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Arts & Culture

How a conflict over 'Frankenstein' in Seattle is part of a long history with Mary Shelley's 1818 novel

A closeup of the spines of three books of "Frankenstein."
Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame
/
Creative Commons
A three-volume set of the first edition of "Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus." This printing was released anonymously before Mary Shelley put her name on the 1831 re-release.

Last fall, at Seattle's Ballard High School, a white teacher asked her class to reflect on this question: “How does oppression, neglected potential, and trauma affect a person’s identity?”

They were studying the novel "Frankenstein," and the ensuing class discussions made at least one student, who is Latino, very uncomfortable.

The Seattle Times reported on the story earlier this month.

The student complained to his teacher, pointing out that the murderous creature of Frankenstein was repeatedly compared to oppressed Black and brown people, in a way that drew a line from oppression to criminality.

After an unsatisfactory response, he persisted, and then the Ballard High School principal moved the student to a different class. The student complained to the Seattle Public Schools, and months later, the district released a long report. It concluded that the teacher and principal created a hostile environment, and that the principal’s actions were retaliatory toward the student. But the district has not taken a position on whether the teacher’s curriculum or the way it was taught was itself racist or in violation of policy.

This whole thing got us thinking about Frankenstein’s creature, and the many ways he’s been read and misread over the more than 200 years since his creation.

KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco spoke with Julie Carlson, a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of a biography of Mary Shelley and her family.