Through the Looking Glass: Self-Knowledge Through Reading in “Frankenstein” (Part 1 of 2)

Does reading help us decide who we are? (Picture  from paukrus via Flickr)
Does reading help us decide who we are? (Picture from paukrus via Flickr)

The novel Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus has been capturing the imagination of the public since it was first published in 1818. It has become canonical, with school children all over the world reading it, dissecting it, and perhaps attempting to author a similar creature of their own. However, the meaning of Frankenstein’s Creature has been hotly debated since its inception. Through the figure of The Creature, readers have attempted to understand a greater message about technology, about the feminine, about the frightening, and about themselves.

Indeed, by reading any book, the modern public has attempted to discover deeper truths about who they are as individuals. The theorist Jürgen Habermas argued that it was the act of reading that created the private individual, created a ‘self’ in the modern sense of the word. In Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Frankenstein, both the characters Victor Frankenstein and the Creature define themselves through their reading of various texts. The actions of these characters illustrate Habermas’ theory that in the first era of print, reading books was central to developing modern ideas of personhood. One of these modern ideas is that a person must go through a process to become who they are; that one is not simply born into a class, a “station”, or into a personality.  In addition, the form of Shelley’s work highlights that the public had accepted the importance of reading print. Shelley tells the story of Victor and his Creature using a device that validates Habermas’ theory.

The inside cover of the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"
The inside cover of the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”

As a prominent political and social theorist of the 20th century, Jürgen Habermas is perhaps most well-known for his work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas’ book discusses various ideas and theories about the development of both the public and the private sphere. For Habermas, the emergence of print culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth century was key to the development of these social constructs. In fact, within the sphere of the private, Habermas contends that the private individual was formed directly by the consumption of the newly and widely available print texts. Habermas looks to the function of the letter in the eighteenth and seventeenth century, and the phenomenon of epistolary novels. He argues that the first traces of the development of a private self can be found in these early texts, saying that, “The diary became a letter addressed to the sender, and the first-person narrative became a conversation with one’s self…” (49). Through this conversation with one’s self, Habermas posits that self-reflection was developed, and the idea of a malleable self began to form.

The german philosopher Jurgen Habermas postulated the idea of the private and public spheres.
The german philosopher Jurgen Habermas postulated the idea of the private and public spheres.

With the inception of the novel, the effect of reading on personal development markedly increased. Habermas argues that “The…novel…allowed anyone to enter into the literary action as a substitute for his own, to use the relationships between the figures, between the author, the characters, and the reader, as substitute for relationships in reality” (50). By inserting themselves into the world of the book, the reader was allowed to relate and empathize with various characters and situations, examining their own feelings, responses, and beliefs. Entering into this pattern of repetition “within himself [of] the private relationships displayed before him in literature; from [this] experience of real familiarity, he gave life to the fictional one, and in the latter he prepared himself for the former”, thus developing a self with which he (the reader) can go forth and function in the real world as a uniquely formed, private individual (50-51).

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This piece is dedicated to Aradia (@Writer_Princess), a lovely writer who may or may not have promised me a ride on one of her pet dragons in exchange for this piece 😉 Thank you so much, Aradia!

-5° Fahrenheit with a wind-chill of -20 and it was just past midday. With the setting of the sun, for now glowing clear and bright in the sky in flagrant mockery of the freezing creatures below, it would get even colder.

Margo was curled up in her usual corner of the reference section, coats draped over her like blankets, her ratty knapsack supporting her lower back as she read. She’d been coming to the Harold Washington Library for years, practically since she began roughing it on the streets of Chicago. The librarians were kind, never sending her out until they had to, the library quiet, and it was filled to the brim with her favorite things: books.

With the price of dope and food being what it was, Margo doubted she’d ever be able to afford books of her own. But when she nestled herself in between the Tribune periodicals and the census statistics, she liked to imagine that the whole of the library’s collection belonged to her alone.

Her calloused fingers turned the page of her latest sword-and-sorcery novel as she stifled a yawn. Her hand flitted over the bruise on her cheek, her cracked ribs aching as she shifted against her bag. Margo devoured fantasy stories with a bottomless hunger. They were books that championed power; mental, magical, or muscle. Few characters in these tomes were bereft of it, and those who were could always find a powerful protector to keep them safe.

Outside, the wind howled like a beaten dog. The light grew dim and Margo’s eyelids grew heavy. The pain had made it difficult to sleep last night, as if the constant pawing of her shelter bedfellow hadn’t been bad enough. But now she was warm and safe and her body couldn’t fight off the exhaustion creeping over her. Her finger slid from the page she was reading; her mind left the ruined catacombs of Dranin behind and descended into a dreamless sleep.

