Why Teach Frankenstein? The Treasure That is Gothic Literature

My first year in the teaching field was also my first year teaching AP Lit. Being a new teacher, I relied on a lot of trial-by-basis lessons and also made use of most of what the previous teacher had left behind for me. While I did eventually survive that first year (by some miracle), I buckled down in the summer months and made necessary changes to my AP curriculum.

And the very first thing I did was added Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley’s gothic classic has always been one of my favorite books to teach to AP Lit students. Not only do I personally enjoy it, but I love watching my students approach the text and react to the novel’s two polarizing main characters and the horrific actions that both commit.

If you’re considering adding Frankenstein to your curriculum, or even just to your reading list, here are some benefits I can point out for you:

Gothic Novel – If you go back and look at the open question prompts over the past few years (free list here!), you can see that many of the questions apply to gothic novels and Byronic heroes. In fact, there were four gothic titles suggested in the 2018 question alone. Gothic novels are loved by literature teachers and professors because they balance suspense, characterization, and descriptive imagery in an accessible, but not-too-easy, combination. While there are many gothic novels that are absolutely wonderful, Frankenstein seems the most exciting to most teenagers because of their prior knowledge of the story based on Hollywood interpretations. Which leads me to my next point…

Complexity – This novel may seem easy because they have made so many movies about it, but it is startlingly complex. To start with, the book has three narrators, organized in a frame narration. Secondly, there is no clear villain. In fact, debates over who is responsible for the death of William can get pretty heated in my classroom. Another complicated factor is the diction, which is elevated and somewhat archaic. AP Lit students absolutely must be exposed to language like this in preparation for the exam. While it can be a struggle, the complexity of this novel helps prepare them for the AP Lit exam and its language better than many modern texts. Click here for a Frankenstein AP Lit style multiple choice assessment, with a detailed answer key!

“When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?” 

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus, “Zeus and Ganymede (Theft of Fire)” by Christian Griepenkerl (1878) .

Allusions – One thing my AP Lit students struggle with in older texts is identifying allusions. While I often have to point them out, Frankenstein helps them find meaning and purpose behind allusions in order that they may start finding them on their own. There are two prevalent allusions in Frankenstein (among others). The first is indicated in Shelley’s subtitle, calling Frankenstein “The Modern Prometheus.” There are actually several myths about Prometheus that connect to Frankenstein. In Hesiod’s version, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus, who had retracted the gift of fire from mankind after some displeasing sacrifices. Prometheus stole the fire back and dispensed it among humans, resulting in Pandora’s creation, and we all know how that ended. In a later variation of Hesiod’s myth and another by Plato, Prometheus used fire to bestow life on clay figures, resulting in the birth of mankind.
The other central allusion is to John Milton’s Paradise List, which contains more direct references. When the creature learns the English language, one of his three texts is Paradise Lost. As he reads, the creature relates to Adam for being the first of his kind. However, he also empathizes with Satan, wondering why he was abandoned by his creator and set at enmity from him. These two allusions not only reference older, historical texts, but leave enough room for interpretation and debate among AP Lit students.

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…” 

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
“The Fall of Satan” by Gustave Doré, (1866)

Prior Knowledge – So many students come in on our first day of Frankenstein with an attitude that they already know the story. I like to put them in their place (you know, who doesn’t like a power trip?) by giving them an introductory quiz. This quiz points out that there is no Igor, that the bride of Frankenstein was not a real thing, and that nowhere in the text does it say the creature fears fire more than anything. In fact, most don’t even know that Frankenstein is the name of the creator rather than the monster! This little activity piques their interest and opens doors for real and true Frankenstein knowledge to enter in. If you’re interested in this introductory quiz, I have it for sale on my TpT store for only $1.00.

Modern Connections – One last benefit of Frankenstein is the plethora of ethical and scientific debates that stem from the text. Was it wrong for Victor to try and defeat death? When it comes to the creature, is he murderous because of nature or nurture? When does medical research cross the boundaries of ethics? Is it wrong to attempt to create a more perfect creature, such as what is being done with gene therapy?

Frankenstein is not only the first creation story to use scientific experimentation as its method, but it also presents a framework for narratively examining the morality and ethics of the experiment and experimenter.

Audrey Shafer, Stanford Medicine

Audrey Shafer discusses the ongoing debates going on in the minds of researchers in the scientific and medical fields, constantly at war between beating time and obeying the rules of ethics. To read more about her take on Frankenstein from the point of view of a doctor, click here for the article. But whether or not your students pre-med or future philosophy majors, most cannot resist the bait to discuss what Victor could have done if he had continued with his experiment, and what the ramifications of those actions might have been.

For these reasons and many others, I absolutely adore teaching Frankenstein to my AP Lit students. The text is relevant, challenging, relatable, and interesting. Furthermore, College Board’s recent writing prompts rely heavily on the gothic style, so a gothic novel is an absolute must in current AP reading lists. I highly suggest you add Frankenstein or a gothic book like it to your AP Lit curriculum if you teach the course. If Frankenstein is off the menu for whatever reason, I’m also fond of the following gothic titles:

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (this one is a novella, but could be a good option if there is no time to add a longer text)
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

If you like thinking outside the box, these modern texts contain many similarities to gothic novels and could be great suggestions for hesitant or struggling readers:

  • The Shining by Stephen King
  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (a personal favorite!)
  • ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
  • The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

If you are looking to add Frankenstein to your curriculum but need AP-level resources in a hurry, I sell several standalone products in my TpT store, including Guided Reading Notes, quizzes, a Socratic seminar, a unit test, and a full unit bundle with all of these and more. See below for a full list!

I have also created a Gothic Novel book club resource, which focuses on group discussion activities and pushing students toward literary self-discovery. Click here to learn more!

TpT Products referenced:
AP Lit Frankenstein Unit Bundle
AP Lit Frankenstein Socratic Seminar
AP Lit Frankenstein Introductory Quiz
AP Lit Frankenstein Unit Test
AP Lit Frankenstein Guided Reading Notes
AP Lit Frankenstein Multiple Choice Quiz
AP Lit Open Response Title List (FREE)

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