Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus? Essay

This essay has a total of 1356 words and 7 pages.

Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus?

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).
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