Short version: Sometimes they’re wrong.

Okay, the background – I purchased a small class set of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for my novels class, and we’re getting through it right now. While the students are digging into the monster’s narrative about his life after being created (and rewriting/paraphrasing it), I’ve been reading ahead to have some ideas for discussion.

My students have also expressed difficulty in understanding much of this novel, which is due in no small part to the fact that all of the novels we have thus covered – Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Great Gatsby – have been 20th century American novels, and Frankenstein is early 19th century British. One of the nice things about this text, however, has been a glossary of endnotes and a vocabulary reference at the back of the book, broken down by chapter so that students can refer to them. It’s worked okay for some, not as much for others; one student has been asking me about certain words, and I’ve found that explaining some words – like traverse – takes a little more than a simple denotative explanation. Still, it’s reasonably helpful.

That is, when it’s right.

In reading the beginning of Chapter XVIII, I found this passage where Victor is deliberating over making a female companion for his original creation:

I found that I could not compose a female without again devoting several months to profound study and laborious disquisition. I had heard of some discoveries having been made by an English philosopher,† the knowledge of which was material to my success…

The † symbol referred to an endnote, which said,

Note that Victor is not interested in the science of life from non-life any more; he is more concerned with the philosophical and ethical considerations of the experiments.

But in an earlier endnote, the book had pointed out, in referring to “Natural philosophy”:

the study of nature; the belief that everything within the  universe is alive and interconnected.

Despite a lack of reference to science, it seems clear to me that readers are going to think of science when they see this note – as well they should, as there was a great deal of similarity between the two during this time. In fact, I even asked my students to think about natural philosophy as science, which underscores the disparity in the story between nature or what is natural and science (which is considered “unnatural”).

But obviously someone wasn’t thinking or reading the above quote from Chapter XVIII very carefully; Victor is clearly thinking about his scientific efforts in making a second creation – Eve for his Adam – not necessarily about the moral or ethical considerations (although there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he is thinking about them, despite the lack of focus on that here). Moreover, any discoveries – if indeed they would even be called that – by a moral philosopher would not be germane to Victor’s success in “compos[ing] a female” as he suggests a sentence earlier.

Obviously, someone making notes to add was not thinking about this from the time frame and made an anachronistic interpretive note based on how we as 21st century readers understand the term “philosopher” – and, thus, a note that is more likely to confuse than clarify.

On the other hand, I paid about $2 a copy for these books…maybe I shouldn’t be complaining too much.