European Romanticism and Frankenstein: A Comparative Literature Course

"European Romanticism and Frankenstein: A Comparative Literature Course for English Majors" outlines a course that prepares future teachers of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to acknowledge the novel’s French and German influences. Such influences include Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions and The Sufferings of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the texts that the creature finds in the forest. The essay offers ways to introduce topics such as the French Revolution (the backdrop for the DeLacey family’s story) and argues for the importance of teaching Romantic irony as a way to approach literature of the period, particularly French and German Romantic poetry. The course invites students to explore European texts with similar themes as Frankenstein. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s novella The Sandman (published a year before Frankenstein) and Goethe’s Faust also feature doubles, death and rebirth, and scientists.

European Romanticism and Frankenstein: A Comparative Literature Course for English Majors

1.        Romanticism did not arise in isolation, even though many British writers remained in their home countries during the Napoleonic Wars. As soon as the Congress of Vienna brought peace, many writers left Britain, some never to return home. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (1818) in Switzerland, Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley died in Italy, and Bryon expired in Greece. It was abroad, too, that the idea of Romanticism flourished in academic circles. European writers like August Wilhelm Schlegel, Heinrich Heine, and Victor Hugo recognized and celebrated the term romantic well before Victorian critics in Britain rediscovered it in the 1850s. The English Department at my institution serves many future and current teachers. Thus, our curriculum favors the British and American literature that forms the English canon at the secondary level in the United States. With this in mind, I created a comparative literature course that would prepare students to teach one of the major works of the British canon: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For 14 weeks, we focus on some of the European texts that influenced this famous novel. In addition, this course aims to foster in-depth critical understanding of romantic irony, especially as it relates to the fiction and poetry in Britain, France, and Germany circa 1780 to 1830; to engage students’ understanding of the ways in which writers and artists influenced sociopolitical thinking about key issues of the day, such as the French Revolution and human rights; and to teach an appreciation for the ways in which literary movements transcend national and generic borders. Moreover, students in this course gain a nuanced understanding of the historical and aesthetic discourse that informed the reading and writing of British and European Romantic texts. An online syllabus includes links to electronic texts and resources on this subject (Appendix B).

2.        Recent scholarship on Frankenstein engaging with the theme of globalism has focused on the novel’s frame narrative and depiction of travel through the polar region. [1]  I describe a course on European Romanticism for English majors that includes a global reading history: the texts that Shelley read, those her monster reads, literature from pre-Romantic movements, and other major authors of European Romanticism. For example, Shelley read Rousseau’s Confessions (1770/71–1782) and other works by the Swiss author. So along with this autobiography, we read the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes, commonly referred to as the Second Discourse, 1755) and/or the Social Contract (Du contrat social, 1762). These texts and Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, 1774) instruct students about the roles literature and nature play in what becomes Romantic sensibility.

3.        The goal of this approach is to provide critical terminology for reading Frankenstein as not just a piece of the British canon, but also as an international text. The first unit covers Romantic movements in France and Germany. Poems by André Chénier, Heinrich Heine, Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Musset, and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff introduce students to the major features of literature in the Romantic era. In the second unit, we discuss Frankenstein and other European texts that feature scientists and doubles. Goethe’s two-part tragedy Faust (1808/1832), E. T. A. Hoffmann’s novella The Sandman (Der Sandmann, 1817), and Shelley’s text were published within 10 years of each other and consequently raise similar issues, such as the (traumatic) legacy of paternity and the ethics of science and violence. The eponymous protagonist of Goethe’s Faust resembles Victor Frankenstein, and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman aids students’ critical understanding of doubling and romantic irony in Faust and Frankenstein. These concepts give students tools with which to compare works of literature from around the globe.

Unit I: Romantic Movements in France and Germany

4.        French Romanticism is often left out of discussions of British Romanticism, for the reason that it began later than Romantic movements in Britain and German-speaking territories. Yet the manifesto of French Romanticism, Victor Hugo’s preface to his drama Cromwell (1827), offers students a guide to some of the aesthetics of the period. Hugo announces a new age for poetry, characterized by an interest in the grotesque and the fantastical. Romanticism represented breaking with classical traditions for Hugo and his young cohort, which included Théophile Gautier (1811–1872). Gautier narrated what he called the battle over Hugo’s Hernani (1830) in his History of Romanticism (Histoire du Romantisme, 1870). This drama announced the beginning of Romanticism in France, because it contained non-classical elements such as colloquial language that upset the audience.

