In Penny Dreadful (Showtime/Sky Atlantic, 2014-16), creator John Logan interprets and reimagines one of the central concepts of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)– social exclusion and the desire for sympathy and community. He does so by replicating and revising the plot sequence of a key scene in Shelley’s novel – when the creature is rejected by the De Lacey family. He replicates the sequence by emphasizing the creature’s isolation, then placing him within a community that seems uniquely suited and willing to accept him, and then destroying that stability and acceptance each time he gets close to enjoying it. Logan’s series revises this key scene by selecting social spaces and communities that make interesting interpretive sense – whether to appeal to 21st century attitudes, reflect 19th century cultural contexts, or imagine an origin story that Shelley’s story leaves out. By replicating and reinterpreting this scene over the course of three seasons, he engages the earlier text in a dialogue that highlights a sentimental rhetorical strategy for generating sympathy in the audience, which is present in both texts.
I. Frankenstein and Penny Dreadful: Adaptation and Intertextualities
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a text that has produced “nearly infinite variations in every conceivable popular and highbrow medium,” as Dennis Perry explains, and the novel is a text that is especially suited to adaptation and intertextual interpretations (137). For starters, “Intertextuality is the very seed of Mary Shelley’s novel. Like Frankenstein, she is an adapter sewing together parts from older texts like the Prometheus myth, Paradise Lost, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Faust, and Caleb Williams…”(Perry 138). In other words, Shelley’s novel represents the sewing together of a new creation from existing fragments in Victor’s creation, but as a writer, she also actively performs the process of adaption in the intertextual nature of her novel. As Perry explains, each of the over 100 Frankenstein films that Shelley’s novel has motivated, replicates this process as well. They simultaneously represent the process of “adapting” a creature within the film, and they actively perform the process of “adapting” as they draw on not only Shelley’s novel, but also the influence of later film adaptations, in the creation of their artistic product (139).
One recent adaptation that has received considerable attention is John Logan’s television series Penny Dreadful1. Like Shelley’s novel, Penny Dreadful is also self-consciously intertextual because it sews together characters and aspects of storylines from many of the 19th century’s most popular gothic texts, including Frankenstein, but also Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. In doing so, the series must contend with not only the source texts, that is, the novels themselves, but also with the many other cultural retellings of these stories over the past century, so that, for example, we can see elements of later adaptations included (Frankenstein creates a female creature) and elements of later adaptations rejected (the creature is decidedly not similar to James Whales and Boris Karloff’s 1931 imagining of him, either physically or intellectually). In addition to retelling, adapting, and sewing together these stories in a visual medium, the writer and director, John Logan, also adds to, amends, and extends these characters’ storylines. In describing his process in writing the series, Logan acknowledges both his indebtedness to the precursor texts and his own, original contributions: “It all started with William Wordsworth…which led to Byron, Keats, and finally to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. All that poetry and those two great cornerstones of Gothic literature set me thinking about a new story built on original characters, my own monstrous creations…was there a fresh, modern way to explore the challenging characters of those familiar literary works?” (qtd. in Gosling 6, emphasis added).
Logan’s emphasis on his own interpretation of and contribution to these earlier texts points to an important concept in adaption studies. Linda Hutchins describes that “adaption is an act of appropriating or salvaging, and this is always a double process of interpreting and then creating something new” (20), and Dennis Cutchins and Christa Albrecht-Crane highlight the creative act of interpretation in the process of adapting as well, explaining “Adapters…must interpret, re-working the precursor text and choosing the various meanings and sensations they find most compelling…then imagine scenes, characters, and plot elements, etc., that match their interpretation” (16). This act of interpretation and the subsequent choices made in the construction of the adaptation – that is, the new “reading” or “path” taken by the adapter, as Cutchins and Crane explain it – can reveal economic, cultural, historical, or interpretive influences or motivations in the new text (18). So for instance, in the case of Frankenstein, “a particular interpretation of the novel, that of James Whale, has become part of our language, our cultural inheritance, if you will…But at the same time…Shelley’s Frankenstein might be interpreted primarily as a frightening adventure story, a social commentary, a critique of science, etc., depending on the interpretation of the reader/adaptor. Someone working on yet another adaptation of Frankenstein may choose one of the less traveled paths to create a new and fresh reading, and thus a new and fresh adaptation of the novel” (Cutchins and Crane 19). As his earlier quote shows, Logan echoes the language of Cutchins and Crane in describing his approach to adapting Frankenstein and other nineteenth century texts – he seeks a “fresh” “modern” and new reading of the novels in Penny Dreadful. Although Logan explores many different paths in adapting Frankenstein, one path his show returns to and explores throughout each of its three seasons is the idea of the outcast seeking a sympathetic community.
