The Modern Prometheus Essay, Research Paper
Did Mary Shelley initially title her work about Victor Frankenstein and his creation The Modern Prometheus solely because of the glaring similarities between their stories? That is a question that is often discussed, but a conclusion rarely arrives. One of the possible reasons for this could be because there are many different interpretations of the Promethean myth, which are mainly based on the ambiguous nature of the story. The parallels between the Promethean myth and Frankenstein are obvious, and that, in combination with her subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, indicates that Mary Shelley did have the myth in mind as she wrote the story.
One perception of Prometheus’ actions views him as a hero: the creator of man, the giver of knowledge, one who is self-sacrificing for the good of others. Meanwhile, there is another perception of Prometheus’ actions, which is almost the complete opposite of “Prometheus the Hero.” That is the view that Prometheus was more the “usurper of their [the Gods'] powers” (Smith, p. 1) than a hero. It is the two contrasting views of the Prometheus myth that makes its connection to Frankenstein so intriguing. Frankenstein also has a duality in how its story is perceived. Was Victor Frankenstein the archetype of the Promethean hero, or was he the usurper of divine power? Although there are direct parallels between Victor Frankenstein’s story and that of Prometheus, there are many differences that contribute to why Frankenstein was subtitled The Modern Prometheus. In following the pattern of a well-known Greek myth, with the addition of her own changes, Shelley makes it clear that Victor Frankenstein is more the usurper of divine power, as opposed to being an archetype of a Promethean hero. That is why she uses MODERN in the subtitle. It is because of the difference between the modern values of Frankenstein and those of the Promethean myth that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is subtitled The Modern Prometheus.
The ambiguity of the myth of Prometheus lies in its interpretation. The Greek myth surrounds the creation of man and the part Prometheus played in it. Prometheus (meaning forethought) and his brother, Epimetheus (meaning afterthought), were given certain tasks by Zeus after they fought on Zeus’ side in the war with the Titans. As a reward for their loyalty, Zeus gave Epimetheus the responsibility of creating the animals and distributing their qualities, for example, strength, speed, and stamina. Prometheus, on the other hand, was given the task of creating man. Prometheus molded man out of clay, giving them the ability to walk upright so that they could be closer to the heavens and the Gods. Since Epimetheus was extremely rash in his dispersion of the traits and qualities to the animals, when it came time for Prometheus to give some to man, there were none left. So, Prometheus gave man fire, and taught him how to grow food, and how to make objects, such as tools.
Zeus then asked Prometheus to give him the part of a sacrificial ox that he deemed worthy for the Gods, which would leave the rest for man. Prometheus tricked Zeus into picking the most undesirable part of the ox, and in anger, Zeus reclaimed the fire that man once possessed. Prometheus then stole the fire back, by lighting a torch from the sun. As punishment, Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock on the top of a mountain where an eagle fed on his liver, which regenerated daily.
In the creation of “man,” there is an obvious comparison between Victor Frankenstein and Prometheus. It is the idea that both give life to inanimate materials. Frankenstein animates a figure made up of body parts that have been dead and buried, and Prometheus animates clay from the ground. It is this creation and animation of life, from something that had previously had none, that makes the most obvious and straightforward parallel between Frankenstein and Prometheus. It is here that the similarities between the mythical story of Prometheus and that of Victor Frankenstein ends. Victor and Prometheus both “created” man for completely different reasons and intentions. In the story of Prometheus, Zeus (God) gave him the task of creating man as a reward for his loyalties in the war with the Titans. Frankenstein, on the other hand, chose to give life to inanimate materials on his own. He was not given the “God-like” ability to create life by “God,” he chose to do so by his own free will. Whereas Prometheus was asked to create man, Frankenstein did it for completely different, selfish reasons. It is because of these reasons that the subtitle of The Modern Prometheus truly becomes defined. Frankenstein exemplifies the self-absorbed nature of the “modern” man because of these reasons.
Instead of following the lead of Prometheus, Frankenstein decides to give life to his creation because he wants to do what no other scientist has done before. When he is attending the University of Ingolstadt, Frankenstein is under the tutelage of two different scientists, M. Krempe and M. Waldman. It was through listening to M. Waldman that the idea of the human frame and the process of life (Shelley, p. 50) enraptured Frankenstein. From there, he quickly progressed to having the idea of creating the change from death to life, where he describes:
“a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret” (Shelley, 51).
It is clear that Frankenstein’s intentions in creating life where one had ceased to exist before were based on his desire to do something that no other scientist had been able to do. This overriding ambition is similar to that of the scientists of today who engage in the race for who can clone humans faster, or travel to outer space. There is no helpful reason for such things to be accomplished, other than to have the “bragging rights” over another country. This ambition of Frankenstein’s to be the forerunner in the area of the scientific processes of life caused him to not think of the consequences of his actions, and to only think of himself.
