This “reading memoir” narrates the manner in which the writer's recurrent encounters with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have led to a prospective career in the humanities.
It's remarkable how a seemingly innocuous encounter with a literary text can exert such an influence over one's course in life, even if only in sporadic bouts. In choosing a career path, literary academia had always seemed a likelihood, though never quite a certainty. Looking back over the last decade of my life, a number of junctures occur to me, each of which having impressed on me a clearer appreciation of the field I'd wanted (or briefly hadn't wanted) to enter. Nearly all these junctures, moreover, involved an encounter with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
The first of these took place during my third year of high school, in the spring of 2011. Returning to English after assembly, we were introduced to the novel via a somewhat ham-fisted History Channel special that took me unexpectedly back to my childhood watching paranormal programs like the tenuously kid-friendly Truth or Scare. My earlier captivation with matters ghostly and macabre had, however, subsided by this point to include little beyond Doctor Who or Potter. I was reading Charles Dickens around this time as well, though, and getting fairly hyped about nineteenth-century writing, so I nonetheless managed to begin Frankenstein with real interest.
As I read further, the novel began to transform in my mind from an object of literary curiosity to something altogether more unsettling. On one level (and it is a text with many levels), here was the story of a man who attempts to circumvent the fact of death and destroys his family in the process; his inability to deal with the reality that, in life, no center can hold forever sets in motion a catastrophic unraveling of that very center. As a teenager living with undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), often plagued by intense fears of loss to which I responded with magical thinking rituals intended to ward off disaster, this hit home in a way I wasn't quite able to articulate yet. It also communicated a strong sense of eeriness—even in his extended absences the Creature felt present throughout the better part of the narrative, able to reveal himself without a second's notice. I would often find myself reading it in a darkened house late at night, spooky themes from a John Williams medley we'd been practicing in symphony band at the time replaying in my head over Shelley's prose. The novel's evocations of landscape also seemed to overlay the advance of springtime, inverting its usual pleasantness as grisly catastrophe invaded the fragrant idyll of the Swiss countryside. April and May felt oddly haunted that year.
I gradually reacted against the novel and dismissed it (and romanticism more widely) as anti-science alarmism (in high school, we weren't really taught anything of the radical discourses that properly contextualize it, though shame on me for not taking the initiative to do my own research), and I felt the need to take a giant step back from literature as a discipline. Not that I entirely lost interest; it was more a case of being temporarily turned off from it.
I entered college as a somewhat ambivalent English major; my OCD had drastically worsened and my fixations had become much more religious in nature, which led to my trying very hard to quell them through rapidly increasing zeal with the admittedly predictable effect of intensifying them further. I soon got the idea in my head that I should forgo a career in the humanities and attempt the pre-med curriculum, that I might eventually serve as a missionary doctor, and began my first semester of second year with this intention. I moved into a single-occupancy dorm room at the end of a long, quiet corridor in one of the older halls on campus. My mental health continued to decline; trying to balance school and OCD meant that I'd fallen behind after only a week or two, and as a result I began keeping odd hours trying to catch up and somehow pull my life together. I often stayed up all night wrestling with anxieties and making very little headway on my work, which left me consequently useless during the day. As the vicious cycle wore on, my attendance dropped to hardly anything, and I lost quite a lot of weight from missing meals. Still, I tried again and again to make a go of it, hoping life would take some sort of centripetal turn and pull toward a relative cohesiveness.
I thought a lot about Frankenstein during that semester. It bothered me how immediate certain passages had come to feel, those in which Victor describes his long nights building the Creature, his having “grown pale . . . emaciated with confinement,” his “eyeballs . . . starting from their sockets in attending to the details” (Shelley 2003: 55). I was no stranger to the “sickness of fear,” of being “hurried on with irregular steps, not daring to look about me: ‘Like one, on a lonesome road, who / . . . turns no more his head; / Because he knows a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread’” (60). It feels reductive to say so, but my OCD really had begun to feel like a haunting presence, a vaguely delineated figure flitting about the periphery and showing itself intermittently to my alarm. It was like an indeterminate potentiality always hovering just over my shoulder, or seated in the guest chair in the corner of my dorm.
Even amidst all of this, I began to find a genuine interest in the Gothic mode; it was strangely compelling, like it offered me a rhetoric for expressing what I was experiencing. I actually liked thinking about Shelley, about hauntings and apparitions. This was a period largely soundtracked for me by Vampire Weekend's eerie third record, a favorite of mine to this day, oddly enough lacking the baggage one would expect any reminders of that semester to carry. Nonetheless, the center ultimately couldn't hold, and I withdrew from the university on medical grounds in November to seek treatment.
I returned the following summer as a decided English major and went forward considering potential routes in creative writing, publishing, bookselling, and so forth. Academia remained in the back of my mind, but it took several more semesters to finally draw it to the forefront. In the autumn of 2015, I was leading a much more normal existence as a student—holding down a full course load, working in the campus bookstore, and going for drinks with friends pretty frequently. I still struggled with OCD; stints in outpatient therapy had helped a great deal but hadn't entirely done away with my symptoms. There remained periods in which I struggled to leave the house, my apartment on the edge of campus doubling for the Creature's hideout adjacent to the De Lacey home in the middle part of Shelley's novel, myself the fearful apparition longing to emerge and join the world yet often feeling less than worthy of doing so.
I'd had some ideas about Frankenstein gestating over the summer, and as it was assigned in one of my fall courses, I was spending more time in critical engagement with the book than I had previously. This is the point at which it started to become a genuine scholarly fascination. It still had the same power to disquiet, but at the same time it was a work with more facets and enigmas than I quite knew what to do with, taking in so many arresting problems regarding epistemology, gender, class, empire, radicalism—not to mention the opportunities for textual criticism opened up by its substantially differing first and third editions published in 1818 and 1831 respectively, as well as its epistolary form and gestures toward the metafictional.
I wrote enthusiastically about Shelley for a final term paper; my professor, who had previously done some work on the long eighteenth-century Gothic, graded it favorably enough, and some months afterward suggested that I look into working more on the Gothic through an independent study. This project subsequently became my first real experience of extensively researched critical writing. I've been pursuing literary studies ever since, particularly through a master of letters in the Gothic, half of my thesis for which was composed of material on Frankenstein.
It's really odd to think that I once resented the novel—in many ways it's pulled me back toward what I'd originally wanted to do from my early teens and steered me into a career I'm really excited about, which will hopefully incorporate teaching in the near future. While I may never get the chance to teach Shelley's work specifically, it's thrilling to think that I may be positioned to observe students forming these unique connections with literary texts, the sort that recur over the years, revitalizing and complicating one's relationship to a field of interest.