II. Social Exclusion and the Desire for Sympathy and Community
Just as Shelley makes sympathy and community central ideas of the novel – each of the narrators seeks a sympathetic companion throughout Frankenstein, and isolation from community is part of what connects Walton’s, Victor’s, and the creature’s stories and experiences in the frame narrative that contains them2 –Penny Dreadful’s entire narrative draws on the idea of the “outcast” seeking community. The overarching community depicted in the show is neo-Victorian3 London, and while the show has many characters and storylines over its three seasons, most of the major characters struggle to be fully integrated into the larger community for either social or supernatural reasons – or some combination of both.
For example, the main character, Vanessa Ives, is isolated not only because as outspoken, confident, and articulate, she exceeds the expectations of 19th century women, but also because she is a powerful medium, trying to retain her faith despite being strongly appealed to by darker forces. Supporting characters struggle to be integrated as well, like Ethan, whose American nationality makes him an outsider in London but who also struggles with his dual identity as Were-Wolf. Brona/Lily is another character who is initially socially marginalized because she is both an Irish immigrant and a “fallen woman,” but later because she is reanimated from the dead (the female creature). There are also some exceptions to the supernatural, like the minor character Mr. Lyle, who the series suggests may occupy an outcast status because of his sexual orientation and Jewish heritage. These characters and their various identities indicate the ways that Logan channels aspects of Shelley’s romantic era text, such as representing the plight of the disenfranchised or the gothic interest in using the supernatural to point to larger social issues. They also reveal Logan’s twenty-first century revisions in characterization and subject matter in their more modern depictions of sexual orientation, class, gender, and ethnicity. Kohlke comments that this “revisionist impact of 20th-century political correctness on the period’s fictional reconstructions” is not uncommon in neo-Victorian texts (2); she cites Christian Gutleben’s 2001 observation that such fictional reconstructions allow for correctives of “the injustice towards some of its ill-used or forgotten representatives such as women, the lower classes, or homosexuals” (qtd. in Kohlke 2). Nonetheless, the main storyline follows the way the majority of these characters find refuge and community in each other, and form a bond based not only on their shared interest in fighting darker forces but also in their shared struggle with being disenfranchised.
Yet even within this smaller community of “outcasts,” the exception is the creature – or briefly Caliban (season 1) and eventually John Clare (seasons 2 and 3), as he is named in Logan’s series. The creature’s storyline, for the most part, is always peripheral from this core group. By keeping him isolated, within the midst of other marginalized characters who find sympathetic companionship with each other, Logan emphasizes and extends Shelley’s focus on social exclusion and sympathy. In particular, Penny Dreadful reimagines Shelley’s central scene of exclusion, when the creature is rejected by the De Lacey family. This scene of rejection in Shelley’s novel is pivotal because it comes at a moment when the creature seems most likely to find companionship.
In Shelley’s novel, the creature’s isolation has already been well established by the time he comes across the De Laceys. Readers learn his history when he tells Victor of his traumatic experiences following his creation and leading up to his introduction to the family. Beginning with Victor’s initial abandonment, which leaves him alone in the world from the moment of his “birth,” he goes on to describe a series of encounters that alienate him from others, including his rejection by the first person he meets, who yells and runs away (70), children who “shrie[k]” at his sight, a woman who faints, and an entire village that either flees or attacks him. These initial interactions emphasize his exclusion and lead him to reflect miserably on “the barbarity of man” (71).
