When you have finished reading Frankenstein, go back to the beginning. Read a page or two from captain Walton’s letters. How do you experience the language now compared to when you started reading the book?
Romantic art and literature is obsessed with the sublime. The sublime was a feeling experienced when looking at endless waters, the starry sky, thundering storms and deadly glaciers between jagged peaks. It was a mixed emotion of pain and joy and it is something we all feel when watching lightning during a stormy summer night: we love to look at it but the power of nature makes us feel small.
According to Umberto Eco’s On Beauty, the idea of the sublime goes back to the Romans, but was made popular by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). There he describes a dichotomy between beautiful things and the sublime. Beautiful things are small, smooth, elegant and with clear colors and small variations, for example a flower in a vase. Sublime things are linked to fear or power and are the opposite of the beautiful: large, coarse, powerful, for example a large waterfall. Perhaps the best explanation Eco gives is that you want to own or consume beautiful things, but not the sublime.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is filled with descriptions of sublime settings.
“It was nearly noon when I arrived at the top of the ascent. For some time I sat upon the rock that overlooks the sea of ice. A mist covered both that and the surrounding mountains. “
This is one of Victor Frankenstein’s many descriptions of Sublime settings. Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer on the Sea of Mist (1818) serves as a good illustration to the quote.
As a contrast to the sublime settings, the Creature describes the little hut with the happy family in beautiful terms:
“In the meanwhile also the black ground was covered with herbage, and the green banks interspersed with innumerable flowers, sweet to the scent and the eyes, stars of pale radiance among the moonlight woods; the sun became warmer, the nights clear and balmy […]”
The details differ from the text in Constable’s The Hay Wain, but the feeling is similar. What this means for an understanding of Frankenstein, and of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature remains to be answered. I do believe, however, that it is possible to show that there is a difference between what is typical in English culture compared to, let’s say, German culture. We see this if we compare Constable’s beautiful paintings to Friedrich’s sublime paintings or Elgar’s music to Wagner’s. England defines itself as being a green and pleasant land which is far from the sublime landscapes of Frankenstein. It seems that English writers use this image, from the Creature’s description of the hut to Tolkien’s description of the Shire. It is possible that the Creature’s longing for a family is also a longing for a home in the green and pleasant lands of England.
It is often said that to improve your pronunciation, you need to live in the country where the language is spoken; it can’t be done in the classroom. Well, I tried to change that and this is how.
The students I have are 16–19 years old and almost all have Swedish as their first language. When they come to me, their pronunciation is usually really good. Most of them speak American English, some British, but you can hear that they are not native speakers. They get high to very high grades on the spoken part of the national tests. Improving from this high level has been difficult.
What I do now is to base the pronunciation work on the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA). IDEA collects English from all over the world by having people read a sample text, Comma Gets a Cure. The pronunciation work is done in three steps.
The first step is for each student to read the sample text Comma Gets a Cure to me. When they do, I listen for three things: difficult sounds, where the sounds are produced and the intonation (melody). I take notes and afterwards I describe their pronunciation to them and tell them what they should focus on to improve their pronunciation. I also post this feedback to them so they have it in writing.
For Swedes, the most common sounds to have problems with are /z/, /dʒ/, /tʃ/, /θ/ and /ð/. Most of my students are from Stockholm and they speak Swedish at the front of the mouth, which means that most of them need to move their sounds back – a little bit for British English, a lot for American and even more for a Texan dialect (try saying “howdy, how are y’all doing” and you’ll see!). Working on intonation (melody) is something that almost everyone needs, but it is especially fruitful for those whose pronunciation is almost perfect.
The next step is for the students to find a favorite accent at IDEA. I tell them that the more time they spend on finding an accent that they want to emulate, the better the results will be. When they have found a favorite it is time to start working. They plug their headphones into their ipads and start to listen and repeat, with their feedback next to them. I let them spend perhaps an hour doing this divided on two or three lessons.
The last step is to read the the sample text Comma Gets a Cure to me again. This is the fun part, for now I get to see how they have improved! And almost all of them do, and it lasts as well, for some students I have tested again a year later.