Margo was awoken by a distant growling. She kept her eyes shut, grimacing as she readjusted herself on her knapsack, which felt as hard as a stone. Someone must have brought a service dog into the library.

A cold draft of air blew down her back. She shivered, wondering silently why someone would open a window in this weather. She leaned her head back in an attempt to escape the source of the breeze and banged her skull against something decidedly harder than the plywood shelves of the library.

Margo jolted fully awake with a curse, grabbing her sore crown with both hands. Soon though, the pain was utterly forgotten. For a panicked moment, Margo thought she’d gone blind. Her eyes were open, she was certain, but only blackness surrounded her.

She threw out her hands, trying to grip the shelves and heave herself up. But her hands only slid against moss-slickened stone. A cry ripped through her throat. It reverberated off the high, vaulted ceiling that should not have been there.

Something was very wrong indeed.

Very slowly, Margo’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. The room was not bereft of light, as Margo had first concluded, but it was lined with dimly glowing lanterns, the green fire behind their cracked glass doors like no flame Margo had ever seen before.

She caught sight of what surrounded her and clamped her hand tight over her mouth to keep herself from screaming again. The room in which she stood was filled with deep shelves, hewn from the craggy rock, upon which rested browning skeletons covered with shreds of cloth. The shelves stretched up from the floor into the pitch black above her.

She had to be dreaming. The book had given her nightmares. She was asleep. She was asleep.

A growl, deep and raspy, like the sound of crunching gravel, echoed through the room once more. Margo’s heart stopped beating.

The growl sounded much closer now than it had before.

Her pale green eyes swung towards the doorway across from her.

Please let this be a dream.

As if someone had flipped a switch, three pairs of glassy yellow eyes, stacked one on top of the other, glowed in the darkness of the passageway. Margo scrambled to her feet, boots heavy as she stumbled across the uneven stone floor to the farthest corner of the room. Her mind reeled, terror only partially dulled by sheer disbelief that what was happening was actually happening.

The creature advancing on her from the tunnel was a Likcanid, looking just like she had imagined it would. She was standing in the middle of the Dranin Catacombs. The Likcanid would devour her, even her bones. She knew this. But she could not believe it.

The Likcanid skittered closer, its eight long legs almost filling the room. Its slender body shivered with each growl it released from its fanged mouth, matted black mane falling back around its wolf like face, razor-sharp teeth dripping with poison. It rose up onto its hind legs, hissing so loudly Margo’s ears began to ring.

While Margo’s mind might have been slow to accept the reality in which it now found itself, her body acted on instinct alone. She threw her hands out to shield herself from the first blow of the Likcanid’s massive leg, and, with a sharp ache in her chest and a cry, a burst of fire, blue hot, shot from her palms and went straight through the Likcanid’s head.

The beast collapsed to the floor with a sticky thud. Margo, mouth hanging open, stared at its carcass. She lowered her arms. Had she done that?

She examined her hands. They were undamaged, though she couldn’t say the same for her gloves, the palms of which had disintegrated, leaving her with a collection of cloth finger coverings and little else.

She had done that.

Margo closed her eyes, trying to control her excitement. She took in a deep breath and held her hands out in front of her as if she was leaning against a large boulder. She dug deep, felt the aching in her chest, and pushed outwards. A line of flame smote the stone wall opposite her.

Margo smiled, her teeth shining in the weird, green light. She didn’t care if this was a dream or some kind of drug-induced psychosis. She was never going back. No one was ever going to hurt her again.

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Inspiration – Sweating the Small Stuff

The entrance to your average comic book store, where you can find anything but average art. (Photo via Jeffrey on Flickr)
The entrance to your average comic book store, where you can find anything but average art. (Photo via Jeffrey on Flickr)

I came to the world of comic books fairly late in my adolescence. It was actually a love of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer that first drove me to enter what was, at the age of sixteen, the forbidding comic shop in my town. Several years, over five ComicCons (the local Emerald City ComicCon is my con of choice), and a collection of well over a thousand comic books later, I am a devoted comic fan – I read from every major publisher, most of the independents, and some publishers I hadn’t even heard of until a few months ago. For a cinephile and book lover, the form of the graphic novel represent the best of both worlds; striking, beautiful, memorable images paired together with well-chosen words create what are, for me, some of the most unusual, imaginative, and important stories I have ever read.

