In order to illustrate the main theme of her novel “Frankenstein”, Mary Shelly draws strongly on the myth of Prometheus, as the subtitle The Modern Prometheus indicates. Maurice Hindle, in his critical study of the novel, suggests, “the primary theme of Frankenstein is what happens to human sympathies and relationships when men seek obsessively to satisfy their Promethean longings to “conquer the unknown” – supposedly in the service of their fellow-humans”. This assertion is discussed by first describing the Promethean connection.
Thereafter, the two forms of the myth, Prometheus the fire-stealer and Prometheus the life-giver are reviewed in the context of Shelly’s use of the myth in her novel and their relationship to the main theme. Finally, the character of Frankenstein as a modern Prometheus of the scientific age is discussed in the context of English Romantic literature. This “Promethean longing” mentioned by Hundle, is the connection between Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton. They both seek to gain knowledge of the unknown.
Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with occult scientific knowledge results in the destruction of his family and friends, whilst Walton, the narrator of the story, causes many deaths by his obsessive journey to the North Pole. Shelly’s use of the Prometheus myth combines the two versions of the legend, Prometheus the “fire-stealer” and Prometheus the “life-giver”. According to the Ancient Greeks, in the first version of the myth, the Titan, Prometheus, in rebellion against Zeus, took fire from the sun and gave it to humankind to warm them and enable them to make tools and weapons, thereby allowing them to rise above other animals.
Zeus was incensed by Prometheus’ disobedience, and as punishment, ordered Prometheus chained to a rock, where his liver was eaten by eagles each day and restored each night so that his torment could be prolonged for eternity. The second, Roman version of the myth, comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which, according to Newey (1993), Mary Shelly read in 1815. In this version Prometheus was the Creator who made man from clay and breathed life into him. This relates directly to the quotation on the title page of Shelly’s book.
Did I request thee Maker, from my clay to mould me man. Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me? Although a quotation from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” the plaintive cries of Frankenstein’s neglected, in-human progeny can be heard in these words. In relation to the first version of the Promethean myth, there are several fire-like analogies in Shelly’s novel. Frankenstein’s Monster discovered that fire can be both a necessity for survival, when he was alone in the mountains, and a means of revenge and destruction, when he set fire to the De Laceys’ hut.
Shelley hints that her character Victor Frankenstein, uses “fire” in the form of electricity to animate his Monster, this can be seen in the passage where Victor relates to Walton part of his inspiration for the creation of life: “I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak . . . and so soon as the dazzling light vanished the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. . . . I eagerly inquired of my father the nature and origin of thunder and lightning. He replied, “Electricity. page 23). Similarly, when he is ready to impart life into his creation “I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless form”. (page 34). In the early 19th Century, when Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein, electricity was a new and wondrous science. Science and industry were making gigantic strides and Shelly mistrusted these advances seeing in them something inhuman and that there were areas of knowledge best left alone (Hindle, 1994).
The characters of Walter and Frankenstein show the two paths that the pursuit of the unknown can take – one leads to destruction the other to resurrection. Frankenstein pursues his obsession to his end in the frozen wastes of the Arctic, whereas Walton extricates his ship from its icy trap and turns back to the known world. As Frankenstein instructs Walter : “Learn from me. how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (page 31).
In Frankenstein. it can be seen that Shelly uses the myth of Prometheus the fire-stealer as an analogy for scientific knowledge, and that the “fire” of scientific knowledge can be used both for constructive and destructive means. Prometheus stole the fire for altruistic reasons, to help human beings. Similarly, Mary Shelley’s arrogant scientist, Victor Frankenstein pursued his studies with the aim of banishing disease and a desire to “render man invulnerable to any but a violent death” (page 22) and claimed “A new species would bless me as its creator and source. page 32). However, it is really ambition that drives him “like a hurricane” (page 32) as he engineers the Monster. It is not until the Monster opens its eyes and Frankenstein realises that it is not the thing of beauty he hoped to create that “breathless horror and disgust” (page 34) fills his heart and sends him rushing out of the room with no thought for what he has unleashed upon the world. Victor Frankenstein can indeed be seen as the modern Prometheus, by defying the gods and creating life, Victor puts himself in God’s place and becomes Prometheus, the Creator.
Like Prometheus, Victor is punished for his deeds. Not by the gods but by his own creature and even that punishment might not have been so extreme had he not neglected the poor malformed creature so completely. The Prometheus myth was an important myth for the English Romantics. (Study Guide LCS16 1999, p. 36) For them it represented the poet in the dual roles of creator and rebel. Their creative art both rebelled against the established order and brought enlightenment and liberation to the people.
Katherine Newey in her critique of the novel, suggests that Mary Shelley was challenging this Romantic belief in the unquestioned value of the human imagination, and that the novel was a direct challenge to her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their mutual colleagues regarding the unchecked egotism of the artist. whilst neither Walton, Frankenstein or the Monster are poets they are all possessed of the Romantic egotism. Each of them desires that the world be rebuilt according to their dreams and imaginings.
Mary Shelly’s reservations about the unrestricted pursuit of knowledge and the dangers inherent in that pursuit are a timely warning across the decades as scientists today explore genetic engineering, cloning and other branches of bio-science. Perhaps, these are yet more examples of the modern Prometheus. In conclusion, the obvious connection between the myth and the novel is to that of Prometheus the life-giver. Frankenstein created the Monster in the shape of a man, thereby becoming a life-giver.
However, it could be argued that Frankenstein is better connected to Prometheus the fire-stealer. Frankenstein’s experiments with the two edged sword of forbidden knowledge had the possibility of bestowing great good upon humanity or perhaps the destruction of humankind. Shelley has utilised both versions of the myth to great effect in the development of the main theme. Her character, Frankenstein, effectively destroyed all he held dear as a consequence of his obsession with the pursuit of forbidden knowledge.