Teaching “Frankenstein” at the Flying University for Ukrainian Students

September 13, 2022   •   By Deidre Lynch

Frankenstein

Mary Shelley

This essay is dedicated to Tania, Bohdana, Valeria, Kate, Natalia, Olha, Kateryna, Anna, Tanya, Nastia, Anastasya, and Diana.

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IT MIGHT BE literary history’s most famous story about the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties. In an episode at the center of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein’s nameless monster recounts how he overcame his unpromising beginnings and, learning language, obtained the wherewithal to tell his story. The monster, the reader finds, must steal an education. He is not given one.

After being abandoned by his creator, on the very night when Frankenstein’s science experiment first ushers him into his unnatural existence, the monster sets to wandering through the woods and fields, destitute and solitary. Eventually he happens upon a cottage with a ramshackle lean-to annexed to it. He takes shelter inside and, finding a gap in the boarding that joins the hovel to the cottage, realizes that he can peer through this aperture and, unseen, watch the inhabitants as they go about their daily lives. Having already experienced the antipathy his ghastly appearance provokes in human observers, he decides to make this hiding place his place of residence. The monster soon makes a momentous discovery: “I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. […] This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. But I was baffled in every attempt I made for this purpose.”

He makes slow progress, but as winter turns into spring, a new turn of events accelerates the monster’s education. The three De Laceys — father, son, and daughter — are joined in their cottage by a fourth person, a Turkish woman whom the young Felix De Lacey had met back in the time before the family’s exile and fall into poverty. When Felix begins to tutor Safie in the French that he and his family members speak, the monster recognizes an opportunity. He begins to follow this foreign woman’s schooling. Peering through his peephole, still unseen, the monster takes up the role of clandestine auditor. 

Frankenstein is a novel I’ve taught more times than I can count, but in the summer of 2022 I found new reasons to consider the power of both this episode and the book as a whole. In June, along with 11 other humanities faculty from the United States, I volunteered as a teacher for the Flying University of Ukrainian Students. This organization was brought into being in the spring of 2022 as an emergency response to Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. My class, taught over Zoom every day for a week to 12 Ukrainian undergraduates, centered on Frankenstein. Other faculty gave courses on such topics as the trial of Joan of Arc, the emergence of the idea of the West, the labor history of 20th-century America, gender and sexuality studies, and the relationship between popular music and political change. This noncredit summer school program “graduated” just under 100 students in early July. The organizers aim for another session in autumn 2022.

For the dozen students in my summer school class, who were themselves pursuing knowledge in difficult circumstances, talking and writing about Shelley’s monster story was a way both to examine and enact their commitments to education and community. Those difficulties were of varying intensity depending on their location in Ukraine. Many of the students had fled the towns where they had been based while studying for their degrees in, variously, philology, law, and journalism, and with their families had taken refuge in safer locations more distant from the conflict zones. Many were lonely for that reason. Their internet connections were unstable, occasionally knocked out just by rainfall. By the end of June, the situation on the ground meant that the student in Kyiv, who had at first been feeling secure there, was having to do her Shelley reading in a bomb shelter. Another student, whom I worry about every day, was doing her reading while Russian soldiers patrolled the streets outside. The region where she and her family live had fallen under the control of the occupying army earlier in the spring.

These 12 students taught me in turn. I have been pondering those lessons.

One thing I learned only after we had wrapped up our class meetings is why the Kosciuszko Foundation of Poland, which offered financial and administrative support to this suite of Zoom classes, had chosen to call the program the “Flying University.” That name honors an educational enterprise that originated in late-19th-century Poland, a nation that at that historical moment, having been partitioned between Prussia and Tsarist Russia at the century’s start, was no longer supposed to exist. Between 1885 and 1905 in Warsaw and Kraków, a clandestine university operated whose curriculum resisted the authorities’ efforts at erasing Polish history and culture. To evade surveillance, the classes repeatedly changed location, flitting among private residences. The Flying University broke with the official educational establishments of its era in a second way: it permitted women to enroll in its classes, with the chemist Marie Curie becoming its most famous student. This would have pleased Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman rails against the prevailing neglect of women’s education. Following its legalization in 1905–06, the Flying University began to operate openly, but subsequent history led to this tradition of clandestine courses being revived twice — first, following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, and then again during the 1970s, when the Solidarity movement was working to emancipate Poland from Soviet bloc influence.