Shelley introduces the De Laceys into the creature’s narrative following this series of rejections, when his longing for companionship is desperate. The creature describes how, for a long time before approaching the family, he silently observes their interactions from the security of a hovel. He watches them from afar for months, learning about, but never participating in, their daily lessons in cooperation, the power of language, and the value of human comfort. He witnesses Mr. De Lacey and his children, Agatha and Felix, take care of each other and eventually welcome another, Safie, into the family. All the while he remains on the outside, connected only through “a small and almost imperceptible chink, through which the eye could just penetrate” (72).
Shelley underscores how his observation of the family makes him even more aware of his own isolation when he reflects, “But where were my friends and family relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses” (81). She also depicts how it motivates his fantasy of someday being a part of the De Lacey’s loving community. The creature explains that he hopes to win them over, despite his appearance, through the power of language, describing, “I imagined that they would be disgusted, until, by my gentle demeanour and conciliating words, I should first win their favour, and afterwards their love” (77). His desire “to claim their protection and kindness…to be known and loved by these amiable creatures” finally prompts him to enter the cottage and introduce himself when Mr. De Lacey, who is blind, is alone. Both readers’ and the creature’s hopes are temporarily fulfilled when De Lacey listens to and accepts the creature briefly, until the family comes home and forcefully disrupts the moment of fellowship. Horrified by how he looks, the family leaves and abandons the creature once more, destroying his opportunity for community and leading to a path of exclusion and destruction from which he never recovers.
III. Reimagining the “Failure of Sympathy”
Over the course of Penny Dreadful’s three seasons, Logan reimagines this critical scene of a “failure of sympathy” in interesting and relevant ways. He replicates a plot sequence that emphasizes the creature’s isolation, placing him within social spaces and communities that seem uniquely suited and willing to accept him, and then he repeatedly destroys that stability and acceptance every time his character – and his audience – get close to enjoying it.
The creature’s narrative in Penny Dreadful begins by following Shelley’s novel in many ways up to the point of his creation – just as in the novel, he is immediately met with horror and abandonment by Victor, must receive his education and awareness of society through isolated, external observation, and is cruelly emotionally and physically rejected by the majority of people he meets. Admission into the first of the “safe” communities comes early in the first season when, directly after the creature receives a brutal beating, a kind man, Vincent Brand, approaches him and offers him mercy and dinner. Vincent, assuming the creature’s disfigured appearance is a result of an industrial accident, tells him “There is a place where the malformed find grace, where the hideous can be beautiful, where strangeness is not shunned but celebrated. This place is the theater” (S01E03). The theater is the first place the creature is able to forge an identity in the company of others: he is given a name (Caliban, by Vincent), provided a safe place to sleep, and given a purpose beyond himself: he works as a stage hand, and, through the character of Vincent, makes a friend. In later telling the tale of his survival to Victor, he emphasizes how important this relationship and space were to him, saying “And so I discovered what kindness was. And I found a home” (S01E03). He also emphasizes the value of being part of something beyond himself: “I was not welcomed by all…How could this face, this form, fit with ease among the mortal and the beautiful? I learned to stay in the shadows to protect such a heart as this you gave me, but still, I was a member of the company in my way and I proved an able and agile worker” (S01E03). Despite his insistence on his membership here, the creature’s question and caution indicate his fragile sense of belonging at the theater.
In her larger discussion of the way Frankenstein functions as a meme (employing Linda Hutcheon’s term) because “it adapts itself to changing cultural contexts by replication with mutation,” Barbara Braid provides a helpful reading of the creature’s introduction to Vincent, comparing the moment to several earlier adaptations:
…the character of a gentle old man who becomes the Creature’s only friend and a figure of mercy becomes embodied in Vincent Brand…The famous scene of the old blind man who feeds the Creature and gives him wine and a cigar, splendidly presented in the iconic Bride of Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1935) and parodied in Mel Brooke’s Young Frankenstein (1974), is further ironically reproduced in an urban context when Vincent Brand offers the Creature gin from a vial hidden in his walking stick and later buys him dinner in a pub. (235)
Like my reading, Braid’s is also interested in considering how Logan’s story adapts and changes the story of Frankenstein based on cultural contexts. Yet while she traces his episodic meme to the Bride of Frankenstein, I offer that the scene from Whale’s film – and Logan’s Vincent – seem to echo even further back to Shelley’s character of Mr. De Lacey and the scene of the creature’s first potential, but failed, friendship there. Also, while Braid focuses on adapting the story to the urban setting, I am more interested in the narrower community of the theater.
