Victor Frankenstein is the most irritating protagonist I’ve ever met. Yet I love teaching Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein and exploring the questions it raises, questions not only of what Victor creates but the process by which he creates it. Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein is no doctor, but a college student who deals with a predictable college student issue: keeping in touch with home. As he fails to visit or even write to his family, he remembers his father’s words: “I know that while you are pleased with yourself, you will think of us with affection and we shall hear regularly from you. You must pardon me if I regard any interruption in your correspondence as a proof that your other duties are equally neglected.”
“Is his father right?” I ask my students. Is failing to write really a sign that he’s neglecting his other duties? His work is what’s keeping him from writing. Isn’t his research also a duty, deserving focus? Is it even possible to do his kind of work and do other things, like keeping up his family relationships, at the same time?
With more and more students coming to college with more and more family responsibilities, these questions are as relevant today as any the novel raises. Nontraditional students often have children. Traditional students are more frequently living at home, not only saving money but caring for younger siblings. Leaving home for four years of focused study, as Victor does, can seem like a quaint dream of the past; keeping all the balls in the air can feel like a frenetic nightmare. Given our current culture’s devaluing of higher education, if a ball drops, then it is likely to be school.
Mary Shelley’s novel may be read as a story of the disastrous results of education at the expense of family connections. On the other hand, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which Shelley read before writing Frankenstein, decries the disastrous results of (women’s) lack of education and narrow focus on family. Considering both works together may help us honor family and academic vocations as mutually supportive, each necessary to the other.
At first glance, Victor may seem an ideal student. Bright and motivated, he asks for additional reading and devours it; he improves the lab equipment and pulls all-nighters out of sheer curiosity and passion for learning. He wants to end disease and bring light to our dark world. He would certainly cause his school’s retention director no sleepless nights, and the alumni office would anticipate a star in the making. Meanwhile, he does not visit his family for two years and then discontinues even writing them. He loses touch with his joy in nature, violating it by torturing animals. He apparently makes no friends at school, his health teeters, and he describes himself as a slave, driven by compulsion, not as an artist enjoying his work. He wishes to “procrastinate” his “affections,” he says, and puts regular life on hold until he completes his project.
Ironically, of course, Victor’s great achievement does not make his “temporary” sacrifice of family, friendship, and health worthwhile; instead, it completes their destruction. Like the many tyrants who have waged war in the name of peace, he doesn’t justify his means with his end; instead, his end matches his means, and he dies in an icy wasteland that reflects his isolation.
Most of our students and most of us have the same duties that Victor neglects, particularly to family. How much time is given to each responsibility will differ drastically from person to person and culture to culture; none of us should dare to dictate the proper ratios to someone else. But family relationships cannot be procrastinated. Aging parents and grandparents die; children grow up. If we want families to come home to, then they need nurture along the way.
It is for the good of those very families that Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley’s mother, argues for education, particularly for women. Childrearing is too important, she says, to leave it to ignorant mothers with uncultivated reason. Women’s education is key for improving the lot of children and that of society; she says, “private duties are never properly fulfilled, unless the understanding enlarges the heart.” We cannot serve our families fully unless we develop our minds as well as our affections.
Especially for many of our first-generation students, a college education can feel hard to justify; the money and time it takes from their families can seem outrageous. What can make it possible, more than one first-generation graduate has told me, is to take the long view and see their education as something they undertake for the very sake of their families. This is most obvious financially since, as we’ve all heard, the lifetime earnings of a college graduate are usually far higher than those of a high school graduate. But as Wollstonecraft reminds us, education is just as important for the sake of life within the home, including the character and attitudes parents impart as they rear their children. A half century later, John Henry Newman argues for a university education in particular as “the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end,” cultivating not only the mind and taste of society as a whole but also preparing individuals for private life—seeing things as they are, disentangling thoughts, speaking and listening, joking or being serious at appropriate times. The homeschooling mother benefits her family and society with her college education just as much as the hospital nurse does who brings home a paycheck.
As Wollstonecraft discusses the importance of justice and reason, she comments, “[g]enuine duties support each other.” While she says this in the context of what we might call values or principles, rather than talking about specific duties such as taking out the trash, I have found her words worth considering for all kinds of “duties.” Genuine duties support each other. We might put it into vocational language by saying that genuine callings support each other. Our families can motivate and support our educations; our educations can enrich and support our families.
In a messy world, sometimes a sick child may mean missing class; a paper due may mean missing an evening at home. In an unjust world, not everyone has the opportunity to receive the education that would help their family, or find adequate relationships to spot them through an education. These facts suggest that we have callings as communities, not only as individuals—including a calling to change structures and provide resources so that each person can pursue each of their callings, not choosing between them.
Yes, our callings will stand in tension at times. But in the big picture, between genuine callings, the tension is not that of a game of tug-of-war, pulling us in opposite directions. Rather, it is the tension of a bridge, each piece keeping each other piece in its appropriate place. Our callings will not all be in balance at a given moment, but over time, they can work together like voices in a fugue to create a rich whole.
Julie Straight is chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, where she also codirected the first-year seminar program, Cornerstone, for seven years. Her current research focuses on the theology of suffering as found in twentieth- and twenty-first-century children’s and young adult literature. For other posts by Julie, click here.