Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The Environmental Discourse of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"


When people think about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, thoughts of science fiction and a creature of some sort might come to mind. However, Rhodes College is challenging people's views about what the classic novel is about. On Thursday, November 15th at 6 p.m., the school is hosting an event celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Guest speaker, Dr. Claire Colebrook is a cultural theorist who plans to introduce and discuss the topic of what Frankenstein can teach us about humans and their relations to nature - namely climate change. 

The program is part of Rhodes'  "Communities in Conversation" lecture series and is preceded by a reception at 5:30 p.m. To talk about the event and why the school is hosting it, Jonathan Judaken, the Spence L. Wilson Chair of Humanities at Rhodes College, and Judith Haas, Professor of English and the new director of the Search program, chat with Kacky Walton for this WKNO-FM's Checking on the Arts.




Kacky Walton: What is the "Communities in Conversation" lecture series? 

Jonathan Judaken: The idea is to create a platform where we invite people to the campus so that they can engage with the kinds of things that we are doing in our research, in our classrooms, which we want to make available to the campus community.  

All of these are conversations that generally have some kind of topical interest. It’s about showing the ways in which scholars and intellectuals work. Also, it’s relevant to the types of conversations that people are having across the dinner table, in their churches, on the internet - but to do so from a more scholarly perspective – to bring that breadth and depth of insight.  

This talk about Frankenstein at 200 is going to be another opportunity in this case as we will talk more about it. It’s going to be looking at it through an environmental lens.  

Walton: Judith Haas is the new director of the search program, which is part of the humanities curriculum. What is the new program about? 

Haas: There are two pathways that all students choose between at Rhodes and they are intended to be a part of the humanities core. Every student takes three semesters of a humanities course. There is a "Life Program," taught out of religious studies and there is the "Search Program" that is interdisciplinary - so, faculty from pretty much all of the humanities departments at Rhodes (e.g. English, modern languages, philosophy, etc).

We come up with a syllabus that is basically a "Great Books" syllabus that begins with sort of the early epic poetry, Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey, and takes us through Greek Philosophy. The third semester a little bit more open, faculty have a bit more freedom to choose the set of readings that we do. But, almost all of us teach Frankenstein.

I think it touches because it is such a wide-ranging text. You can do almost anything with it. It speaks almost directly to any theme that we are following.

Walton: What makes Frankenstein a classic novel that you want to revisit every year? 

Haas: My interest in it as always been that it’s an early feminist novel. Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, who was probably the grandmother, or mother, of the first wave of feminism. Wollstonecraft was a radical intellectual in the late 18th century. Her daughter Mary, sort of filtered a lot of her mother’s work and ideas into Frankenstein. But it is a novel of many voices and it’s written in letters so there is no clear narrative control – there is no narrator telling you how to feel about it or understand it. It opens up to many different readings.  

It is also what we think of as the first science fiction novel. I don’t think it is the first one but is the keystone science fiction novel with the creature created by Frankenstein as this prototype of the android or the cyborg, who could potentially take the place of humans. 

Judaken: The other thing about it is that Mary Shelley is at the absolute center of Romanticism. She is married to Shelley the poet and this novel itself is created in the context of a conversation in which her sister and Lord Byron – and Shelley and she (Mary)  – are telling these horror stories over a fire at Lake Geneva. She begins to write it at an incredibly young age.  

The other aspect is Romanticism and the ways in which there are these amazing, sublime representation of nature itself that are brought about in the course of the novel. 

The novel is later picked up by later feminists who came back and reread it in interesting ways. Unlike some of the popular caricatured version of Frankenstein, when you read the novel it is really an interesting work that opens out into all kinds of issues that you can explore with students.  

Walton: What led you to bring Dr. Colebrook in to talk about it? 

Haas: I think it was my suggestion when Jonathan was talking about something for the 200th Anniversary. I was trying to think of who am I interested in right now and Claire Colebrook is a cultural theorist. I thought of her for this speech – she has such an incredibly wide-range of scholarship. She is interested in science fiction, particularly narratives of apocalypse and post-apocalypse. She brings the sensibility of “why are we so obsessed with the end of the world and with stories about the end of the world at this particular time?” and “what do we mean by the end of the world?”  

I also knew that she was very interested in Mary Wollstonecraft and had written about Shelley. And, she is on the forefront of thinking about climate change and the role of humanities within the current, unofficial age term called the Anthropocene. 

Walton: Jonathan, what else is there to know about the environmental lens you are looking at Frankenstein through? 

Judaken: Frankenstein typically gets read as a novel that is about “the modern Prometheus.”  Myth is that Prometheus steals fire from the gods and wants to use it in order to enhance human happiness and he was ultimately punished for that.  

This is the modern Prometheus, it’s an allegory about a scientist who wants to use the latest science and technology in order to reanimate something that has been dead. What she (Dr. Colebrook) wants to do that is different, is that the novel always seems to be read as a cautionary tale about the overreach of science and technology. It tends to be read from that perceptive of Dr. Frankenstein.  

If you are not familiar with the novel, you tend to think of Frankenstein as the name of the orphaned creature that is created by Dr. Frankenstein but in the novel he is not actually named, or it is not named. Dr. Colebrook wants to read the novel from the perspective of the orphaned creature.  She wants to look at the questions that the novel asks about “what is the relationship between human beings and nature?” 

She is a sophisticated and interesting thinker who brings all of these contemporary concerns to the way in which she rereads works of literature and other kinds of text.  

One of the things is: “what are the ways in which we are going to take responsibility for what we do to the environment?” You can argue if you want whether climate change is real, but the science is what the science says. Climate change is real and creating huge devastation in the world but what you cannot argue is – we are having an impact and ultimately what that means is that we need to take responsibility for that. That is a big question in the novel asks and the creature asks of us.  

Walton: There is a reception beforehand, but after Dr. Colebrook speaks, will she open it up to questions? 

Judaken: Generally, the talks are about 45 minutes and then there is a 45 minutes Q&A. I always tell people that the Q&A is the best part because that is when you really get in on the action. 


To learn more about the event, visit Rhodes College event's page at: https://www.rhodes.edu/events.

I owe my radio career to the Ford Motor Company. My daddy had a Ford dealership in our hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and he thought it would be cute if his 7-year old daughter did his radio commercials. The pay wasn't great, just a pack of Wrigley's gum, but I was hooked on radio from then on.