Logan’s depiction of the theater is a fascinating choice for the creature’s first brush with sympathy and community because the creature finds fellow-feeling there in shared marginality – both because Logan’s version of the “Grand Guignol” produces not high-culture drama but horror productions, full of “mayhem and malice with all the ingenious gore we can devise,” as Vincent explains, as well as because the theater is depicted as a refuge for one outside the mainstream – as Vincent’s earlier comment indicates (S01E03). If the creature can’t find sympathy among the common on the streets of London, the show suggests, he can find acceptance among other performers and artists committed to seeing beyond surface strangeness and even celebrating it (see Figure 1).
In terms of why Logan has pursued this path at this particular moment – why this choice makes interpretive sense, to use Cutchins and Crane’s framework – Logan’s construction of the theater parallels other popularized contemporary representations in our own historical moment, which also depict the theater as a space conducive and accepting to the marginalized. For example the TV show Glee, the musical Rent, or the recent film about P.T. Barnum The Greatest Showman, which, reviewer Emily Yoshida describes as “an outsider story” that “gathers a company of fellow misfits with the promise that they will all be superstars and make their dreams come true together.” Yoshida’s (facetious) description of the film’s intention supports my point about popularized representations of the theater or performance communities as places of refuge, as she describes the film’s “interpretation of Barnum’s ‘freaks’ as a body-positive support group whose mission is to encourage diversity in the New York City theater scene.” While the accuracy of this representation may be dubious or romanticized, The Greatest Showman, along with the other texts mentioned, suggest a contemporary trend in idealizing the theater as an accepting space and sympathetic community. Kohlke supports, “the selective figuration of the past…offers telling disclosures of how we understand ourselves and our own culture and time” (3).5 If Logan’s representation is initially idealized, however, the creature’s acceptance in the theater company – like the creature’s brief respite with Shelley’s character of De Lacey – is short-lived: when Logan’s creature oversteps his bounds by thinking that one of the female members of the company might actually be romantically interested in him, he is forced to leave the theater, and his temporary fellowship is revoked. He must be “content to suffer alone” again, as Shelley’s creature famously proclaims at her novel’s end (154).
Another space, equally marginal, where the creature finds community in season two is Putney’s Wax Museum. Admission into this community comes right after the creature has convinced Victor to create a female creature for the express purpose of giving him a companion. Her ongoing rejection of him throughout the second season adds to his isolation, and potentially furthers viewers’ hope that Putney’s will offer him kinship. Like the theater, the community of Putney’s initially seems especially favorable to welcoming the unusual: When the creature initially walks into the building looking for work, he sees a room full of not-quite life-like wax figures, culminating in “The Chambers of Grotesque and Gore.” His first response is telling: when he hears someone approaching, he initially pulls his hair over his scars as he often does to hide his appearance, but then he thinks better of it and smooths his hair back – he doesn’t have to hide here. He seems ready to create a new identity, taking the name, John Clare, after the Romantic poet.6 He finds acceptance among the Putney family, particularly their blind daughter, Lavinia. He also finds purpose – initially performing the custodial work and eventually taking part in helping to construct the wax figures that people the building (see Figure 2).
In the creature’s relationship with Lavinia, Logan is obviously reimagining the fellowship that Shelley’s creature longs for with Mr. De Lacey, but Lavinia, though blind like De Lacey, develops greater intimacy with the creature. She touches his face, the source of his insecurity, tenderly and unflinchingly within moments of knowing him, and they develop a friendship over the course of several episodes; she’s kind to him, asking him questions and taking an interest in who he is. Again, the story suggests the possibility that the creature has found a community, and his character slowly, cautiously, begins to believe that there might be more to life than suffering. This can’t last, right (see Figure 3)?