In the summer of 2022, Russia began recruiting teachers, bribing them with the promise of higher-than-usual wages, for positions it had created within the newly occupied territories of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s concocted rationales for Russia’s military aggression have sometimes pivoted around the proposition that Ukraine (like Poland before it) isn’t a real nation and that its history is inseparable from Russia’s. With the start of the school year, those newly recruited teachers are supposed to inculcate that lesson, thereby implementing the Russification that is Putin’s policy goal. For Ukrainians in 2022, education has the same high stakes it is granted in Shelley’s novel, where the monster dreams that the language lessons on which he eavesdrops will, in giving him the means to tell his own story, enable him to elicit sympathy. He believes — in vain, it turns out — that this clandestine education will secure his entry into the human community. These educational themes on their own might make Frankenstein the right novel for the present moment, as a new chapter in the history of the Flying University begins.

But there were additional reasons why Shelley’s novel fired the imaginations of these students from Ukraine. Some involve her characters’ relationships to place. Many English novelists in the early 19th century favored confined locales for their fictions, with Shelley’s contemporary Jane Austen advising an aspiring novelist niece that “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” Shelley constructs her fictional world on a broader canvas, extending right up to Europe’s limits. At the novel’s center, as mentioned, is the De Laceys’ cottage in Germany, a home that readers experience only from the monster’s point of view and so from the outside looking in. At the novel’s edges, though, are a series of letters written by Robert Walton, an English sea captain and would-be Arctic explorer: the first-person narratives in which Frankenstein and his creation each recounts the story of his life are enfolded, the latter within the former, within these letters Walton writes for the sister he’s left behind in England.

Shelley propels all three of her novel’s narrators away from homes and homelands and across geopolitical borders. The monster is a born exile, lacking a relationship to any native land, and the two human beings with whom he shares the narrating of the story are also expatriated. (This is the case as well for the De Lacey family, who, in a backstory, are revealed to be in exile in Germany, uprooted from their native France by a series of miscarriages of justice.) This trio’s stories intersect at a spot somewhere in the Arctic Ocean, where Walton’s voyage is cut short by the encroaching ice, and he is thus thwarted in his vainglorious ambition to be the first (European) to reach the North Pole.

Those Ukrainian readers of Frankenstein couldn’t help but notice, as North American students seldom do, that the opening section of this English novel takes place in Russia. Walton’s first letter is dated from St. Petersburg, and his second from Archangel, where he assembles his crew and commences his voyage. (Why Russia? I asked, a trifle thoughtlessly during the first meeting of the class. Because Russia is evil, was the answer that came back immediately — as I ought to have expected.) Frankenstein references Russia at its end as well as its beginning. As he winds up the story that he’s been telling Walton, Victor Frankenstein describes how, at one stage in his pursuit of the monster whom he created and whom he now seeks to destroy, the pursuit took him into “the wilds of Tartary and Russia.”

Reading over the shoulders of those students from Ukraine opened my eyes to how such topographical references link the novel to the philosophic geography, as it was called, of Shelley’s day — a project, dear to the heart of many an 18th-century philosophe, of mapping “civilization” and specifying its margins. In Shelley’s lifetime, Imperial Russia’s territorial ambitions and annexation of one province after another forced a series of adjustments to the geopolitical cartography of Eastern Europe, that ambiguous, in-between zone where “civilized” Europe and “barbaric” Asia meet. The historian Larry Wolff has identified the contribution that two books on Shelley’s reading list in 1815–16 made to this reinvention of Europe as a geographical entity divided between western and eastern blocs, rather than, as in the past, between northern and southern ones. Voltaire’s 1731 History of Charles XII, a chronicle of the military clashes between Sweden and Russia, played a significant role in introducing Western European readers to Ukraine, the land where Charles XII’s ambitions and Sweden’s eastward expansion came to a halt, and which Voltaire describes as the “land of the Cossacks, situated between Little Tartary, Poland, and Muscovy.” (Little Tartary is now known to us as the Crimean Peninsula.) Voltaire’s picture of this region was later fleshed out by A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople, in a Series of Letters, a travelogue the English aristocrat Elizabeth Lady Craven published in 1789, and which Shelley read in the year she began Frankenstein.