The structure of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is like the layers of an onion; step by step we come closer to the core of the story. The novel begins with captain Walton’s letters to his sister, then Victor Frankenstein tells his story to captain Walton. At the core is the Creature’s own narrative. After that we return to Victor Frankenstein’s story and finally we are back with captain Walton who began the story.
The beginning with captain Walton’s four letters to his sister, which precede volume I in the 1818 edition, is notoriously difficult to get through for a first time reader. On a re-reading they are an important part of the novel because they set the tone (perhaps in the same way that an intro to a song is important, even if it lacks melody and rhythm).
Captain Walton’s letters describe how he travels north via St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk (Archangel) and out into “the land of mist and snow“, looking for the Magnetic North Pole. This scientific exploration shows Enlightenment ideas. Captain Walton’s description of love and friendship, on the other hand, is very Romantic. He is impressed with the master of the ship who gives up farm and future to a young couple in love and his highest wish is to find a good and close friend.
Once you have read the novel, it is interesting to go back and read Walton’s letters again. Do they give us any hints about what is to come? Does Walton parallel any of the other characters in the novel? Is the theme presented in these letters?
What did you discover after a first reading of Walton’s letters?
Tänk dig engelska språket på en skala från det absolut simplaste…
…till det mest eleganta…
(Filmerna är bara en illustration till det kommande resonemanget; du kan glatt hoppa över dem.) Vi kan illustrera den här skalan med en linje, med “Me, Tarzan” längst till vänster och med Stephen Frys underbara modersmålsengelska längst till höger.
Dina elever är någonstans på den här skalan. Ditt jobb är att beskriva elevernas kunskaper på skalan F–A. Till din hjälp har du Skolverkets kunskapskrav och centrala innehåll för kursen.
Det centrala innehållet hjälper dig att avgränsa området. Eftersom till exempel Engelska 6 ska rymma äldre skönlitteratur, populärvetenskapliga texter, existentiella frågor, sociala förhållanden, anpassning till genre och motivering av ens åsikter bland mycket annat så vet vi att nivån i alla fall är högre än Tarzans. Stephen Fry kan prata om alla de här sakerna så det blir svårare att avgränsa uppåt. Så den avgränsning vi kan göra är att nivån är mycket högre än Tarzans. Men en särskilt exakt avgränsning blir det inte. Så här blir kanske linjen.
Kanske kan kunskapskraven hjälpa dig. De här kommer från gymnasiekursen Engelska 6.
eleven formulerar sig relativt varierat: Nja,det var lite för relativt.
tydligt: Mja, det låter ganska klart, men var drar jag egentligen gränsen mellan tydligt och otydligt?
relativt strukturerat: Nu blev det relativt igen.
eleven formulerar sig med flyt: Det låter återigen klart, men var går gränsen?
viss anpassning till syfte, mottagare och situation: Inte glasklart det heller.
eleven bearbetar och gör enkla förbättringar: Äntligen något konkret och mätbart! Men Tarzan bearbetar och gör enkla förbättringar i filmen ovan, så det är inte så att vi har avgränsat något.
formella och komplexa sammanhang…tydligt och med flyt: Det där är helt klart någonstans mellan Tarzan och Fry.
viss anpassning: Glasklart, eller, nej förresten.
i huvudsak fungerande strategier som i viss mån löser problem: Äsch, nu blev det relativt igen.
Nähä. Det blev inte tydligare än så. Att sätta betyg utifrån det här vore som att bygga ett torn på gungfly. Tur att det finns nationella prov som berättar var nivåerna ligger.
We’re reading Macbeth at the moment. In too little time we are trying to understand and enjoy the language, imagine what it would have looked like on stage 400 years ago and find the really interesting parts of the play.
Fuseli, Macbeth and the witches.
Personally, I love the play between Macbeth and lady Macbeth and the conflict between ambition and doing what is right. I also love the language: “Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my deep and dark desire”, “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / it were done quickly” and of course “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
What do you think is most memorable from the play?
Ellen Terry as lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, 1889.
Semikolon måste vara det mest felanvända skiljetecknet. På engelska är reglerna tydliga och lätta. The Oatmeal har gjort en rolig presentation av dem (klicka på bilden):