5.        Beginning the course with Hugo’s Preface to Cromwell introduces students to the asynchronous nature of Romantic movements. Romanticism arose in France so late, in part, owing to the Revolution. An online timeline can clarify the events of the Revolution for students (" Principal Dates"). The leaders of the Revolution (1789–1799) curtailed authors’ freedom, and of course their lives. The poetry of André Chénier (1762–1794) gives students a personal sense of the historical impact of the French Revolution. Chénier composed one of his best-known poems, "The Young Captive" ("La jeune captive," 1794) in prison. Aimée Franquetot de Coigny (1769–1820), the former Duchess of Fleury, is likely the young captive in the poem (Ferber 165). It is difficult not to read another of Chénier’s poems, "When the Somber Slaughterhouse Opens Its Caverns of Death" ("Quand au mouton bêlant la sombre boucherie"), through the lens of his death on the guillotine. Chénier remains important to the history of Romanticism owing to his inspiration of young Romantics like Hugo (Ferber 165). Chénier remains popular today; Umberto Giordano’s opera about the life of author, Andrea Chénier (1896), appears regularly onstage. This poem might also encourage discussions of Shelley’s depiction of capital punishment in Frankenstein through the fate of Justine.

6.        Chénier’s poem also offers a lesson in romantic irony. John Fetzer reminds us that romantic irony requires readers “to straddle a middle ground of ambivalence between dichotomous or contrastive options” (Fetzer 22). "Somber Slaughterhouse" offers contrasting views between the ironic perspective, symbolized by the slaughterhouse, and the naïve view of “happier days” (de plus heureux temps, line 24). The “caverns of death” (caverns de mort, line 1), “this abyss” (cet abîme, line 10), “frightful lair” (affreux repaire, line 13), “the bloody hooks of the people’s larder” (crocs sanglants du charnier populaire, line 15), “my withered soul” (mon âme fléterie, line 19), and “tears of misfortune” (pleurs de l’infortune, line 25) comprise this ironic perspective. Yet Chénier contrasts these somber reflections with memories of “shepherds, dogs, the other sheep, the whole farm” (Pâtres chiens et moutons, toute la bergerie, line 3), “children” (Les enfants, line 5), “maidens with lovely complexions” (Les vierges aux belles couleurs, line 6), and “knots of ribbons and flowers” ( Entrelaçaient rubans et fleurs, line 8). In these examples, the specter of death stands in contrast to the images of life. Yet neither view attains precedence over the other. Fetzer’s concept of the “bifocal or double vision” provides a tool to understand such examples because the ironic perspective does not necessarily undermine the naïve perspective (21). In this way, romantic irony teaches students the important lesson that contradictory sentiments can, and do, coexist together.

7.        Instruction in romantic irony paves the way for a better understanding of contradictions and ambivalence in Romantic literature, such as Victor Frankenstein’s ethical vacillations. Contradictions also exist in the ostensibly universal values that characterize Romanticism. On the one hand, Romantic writers shared the values espoused by French Republicans: universalism, democracy, and equality. On the other hand, these privileges did not apply to all human beings. Jean Jacques Rousseau acknowledges and illustrates many of these hypocrisies. His Social Contract begins with the famous admonishment that all men are in “chains” (1). Yet the “savage man” (homme sauvage) of his second Discourse, or the many women who read his works, had little access to all the privileges of citizenship. The monster resembles Rousseau’s description of savage man in his second Discourse; the way that the monster eats berries, lives in the forest, discovers fire, and acquires language “conforms both in general outline and specific details to the life of Rousseau’s savage” (Marshall 183). The creature’s demands for equal privileges also evoke Rousseau’s discourse on inequality, although he inserts “interesting problems into it,” such as the demand for a community (Reese 49).

8.        These first few weeks on the French Revolution include reading the Declaration of Independence (1776) alongside the French document it inspired, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (La déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, 1789). Doing so allows students to understand the international nature of the discourse of human rights, and the exclusion of some members of the population from these privileges. We read The Rights of Woman and Female Citizen (La déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne) by the protofeminist activist, writer, and dramatist Olympe de Gouges (1748–1793). Gouges rewrites the Rights of Man for female citizens (citoyennes). Another online text that could supplement this reading is the memoir of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the revolution in Haiti 1791. These texts teach the universal values that tie international Romantic movements together. These online texts also give students the historical background to understand the plights of Safie and the De Lacey family in Shelley’s Frankenstein. Safie’s father threatens Felix with a lettre de cachet, a secret warrant for arrest that could be wielded indiscriminately. Such abuses of power made many thinkers sympathetic to the need for a revolution in France.

