How to bring a mystery back to life

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Jane Christopher takes 'Frankenstein' as her example as she looks at ways to fire up pupils' interest when introducing a difficult text.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, on the recommended reading list for key stages 3 and 4, provides a good example of that perennial challenge in teaching English - how to take a difficult text and make it work in the classroom.

My advice is always to start by focusing on what pupils already know, rather than emphasising what they don't. For example, look at caricature - how today Shelley's creation has become a monster more akin to Hannibal Lecter than the sympathetic creature depicted in the novel. Most pupils are keen to share their opinions on horror films, books and related news items and this can form the basis of an interesting discussion leading to a definition of the term "monster". The dictionary definition can then supply a useful touchstone: "1.n. misshapen animal; grossly malformed foetus. 2. imaginary animal compounded of incongruous elements... 3. inhumanly cruel or wicked person" (OED). Many pupils are surprised to discover that the Monster has no other name and such an exercise helps to understand the significance of the label.

Another way to start is with the recent debate over the morality and safety of genetically modified products - so-called "Frankenstein foods". Such issues can help pupils to understand the relevance of a book written 200 years ago. Just as Dr Frankenstein dabbled in changing nature, so do we.

If that seems too arid, there's the medical dimension. Clint Hallam made transplant history in 1998 with the biggest breakthrough for 30 years - a hand transplant. The Mail on Sunday on September 27, 1998, stated that:

"The surgical stitches make you instantly think of Dr Frankenstein's monster. The exposed flesh and tissue below them may cause the squeamish to wince." Only two weeks ago, following the success of Hallam's operation, a double hand transplant took place. The forearms and hands from a 19-year-old were used on a man who had lost his hands in 1996 when a model he was launching exploded. The operation lasted for 17 hours and involved joining arteries, veins, tendons, muscles and nerves before fixing the bones. One of my A-level pupils was horrified by the thought that she might recognise a hand or arm from a loved one on someone else. We laughed at the time but her remark gives rise to some interesting concerns about identity. When do I stop being me?

I had a particularly volatile class debate last year on whether surgeons are playing God. The class felt passionately that transplants were about progress and eventually it wouldn't even be necessary for people to die. It was useful to remind them of this later when they had turned against Dr Frankenstein, seeing him as a dangerously ambitious egoist. Wasn't he too enhancing human progress?

Any serious approach to the novel will consider its historical contxt. In 1816 Shelley was challenged by Byron to write a ghost story and from this Frankenstein was born, a book that founded the genre of science fiction. There's the historical: "Imagine life before the First World War, before women got the vote." And the personal: "Consider that Shelley had four children, only one of whom outlived her. The loss must have influenced her writing, giving special poignancy to her descriptions of the fragility of life."

In reading the novel, characterisation is a key route into the detail of the text. From creation, the Monster is like a child. He has no language, does not know the rules of society and is about to embark on an exciting and frightening journey. He learns and imitates his fellow humans, only becoming focused ultimately on revenge when he has learned enough from the world to understand what Frankenstein is - an "inhumanely cruel" parent - creating but then disowning his child. Frankenstein tells how "every hour of my infant life, I received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control, I was so guided by a silken cord that all seemed but one train of enjoyment to me" - so what goes wrong? Can his mother's death be a good enough reason to challenge the boundaries of natural science? Who is the real monster?

Look at language, and we begin to understand the parallel between creator and creation. Towards the end of the novel Frankenstein sees nature as awe inspiring; Shelley dwarves him with description of it. The Monster at first finds simple delight in fire providing him with light and warmth. Later, he takes refuge from humanity in "desert mountains and dreary glaciers".

Ask students to consider how Frankenstein is subdued to a fate of following, and why his destiny is to experience the same feelings of isolation and dependency as the Monster. The characters are parallel. It is a sad fact that often those who are abused become abusers. This is a relevant debate - look at how Frankenstein warns Walton to turn back; or, as one of my Year 11 students remarked in a discussion of the novel, the most fervent anti-smokers are ex-smokers. I have taught the novel to A-level students and less motivated GCSE groups. For all there is a fascination of discovering a story they thought they already knew, and untang-ling some of the terrible parallels with our own monstrous times.

Jane Christopher is head of English at Droitwich Spa High School and Sixth Form Centre


In the 1790s, Luigi Galvani, an Italian physician, made frog muscles twitch by jolting them with a spark from an electrostatic machine, concluding that animal tissues generate electricity. He was eventually proved wrong by Alessandro Volta, but the controversy stimulated research in electrotherapy and on electric currents.

When "Frankenstein" was published, the word galvanism implied the release, through electricity, of mysterious life forces.

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