Eventually, the creature’s own body betrays him. Lavinia touches his hand and senses his difference because he is cold to the touch (S02E06). This difference eventually makes her party to a disturbing deception: it turns out that Mr. Putney’s new project in his cellar is a set of human cages he intends to use for a freak show. He tells the creature, “What can the carnival escapologist or fortune teller compare to living breathing freaks?” (S02E09). Logan stretches Lavinia’s capacity for cruelty, depicting the moment when she lures to him to a cell by telling him “you are my true friend. Please,” and using a book of poetry to trap him into the space where she eventually imprisons him (S02E09).
What makes the rejection and withdrawal of sympathy and community even worse, and more disturbing to watch, than his expulsion at the theater, is not only Lavinia’s really mean-spirited and intentional betrayal but also the creature’s violent response. The creature frees himself from the iron bars in which Lavinia has caged him and kills both Mr. and Mrs. Putney – leaving Lavinia in the same abhorrent condition as himself – alone. In this revision of the failure of sympathy scene, Logan recalls Percy Shelley’s review of the novel, “In this the direct moral of the book consists…Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked. Requite affection with scorn; – let one being be selected, for whatever cause, as the refuse of his kind – divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations – malevolence and selfishness…” (qtd in St. Claire 41 emphasis added). In the creature’s angry, unhinged response to the Putney’s cruelty, he dramatizes the consequences Shelley’s review describes.
Logan’s choice of a wax museum in season two makes interpretive sense as a community because, as with the theater, the shared marginality of the subjects seems uniquely suited to help the creature feel less isolated. Like him, the wax figures are literally pieced together and assembled and, like him, the figures exist somewhere in-between vitality and lifelessness. In her discussion of the History of Waxworks, Pamela Pilbeam describes this liminal status: “Wax gives both a sense of the permanence of death with the illusion of life and the irrational suspicion that, under the waxen layer, life (or death) is uncannily perceived” (221). This site between life and death is well chosen as a place where the creature might feel included. Logan’s choice also reflects nineteenth century fascination with wax museums as evidenced by the success and popularity of such venues as Madame Tussaud’s first permanent museum in 1836 and her “Chamber of Horrors” (Pilbeam 103). Barbara Braid also notes the “freak show” as a “popular [London] institution” (236) and Marie-Luise Kohlke describes that “Penny Dreadful makes a self-conscious effort to get (some) historical details right – for instance…wax works” (8).
In the third and final season, Logan once more follows this pattern of sympathy fulfilled and revoked in a space particularly conducive to accepting his creature: he explores the creature’s initial identity and makes the choice of allowing him to find community within his original family. By making the choice to give the creature one comprehensive backstory and identity, Logan suggests that he is more than just an amalgamation of body parts: he is an individual, with a coherent past, memories, and consciousness. In season three, the creature begins to remember bits and pieces of his former life and eventually finds his son and wife. Although his son is horrified by him initially, his wife fully accepts him and eventually his son does, too. The community he finds with his family is thoroughly gratifying to witness because he gains full acceptance, and the most intimate form of love and affection he’s experienced: mutual, romantic, and deeply felt, but alas – short-lived (see Figure 4).
Shortly after being reunited, this community, too, begins to disintegrate: his son dies of cholera and his wife, bereft at the loss, insists that he bring the boy to Victor for revival. When he tells her that he can’t put their son’s tiny body or soul through that kind of suffering, his wife severs all ties. Later, revising a nineteenth-century sentimental trope – a child’s death scene – he wraps the little boy in cheesecloth and gently releases him to the Thames (S03E09) (see Figure 5).
Logan’s choice for representing sympathy and isolation in this last season makes interpretive sense for a few reasons. First, it allows him to explore the fascinating question of who the creature was before he was the creature, giving contemporary viewers an interesting and plausible backstory that connects to “themes of parentage and familial relations from Frankenstein” that inform the overall narrative of Penny Dreadful (Lee and King para 18)7. Second, Logan’s choices, again, invoke pathos by providing the audience with the gratification and fulfillment of seeing the creature fully accepted and loved, only to withdraw the gratification and replace it with sympathy for the creature’s suffering, once more. Third, this choice is a fitting place to end because his family is sort of the “last best hope” – if the creature has lost the community of his own wife and child, where else can it be sought? Finally, it furthers the creature’s character development because it gives him the choice to reject community, rather than only being rejected by it, in order to selflessly protect his son. Nonetheless, it still leaves him in the same place – alone.
