Q: To clarify for readers: There are two primary versions of Shelley's novel—the 1818 original, on which you base your work, and the 1831 version—whereas an edition such as yours gives a writer the chance to add context. You did not actually edit the novel.
Bérubé: No, I didn’t change any of Shelley’s prose! That’s not what an “edition” is in this sense. Frankenstein has been out of copyright forever—it’s in the public domain, and there are thousands of editions. I read a ton of introductions of other editions, and I just didn’t see one that puts the kind of pressure on the polar voyage that mine does. For understandable reasons: You think Frankenstein, you think the creature.
As I revised my introduction, I upgraded my claim about the novel’s impact. At first, I said it’s one of the more curious cultural artifacts of the last 200 years. Then I thought, no, it’s one of the most curious. You don’t see anything, including Dracula, that’s so often invoked. Everyone has a general sense of it—it’s a metaphor for this, it’s a metaphor for that—without knowing the text itself. And though it’s hard to believe now, it was ignored for the first 150 years by the academy. People only started taking it seriously in an intellectual sense in the 1960s and early ’70s. Even then, the guy who mostly put it back into circulation, James Rieger, believed that Percy Shelley really crafted it. A number of feminists pushed back against that and came up with these really interesting feminist readings of the text. Then we were off to the races: queer readings of Frankenstein, postcolonial readings of Frankenstein, disability studies readings of Frankenstein (including my own). It became clear, this thing’s responsive to all kinds of readings. I can’t think of another book that’s had that kind of weird history. It’s become iconic, yet it was not considered a serious work of literature until really 50 years ago.
As for the different versions and different texts, the only difference is the 1818 version or the revised 1831 version. When I was in graduate school, we were assigned the 1831 version. People mostly hadn’t heard of the 1818 version. There was, in the ’90s, a complete reevaluation of the two versions. The second one is much more intellectually conservative. There’s always been a dominant reading of Frankenstein that says, basically, “You shouldn’t do this. You’re not going to be able to control this experiment.” Everyone thinks of Victor as the prototypical Mad Scientist, even though his initial motivation is “to banish disease from the human frame”—not a crazy thing to want when everyone around you is dying of smallpox and yellow fever, or when a pandemic washes over the globe. But it’s pretty clear, actually, that if you’re Victor, this scientific breakthrough will kill everyone in your family. So a classic essay question is, should Victor make a second creature when the first creature demands one? Is he ethically obliged to do that, or is it the worst thing in the world, opening onto greater horrors that no one can anticipate? Eventually he decides B, it would be the worst thing in the world, and that’s why the creature decimates Victor’s family—so that Victor will be as alone in the world as the creature is.
The other question is, is polar exploration on a par with creating life from dead tissue? No one believes that. Sure, it’s really dangerous, and people might die—and often did. But exploring the North Pole simply isn’t in the same ballpark as creating sentient human life in a laboratory. And yet, in the 1831 version, Shelley puts in a bunch of dialogue where Victor says to Robert Walton, the explorer, “You’re doing the same thing I did.” It’s often said that what Frankenstein is doing is playing God—even though there is no reference to God in the novel, another reason the book was controversial. So in a number of ways, the 1831 version really tweaks the whole story—not only to suggest that what Victor’s doing is manifestly wrong and unnatural, but that even Walton’s polar voyage is fraught with dangers that we'd best not court.
This opens onto a major area of annoyance for me: When people think about the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, the way it tends to play out is that the scientists are the bold ones, inventing stuff—like vaccines—and the humanists are these fuddy-duddies who wander into the lab going, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” There’s a long tradition of reading the humanities as the conservative check on or impediment to scientific developments. And that’s not always wrong—indeed, sometimes they’re right: Splitting the atom actually did have some dangerous consequences. But I make the case that what’s going on in a lot of science fiction is a very different relationship between humanities and the sciences, where we humanists imagine the scientific developments that the scientists can’t accomplish yet, but we also imagine their ethical and legal and social implications. As my colleague Susan Squier has argued, science fiction was imagining in vitro fertilization more than half a century before the first “test tube baby” in 1978.
That’s why I think the 1818 version is a lot more interesting, because it asks us to compare the two enterprises without equating them. There’s so much in that polar voyage that sounds like the rhetoric of the Apollo program: going where no human has set foot, opening new frontiers, discovering knowledge that will benefit all humankind.
