The contrast between humanity and god rests across the thin line of divinity. God, the gods, or simply the creator god, use their “divine” will to create life. Humans, in their own right, use their own power to parent life. Both invoke the same sense of authority, but only one holds the gift of creation from truly nothing.
Victor Frankenstein, of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, steps across the boundary between humanity and god and, while Frankenstein’s act of creation is grand, Shelley purposefully designed Frankenstein’s experiment as a crude mockery of godly creation to illustrate the fall of umanity as caused by the Enlightenment movement. By simply titling her novel The Modern Prometheus’, Shelley is not only naming the inspiration for her work, but is also encouraging her readers to dig deeper into the context of her novel. Victor Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus, was born of a wonderful family.
He is given free reign to explore whatever his heart desires. His ambition led him down the path of attempting the impossible: creating life out of nothing. Upon his success, Frankenstein, horrified with his creation, abandoned his work and fled. The neglect of Frankenstein’s monster leads o the eventual downfall of Frankenstein himself. While Shelley’s tale does resemble Promethean myth, it completely lacks the martyrdom of Prometheus. Promethean myth, at its heart, is a creation story. After the fall of the Titans, Zeus, the King of the gods, tasked Prometheus and his brother with creating the creatures that would fill the world.
Prometheus created man from clay and was said to love mankind more than the gods themselves. When his creations failed to thrive in the world, Prometheus was determined to help them. “Out of love for men, Prometheus became their benefactor, stealing fire from Hephaestos and bestowed it on man” (Kurtz 4). By giving man fire, Prometheus gave them knowledge and enlightenment. He lit the spark that gave humankind a fighting chance and this angered Zeus. Zeus retaliated by chaining Prometheus to a rock and sending a vulture pick out his liver each day(Kurtz 4).
Both Prometheus and Frankenstein created life and suffered harsh ends, but this is where the similarities end. The most marked difference between Prometheus and Frankenstein is their compassion or lack thereof towards their creations. Frankenstein despised his creation and even feared the creature. “Abhorred monster! iend that thou art! the tortures of hell are too mild a vengeance for thy crimes” (Shelley 72). Prometheus, however, sought to protect and defend his creation regardless of the consequences. His actions are a compassionate response not affected by a belief of what his creations feel they are due (Hustis 851).
Frankenstein only considers helping the monster out of what he feels his duty must be to the creature. Not only is the depth of their compassion astronomically different, but as is the pure intent of their very act of creation. Prometheus is ordered by Zeus to create the creatures of the world. He chooses to devote his time to the creation of man, giving them the ability to aspire to higher things (Markos 36). While Prometheus and Frankenstein do share the ambition to achieve perfection in their creations, Frankenstein does so out of a selfish desire to rise in status. … he is interested in the principle of “life” only as an abstraction” (Hustis 848).
Frankenstein, focused on his ambition, does not consider what the creation of life entails. Thus, he is not prepared for the responsibility of nurturing new life. When faced with his creation, his determination collapses and he flees. He abandons is creature much like god abandons Adam and Eve after they eat the forbidden fruit. While Prometheus is a god in his own right, he could be considered a Christ-like figure. Like Christ, Prometheus brings knowledge to and teaches his people.
Prometheus rebelled against the gods much like Christ symbolized a rebellion. In order to help his creation, Prometheus faced Zeus’s wrath so that man could flourish much like Christ sacrificed his life, so that his people could be saved from their sins. Frankenstein lacks the qualities of a Christ-like figure. He does not sacrifice himself for the good of others nor oes he teach and help his creation survive. Prometheus and Frankenstein are nothing alike, yet Shelley refers to Frankenstein as the Modern Prometheus.
While Frankenstein does not embody the qualities of Prometheus, his story emphasizes the raw importance of the Promethean myth, the effects of upbringing and the impact of enlightenment on the family. The Age of Enlightenment marked the start of the Romantic period of literature. Scientific advancements and the ideal of knowledge above all else influenced the stories produced during the era. Writers were both inspired by their ever-changing world and in dread of it. For Shelley, her romantic values shine through in the downfall of Frankenstein.
Frankenstein’s obsession with science and his lack of compassion caused his demise. Because he is so passionate about solving the unsolvable mystery of life, he fails to see the world around him. He fails to realize what the act of creation actually requires. Shelley even goes so far as to make her opinions known through the voice of Victor Frankenstein himself: A human being in perfection ought always preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of nowledge is an exception to this rule.
If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting of the human mind (Shelley 36). Here, Shelley states outright that the pursuit of knowledge does not override the perfection of a peaceful mind, a direct attack on enlightenment ideals: the creation of a ‘better’ future by use of reason, technology and science (Kurtz 5). Romanticism valued nature and tranquility. The enlightenment went against verything they believed in.
Prometheus represents what romantic writers wished to see in the world. His rebellious nature combined with his defiant compassion made for a hero, romantic writers could believe in (Hustis 848). Shelley titled her story The Modern Prometheus’ to send a message: the Enlightenment’s destruction of everything Prometheus stood for. Frankenstein is the Modern Prometheus because, had the figure of Prometheus exist in Shelley’s time, Prometheus would have turned down the same path as Frankenstein. Prometheus, when discouraged away from alchemy, would have rebelled just as Frankenstein had, by obsessing over his reation.
Because of the lack of romanticism in the world of Frankenstein, Prometheus would not have known how to live in tranquility. And, because of the focus on Enlightenment values, Prometheus would have been ever focused on using science to create a better life. Thus, Shelley sends the message to her fellow romantics and to the remainder of the world, her belief in the destruction of society caused by the Enlightenment movement. Shelley set about to write a ghost story and that is exactly what she did. Prometheus, who represents romantic ideals, is turned into a cold self-serving scientist because of the Enlightenment.
He lacks compassion because of the world he lives in and turns from the savior of humanity to its destroyer. And in Frankenstein’s final moments, the Modern Promethe is revealed: In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty . the forms of the beloved dead flit before me, and I hasten to their arms. Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries (Shelley 174).