It’s impossible to talk about my transformation into a comic junkie without mentioning one creator in particular: the comic book artist and writer Dustin Nguyen. The first year I went to the Emerald City ComicCon, back when I thought this whole comic thing was just a cool new hobby I was exploring and not a way of life, Dustin was one of the few comic book creators I went to meet. I’ve made sure to visit his booth every year since and have never been disappointed in the selection of art and stories he has for sale or in his open, friendly demeanor. I can’t lie; Dustin Nguyen is one of my favorite people working in comics right now if only because he’s just such a nice guy. Simple as that.

Comic book artist and writer Dustin Nguyen at a con. (Photo taken by PatLoika via Flickr)
Comic book artist and writer Dustin Nguyen at a con. (Photo taken by PatLoika via Flickr)

It helps that his work, both art and writing wise, are mind-blowing. Pick up anything with his name on it, and I guarantee you that you’re in for a wonderful time. But there’s one series in particular of his that I want to focus on in this post. Starting in 2012, Dustin Nguyen, partnering with his friend and frequent collaborator Derek Fridolfs, began releasing a series called Li’l Gotham. At first the issues were available via download only, but soon the series became so popular, DC agreed to release print issues of the stories.

Li’l Gotham is a fun, kid-appropriate comic series, themed around the various holidays which come every year. Each issue was released on or around a holiday, averaging about one a month. The stories revolve around various holiday themed escapades, such as the Joker unwittingly dousing himself in a Pamela Isley distilled love pheromone on Valentine’s Day or Barbara Gordon taking her father, Commissioner Gordon, out for a Father’s Day dinner, and being forced to make nice with Ra’s and Talia al Ghul. Nguyen flexes his more ‘cartoonish’ drawing style in these books, a style fans of his have been familiar with for some time. In fact, one year at ECCC, Dustin was kind enough to sketch me a Harley Quinn (one of my favorite Batman characters) in this style.

Dustin Nguyen and some examples of his various drawing styles. (Photo by PatLoika via Flickr)
Dustin Nguyen and some examples of his various drawing styles. (Photo by PatLoika via Flickr)

Compared to the other Batman titles that have come out since Nguyen and Fridolfs began their series, Li’l Gotham seems, well, a bit silly. In a period which brought comic book readers so much angst and tragedy from the Bat Family, including the death of a major character, the Saturday morning antics of that same family in Li’l Gotham offers a strange contrast. But, strange or not, I believe that Li’l Gotham is one of the best Batman series to come out since the New 52 began in 2011. I believe Li’l Gotham is so good because it’s a little silly.

Like the great cartoons of bygone times, “Li’l Gotham” masks some pretty touching and important messages under all that hilarity. Nguyen’s drawings are beautiful, his grasp of expression and setting breathtaking. It’s a relief to see the Bat Family actually acting like a family – from messing up Thanksgiving Dinner to enjoying Halloween mischief, Bruce, Damian, Alfred, Dick, Barbara, Tim, and everyone else stand as great examples of how to be a supportive family. Even the villains tend to do things for sympathetic and understandable reasons, reasons that are important to acknowledge and talk about – loneliness, loss, and, yes, boredom.

Dustin Nguyen surrounded by a 'Bat Family' of his own art. (Photo by PatLoika via Flickr).
Dustin Nguyen surrounded by a ‘Bat Family’ of his own art. (Photo by PatLoika via Flickr).

It’s clear from page one of Li’l Gotham that there was no half-effort expended in making this ‘side project’ the best it could be. There’s nothing ‘little’ about the feelings behind each story, each beautifully drawn panel, and each vibrant splash of color. Many artists, from all fields, have projects separate from what they consider their main work – but Dustin Nguyen and his work on Li’l Gotham serve as a great reminder that when you put your heart into something, no matter how small, it can turn into a wonderful piece of art; all you have to do is try and never let yourself be afraid of sweating the small stuff.

