Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus

  Mary Shelley subtitled her novel "The Modern Prometheus." According to the Greeks, Prometheus stole fire from the gods. As punishment, he was chained to a rock, where an eagle each day plucked at his liver. Haughty Prometheus sought fire for human betterment--to make tools and warm hearts. Similarly, Mary Shelley's arrogant scientist, Victor Frankenstein, claimed "benevolent intentions, and thirsted for the moment when I should put them in practice." Frankenstein endures not only because of its infamous horrors but also for the richness of the ideas it asks us to confront--human accountability, social alienation, and the nature of life itself. These passages illuminate some of them.

In Frankenstein, the intelligent and sensitive monster created by Victor Frankenstein reads a copy of Milton's Paradise Lost, which profoundly stirs his emotions. The monster compares his situation to that of Adam. Unlike the first man who had "come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature," Frankenstein's creature is hideously formed. Abandoned by Victor Frankenstein, the monster finds him "wretched, helpless, and alone."


Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
to mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?

Lines from John Milton's Paradise Lost
From the title page of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheuse, 1818

Frankenstein opens with a series of letters written by Arctic explorer Robert Walton engaged in a personal quest to expand the boundaries of the known world. It is Walton who first encounters Victor Frankenstein in the Arctic desperately searching for the monster he has created. The explorer becomes the only person to hear Victor Frankenstein's strange and tragic tale.


A sledge . . . had drifted towards us in the night, on a large fragment of ice. Only one dog remained alive; but there was a human being within it . . .. His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. 
Robert Walton to his sister Mrs. Saville
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheuse, 1818




In Mary Shelley's day, many people regarded the new science of electricity with both wonder and astonishment. In Frankenstein, Shelley used both the new sciences of chemistry and electricity and the older Renaissance tradition of the alchemists' search for the elixir of life to conjure up the Promethean possibility of reanimating the bodies of the dead.


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." 
Victor Frankenstein to Robert Walton
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818

  By the early nineteenth century, philosophers like physician Erasmus Darwin and chemist Humphry Davy, both well known to Mary Shelley, pointed the way to mastery of the physical universe. Discoveries about the human body and the natural world promised the dawn of a new age of medical power, when such things as reanimation of dead tissue and the end of death and disease seemed within reach.


The modern masters promise very little . . .. But these philosophers . . . have indeed performed miracles . . .. They have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows. 
Professor Waldman to his class at the University of Ingolstadt
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818

With feverish excitement, Victor Frankenstein pursues nature to her hiding places. By moonlight, he gathers the body parts he needs by visits to the graveyard, to the charnel house, to the hospital dissecting room and the slaughterhouse. Although he finds his solitary preoccupation repulsive, he is not deterred from his quest to restore life.

Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?

Victor Frankenstein
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818

Overcome by the horror of what he has done, Victor Frankenstein abandons the "miserable monster" he fathered in his laboratory. That evening a nightmare disturbs his sleep; Elizabeth, his fiancée, becomes in his arms the decaying corpse of his own dead mother. The next morning when he returns to his "workshop of filthy creation," the monster has escaped.

I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet . . .. His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing . . . [it] formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.

Victor Frankenstein
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818


Mary Shelley gave her monster feelings and intelligence. Fatherless and motherless, the monster struggles to find his place in human society, struggles with the most fundamental questions of identity and personal history. Alone, he learns to speak, to read, and to ponder "his accursed origins." All the while, he suffers from the loneliness of never seeing anyone resembling himself. 

But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses; or if they had, all my past life was now a blot, a blind vacancy in which I distinguished nothing. From my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me . . .. What was I?

The Monster
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818


  Abandoned by his creator, the monster takes his revenge on Victor Frankenstein by killing his younger brother, William. Frankenstein's silence, in the face of the monster's murderous actions, exacts a terrible price. His self-imposed isolation from society mirrors the social isolation the monster experiences from all that see him. Frankenstein's decision to remain silent about the monster leads to further tragedy.

I paused when I reflected on the story I had to tell. A being whom I myself had formed, and endued with life, had met me at midnight among the precipes . . .. I well knew that if any other had communicated such a relation to me, I should have looked upon it as the ravings of insanity. Besides, the strange nature of the animal would elude all pursuit, even if I were so far credited as to persuade my relatives to commence it . . .. I resolved to remain silent.

Victor Frankenstein
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818

 Victor Frankenstein initially agrees to create a mate for his monster. But as Frankenstein begins to assemble an Eve for his Adam, he grows terrified by the prospect that this female creature will be "ten thousand times more malignant" than her companion, and that the two might themselves produce "a race of devils." Breaking his promise to the monster, Frankenstein disposes of the body parts he gathered to produce the female creature. Inflamed with hatred, the monster sets outs to destroy in Frankenstein's life all that he coveted for his own. After killing Clerval, Frankenstein's best friend, the monster murders Elizabeth, Frankenstein's bride, on their wedding night.

I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself . . .. It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another. Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless, and free from the misery I now feel. Oh! my creator, make me happy; let me feel gratitude toward you for one benefit! Let me see that I excite the sympathy of some existing thing; do not deny me my request!

The Monster to Victor Frankenstein
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818

As he lies dying aboard Walton's ship, Frankenstein offers an ambivalent assessment of his own conduct. In both the subtitle (The Modern Prometheus) of her novel and through Frankenstein's dying words, Mary Shelley suggests that Frankenstein's misfortune did not arise from his Promethean ambition of creating life, but in the mistreatment of his creature. Frankenstein's failure to assume responsibility for the miserable wretch he fathered in his workshop is his real tragedy.


The forms of the beloved death 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. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.

Victor Frankenstein to explorer Robert Walton
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818

  Encountering Robert Walton aboard his ship, the monster expresses overwhelming remorse for his frightful catalogue of misdeeds, the deaths of William, Clerval, Elizabeth, and his creator. The creature informs the explorer that he will destroy himself in the frozen north, and disappears in the icy waves. The tragedy of Frankenstein and his monster is complete.

Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings, who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of bringing forth. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion. But now vice has degraded me beneath the meanest animal . . .. The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil . . .. I am quite alone.

The Monster to explorer Robert Walton
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818