Q: You mentioned that the actual science is somewhat understated in Frankenstein. What’s interesting to you about how Shelley's approach to this has aged?
Bérubé: To go back to the Marilyn Butler edition, a lot of her argument relies on the fact that the Shelleys’ personal physician was a leading exponent of materialism—the belief that we’re just matter, there’s nothing that separates humans from animals in that respect. Butler’s reading is that as Shelley got older, she got more conservative—she knew very well the horrified reaction her book produced, and she wanted to take some of the edge off. In some ways I’m just following that: This is about the history of science; this is a question of what life means. Most people treat the polar expedition as basically a framing, just a setup, whereas I think it’s fascinating in its own right.
One of the other questions is, what does it mean to be the first person to achieve something? At the very end of the novel—and this is another thing I love about it—Victor says, “I’ve ruined my life, I should never have opened this Pandora’s box.” He literally gets up off his deathbed on Walton’s ship; the crew is about to mutiny. They know they’re going to die, and some of them already have. And Victor hauls himself up off his deathbed and gives this impassioned speech chastising the crew for being cowards. “Of course this was going to be a dangerous mission—that’s why you took it.” As JFK put it in his 1962 announcement of the Apollo program, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Victor’s pitch is, “You have the chance here to do something glorious. Your names will go down in history.” Well, no they won’t [laughs]. No one’s going to remember the names of the crew.
So I think it’s become clear over the past 200 years that polar exploration is more like space exploration than it is like creating life: It raises questions about the utility and the dangers of boldly going where no one has gone before, but it doesn’t seem to cross any major ethical lines. The creature, by contrast, continues to resonate with us not despite our stunning technological accomplishments since then but because of them: he seems to anticipate debates about in vitro fertilization, about gene editing and genetic engineering … in short, about whether we should be trying to tinker with the stuff we’re made of, and to what end.
Q: Spending so much time in a book like this, are you able to still just enjoy it as a reader?
Bérubé: All the more, actually. There are so many Easter eggs. I had so much fun tracing Shelley’s references to literary, political, and scientific history, and I became more impressed with how widely read this extraordinary teenaged woman was. As my wife Janet Lyon notes, the literate women of the day were the ones whose fathers allowed them in the family library; Shelley’s father, William Godwin, was the most famous radical intellectual in England.
Q: Your students today have grown up on the sci-fi and fantasy of Harry Potter and Marvel movies. How does that impact how they come to Frankenstein?
Bérubé: I used to teach a class called “More Human Than Human,” which I led off with Frankenstein and Tarzan. Then in 2014, I taught my first class in science fiction, and I told the students I’d never taught this class before. This was a class of about 60—the largest in the English department. Earlier in my career, I didn’t have the confidence to walk into a classroom where some of the students were going to know more than I do. I was also afraid it was going to be all boys. There’s going to be people in Star Trek uniforms. And I said, “Now I’m 52, and I honestly don’t care. Sooner or later during the course of this, one of you is going to know more about the science, or more about a specific author, or more about the subject. And on that day, I’m going to learn something. And it’s going to be a good day.”
I pass out note cards on the first day of class, and I ask people to name their favorite science fiction or fantasy book or movie. This gives me a sense of what they’re reading and watching, and that influences the way I introduce them to Frankenstein. It also has kept me current: I first heard of Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina from a student in my 2016 class, for example, and there are a lot more movies I would not have heard of if not for those exchanges. But Star Wars remains enormously popular with this crowd, and they continue to try to fend me off in my disdain for it. I don’t know whether Harry Potter’s influence is beginning to recede, but for 10 or 15 years, it was the only thing you could expect every single student to have read. I do mention Harry Potter briefly in the intro to Frankenstein, because it is pretty much universal now in that genre called science fiction/fantasy that the desire for immortality is evil. That’s certainly the case in Star Wars, as well: Anakin’s desire to save Padme is what leads him to the dark side. Here again, Shelley was already there. What Victor ultimately wants to do, in his desire to cure all disease and discover the principle of life, is banish death from the human frame, leave man invulnerable to any but a violent death. That desire will surely resonate with our species for as long as we’re around.