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Control and Character: Defining a New Subject in Galatea (Part 2 of 2)

Electronic Literature has existed for well over thirty years. Is it slowly changing our ideas of self? (Photo via Jill on Flickr)
Electronic Literature has existed for well over thirty years. Is it slowly changing our ideas of self? (Photo via Jill on Flickr)

It seems that the emergently popular world of electronic literature has provided readers with a possible solution to this issue of control. Interactive fiction provides the reader with something they never really had with print: agency. Take, for example, a work like Emily Short’s Galatea. This work is written entirely in second person, a form not usually taken by print texts. Galatea opens with a brief paragraph of text, situating the reader within an unclear space: “You come around a corner, away from the noise of the opening. There is only one exhibit” (Galatea). The reader is then given a slight description of the main character herself: “She stands in the spotlight, with her back to you: a sweep of pale hair on paler skin, a column of emerald silk that ends in a pool at her feet” (Galatea). Neither description provide the reader with enough information to discern much of where the story is set and who this mysterious woman might be – but that is part of the story telling strategy. The illusion interactive fiction attempts to create is an authorless one; the reader, the “you” addressed by the work itself, must explore and interact with the space. Interactive fiction tries to convince its audience that besides a few brief opening lines, nothing else would exist without the reader acting upon the work. Agency, control, has shifted fundamentally.

Moreover, the reader is pushed out of their usual role of observer by the text itself. If, after the opening text is displayed, the reader chooses to enter commands that allow them to simply look at Galatea, the female character on the pedestal, and read the plaque on the column, Galatea prompts you, “‘You might try speaking to me,’…’It’s not polite simply to stare. And I’ve gotten very bored, standing here’” (Galatea). The text demands the reader’s participation in order to function at all, rather than just allowing them to move about within the fictional world. While the illusion of an authorless text does not go so far as allowing a reader to rewrite who the “you” is as a character, where the reader is in space or time, or erase the personage of Galatea from the flow of the story, readers are allowed to shape the character of Galatea herself, the actions of the art critic (“you”), and, consequently, the way the story unfolds. By entering various sets of commands, a reader can get Galatea to pray piously to Dionysus, to kill the reader character, or even to kiss them and walk off into the proverbial sunset. The story of Galatea is, in essence, whatever the reader wants it to be. Galatea asks more of readers; they cannot be passive members of an audience; they must inhabit the world they seek to learn about. They are given control. In a sense, the readers become the authors of the text.

It is true that attempts to engage readers more directly are not limited to the realm of electronic literature. Several print works have implemented various methods in attempts to create the illusion of control. The works that have the most in common with interactive fiction like Galatea are the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books and the novel, Bright Lights, Big City. The Choose Your Own Adventure books allow readers to alter the plot of the story itself. They contain this rarely seen second person address, the “you” character, and create a situation in which “you” and a myriad of other characters embark on an adventure of some kind. The reader is allowed agency in these books by a choice at the bottom of almost every page, usually one akin to, ‘If you follow Sally down the mine, turn to page 47. If you go back to camp with the others, turn to page 5.’ This is an agency very similar to the one found within Galatea, where readers are allowed to ‘choose’ the next step in the story. The main difference here, though, is that in a Choose Your Own Adventure text, the reader is only allowed two or three choices at any one time. Furthermore, the illusion of agency is thin at best when the reader can’t interact with any other characters or explore the setting for themselves. The figure of the author is still inescapably present. The case is the same for Bright Lights, Big City. While it is written in the second person, the reader is at the complete mercy of the author, without any agency to affect the flow of the story. In interactive fiction, rather than being led by the author, readers lead the story and the characters. Readers are not told what to do, how to do it, or in what order. Authors of print texts attempt to manipulate the reader’s feelings and opinions through tone, characterization, the presentation and withholding of facts, etc. This is flipped in Galatea where the reader is allowed to attempt to manipulate the text directly. Furthermore, they are allowed not only to control their own agency in the space, but they are encouraged to attempt to manipulate the other characters and their character’s perceptions of the setting. The reader is allowed to see things the way they want to; including themselves.

Does "Bright Lights, Big City" really relinquish control to readers? (Photo via Kimmo de Gooijer on Flickr)
Does “Bright Lights, Big City” really relinquish control to readers? (Photo via Kimmo de Gooijer on Flickr)

The literary critic Mark Poster takes up this issue in his essay entitled, The Digital Subject and Cultural Theory. Using Judith Butler’s theory of the performative, Poster examines the effects the blurring of authorial authority might have on the readers of electronic literature. “The issue at stake,” Poster succinctly puts it, “in [the] digitization of authorship may now be sharply posed: how is the subject reconfigured in this process?” (Poster 490). While Poster uses Butler as a backdrop for solidifying the basis of his argument, he contends that she does not take her theories far enough into the realm of new media. Poster refers to Sandy Stone, who postulated, “As soon as we consider the relationship between bodies and selves…we must take into account communications technologies as these mediate social groups and speech acts” (Poster 491). Poster then turns to the medium of the internet, where interactive fiction lies. Poster finds that because users create themselves with every character placed on the screen and because these acts are so similar to the simultaneous speech acts to which Butler gives primacy, “…the construction of the subject occurs entirely on the screen, determined entirely by the words entered onto the keyboard” (Poster 491). Participants within a text, the readers, can create their own identity, their own ideas of who they are within the text and who they are outside of it, once the “analogue author”, as Poster puts it, is out of the picture. In interactive fictions such as Galatea, readers truly are “…authors of themselves as characters, not simply by acts of consciousness, but by the interactions that take place on the screen” (Poster 491).

