Frankenstein and the worm: Not "just" another essay on Frankenstein

Hamilton College

This past May, I attended the 2012 North American Levinas Society conference held in Anchorage, Alaska. Playing on its location in the Last Frontier, the conference was particularly interested in research focusing on “Levinas, the environment and the cultures of place,” and so it afforded me the opportunity to expand the reach of the theory behind my new book, Worm Work: Recasting Romanticism.

For this conference, I adapted portions of my chapter on Frankenstein and the worm in order to propose an expansion of the so called “face-to-face” ethics made famous in Emmanuel Levinas’ pluralistic philosophy. Specifically, I asked that we extend Levinas’ largely anthropocentric ethical stance into that of a truly ecological, biocentric concern able to highlight the intricate relationship between the human and the non-human animal. Of course, I am most interested in the implications of reading the human against the worm (that lower, invertebrate, decidedly vermicular organism). What follows, then, is an excerpt, with a link to a downloadable transcript, of this recent presentation (with only minor changes). I very much look forward to reading your thoughtful responses and queries.


Worm Work: Recasting Levinasian Ethics 

So we all know the story of Frankenstein, if not by reading the actual novel then definitely through a kind of cultural inheritance that has taught us about unintended consequences—about how what we create can quickly slip out of our control and come back to destroy us. Or, as my students often hear me rehearse it: Man creates man; but this man is a monster. Which man? Both.

What I mean, in part, is that our sympathies or antipathies easily oscillate between Victor Frankenstein and the monster because both display characteristics familiar to “us,” the human reader: both are learned beings, yet Victor’s biases lay in the sciences whereas the monster is conversant in the humanities; both reveal the importance of family, the need for community; and an aesthetic aversion to that unmistakable (albeit slippery) other; yet both share the human form, even granting that the monster’s form is pieced together from material found in “slaughter houses and dissecting rooms” and stands “eight feet in height.”

Admittedly, the very idea of Frankenstein is nothing if not commonplace today. Adaptations of the tale alone are innumerable, crossing easily from literature to film to stage, even to the campy Halloween costume or lovable plush toy, and suspiciously on to our dinner plates as genetically-modified foodstuffs, or “Frankenfoods”—and this ignores all the professional articles perpetually generated for coming up on 200 years (and perhaps has you, my reader, now tacitly groaning, “oh no, not another essay on Frankenstein”). The irony of such prolific concentration is of course found in the fact that the lessons espoused by the tale have yet to be fully absorbed. We, as humans, consistently reach for what Victor himself warns is a going “beyond what our nature will allow.” We are ambitious. We are glory-hounds. We are, finally, creators. Even Mary Shelley sincerely bids her “hideous progeny go forth and prosper,” condoning as she does so the very inventive processes she condemns through the mouth and actions of her protagonist.

What I want to focus on in this blog post, then, is the implicit question of ethics bound up in, only to escape from, the pages of Shelley’s novel. However, the novel here acts merely as a platform on which to rehearse my broader argument considering how we encounter the other—how we interact with and even reflect this other, especially if this other is a non-human animal.

It’s not a new question, to be sure. Nor is it a question that can be fully parsed in the next several paragraphs. But it is a question to which my own preliminary response might surprise you: we must turn away from this other in disgust.

Read the paper in its entirety (scroll to Page 2 to continue).

Download a syllabus Schwartz has crafted around her Worm Work research.


Janelle A. Schwartz is visiting assistant professor of comparative literature at Hamilton College. She is author of Worm Work: Recasting Romanticism (out this month).

“Worm Work is sophisticated and full of unexpected analytic insights. Animal studies have in general been preoccupied by big animals and the nineteenth century, so it is important and refreshing to go a little further back in time and down the great chain of being to see how the lower animals have shaped, and been shaped by, cultural standards.”
—Charlotte Sleigh, author of Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology

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