9.        The next few weeks of the course focus on the cult of sensibility in French and German literature. On the surface, Confessions appears to present a travelogue of the author’s journey through Switzerland and France, and such information contextualizes the geography of Frankenstein for students. However, Rousseau’s Confessions is also an important text for understanding the discourse of sensibility in Frankenstein. The monster’s appeal for sympathy from his creator resembles Rousseau’s narrative, which likewise contains tales of theft and misdeeds committed with a tortured conscience. There are more direct parallels between Confessions and Frankenstein, such as being locked out of the gates of Geneva and the abandonment of children. Rousseau felt motivated to write Confessions after Voltaire revealed he abandoned his five children in orphanages (McAlpin 260). According to Marshall, “Shelley had Rousseau in mind as she tells the story of a parent who made his offspring a monster—precisely by abandoning him” (187). After all, Shelley wrote about Rousseau’s abandoned children in her entry on the Swiss author for Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France (Marshall 187).

10.        In Rousseau, students might identify the conflicting dualities that characterize Victor Frankenstein, or what Rousseau calls his own “almost irreconcilable opposites” (110–11). The author of Confessions is full of contradictions. On the one hand, this son of a watchmaker becomes a philosopher and man of letters, and in his early life he works as a servant while also garnering knowledge from those around him. He demonstrates other inconsistencies as well: he converts to Catholicism and back to Calvinism, clings to people but becomes an incessant wanderer, and steals but believes in honesty. In this way, Rousseau’s autobiography functions as an introduction to the social mores of the period. When I taught this class partially online, I randomly assigned aliases to students and invited them to write their journals from the perspective of these fictional personae. I assigned students professions from the period (banker, soldier, preacher, servant, musician, writer, artist, aristocrat) and different genders (so some students were wives, daughters, or sons of members of the aforementioned professions). Students chose their own names and nationalities from a list. While reading Confessions, we discussed what contradictions their alter egos might have in their own lives. This exercise helped students to better identify with Romantic-era readers and writers.

11.        Goethe’s novel, The Sufferings of Young Werther, resembles Rousseau’s Confessions in its narrative style and purpose. Werther’s letters seem to ask for readers’ sympathies in a way that corresponds to the confessional structure of Rousseau’s autobiography. And like Rousseau, Goethe’s protagonist finds solace in the beauty of nature, while he suffers from the constraints of a society that censures him. He finds a world in himself (Goethe 6). Literature, too, allows Rousseau and Goethe to escape from the perceived evils of society. Werther experiences a moment of intimacy when he witnesses a rainstorm with his unrequited love, Lotte, who exclaims, “Klopstock!” (Goethe 17–18). They refer to Klopstock’s poem, "The Spring Festival" ("Frühlingsfeier," 1759/1764). This poem hallmarks the Storm and Stress Movement (Sturm und Drang), and Michael Ferber includes it in his anthology European Romantic Poetry (2005). At the same time, these themes allow students to appreciate the ways in which Rousseau and Goethe suggest that nature itself can become a source of religious contemplation.

12.        Goethe’s popular novel is the third book that Shelley’s creature finds in the woods. Many critics have noted the importance of one of these books, Paradise Lost, to Frankenstein. [2]  The second book, Plutarch’s Lives, was of course popular reading across Europe, particularly during the second half of the eighteenth century. Yet Goethe’s novel is important for understanding the monster’s emotional development. The monster responds to Werther’s “despondency and gloom” (Shelley 87). Perhaps Werther’s obsession with a woman, Lotte, fuels the creature’s search for a mate. In Werther, students can also reacquaint themselves with romantic irony, for Werther contains a bifocal perspective: that of Werther (in Book I), and that of the editor (in Book II). Goethe came to regret both the book and his association with it, in part owing to the copycat suicides it inspired (Sondrup 164). Shelley’s creature, too, promises to embrace self-inflicted death. Students who have read Werther will recognize the Romantic sentiment of this gesture. Werther and Frankenstein thus share the characteristic of resembling anti-Bildungsromane. Instead of beginning a path of maturation into adulthood, the protagonists of each novel come of age and then succumb to death.

