watercolor painting of people working in what looks like an old factory

Newhouse Faculty Series: Rebecca Summerhays

The Novel on the Defensive: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, William Paley’s Natural Theology, and the Human Machine
Nov 4, 4:30–6 PM
Newhouse Center for the Humanities
Free and open to the public

Newhouse Center faculty fellow Rebecca Summerhays, a visiting lecturer in the Writing Program, discusses her ongoing research project. Her research interests include Victorian fiction, natural history, evolutionary theory, narrative theory, and feminist theory.

Representations of Victor Frankenstein’s monster, both popular and critical, refuse to see him whole. That is, in both film and theory, the creature is either a hideous body or a beautiful mind, but rarely both. Summerhays argues instead that the monster embodies the grim truth of human life in the mechanical age: to survive industrialization, workers had to become more machine than human, physically and psychically bound by what Shelley describes as “mechanical impulse” to other workers and the machines they operated. To make this argument, Summerhays reads Shelley’s novel as a critical response to William Paley’s enormously popular (if all-but-forgotten) creationist “classic,” Natural Theology (1802). Natural Theology is remarkable for its attempt to consecrate machinery, requiring readers to worship all bodies, including their own, as miniature versions of the factories, mills, and refineries springing up around Britain. For Shelley, the biomechanical world that Paley romanticizes places the novel form on the defensive. How did the novel subsequently evolve in the early nineteenth century, when machine deposed the mind as the seat of human consciousness and life itself?