In Paideia 111 we just finished a lively discussion of Mary Shelley's great novel "Frankenstein." The central question in the course is "What does it mean to be human?" Shelley's novel helps us think about that question by asking us to consider in what ways the Creature is human, and it what ways he is not. Somewhat the same can be asked of Victor Frankenstein—not whether he is human or not (he is), but in what ways does he forego important parts of his humanity, like responsibility and compassion.
After Victor Frankenstein creates the Creature, he pretty much leaves him on his own. Worse, he berates the Creature, calling him "Devil" and "Abhorred monster." Rebuked as well by others, the Creature then kills Frankenstein's younger brother. When Frankenstein and the Creature meet again, the Creature demands that Frankenstein create a female for him. "I am malicious because I am miserable," he tells him. "What I ask of you is reasonable and moderate; I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself: the gratification is small, but it is all that I can receive, and it shall content me." The Creature then promises that he and his companion will run off to South America.
What would you do if you were Victor Frankenstein? Would you create a female companion for the creature?
I posed this question in class and asked the students to write about it. The class was almost equally divided, with 10 students saying they would be willing to create the she-creature (some with conditions attached), and the other eight saying no way! In our discussion we got at some of the reasons on each side.
Those who said yes trusted that the Creature would be true to his word when he said he would take his she-companion to South America where, as one student put it, "He would be out of my hair." Several felt that Frankenstein owed it to the Creature to create a companion for him, given the miserable and lonely life he'd given him so far. One student saw the Creature's violence as persuasive: "He's already killed once . . . I better give him what he wants." Most, though, weren't worried about repercussions, especially since most of these students said Frankenstein should create the she-creature without a uterus so that lots of little creatures wouldn't be running around. As one student wrote: "Fertility wasn't included in the agreement, and after all, the devil is in the details."
Those who said no argued that the risks outweighed the rewards. "Why create a second one that could potentially cause even more problems?" one student asked. And even if the she-creature were created without a uterus, she would "freak out when she realizes she can't bear children." Several students noted that there was no guarantee the Creature and his new she-creature would even like each other. As one wrote, if the she-Creature is repulsed by the Creature, "he would be more sad and lonely than he was before." Some students simply said you don't solve one problem by quite literally creating another. One student challenged the idea the Creature could be trusted, and one even suggested that Frankenstein create the she-creature with a bomb attached to her that would blow up both creatures! (Needless to say, this did not happen in the novel.)
As it turned out, Frankenstein started to create a she-creature then aborted her—right in front of the Creature. The Creature exacted his revenge—just how, you can read on your own.
This discussion really got students talking and invested in defending and perhaps rethinking their ideas. This is what Paideia can do at its best. We moved from writing to discussion and into analysis, and students will now carry on the conversation in their second paper of the semester. They are to write on "Frankenstein," developing a thesis either on what they think Mary Shelley sees as an essential human trait in the novel, or on who bears more responsibility for what goes wrong in the story—Victor Frankenstein or his creation.
"What does it mean to be human?" There is of course no single, definitive answer. But at Luther College, part of what it means to be human is learning and growing together in community.