Wednesday, March 29, 2006

"That's FRONK-en-steen!!"

We're going to be teaching Frankenstein to the AP kids.

I'm very excited about the prospect of this unit. Frankenstein is one of my all-time favorite books for a number of reasons:

-it's fun to read. The book is actually told in a series of letters written by a sea captain to his sister, and that fact plays around quite nicely with the ideas of narration and time and narrator reliability. It's really kind of a head trip, if you think about it long enough.

-it's beautifully written. The language in the novel is flowery and formal, but not so much so that one can't follow a passage from beginning to end. There are several passages that are just lovely to read - and to read aloud.

-it brings up almost endless discussion possibilities. The themes that the story addresses are timeless: medical and scientific ethics, social status, personal responsibility and accountability, family and belonging, literacy, hubris and humility, love, death, revenge, longing ... the list can go on and on.

-it is nothing like anything anyone has seen before. Every kid thinks they know who "Frankenstein" is, and most often they identify him as the flat headed, green skinned, bolt necked creature in platform shoes who goes around moaning and choking innocent people with his bare hands. They conjure up images of mobs with pitchforks and dark and stormy castles and hunchbacked lab assistants. I’m betting a few of them will even come up with breakfast cereal. I wonder how many time Shelley has spun in her grave over that.

The story isn't really a horror story; at least, *I* don't see it as a horror story. It's more of a cautionary tale about the limits of our abilities, the responsibilities we have to one another, and the place that education, specifically literacy, has in our development as full-fledged humans. It’s a great story, and I can’t wait to get into it with the AP kids.

I’m working on putting together some lesson plan ideas for the book. We’ll do some really close reading of the first few letters - Shelley does a lovely job of inserting the subtlest of hints about what’s to come in Walton’s first letters to his sister - and talk about ambition. Frankenstein had planned on taking his story with him to the grave, but decides instead to tell Walton his tale in an attempt to dissuade the captain from his fervent desire to make a name for himself. It will be interesting to see what kinds of references the kids can come up with for the idea of blind ambition and to start a conversation centered around the idea that the sacrifice of a life is worth the benefit that life might have on the future of humanity (I’m thinking here of the scene in The West Wing where Leo tells his wife that his job IS more important than his marriage. I’m pretty sure there’s “A Beautiful Mind” reference to be made, as well, and one that dovetails nicely with the idea of madness in Frankenstein, too). I’ll make a point of logging student conversations and the references that they pull in to help them solidify their thinking.

I’m also looking forward to using film in the unit. I have a wonderful film adaptation of the book done by Hallmark Entertainment that I’m eager to show the students. I’d like them to really look at where the novel and the film are different, and what effect those differences have on the story. I also want them to have a look at some of the more “traditional” versions of the Frankenstein story - you know, the ones with the flat headed, green skinned, bolt necked homicidal maniac - and ask them why they think this interpretation became so deeply ingrained in the culture. Finally, I want to show them “Young Frankenstein.” Yes, it’s a Mel Brooks spoof of the monster movies, but it is the only one that shows the creature struggling with his humanity. Besides, it’s hysterically funny and, this close to the end of the year, the kids could use a little light humor.

I’ll keep you posted as we move through the work. It’s going to be fun!!


Anonymous Contrary said...

I've never read the book, though now I think I need to. I foolishly assumed that Hollywood was being at least somewhat faithful to the book. I don't like scary movies and I *really* don't like scary books. Stephen King can bite me.

March 29, 2006 12:48 PM  
Blogger Mrs.Chili said...

Welcome, Contrary! It's exciting for me to have a new voice on my blog!

I would highly recommend the book - it's always been one of my favorites and it's unlike anything you've likely read before. It's not scary in the typical way we think of scary - it's nothing like Stephen King, I assure you - I still get cracked up thinking about Joey on Friends having to put his copy of The Shining in the freezer when it got to scary to continue...

Anyway, Shelley's Frankenstein is a cautionary tale, really. She raises a lot of really challenging ideas about what kind of responsibilities we bear toward each other, about what can happen when we push the limits of our ambitions, and about the role of literacy in humanity. Without having to work too hard, it can also spark some fascinating conversations about God and the soul and what happens to us after we die. There's a lot going on in that little novel, and all of it is worth a closer look.

I can almost certainly promise you won't have nightmares about the Creature, though I can say with similar certainty that the story will get you thinking in ways you may not have considered before. Let me know if you decide to start reading - I'd be truly interested to hear what you think as you go along.

March 29, 2006 12:56 PM  
Blogger Mrs.Chili said...

P.S. - don't EVER assume that Hollywood is faithful to literature. I've only seen two or three films that were moderately faithful to the literature upon which they were based. That doesn't mean that the films themselves weren't entertaining and / or educational in their own right, but the point and experience of film is often very different from the point and experience of literature.

I feel a full-length post coming on...

March 29, 2006 1:00 PM  

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