IV. Adaptation’s Capacity to Reveal New Understanding
Applying to adaptation studies Bakhtin’s ideas about the ways meaning is generated, Dennis Cutchins discusses the dialogic nature of texts, explaining “The notion of interdetermination…and the recognition that all texts, even those written four hundred years ago, are constantly in dialogue with other texts, suggest that West Side Story can have an effect on the meaning of Romeo and Juliet, at least for the person who has experienced both texts” (75).8 He suggests that “influence” is not a “one-way street,” but rather “influences [among texts] are always reciprocal” (75), so that a later text can shape and inform how one reads and understands an earlier text. For me, and perhaps for other viewers, Penny Dreadful has shaped my appreciation and understanding of how audiences and readers can be moved to feel compassion or sympathy.
For example, while I was always aware as a reader that the De Lacey scene invoked an emotional response because the creature – who is benevolent, abandoned, and alone at that moment in the novel – confronts complete rejection based on something as superficial, yet influential, as his appearance, I never considered the rhetorical choices Shelley uses to augment this emotional response. However, the dialogue that Penny Dreadful has with the precursor text – the way Logan repeatedly reconstructs and revises that key scene from Shelley’s novel – urged me to consider the why of my emotional response and consider how the construction of the plot sequence contributes to that reaction. It helped me to recognize that the emotional response is not only a result of seeing the creature’s rejection, but also the sequence of seeing an individual’s suffering, feeling hope that that suffering may be alleviated, and then having that hope destroyed; brief gratification followed by withdrawal of gratification is an effective strategy to provoke sympathy.
The outcome of affecting sympathy in the viewer that is achieved in both texts, aligns Frankenstein and Penny Dreadful with literary sentimentalism, a genre that was popular along with the gothic and the penny dreadfuls on which the series draws.9 Ann Wierda Rowland helps define the term and conventions of the genre, describing that “‘Sensibility’ in the eighteenth century suggested the capacity for highly refined and sensitive emotional response. Sentimental literature thus models ‘fine feeling,’ giving its characters opportunities to exhibit and valorize sympathetic and virtuous emotional expression, as well as giving its readers a chance to exercise their own sensibilities. Popular sentimental novels…repeatedly stage affective scenes of suffering, tears, and tender emotion” (193). Although the sentimental genre leading up to and during Shelley’s era came to be associated pejoratively with both excess and women novelists, so that “by the early 1790s female authors who wished to be taken seriously began to distance themselves from its excesses,” even Shelley’s mother and major literary influence, Mary Wollstonecraft, “set about reforming its conventions in [her] own works” at the same time as she disavowed the genre (Sodeman 4).
Many of the themes, ends, and tropes that came to define literary sentimentalism are applicable to the failure of sympathy scene from Penny Dreadful and Frankenstein, which I have been discussing. For instance, Joanne Dobson explains that literary sentimentalism is premised on human connection and the devastation of its loss (266), describing that “Sentimentalism envisions the self-in-relation; family (not necessarily in the conventional biological sense), intimacy, community, and social responsibility are its primary relational modes,” and “The principal theme of the sentimental text is the desire for bonding…in the sentimental vision, the greatest threat is the tragedy of separation, of severed human ties: the death of a child, lost love, failed or disrupted family connections, distorted or unsympathetic community…” (267).10 Both Frankenstein and Penny Dreadful share these concerns, and the sequence of their representations invite their audiences to share them as well. The creature’s initial isolation – his lack of intimacy and community – is an important premise for establishing compassion in the audience of both Frankenstein and Penny Dreadful, but the failure of sympathy represented in Shelley’s De Lacey scene and echoed and revised in Logan’s episode semphasize the tragedy of severed human ties. Reading or watching such a disappointing pattern of failure “elicit[s] feelings of empathy and concern” that sentimental tropes are designed to create, so that, “far from being, in their essence, reductive narrative clichés...these tropes often serve as vehicle for depictions of all-too-common social tragedies and political outrages stemming from the failure of society to care for the disconnected” (Dobson 272). In crafting their plots in a manner meant to provoke feeling for the creature, Frankenstein and Penny Dreadful suggest a desire for their audience to change their attitudes or actions – a primary objective of other texts in the sentimentalist tradition.
