The Nightmare

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SWBAT analyze an author's writing technique, specifically how she builds suspense.

Big Idea

How does visual art influence authors?


This lesson is part of a larger unit on the novel  Frankenstein. In this lesson students examine how a painting  Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare" directly influenced Shelley's writing of a pivotal scene in chapter 23 of Frankenstein.

Read Aloud Chapter 23

35 minutes

Before students divide off into groups to read chapter 23. We discuss what makes a passage suspenseful or scary. "Frankenstein is a novel of the unspeakable, both the creation of the monster and Victor's actions as a consequence of the monster's murderous behavior. When Shelley wrote Frankenstein she drew from both personal experience and popular culture to weave a dense and masterful plot that is complete in it's experience. 

"Chapter 23 could be thought of as the climax of the novel, the point at which Victor is his most vulnerable, and most enraged. But where did Shelley get her ideas for this climatic chapter? What were her influences, and how do her influence change and warp to fill in the tapestry she has creating?

I pull up a copy of Fuseli's "The Nightmare" and ask students, "What's going on here?"  

Students identify that there is a sleeping or dead woman and two demonic figures, one a horse and one an incubus watching over her. 

"What are the themes in the painting?"

We discuss fears and the psychological effects dreaming can have on a person.  Also, that there is a sense of helplessness in the figure of the woman. She is at the mercy of the incubus and seems given to complete surrender. 

"I want you to find the corresponding passages in the chapter that emulate the painting."  

I explain to the students that Mary Shelley was aware of the painting and that the artist had been a friend of her parents. I ask them to think about how the themes of the painting are manifested in the chapter and how Shelley has adapted them for the novel.

The Grammar of Suspense

20 minutes

When students come back from the read-aloud we discuss some of their findings. 

"What did you notice about Shelley's use of verbs in this chapter?, I ask. 

Students agree that there were more concrete verbs in the chapter, that Victor's actions and observations were quicker, less filtered. 

They also acknowledge that this is the most exciting chapter, and that the pace and action vary dramatically from the previous chapters. We discuss how concrete, transitive verbs make writing more suspenseful and exciting.