Science Fiction, LMC 3214: Concluding Frankenstein and Learning Exercise on the Sublime and Beautiful

Frames and science saturation.
Frames and science saturation.

In today’s class, we finished discussing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by discussing Volumes II and III and coving some major themes.

To begin class, I wanted to have all of the students think about the sublime and the beautiful to better understand Mary Shelley’s engagement of those ideas in the settings and characterization in Frankenstein. First, I asked all of the students to quickly read summaries of the first three sections of Immanuel Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime on Wikipedia here. I also briefly described these sections to provide a rough sketch of what they would be reading. Then, I split the class into two halves: one half would find a picture or photo that represented Kant’s ideas of beauty and one half would find a picture or photo that represented Kant’s ideas of the sublime. Once they found an appropriate image, they would email a link to me with the subject “beauty” or “sublime.” This took about 10 minutes. Finally, I showed these images in front of the class and I invited the students to tell us why they choose it and then as a class we discussed how these worked or not as examples. I also found some examples that represented beauty and sublimity (I choose something technological to introduce a curveball to our discussion). We also looked at some of my photos of Mont Blanc and Chamonix from 2011.

Some of the themes that we covered during the discussion of the last half of the novel included:

  • Epistolary and narrative frames
    • Issues of voice, authenticity, and mutual understanding/misunderstanding.
    • Rhetoric and empathy.
  • Science saturated novel
    • Victor, the Creature, and Walton are all scientists of a kind.
    • Victor chooses rationality/science cover irrationality/alchemy, his research leads to new discoveries, his research is reproducible. He learns the scientific method, applies it to a new hypothesis (creating life/reanimating tissues), and discovers new knowledge/techniques with real results (albeit without considering his responsibility to his creation).
    • The Creature uses rationality to figure things out and learn. He uses observations to learn language, which in turn allows him to learn about social and global relationships. His observations of the De Lacey family is almost like a sociological lab report. He uses deductive and inductive reasoning.
    • Walton is on a “voyage of discovery.” Search for knowledge (source of Earth’s magnetic field and geography) and acquisition of fame/wealth from discovering a passage to the Americas through the North Pole.
  • A Critique of the Age of Enlightenment
    • knowledge from science and rationality can have positive and negative effects on society (Victor waffles on this point in his thinking and conversations with Walton).
    • Connected this to the horrors of the 20th Century: World War II > Germany (weapons and genocide) and the United States (the atomic bomb)
  • Power of the novel from its ambiguities and tone (tension between positions)
  • Influence of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin
  • Different interpretations of doppelgangers in the novel and issues of surface/appearance and psychology/inner self.
  • Issues of community, social responsibility, and isolation.

I am fortunate to work with this dedicated group of students. They have raised exciting points and asked daring questions. If the first week is any indication of the following four, we will share many more interesting discussions on SF. Next week we will discuss Influences of SF, Voyages Extraordinaires, Scientific Romances, and the Pulps.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.