Frankenstein embodies what Shelley obviously perceives as being “modern.” Along with simply wanting to be the first scientist to master such a feat, Frankenstein is determined to make his creation one of gargantuan proportions. He would not be satisfied by merely giving life to his creation, he had to make the monster larger than any natural being, a being of “gigantic stature” (Shelley, p. 73). In the Promethean myth, Prometheus gives man the ability to walk upright so that they would be closer to the heavens and the Gods (Norton, p. 312), whereas Frankenstein simply makes his creation massive, so that he may be all the more impressive.
Although Frankenstein’s creation was enormous, it wasn’t merely its sheer size that made him so impressive an invention. Frankenstein created his “monster,” giving him the ability to learn, think, and feel. This is similar to Prometheus and the “forbidden fire” he steals from the Gods to give to man. Even though both Frankenstein and Prometheus give their creations “forbidden fire,” or knowledge, it is their reasons for doing so that once again help discriminate between Prometheus and his “modern” counterpart, Frankenstein. Prometheus stole the fire from the Gods because he felt that mankind needed the knowledge to survive, especially since his brother, Epimetheus, had not left any attributes to give to man. Similarly, Frankenstein “steals” the knowledge that he gives his creation, playing the role of God by giving the monster knowledge that he wasn’t meant to have. This act of giving the monster “forbidden” knowledge was not to help the monster survive; it was more so that Frankenstein could revel in his God-like role. Shelley deemed, in her introduction to the novel, that “Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the World” (Shelley, p. XI). Shelley obviously intended to show that Frankenstein was indeed usurping divine power, but not for the same reasons as Prometheus had for stealing fire from Zeus. Frankenstein’s modern values caused him to want his creation to be extraordinary, and he would stop at nothing to have his monster be just that. Prometheus, on the other hand, had noble intentions in mind when he gave man fire; he wanted to help man.
Shelley’s emphasis of the difference in values from the mythical Greek times and that of the modern age is not only visible in the creation of man, but also in the reaction and punishment that followed. When Frankenstein first laid his eyes on the newly animated monster, “disgust filled [his] heart” (Shelley, p. 56) and he ran, hoping never to see the monster in his sights again. His horror and dismay at what he had created overcame his responsibility to this live, and essentially, child-like being. His cowardliness is contrasted by how Prometheus dealt with his situation. After Zeus stole the fire that Prometheus had given to his creation, Prometheus stole it right back; knowing that mankind needed it to survive (Norton, p. 313).
When Frankenstein ran away from the monster, the monster quickly became angered at the fact that he was alone, having been abandoned by the one who created him. When he finally meets up with Frankenstein, he explains how he feels about the way “you, my creator, abhor me” (Shelley, p. 96), yet does not conjure up any sympathy from Frankenstein. As a punishment, the monster has devoted his life to making the life of Frankenstein miserable by killing those that he loves, one by one. Conversely, Prometheus’ punishment is given to him for caring for man too much. His intentions of helping his creation survive went against the Gods, but he felt that what he did was necessary, and would stop at nothing to help.
The punishment that he received of being chained to the rock where the eagle fed
on his liver daily, is similar to that of Frankenstein, except that Frankenstein had the opportunity to stop his punishment. The monster asks Frankenstein to create a wife for him, so that together they can “live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for [his] being” (Shelley, p. 138), and in return he would leave Frankenstein alone, “cut off from all the world” (Shelley, p. 139). Frankenstein refuses, afraid that his situation would only get worse with having two of the monsters that he had created. Once again, Frankenstein is only thinking of himself, and is totally oblivious to the needs of his own creation. Shelley makes her point of the modern values in society very clear by reiterating Frankenstein’s selfishness.
The story of Victor Frankenstein is one of horror, fear, and intrigue. It is also one that find itself surrounded in ambiguity, leaving the reader searching for a definite answer to the question of “Did Mary Shelley initially title her work about Victor Frankenstein and his creation The Modern Prometheus solely because of the glaring similarities between their stories?” That, it appears, is impossible. The discrepancies between the intentions of Prometheus in his creation, and that of Frankenstein’s, combined with their utterly different reactions to what they had created, are too blatant to be ignored. Most visible in the areas of Frankenstein which relate to the creation of the monster, along with the punishment that followed, Shelley used these discrepancies to illustrate how values in society have changed, from the mythological Greek age, to that of modern society. That is why Frankenstein is subtitled The Modern Prometheus, to show how the archetype of a “Promethean hero” had changed from being noble and self-sacrificing, to being cowardly and self-indulging.
Norton, Dans and Peters Rushton. Classical Myths in English Literature. New York:
Greenwood Press Publishers, 1969. P. 311-316.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Penguin Group, 1963.
Smith, Johanna M. Forbidden Knowledge or “Sad Trash”?
HTTP://www2.centenary.edu/forbidden/smith. February 1, 1999.
Mullen, Patrick. The Creation of Man by Prometheus.
HTTP://members.tripod.com/`greekmyth/creationman.html. January 31, 1999.