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First Year Seminar in Victorian Monsters and Modern Monstrosity

From   Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood  , by James Malcolm Rymer.      1847.      E. Lloyd, London.

From Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood, by James Malcolm Rymer.  1847.  E. Lloyd, London.

Frankenstein’s monster; Scrooge’s ghosts; Count Dracula; Mr. Hyde; the Hottentot Venus; the Elephant Man; and Jack the Ripper. The Victorians both adored and reviled their monsters, and ever since their inception, Americans and Europeans alike have delighted in adapting them and their stories into art and film. As Foucault once said, we are the new Victorians, and as such, we, too, are perversely fascinated by nineteenth-century monsters and what they represent (violence, sexuality, cannibalism, physical strength, and a complete disregard for human laws and norms). While we may believe we distance ourselves from Victorian monsters as “alien” or “non-human,” in point of fact the reason we re-make them again and again is because they symbolize our deepest fears and conflicts: our fears of the unknown, the uncanny, and the irrational; our fears of failed progress and authority; our fears that we will be violated by those whom society has deemed backward, unworthy, or somehow “Other.”

Through narratives, films, and photographs from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, in this first year seminar students identify, think about, write critically about, and discuss how monster narratives are constructed as stories with plots and characters; what monsters have in common across time and cultures; how monsters express the concerns, hopes, pressing questions, and anxieties of their contemporary societies; how monsters throw into relief what we consider “normal”; and how monsters remind us of what it means to be human. As such, students also examine interconnections between Victorian monsters and culture by considering some of the major issues of both the nineteenth century and our own time: science and evolution, industrialization and commercialism, women’s rights and domesticity, race and empire, fashion and image, as well as aesthetics and criticism. Throughout the semester, students simultaneously discuss our modern-day views of Victorian monsters through the medium of our own popular culture, examining contemporary films and photographs about Victorian monstrosity. Oftentimes, the course includes a field trip to DC to visit the National Gallery and the Library of Congress—archives that each hold “monstrous” literature and art within their collections.


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Download a sample assignment from Victorian Monsters and Modern Monstrosity (PDF):