13.        Two weeks on nature and irony in French and German poetry follow these readings. The class reads Gérard de Nerval’s (1808–1855) poem, "Delphica" ("Delfica," 1845). Nerval exemplifies the cross-fertilization of European writing. He translated the first part of Goethe’s tragedy, Faust, in 1827, and he became part of Hugo’s cénacle in 1830 (Ferber 248). "Delfica" shows some affinity for Goethe’s religious viewpoint. The eponymous protagonist of Sufferings of Young Werther searches for God in the secular world (nature, children), and "Delfica" champions a type of hybrid religious sentiment as well. The first stanza evokes Daphne, the name of the girl Apollo chases in Greek myth, heralding the return of the pagan spirit: “They will come back, those gods you always mourn for” (Ils reviendront, ces Dieux que tu pleures toujours, line 9). In the final lines, however, the speaker refers to the first Christian emperor of the Roman empire: “But the sibyl with the Roman countenance / Lies still asleep under Constantine’s Arch: / —And nothing has disturbed the austere gate” (Cependant la sibylle au visage latin / Est endormie encore sous l’arc de Constantin / —Et rien n’a dérangé le sévère portique, lines 12–14). The hope for religious renewal is thus an intermingling of the pagan and Christian ethos. This expansive view of religious sentiment resembles themes in Rousseau’s writing, such as Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar, in the fourth book of Emile. Nerval even planned to write a play about the death of Rousseau, based on the mistaken assumption that the Swiss writer had committed suicide (Kneller 159). The invocation of Daphne and “That song of love” (Cette chanson d’amour, line 4) in "Delphica" would allow students to compare Rousseau’s and Nerval’s search for “a lost feminine ideal” (Kneller 169).

14.        Reading French and German poetry after Rousseau and Werther would also allow students to reflect on the subject of the femme fatale. One interpretation of Lotte might be of the siren who lures men to their deaths. Besides Werther, she has already driven Heinrich mad, and encourages Werther even though she knows about his obsessive passion. Comparing poems on the Lorelei myth allows students to understand this recurring motif in Romantic literature. The most famous of the Lorelei poems is Heinrich Heine’s, "Lorelei, or I Do Not Know What It Means . . ." ("Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten," 1824). Lorelei is a siren figure from German legend who sits in the middle of the Rhine river and lures sailors to their deaths: “The boatman listens, and o’er him / Wild-aching passions roll; / He sees but the maiden before him, / He sees not reef or shoal” (Den Schiffer, im kleinen Schiffe, / Ergreift es mit wildem Weh; / Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe, / Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh, lines 17–20). This poem fits in with discussions of romantic irony, for the speaker is unsure of the conclusion of the legend: “I think, at last the wave swallows / The boat and the boatman’s cry; / And this is the fate that follows / The song of the Lorelei” (Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen / Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn; / Und das hat mit ihrem Singen / Die Lore-Ley getan, lines 21–24). Online recordings of Heine’s poem could give the class a sense of its musicality; Friedrich Silcher and Franz Liszt adapted the poem to music. Students could also read Clemens Brentano’s poem "Lore Lay" (1801) as a point of contrast, for the poem lacks a frame narrative.

15.        German and French Romantic poems allow students to contemplate the intersecting themes of nature and death, themes that also occur in Frankenstein. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s (1797–1848) poem, "In the Moss" ("Im Moose," 1844) begins with a frame narrative. The speaker envisions his or her own death in the future, as seen through the refracting light of “the forest moss” (Waldes Moose, line 3). Hülshoff offers readers a vision of the cycle of life. The speaker contemplates the smallest creatures: “All round so still, that in the leaves I sensed / The caterpillar chew, and like green dust / Felt gently whirling flakes of leafage fall” (Ringsum so still, daß ich vernahm im Laub / Der Raupe Nagen, und wie grüner Staub / Mich leise wirbelnd Blätterflöckchen trafen, line 13–15). But in the penultimate stanza the speaker declares: “And then at last I saw myself, like mist, / Drift quietly into the pores of earth” (Und noch zuletzt sah ich, gleich einem Rauch, / Mich leise in der Erde Poren ziehen, lines 41–42). The irony of the poem rests in the speaker’s ambivalence about which vision remains true.

16.        A French Romantic poem, "The Village (Church) Bell" ("La Cloche du village," 1839) by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869), also treats the themes of nature and death. The specter of “death” (la mort, line 6) contrasts with the naïve point of view in this poem, the speaker’s “mind” (ma pensée, line 1) that reflects on “that song which silences with envy / Its rivals attached to the brambles of life, / And which is lost in the furthest reaches of heaven!” (ce chant qui fait taire d’envie / Ses rivaux attachés aux ronces de la vie, / Et qui se perd au fond des cieux, lines 28–30). Students might contrast Lamartine’s Deist sentiments with those of other Romantic writers, providing a way to discuss the role of religion in Frankenstein. Such scenes include the godlike role that Victor adopts when he creates the creature, the clergy’s role in forcing false confessions of the condemned during Justine’s execution, and the novel’s allusions to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Unit II: Frankenstein and his Doppelgänger

