Love Letters to Mary Shelley

The Kansas State English Department celebrated Valentine’s Day in the traditional way — you know, by talking about a creature with a stolen heart. In five short talks marking the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, K-State graduate students and faculty members expressed their love for this groundbreaking work, examined the book’s ongoing cultural resonance, and re-examined and redefined “the M word.” (It’s “monster,” by the way, not “Mary.”) The panel discussed works that ranged from Beowulf (which was composed roughly around 700 AD) to Lita Judge’s Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein (a graphic novel in verse that was published just two weeks ago).

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Graduate student Maia Carlson (M.A. ’18, above) started the event by discussing how Grendel’s mother in the epic poem Beowulf is described as a monster. This choice, however, is tied up in issues of sexism and translation: the Anglo-Saxon term used to describe Grendel’s mother also means “ferocious fighter.” Carlson argued that Grendel’s mother rightfully, like Beowulf, deserves the title of warrior.

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Graduate student Miriam Barton (M.A. ’19, above) re-examined the 12th-century werewolf tale of “Bisclavret,” in which the werewolf’s wife is frequently considered the villain. Barton deconstructed the tale to undermine its patriarchal bias and recast the wife as a survivor. Women, she said, “survive what the monsters throw at us.”

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Associate Professor Mark Crosby (above) took a close look at the extant manuscripts of Frankenstein, which are available digitally on The Shelley-Godwin Archive. In particular, he highlighted how Mary Shelley herself almost never labeled Victor Frankenstein’s creation “a monster.” That label, he said, is often a construction of society and even the individual reader.  The next time you use the term monster, Crosby asked, “is it you or Mary Shelley’s most famous creation?”

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Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies Anne Longmuir (above) looked at Frankenstein in conjunction with the TV show Humans (Channel 4/AMC), which examines beings with both artificial intelligence and full consciousness. Frankenstein’s questions about ethics and humanity have never been more relevant, she said. The hope, she added, is that we move toward a society that will “give rights of personhood to all.”

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Department Head and Associate Professor Karin Westman (above) concluded the presentations with a discussion of Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein, a brand-new graphic novel that focuses on the development of Shelley as a young artist and the intimacy between Shelley, just a teenager when she wrote the book, and the creature she invented. In this book, Westman said, ultimately the creature acts as both a text and a psychic space for Shelley as he “keeps her faith alive.”

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Above: a two-page spread from Lita Judge’s Mary’s Monster.

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Above: Maia Carlson (left) and Associate Professor and Literature Track Head Wendy Matlock (who organized the event) listen to a question from the audience.

Dan Hoyt, Associate Professor

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