Edgar Allen Poe.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory
Monsters have haunted the literary imagination from earliest times (e.g., the Cyclops, Grendel, etc.), but a particular interest in horror and the Gothic form dates back to the 18th and early 19th century. Taking their name from the Gothic architecture that often served as a backdrop to the action, these novels present supernatural events in naturalistic terms, thrilling readers with strange tales filled with mystery and terror.
In this lesson students will investigate tales of the supernatural by conducting close analyses of Gothic horror stories. Students will begin by inquiring after the relationship between modern scary stories and Gothic novels of the 19th century before examining Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a literary and historical context. Using digital and scholarly resources, students will learn about Shelley’s life and work before exploring the symbolism of monsters in Frankenstein and in society. Teachers will then guide students through a close reading of the novel, focusing on the text as an exploration of the human condition and emphasizing the role of “monsters” in popular culture. Finally students will work in teams to investigate American tales of the supernatural, focusing on comparisons and contrasts and evaluating each author’s techniques of narration.
Begin by asking how many students have read a horror story or seen a horror movie. Explain the relationship of modern horror stories to the Gothic novel, and tell students that at least one writer in the Gothic tradition continues to terrify readers even today -- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who, at the age of 18, published the classic horror story Frankenstein in 1818.
Students will be interested to learn that Shelley first conceived of the tale of Frankenstein during a thunder storm, when she, her husband Percy, and friend Lord Byron decided to hold a competition to see who could write the most terrifying story. More information about Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as additional resources on literature, politics, science, and art during the Victorian age in Great Britain can be accessed at The Victorian Web.
Use the Romantic Circleswebsite to introduce students to Mary Shelley and the legacy of her greatest literary creation. Within the "Scholarly Resources" section of the site, click on "The Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Chronology & Resource Site" and follow the link to "Other Web Resources." Here your students will find information about her life, background on the Romantic circumstances that gave rise to her novel, and (what may be of most immediate interest to them) images from some of the many films that have featured her monster. Working with these images (and any other incarnations of the Frankenstein monster with which they may be familiar), have students comment on what the monster has come to mean in our century. Are we terrified by him as a violation of nature? Do we feel pity for him as an orphan of science? Do we admire him as an embodiment of the indomitable will? Why has he continued to lumber through the popular imagination?
Have students read Frankenstein. (The entire text of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is available on UVA's Electronic Text Center) Focus discussion initially on differences students perceive between the original story and its translations into the terms of popular culture. In what respects is the original a horror story? In what respects is it a serious imaginative exploration of the human condition? Why have some readers called it the first work of science fiction? What view of science does the novel present to us? How is this concern with science signaled by the novel's subtitle, "The Modern Prometheus"? (Remind students that Prometheus, credited in mythology with bringing fire from the heavens to the earth, is usually understood as an emblem of human creativity, particularly as expressed through science and technology. Have students search for information about Prometheus on the Perseus Project website.) Who is the Prometheus of the story -- Frankenstein or his monster? And what does this Prometheus symbolize? Conclude this discussion by having students write a short critical essay comparing the original Frankenstein to what it has become in popular culture, arguing either that much has been lost in the story's transformation or that it has been refined to its imaginative essence in the retelling.
Next have students work in research teams to investigate some American tales of the supernatural, using the resources of the Nathaniel Hawthorne website. Among Hawthorne's own works they might read "Young Goodman Brown" and "Rappaccini's Daughter" in Mosses from an Old Manse. Links within the Hawthorne website will lead them to many examples of the Gothic in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, stories like "Berenice," "The Fall of the House of Usher," and "The Tell-Tale Heart," and his well-known poem, "The Raven." Have each team focus on one story, noting similarities to the themes and story-telling techniques of Frankenstein, particularly the part science may play in setting the stage for the supernatural. After each group has reported on its story, discuss as a class the distinguishing features of Hawthorne's and Poe's work in this genre. Ask students to explore the effect on them as readers of a story by Hawthorne in the third person and by Poe in the first person. Hawthorne tells his stories in the third person and shapes them as allegories and fables, thereby diffusing their emotional impact; Poe, by contrast, generally tells his stories in the first person and shapes them to highlight the psychology of the narrator, thereby tightening their grip on the reader's emotions. Students can explore the consequences of these alternative techniques by writing a short film scenario for one episode from each author.
For more on the lives, careers and narrative techniques that make these authors as intriguing as their characters and so engaging to read, explore these EDSITEment lesson plans on Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe.
To conclude, invite students to report on modern-day tales of the supernatural that they have enjoyed. These might include the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Goosebumps and Fear Street books of R. L. Stine, the novels of Stephen King, and the vampire novels of Anne Rice. You can broaden the discussion by inviting reports on films as well, particularly films like the Alien and Jurassic Park series which highlight the connection between the supernatural and science first established by Frankenstein. Is science still an important ingredient for this genre of fiction? Encourage students to cite other motifs that modern tales of the supernatural share with their 19th-century precursors. Explore also the competing tendencies within the genre toward allegorical or symbolic meaning on the one hand and the creation of extreme emotional effects on the other. As a follow-up to this class discussion, have students write a critical review of a contemporary tale of the supernatural, evaluating it against the standards set by the Romantic-era originators of the genre.
EDSITEment offers a host of additional lessons, classroom activities, and student resources that take up similar themes. Explore these lessons on death in poetry, Charles Baudelaire and Festivals of the Dead celebrations from around the world to extend your classroom investigation of supernatural elements in literature and culture.