A third important participant in the project of philosophic geography is name-checked in the episode of clandestine education that centers Frankenstein: Constantin-François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney. His 1791 The Ruins of Empires was apparently included in the luggage the exiled De Laceys carried with them from France to their cottage in Germany. As the monster listens in, Felix De Lacey reads aloud from the book to Safie, “the fair Arabian,” as part of her instruction in French. As Volney’s introduction explains, his account of war and desolation had as its immediate occasion Catherine the Great’s annexation of Crimea in 1783. In the book’s 12th chapter, the narrator bears witness to another round in that same bloody combat. I got the shivers when I noticed the title to that chapter, “Lessons Taught by Ancient[s], Repeated in Modern Times,” and, looking up from Volney’s book to the news, got confirmation that the cycle of violence that he commented on at the close of the 18th century was continuing full-force.

For me, the power of Shelley’s novel has been reactivated every time I’ve witnessed a group of readers discovering that they’ve been misled by the movies that robbed her monster of his voice. I like experiencing secondhand the shock and then elation that such readers feel when they get past Victor Frankenstein’s “main character syndrome” and find that Shelley has instead shaped her work, with its story inside a story inside a story, so that the point of view shifts from the creator to his creation. When his monster comes to life and opens its eyes, Victor, as he recounts, turns away from him, appalled — but the novel is set up so that readers eventually see through those eyes when the monster tells his own story. Readers shift from sympathizing with Victor — who, as he has recounted to Walton, lost his brother to this monster’s vindictive revenge — to sympathizing with the monster, who, after he takes up the narrative reins, makes the case to Victor that such “vices” are only “the children of a forced solitude that [he] abhor[s]” and that his “virtues will necessarily arise” as soon as he lives “in communion with an equal.”

Or they oscillate between these viewpoints. There is an irresolution at the core of Frankenstein. The novel’s form, its multiplication of points of view, impedes the reader who might want to take sides. Before this summer I had thought of that as the book’s greatest asset, the very ground of its claim to be a cornerstone of a humanistic education. But with this group of students, who were reading from within a war zone, who were inclined — indeed, forced by circumstances —to use, unironically, words like “evil,” I felt less certain about that.

And yet in our discussions of the clash between the rights of the monster and those of the monster maker, the students didn’t want to take sides either. For them, that might have been precisely the boon that our class offered. Fiction-reading provided them relief from the pressures of a real world, in which choices had to be made and firm lines drawn between enemy and friend.

At the same time, the novel does bear some resemblance to the real lives these students and their compatriots have led since the Russian invasion. In Shelley’s fictional universe, disasters are always lurking, and one bereavement follows hard on the heels of another. For all its sensationalism, indeed even because of its sensationalism, the novel is, as the kids say, relatable. “When […] real disaster comes, even the innocent will suffer and there will always be many victims,” Anastasia wrote on our class discussion board, reflecting on the fate of one of the novel’s minor characters but in terms that resonated more widely. On some days I feared that Elizabeth, Victor Frankenstein’s fiancée, spoke for these students and their generation, as when she says to him, “Before, I looked upon the accounts of vice and injustice, that I read in books or heard from others, as tales of ancient days, or imaginary evils […] but now misery has come home, and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood.” Through June, I thought often about the Marquis de Sade’s essay on novels from 1800 (“Idée sur les romans”), which argues that realism will inevitably fall flat in times of violence and of political turmoil like his own, and that only a literature of horror can engage novel readers who have experienced such conditions. I was repeatedly struck by how passionately these students identified with the loneliness that afflicts each of the novel’s narrators. In our final class session, several looped back to the novel’s opening and noticed again that Walton’s first letter is about his longing for a friend.

The students’ enrollment in the class and their resolve to pursue knowledge under difficulties, I came to understand, also represented a way to assert their connection to a wider world. Sometimes in office hours, I sensed their fear that Ukraine might be forgotten by English-language media, that their country was increasingly in the position of the marooned Walton, who writes his letters from the Arctic wastes without any assurance that they will ever be received.

