Annotating 'Frankenstein' And Reviving A Classic

Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin talks with Princeton English professor Susan Wolfson about a new annotated version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein she co-edited.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are some books that have saturated themselves so deeply into our culture and consciousness we tend to believe we've read them, even when we haven't. Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" is one of those books.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRANKENSTEIN")

COLIN CLIVE: (as Dr. Henry Frankenstein) It's alive. It's alive. It's alive.

MARTIN: The Gothic horror tale, written in 1818, is the story of Victor Frankenstein. He's an ambitious scientist in a quest to create life. In that quest, he inadvertently creates a monster, The Creature.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRANKENSTEIN")

CLIVE: In the name of God, now I know how it feels like to be God.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER)

MARTIN: "Frankenstein," in its multiple incarnations in film and TV, is all about the stuff that makes for a good tale on Halloween. The dark and stormy night and, of course, the terror unleashed at the moment of the monster's creation.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER)

MARTIN: But in the book, no lightning bolt, no thunder. Instead, Victor Frankenstein describes the moment this way, quote, "I collected the instruments of life around me that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet."

PROFESSOR SUSAN J. WOLFSON: We don't really know exactly what is happening, other than that infusing of the spark. We assume that it's electrical.

MARTIN: That's Professor Susan J. Wolfson. She edited a new annotated version of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."

WOLFSON: And one of the notes that we had fun writing was about the inventor of the pacemaker - the American doctor, Jean Rosenbaum - who saw the James Wail 1931 film as a child, and it stayed with him powerfully. And he thought, Oh, electricity infusing a spark into a dead body and bringing it to life.

MARTIN: That's amazing.

WOLFSON: The next paragraph I think is really gripping, because it describes the extreme disgust of the creator for his creation. And the disgust has to do with an unacceptable physical appearance.

MARTIN: His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black and flowing.

WOLFSON: Which is not bad in itself, right?

MARTIN: No, it sounds pretty good.

WOLFSON: Lustrous black and flowing hair; his teeth was pearly whiteness, that you can see that Victor Frankenstein has designed this creature to be a beautiful man, and it hasn't turned out that way.

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite representation of this story?

WOLFSON: You mean visual representation?

MARTIN: Yeah, your favorite" Frankenstein" movie or TV representation.

WOLFSON: Well, I actually like the very first published image of Frankenstein. Let me see if I can find that for you. We have it - here it is. It's on Page 31.

MARTIN: OK.

WOLFSON: And this is the first illustration. When you look at the creature, yes, there is a skull on the floor, there's a book open. But the creature has a ripped ab. He's a...

MARTIN: He looks nothing like the green monster with the bolts in his neck.

WOLFSON: Right, he's not a monster. I've seen undergraduates on Monday morning who don't look as good.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLFSON: He's a, you know, he's dazed. He's confused. He is recognizably human-looking. And that I think is a much deeper disturbance than, say, the kind of cultural processing of the creature in which the creature very much looks like a deranged, horrifying, scary, dangerous madman. And that tells you what happened to the imagination of this creature across almost a century.

MARTIN: I mean reading this book with these notes they just provide amazing texture to the experience. Most people know "Frankenstein" through its representations in popular culture, TV and movies...

WOLFSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...even jokes. I mean right now on the East Coast, where we are, we're starting to feel the effect of what some people have dubbed the Frankenstorm. So, what do you think is the legacy of "Frankenstein" at this point?

WOLFSON: Well, I'm glad you mentioned Frankenstorm because that's the kind of default prefix for any horrifying, alarming development in weather, in science, in fashion, in food technology. And everybody knows what that means the way in which idealism may not sink through consequences; a human creation that has gotten out of control.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Susan J. Wolfson, she's a professor at Princeton University. She and Ronald Levao edited a new annotated version of "Frankenstein."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")

GENE WILDER: (as Frederick Frankenstein) That's Frankenstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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