The influence of literary sentimentalism can be seen throughout the 19th century, as the aims for inducing readers to feel, evolved in British and American literature. For example, Heidi Renée Aijala explains that “Victorian literature is brimming with sentiment…In [texts by Dickens, Trollope, Gaskell, and Barret Browning] sentimentalism serves as a political and aesthetic tool to transmit emotion across gender, race, and class differences and create a human community based on shared moral feeling” (para 2), and, in defining the genre, The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States, discusses how mid-nineteenth century novels, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), were also used to move readers to moral action. Describing sentimental literature, especially Stowe’s novel, the resource explains that such novels “moved a nation to sympathy for the enslaved, and, as much as any other book in American history, prompted hundreds of thousands of readers to become part of an enormous social movement.”
The desire to reach an audience emotionally in order to produce change seems central to both Mary Shelley’s and Logan’s texts, too, especially by generating sympathy through the scenes they craft, which dramatize the failure of seemingly supportive communities to exhibit fellow feeling or compassion. William St. Claire supports the idea that Shelley desired to invoke change through her novel, explaining, “Like virtually everything written by members of the Godwin and Shelley families, Frankenstein had a social, political, and ethical purpose…Frankenstein, [Shelley] hoped and intended, would help to change the perceptions, the knowledge, the understanding, and therefore ultimately the behavior, of those individuals who read or otherwise encountered it” (41). If Shelley’s novel imagines only failures of sympathy being achieved among its characters, perhaps she hoped these failures and her readers’ frustrated desire to see them overcome, could provoke feelings of pity and compassion that would change understanding and behavior; certainly her novel expresses a hope that the medium of language can help individuals achieve fellow feeling, regardless of difference or division. Two hundred years later, “those who otherwise encounte[r]” Shelley’s story may include the mass audience experiencing Logan’s adaptation in Penny Dreadful.11 Logan’s series continues to dramatize the creature’s failure to find community – leaving viewers with a similar feeling of frustrated hope. However, unlike Shelley’s use of language alone to invoke change, perhaps Logan’s visual medium affords his viewers an immediate and rich additional opportunity to see, accept, and experience difference – an opportunity to reach a new collection of individuals with the potential to be changed by a sentimental rhetorical strategy that seeks to induce compassion, beyond the text, for the marginalized and disenfranchised.
1 Interest in the adaptation is evidenced by the number of articles recently published on the series. For example, see Sinan Akilli and Sida Ӧz, “ ‘No More Let Life Divide…’:Victorian Metropolitan Confluence in Penny Dreadful” (2016); Barbara Braid, “The Frankenstein Meme: Penny Dreadful and The Frankenstein Chronicles as Adaptations” (2017); Stephanie Green, “Lily Frankenstein: The Gothic New Woman in Penny Dreadful” (2017); Alison Lee and Frederick D. King, “From Text, to Myth, to Meme: Penny Dreadful and Adaptation” (2015); Marie-Luise Kohlke, “The Lure of Neo-Victorian Presentism (with a Feminist Case Study of Penny Dreadful) (2018); Dragos Manea, “A Wolf’s Eye View of London: Dracula, Penny Dreadful, and the Logic of Repetition” (2016); Benajmin Poore, “The Transformed Beast: Penny Dreadful, Adaptation, and the Gothic” (2016); Lauren Rocha, “Angel in the House, Devil in the City: Explorations of Gender in Dracula and Penny Dreadful” (2016). Further, Akilli and Ӧz further confirm the popularity of the series among adaptation scholars, noting Penny Dreadful as achoice for “a favourite all-time and recent (within 10 years) adaptation” among adaptation studies scholars at the 10th Annual Association of Adaption Studies Conference (25).