17.        In the final unit, students read Frankenstein, Faust, and The Sandman. These texts feature scientists whose ambitions put human lives in danger, even while they interact with artificial life. Like Frankenstein, The Sandman begins with an exchange of letters, and then shifts to an editorial perspective. And like Shelley’s novel, The Sandman concludes with the death of the protagonist. Students should read Freud’s essay "The Uncanny" ("Das Unheimliche," 1919) after reading Hoffmann’s text and before reading Frankenstein in order to learn the concept of Doppelgänger. If time permitted, students could also read Otto Rank’s book, The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study (1914). The novel begins with characters that mirror each other, Walton and Frankenstein, as Beth Newman points out, and one could argue that the creature is Victor Frankenstein’s dark double.

18.        Goethe’s two-part tragedy, Faust, contains many similarities to Frankenstein. In both works, the protagonist is a scientist whose experiments endanger humanity, yet he remains unrepentant for the suffering he causes others. Faust and Frankenstein resemble each other in their scientific methods, for they both begin with the Medieval occult before creating artificial life. Faust resembles Rousseau and Frankenstein in that he possesses two sides. On the one hand, he might appear to be a victim of a devil and an arbitrary Lord (line 315). On the other hand, he acts like a shrewd client of the devil (line 1690). He made potions with his father that killed people (lines 995–1005), but he also serves as doctor who masters the elements (lines 355–65). While he presents himself as a lover (lines 3155–89), he acts like a seducer and a libertine (line 3510).

19.        A common theme in Faust and Frankenstein is death and rebirth. Faust begins his journey of discovery when he despairs of ever becoming godlike, and nearly commits suicide (line 735). The season of Easter symbolizes his return to life. In fact, Goethe uses the rituals of spring as a backdrop for other scenes of the play. Faust and Mephistopheles lose themselves in dancing and drinking on Walpurgis Night, the eve of May Day, while Gretchen gives birth to her and Faust’s illegitimate child. At the beginning of Faust, Part II, Faust lies in the Elysian fields, a spring-like setting announcing his rebirth after the destruction of Gretchen and her family. These themes work well with Frankenstein and the novel’s documented ties to birth, rebirth, and regeneration. Arguably, Mary Shelley’s grief for her children and her wish to reanimate them finds a corollary in Victor Frankenstein, who creates his monster in response to his mother’s death. In her journal entry from March 19, 1815, Shelley records: “Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived” (70). After Frankenstein, Shelley wrote short stories that also touched on reanimation: "Valerius" (1819), "The Transformation" (1824), and "The Reanimated Man" (1826).

20.        In Faust II, students find a direct corollary to Frankenstein’s creation, another artificial creation: Homunculus. Faust’s assistant Wagner brings Homunculus to life in an alembic. Elsewhere Goethe refers to him as “a little chemical man” ("Second" 525). Homunculus dies in a scene that symbolizes rebirth. He travels the ocean with Proteus, who transforms into a dolphin, and then falls in love with the sea nymph Galatea, who rides on Aphrodite’s shell. At the moment of their union, however, the glass around Homunculus breaks, and he dies, mingled for eternity with Galatea. The ultimate rebirth in Faust is his apotheosis at the end of the tragedy, when he ascends to Heaven and is reunited with Gretchen.

21.        The assignments in the course assess students’ ability to close read these texts comparatively. In the middle of the semester, students write a long essay comparing two works. This assignment encourages students to start thinking about connections between the works we read. The final paper in the semester asks students to compare characteristics and traits of European Romantic literature to Mary Shelley’s novel and to speculate in what ways Frankenstein might be read as a critique of Romantic-era values, considering some of the ethical dilemmas Shelley raises about parental responsibility, the pursuit of genius, and the rights of citizens. The reading journey for this course is ambitious and wide-ranging. It aims to teach students, many of whom graduate with teaching credentials, to view one of the most important novels in the English language as the product of Mary Shelley’s interest in literature from beyond the shores of Britain, and to remind them of the importance of global connections in creating great works of literature.

Works Cited

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[1]See Miranda Burgess, "Frankenstein’s Transport: Modernity, Mobility, and the Science of Feeling" (2015), and Siobhan Carroll, "Crusades Against Frost: Frankenstein, Polar Ice, and Climate Change in 1818" (2013). BACK

[2]Johnson and Georgiana, Lamb, Ping, and Sanderson write about the influence of Paradise Lost on Frankenstein. BACK