Mary Shelley: Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus



The Promethean theme

The Promethean theme is mentioned in the second part of the title Mary Shelley has chosen for her story:

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus

Both parts of the title of Shelley's book refer to the main character of the story, they refer to the scientist Victor Frankenstein and not to his creature. While the first part of the title mentions that the book could be taken as a biography of the (fictive) man called Victor Frankenstein, the second part of the title brings up a question of interpretation. To be able to understand the Promethean theme in Shelley's book, it is very important to know the classic story of Prometheus:

Prometheus, one of the Titans, was Iapetos' son and Uranus' grandchild. He wanted to create a being which was able to absorb spirit, and Prometheus took clay and water and shaped human beings according to the image of the gods. Athene gave his creatures divine breath and shortly after the creation a great number of men lived in the world. Now Zeus and his fellows became aware of them and wanted to be adored by the human beings. The gods promised to take care of the human beings if they adore the gods and said what exactly they had to do in order to be protected. Prometheus went to Zeus as a lawyer of humanity to see to it that the conditions would not be too hard. But he tricked Zeus. For that Zeus punished the human beings with misery and illness and refused them the essential fire. When he heard that Prometheus stole a piece of the sun and brought the fire to his creatures. As a result Zeus got very angry and had Prometheus tied up to a rock of the Kaukasus.

Frankenstein as Prometheus

If you compare Victor Frankenstein to Prometheus, you will see that there are some common elements between him and the Titan. Like him Frankenstein goes too far and does not accept his own limits. Frankenstein has a little bit of the "creative fire of heaven" and learns to give life to a selfmade body. He tries to be something like God, like a big creator and creates his own man. His dream is to shape a whole species which would bless him, a species of wonderful and happy natures: "A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me". But with the fulfillment of his dream Victor Frankenstein breaks through the limits of society and falls in deep isolation. As Prometheus, who was, after being tied up to his rock, alone with the sea and the weather, Frankenstein feels left out by society. Even if he makes this isolation himself (nobody knows anything about his creation), he cannot run away from it.

From this point of view Frankenstein has a lot in common with the classic Prometheus: the dream and the creation of a new species, the disregard of limits... But on the other hand Frankenstein is quite different from Prometheus. When the Titan recognizes that his human beings do not know how to use their capabilities (for example they do not see anything although they are able to see and they do not hear anything although they are able to hear), he takes care of his creatures, he teaches them to observe the stars, to read and write and to heal. And when Zeus refuses to give them fire, Prometheus exposes himself to danger to bring them fire. Victor Frankenstein on the other hand refuses his responsibility and flees from his creature after having brought it to life. He lets the creature alone, ignorant as it is. He is not able to understand that he as creator is a father and responsible for his creature and that he has to show it how to deal with its ugliness and how to treat human beings, for example. He tells the creature nothing about human life and human society. Even at the end of the story he does not accept his own failure of moral imaginations and dies without understanding the nature of his guilt.

The dream of a rebirth of mankind is a great dream of the Romantic time. The people by whom Mary Shelley was mostly influenced, Mary Wollstonecraft (Shelley's mother), William Godwin (Shelley's father) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (her husband), had the vision of a new mankind in a newly structured society, too, the vision of a mankind without timidity and conventional morality. This influence could be a possible explanation for the fact that Mary Shelley chose the subject of a modern Prometheus for her story.

Another Prometheus

But Victor Frankenstein is not the only "Prometheus" in her story, there is also Robert Walton as an other "Prometheus". In his desire for reaching the north pole and in his thirst for knowledge he goes over his limits and endangers himself and the crew of his ship.

                                             Last Updated : 14/05/99
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