2 Janis McLarren Caldwell agrees, “ Sympathy, judging from the word’s frequency and weight in the text of Frankenstein, is the major theme and recurrent problem of the novel. Each narrator yearns for or mourns the loss of sympathetic relationship” (263).
3 Marie Luise Kohlke defines neo-Victorian as “an umbrella term, referring to contemporary works set in or otherwise engaging extensively with the 19th century and its sociocultural legacies, hence also encompassing texts with modern settings” (11), in her article about both the constructive and damaging aspects of presentism – particularly what she views as the “insidious historical distortion” of Penny Dreadful’s representation of feminist ideals.
4 David Marshall notes this scene as important in his discussion of the influence of Rousseau in Shelley’s conception of sympathy, arguing that Frankenstein “can be read as a parable about the failure of sympathy” (195). “Her revisionary dramatization of Rousseau’s parables about sympathy and lack of sympathy: the failure to recognize others as fellow creatures with fellow feeling turns both oneself and others into monsters” (213). Here Marshall notes yet another intertextual reference within Shelley’s tapestry of texts.
5 Although noting that Penny Dreadful draws from genres not particularly interested in historical realism (the Gothic and penny bloods), Marie-Luise Kohlke also discusses the potentially damaging consequences of uncritical “selective figuration[s] of the past” or “insidious historical distortion.” She uses Penny Dreadful’s representation (or “skewing”) of feminist ideals as a case study. Emily Yoshida’s review of The Greatest Showman seems to share criticism of uncritical historical representations through present day attitudes, even if the goal is empowerment of the socially marginalized. She remarks, “One of the great side effects of our modern-day equal-opportunity victimhood is that now every story must be able to be interpreted as a tale of underdogs overcoming the odds. P.T. Barnum, an enormously successful producer who rose to fame selling tickets to gawk at ‘tribal men’ and people with deformities and paid journalists to write positive reviews of his shows? An outsider who just saw the world a little differently. The very ‘freaks’ off whose exploitation he made his fortune? Social outcasts who, thanks to Barnum, were finally able to show the world their true colors. It may be true that Barnum was an iconoclast who deep-down wanted to be accepted, but he was also a shrewd businessman with a talent for spin. But to acknowledge as much would completely collapse the incredibly specious empowerment metaphor holding up this rinky-dink tent.” Shelley’s and Logan’s text represent decidedly less optimistic outcomes, though initially offering their audiences hope of empowerment for the marginalized.
6 Another carefully chosen name by Logan; the creature later explains he is moved by John Clare’s story because “By all accounts, he was only 5 feet tall, so considered freakish. Perhaps due to this, he felt a singular affinity with the outcasts and the unloved. The ugly animals. The broken things” (S02E05).
7 Alison Lee and Fredrick King discuss the “cursed” family dynamics influenced by Mary Shelley’s novel that run throughout all the storylines of the show, “From Sir Malcolm’s leaving his son Peter to die of dysentery to Victor’s terrified flight from his newly birthed first ‘creature,’ to Mrs. Ives’s having adulterous sex with Sir Malcolm in the garden maze…parents are overtly figured as dismissive and duplicitous if not actively dangerous” (para 9).
8 Cuthcins describes “Interdetermination” as “webs of meaning,” a notion that “suggests that the influences between texts move in every direction simultaneously” (74). Benjamin Poore discusses the relationship between Penny Dreadful and the Victorian genres in his article “The Transformed Beast: Penny Dreadful, Adaptation, and the Gothic” (2016).
9 Benjamin Poore discusses the relationship between Penny Dreadful and the Victorian genres in his article “The Transformed Beast: Penny Dreadful, Adaptation, and the Gothic” (2016).
10 While Dobson’s discussion focuses specifically on 19th century American Literature, she identifies common themes and conventions of the genre that are applicable to the texts discussed here.
11 According to Nielsen Media Research, Penny Dreadful reached anywhere from 872,000 to 448,000 U.S. viewers per episode (qtd. in Wikipedia).
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