Prometheus in Frankenstein

I wrote this essay during my second year at Virginia Tech. I received a 95% for the paper, but the professor docked 10 points because I never wrote a rough draft. Well excuse me! I didn’t realize that I was only allowed to be brilliant on the second attempt.

Prometheus in Frankenstein

The alternate title to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus. The novel itself is not a retelling of the myth, but instead is inspired by it. Shelley works the story into her novel by associating her protagonists with the titan Prometheus. It is the amalgamation of the myth’s classical and modern incarnations, as well as the social Promethain-esque events which form the basis for her novel, and it is through association that her characters take on certain titanic qualities.

            The myth of Prometheus has been reworked through the ages, with certain details being added or omitted.1 What follows is the original account of the story, appearing in Hesiod’s Theogeny: The Titan Prometheus, son of Japetus and Clymene, created man from clay. Being the creator of mankind, Prometheus took it upon himself to protect them, even going so far as to trick Zeus by placing beef inside an ox’s stomach (good food hidden within an unpleasing exterior) and bones surrounded by fat (inedible material hidden within an appetizing shell) in front of Zeus. Zeus picked the latter, judging it to be better based on appearances. This set the precedent for all future sacrifices, wherein humans would take the meat of animals for themselves and give the bones to the gods. In retaliation, Zeus hid the secret of fire from humans. Prometheus then stole fire from the heavens and gave it to man. When Zeus learned of this, he devised a two-fold punishment: He sent to Earth the first woman, Pandora, who opened a chest that unleashed evils into the world. Zeus also chained Prometheus to a rock atop the Caucasus where his liver would be eaten by a fowl every day, only for it to grow back overnight.2
            Victor Frankenstein shares many similarities with the Titan. Victor ventures into uncharted territory of human knowledge and dares to create a new species that would “bless [him] as their creator and source.”3 By doing this Victor breaks the bounds of nature and society, and in so doing becomes isolated. As with the Titan, Victor has been left out of society and, even though he has imposed the isolation on himself, he cannot escape from it; this then becomes like the fowl, ensuring that his happiness can return on occasion, only to once again disappear. Victor stole the “fire,” this being the secret of creation, from nature and is subsequently punished for it.
            In taking the fire of life, Victor also ignores his limits. Every being has limits imposed upon him, whether he be a mortal or a titan. Like Prometheus, Victor exceeded his limits. The Titan did not have permission to make his own man. He wished to create a race of beings even though such a task was not granted to him. This rebellion echoes past figures such as those in Hesiod’s Theogeny or Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A popular theme throughout Greco-Roman literature was the importance of moderation, an idea inspired by the Epicurean philosophy. For example, in the Metamorphoses Dædalus constructs wings for himself and his son Icarus. When Icarus does not heed his father’s warning and flies too high, the wax in his wings melts and the young boy falls and drowns as a result. Not only did Dædalus rebel against the natural order, but Icarus ignored his limits and flew too close to the Sun. These two ideas are evident in Frankenstein as Victor ignores his human limits and rebels against nature, ultimately costing the lives of himself, his loved ones, and the creature.
            However many similarities may lie between Victor and Prometheus, there are also some dissimilarities—the main one being Victor’s irresponsibility. Prometheus knew that, being their creator, it was his duty to protect and guide humanity. To this end the titan taught humans how to read and write, look to the stars for navigation, and to heal each others’ wounds. Prometheus even went so far as to steal fire for their benefit and accepted the punishment. Victor, however, abandons his creature at the moment it arises. Even though the hideousness of the creature is a direct result of Victor’s imperfect craft and inexperience, he nonetheless chooses to call the creature a wretch, neglecting to teach it language. Victor does not fulfill his position as a father and hides, waiting for the creature to go away, instead of facing reality.4 Even as he dies Victor does not accept his failure.
            But let us not forget Walton, the other protagonist in the book, in whose charge rest the lives of his ship’s crew. By venturing into the unknown territories of human knowledge, Walton puts the lives of this men at risk. Prometheus knew that he had to act as an arbiter for the human race and did everything in his power to protect them. Walton, however, leads his men to almost certain doom until they threaten mutiny against him. It is only then that Walton changes his mind and leads his crew back south, away from the freezing North Pole.
            As stated above, the myth of Prometheus has been modified through the centuries, with several different versions now existing. With this in mind it is necessary to look upon Shelley’s perception of the titan. Leonard Wolf’s annotated version of Frankenstein is helpful in this respect. To Shelley, Wolf says, Prometheus was more a devil than a titan, because his “gift” of fire was and is used by humans to cook meat and to kill each other (e.g., flaming arrows, Greek Fire, etc.). In chapter 17, the creature tells Victor that he (the creature) does not “destroy the lamb and the kid to glut [his] appetite,” a statement that is in line with the Shelleys’ vegetarianism.5 Although fire has many beneficial uses, these are cancelled out by its many potential dangers, something that holds true for any new technology. Each new technology or innovation presents a dichotomy, having both negative and positive implications.
            During Mary Shelley’s life two major historical events occurred which influenced the novel: The French Revolution (1789-1799) and the Industrial Revolution (late 18th and early 19th centuries). Several authors of the Romantic Era considered these two events comparable to the gift of Prometheus, as they both seemed to proffer great promises and yet unknown terrors. The Industrial Revolution enabled far greater productivity and considerably raised the GDP of every involved state. Many tasks were automated and could now be performed quickly and efficiently. The machinery employed in these processes, however, had negative ramifications for workers, since the assembly machines often replaced human labor, forcing them to find work elsewhere. Furthermore, the resulting urbanization caused severe dislocations in where the majority of people lived and in their living conditions.
            The French Revolution, on the other hand, seemed a triumph for the average man rather than for capital ventures; it was a powerful statement that freedom and inalienable rights cannot and should not be denied to any man. Along with the liberty this even afforded, though, came the social suspicion in Britain that the foundation of their society would be forever changed—for if the French Monarchy, regarded as one of the most powerful and stable institutions in Europe was overthrown by its own people, what chance did any other monarchy have?6 The language of revolutionary radicals crept into England and began to show the contradictions present in the British government. This revelation prompted Mary Wollstonecraft to write A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Such Promethean duality manifests itself in the novel through the creature himself.
            Victor’s creation has enormous stature and super-human strength as well as superior agility. Such a creature could have been a very beneficial tool for humanity, but the creature instead (after much provocation) uses his abilities to wreak havoc in Victor’s life. And although his misdeeds may never be repaired, at least his story may serve as a lesson to future generations, thanks to Walton painstakingly recording Victor’s narrative.
            “The Modern Prometheus” does not just merely refer to the classic tale first scratched into wax by Hesiod; indeed Shelley’s novel is a hodge-podge of different takes on the tale, as well as its social and political contexts. Thus, the novel lives on, not as a retelling, but having life of its own—like a creature, if you will.
1.     Alexander, Hartley Burr. The Mythology of All Races. Vol 10: North American. Boston, 1916
2.     West, M.L., “Hesiod, Theogeny, ed. With prolegomena and commentary”, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1966
3.     “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. Ch. 4.  London, 1818
4.     “I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited, where I remained during the rest of the night….” Shelley, M.W. Frankenstein. Ch. 5  London, 1818
5.     Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Vindication of Natural Diet. London, 1813
6.     Brown, P.A. The French Revolution in English History. London, 1918
-Written September 21st, 2009

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