist books inspired by the novel, a Frankenstein watch, original playbills from 19th-century adaptations of the novel, and a large collection of paperbacks from different time periods.”

■In “Hypertextual Progeny,” award-winning author, children’s writer and writing teacher Shelley Jackson will discuss Shelley, Frankenstein and her own work, “Patchwork Girl.”

Jackson’s hypertext fiction asks what if the Frankenstein monster was real, created by Mary Shelley and not the fictitious Dr. Frankenstein. Hypertext fiction is an electronic fiction characterized by hypertext links that provide a new context for the work and an interactive mode between the reader and the story.

Jackson, who will be speaking from 4 to 5:30 p.m. about her hypertext adaptation of Frankenstein, will also be reading from her new novel, “Riddance,” at noon.

■“Frankenfilms from First to Latest,” at 8 p.m. in Weinstein Auditorium, Wright Hall, includes a screening of Thomas Alva Edison’s “Frankenstein,” the 15-minute silent film made in 1910 and the first movie to ever be made about Frankenstein.

The latest take on Frankenstein, made in 2017 by filmmaker Devi Snively, called “Bride of Frankie,” will also be shown. In Snively’s comedy-horror, a female scientist invents “Shelley,” a bride for the male monster. Then the scientist has to teach him how to romance this female — who isn’t interested in becoming his mate.

Snively will be at the screening with cinema scholar Les Friedman for a question-and-answer session.

Saturday, Nov. 3

All lectures are in Weinstein Auditorium in Wright Hall.

■“Monstrous Motherhood and the Rights of the Child” is a dialogue between University of Notre Dame political science professor Eileen Hunt Botting and literary arts assistant professor Rachel Feder of the University of Denver. The talk begins at 10 a.m.

■“Race Colonialism and Creolization in Frankenstein,” a discussion with professors Jane Gordon, Lewis Gordon and Elizabeth Young, starts at 11:15 a.m.

■“Skin Shows, Rage and the Promise of Monsters: A Joint Reflection” with gender studies professor Jack Halberstam and Susan Stryker, founder of the Transgender Studies Initiative at the University of Arizona, starts at 1:30 p.m.

■“Darkness and Distance: A Closing Conversation” features Mount Holyoke professors Kate Singer and Elizabeth Young, and assistant professor Amelia Worsley of Amherst College. The talk begins at 3:15 p.m.

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