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Roseanne Montillo discusses 'The Lady and Her Monsters,' her book about Mary Shelley

Frankenstein's monster – as imagined by Mary Shelley – has lived on in popular imagination for decades. Montillo discusses reanimation and the ways that religion and pop culture have changed our view of Shelley's characters.

By Randy Dotinga / April 5, 2013

Roseanne Montillo is the author of the book 'The Lady and Her Monsters.'

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Like many others with limited maturity levels, I've been utterly corrupted by Mel Brooks.

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Bring up the word "Frankenstein" and I don't think of Mary Shelley or even Boris Karloff. No, unfortunate people like me immediately fall into a reverie of jokes from a certain 1970s movie: "Blücher!" (whinny), "Would you like a roll in zee hay?," and, of course, "What hump?"

Never mind all that (even poor Abby Normal). Or the other Frankenstein movies, the Halloween costumes, and "The Munsters." Turns out they miss much of the gist of the original 1818 novel.

Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster. His creation is smart and eloquent, far from a grunting ogre. Beyond that, the whole story – as imagined by an extraordinary young woman – explores deep questions about humanity, death, and the limits of science.

Emerson College literature professor Roseanne Montillo explores a world of grave-robbing, fantastic, scientific advances and scandalous writerly behavior in her new book "The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece."

In an interview, Montillo talks about science without boundaries, a monster with a brain, and the "Frankenstein" quandaries that still resonate after almost two centuries.
 
Q: These days, scientists would be laughed out of the laboratory if they tried to study bringing people back from death.

But, as you write, respectable scientists of 200 years ago loved to explore the prospect of reanimating the dead. How were things different back then in terms of acceptable scientific pursuits?
 
A: There was a great demand after the French Revolution – maybe something can be done to bring all of these young people back. A lot of women were left without husbands, fathers without young ones. Maybe something can be done for all these people who are sad, grief-stricken, and upset.

There was also the idea of a financial gain. If you could bring people back, they could go back to work.
 
Q: According to Christianity, dead people don't return to earth in a human form. How did the idea of reanimation challenge people's faith?
 
A: You're taking God completely out of the equation if you believe you can bring someone back. If you're assuming you can do it yourself, like Frankenstein, what do you need God for?

For the religious individuals, this was a no-no right off the bat.
 
Q: What about the wishes of the dead people themselves, like the many criminals who were executed at the gallows and then experimented upon?
 
A: Maybe these people didn't want to come back. Maybe they'd gone to heaven and it was a good place, or they went to hell and it was where they belonged.

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