Within the public relations campaign that has been a crucial part of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression, philosophical geography has sometimes seemed to be taking on a new lease on life. On the map of the world that Ukraine’s defenders evoke as they make the case for the nation’s continued independence, Ukraine is located inside the boundaries of that imaginary entity called Europe, and Russia is displaced to the other side of the boundary, presented as non-European. The promise of fast-tracked membership in the European Union that was extended to Ukraine in the summer of 2022 has helped materialize and legitimize this cartography. (It also undoes whatever residual orientalizing effects linger from 18th-century French and English writers’ associations of the nation’s territories with the Tartars and Tartary.)  

Frankenstein obliges one to remember, however, how often that charismatic idea of Europe has been inseparable from harmful ideas about non-European others. The novel mobilizes those distinctions from the start. Walton’s fourth letter to his sister reports how he and his crew spot two travelers in quick succession traversing the ice floes surrounding their ship. The first figure is seen only from a distance. The reader’s introduction to the second, who comes aboard, is phrased as follows, so that Victor Frankenstein is introduced through a comparison: “He was not, as the other traveller seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but an European.”

This opening sets up the novel’s sometimes cryptic reworking of the racial ideologies of Shelley’s moment. Depending on how one construes Walton’s loaded term “savage,” the opening might presage what the monster himself, after the spectacular failure of his plan to befriend the De Laceys, identifies as his “everlasting war” against the human “species.”

Much recent criticism on Frankenstein has spotlighted the novel’s engagement with questions about empire and race, proposing that the novel reworks the slave narratives of Shelley’s era, for instance, or noticing the parallels between Walton’s voyage of exploration and the building of Britain’s maritime empire. But these students from Ukraine had me puzzling specifically over what meanings “Europe” had for Shelley: how might she have been parsing the tangled threads connecting Europe, education, humanitarianism, and the human.

The French lessons that Felix extracts from the pages of Volney’s Ruins are the instrument that completes Safie’s assimilation into the De Lacey family. (It is telling of the novel’s Eurocentrism, however, that there is no thought of the De Laceys reciprocating by learning Safie’s Turkish: assimilation goes one way.) But in the intricate counterpointed structure that Shelley has created, that instruction fails to secure connection of any sort for the monster — even though the monster supplements it with his reading of the copies of Plutarch’s Lives, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Milton’s Paradise Lost that somehow fall into his hands. His humanities curriculum lets him down, failing to function as his passport into a human community.

In the plan the monster had concocted during these lessons, he had aimed to take advantage of the elder De Lacey’s blindness and tell his story — exploiting his newly acquired and hard-won powers of eloquence — to an auditor who would perforce judge him by who he is rather than by how he appears. The plan misfires, however, because the De Lacey children arrive home sooner than expected and interpret this scene in which the monster pleads for their father’s charity and hospitality as a scene of fiendish assault.

Their rejection sends the monster back to Victor Frankenstein to demand a female companion. In exchange for this alleviation of his loneliness, he will, he promises, bind himself to live at peace with humanity. There is more to the deal, however. The monster also must self-deport — a pledge (at least as Victor construes their contract) “to quit Europe for ever.”

Vladimir Putin wants this to be the fate of Ukraine. Russian’s recent expansionism is motivated by his, and Aleksander Dugin’s, dream of a reinvigorated, pan-Eurasian empire, a counterbalance to the decadent, secular West. For that project, Ukrainian sovereignty is intolerable.

Helping humanities students continue their disrupted educations won’t, of course, do much in the way of stopping Russia’s aggressive interference with Ukraine’s right to self-determination. Right now, not books but bullets — or tanks or drones — are Ukraine’s priority. But when Tania, Bohdana, Valeria, Kate, Natalia, Olha, Kateryna, Anna, Tanya, Nastia, Anastasya, Diana, and I wrapped up our class in late June 2022, we all felt that we had received a lesson in why you need the humanities in hard times. Shelley’s novel dramatizes the failure of community, but it had created one for us.

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Deidre Lynch is the author, most recently, of Loving Literature: A Cultural History (Chicago, 2015) and co-editor, with Alexandra Gillespie, of The Unfinished Book (Oxford, 2021). She is Ernest Bernbaum Professor of English Literature at Harvard and the vice president of the Keats-Shelley Association of America.

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Featured image: Illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Theodore Von Holst (1810–1844).