Will electronic and interactive literature fundamentally change our conception of self? (Photo by goXunuReviews via Flickr)
Will electronic and interactive literature fundamentally change our conception of self? (Photo by goXunuReviews via Flickr)

Graham Nelson is a central figure in the interactive fiction community. He is the creator of many works himself, as well as many of the programs needed to read them. He said “The ‘interactive fiction’ format hasn’t changed in any fundamental way since the early 1970s, in the same way that the format of the novel hasn’t since 1700” (“Famous Quotes”). While this may be true, something has been changing since interactive fiction first came on the literary scene: the readers themselves. Being forced to read with a new sense of agency and control has changed them. Without the figure of the author looming over a work, readers are allowed to see themselves as more than mere observers – they become creators within and of themselves.

Works Cited

“Graham Nelson Quotes.” Famous Quotes and Quotations at BrainyQuote. 2010. Web. 01 June 2010. .

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Charles heard Holly coming long before she arrived; the frenzied clicking of her heels across their marble floors gave him welcome warning. He sighed and slid further down into his plush leather chair.

“We should buy a house.”

Charles’ eyebrows lifted high over his glasses, but his eyes remained fixed on the book in his hand. “Capital idea.”

“Or perhaps a cabin,” said Holly, sitting down on the ottoman in front of him. She pushed her long red hair back over her shoulder.

“Lovely,” said Charles, turning the page.

Holly’s bejeweled fingers clicked unrhythmically against the stem of her wine glass, which was already drained of all but a puddle of crimson liquid. “A cabin in the woods. Or maybe on a beach somewhere. There was that darling little island in North Carolina, do you remember? Ocracoke or whatever it was.” She gave a quick sigh which was more like a hiccup of air and nerves. “But I don’t know. All that sand. What do you think?”

Charles flipped forward to the end of the chapter, counting the pages. “Whatever you’d prefer.”

The tapping stopped. He could feel her swamp green eyes boring into his forehead. He did not look up.

After a moment, Holly stood, striding over to the long couch on the other side of the room. She threw herself into the cushions, crossing her long, tan legs over each other. “Let’s get a dog.”


“I always wanted a dog when I was a child, did I ever tell you? A big black Labrador that would slobber all over me and shed its hair on my best clothes. What do you think? Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“Very, yes,” said Charles.

There was silence from the other side of his book. Charles took this opportunity to reach down to the side table and take a long drink of bourbon. He returned to his book, turning another delicate page.

“Of course,” Holly’s voice was high and cracking as she spoke, “we don’t have to get a dog.”


“Would you prefer a cat?”

Charles shrugged, but did not look up. “Why not?”

With an abruptness that almost startled him out of his book, Holly stood and walked away. Charles didn’t watch her go, but judging from the quickness of her step, he wouldn’t be surprised if she ran back in a few minutes later with a cat in hand.

However, it was quite some time before Holly returned. When she did, she performed her approach with more stealth than Charles was accustomed to. She placed her hands on his shoulders and he nearly spilled his drink all over himself.

“Let’s go on a trip. It’s been ages since we’ve been on a little excursion. We used to travel around all the time – would you like that?”

Charles placed his glass back onto the side table. “Of course.”

Holly came around the chair, one arm slung heavily over his shoulders, a hindrance when he attempted to turn pages. She insinuated herself onto the arm of his chair, leaning towards him before speaking again.

“Remember when we went to Europe? Months and months we spent there; I could’ve lived there forever. Madrid, Munich, Vienna – Rome! Oh Rome was lovely. The Pantheon, St. Peters, the Coliseum. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see it all again? Oh could we, Charles?” Holly pleaded, her fingers trailing down his arms. “Just you and me.”

Charles sighed. He smiled into his book. “If that would make you happy.”

In the wordless pause that followed, Holly calmly picked up Charles’ full glass of bourbon and poured it into his lap.

Charles continued reading.

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