David by Michaelangelo, 16th cent. Galleria dell' Accademia, Florence
The Modern Prometheus
One of the deeds that Apollodorus credits Prometheus with is the creation of mankind(Library 1.7.1). In modern collections of Greek mythology, especially those addressed to younger audiences, this tale of Prometheus is very common, though rare in the ancient sources. In these tales Prometheus makes mankind for Zeus, after his previous failures. This is used as his motivation for aiding mankind in the later tales, common in antiquity. These are, of course, the common tales of his winning for mankind the better part of the sacrifice and his stealing of fire. These deeds in the favour of his creation are what win him punishment by the gods, and a high place in the new humanist movement that came out of the Enlightenment.
One of the authors in this movement was a young woman named Mary Shelley. In 1816, after a night of telling ghost stories with her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poet Lord Byron, she conceived and wrote Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus. This is a tale of a scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and his creation, a being known as Frankenstein’s monster. The part of it that is pertinent to our analysis of Prometheus is the act of creation and giving of life, as well as how the creation is treated, both by its creator and by the world at large. Knowing these things it is then possible to analyse the differences between the ‘modern Prometheus’ and our conception of the ancient Prometheus.
Victor Frankenstein was a brilliant young man who dedicated himself to natural philosophy, saying, in later years, “Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated my fate”(Chapter 2, p.24). He studied at the University of Ingolstadt, in Bavaria. From the first, he devoted himself to science, especially chemistry. He was fascinated by human physiology and life, and decided to study it. “To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death”(Ch.4, p.36). So he studied in graveyards and charnel-houses. In the end, “I succeed in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter”(Ch.4, p.37). This power was, unfortunately for Frankenstein, not one that he could resist from using, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me”(Ch.4, p.39).
So set upon creating life anew that nothing could gainsay his quest, Frankenstein pushed on. Finally complete, he brought the inanimate to life and was horrified. His quest, “now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart”(Ch.5, p.42). He could not even spend the night in the same building, he “took refuge in the courtyard”(Ch.5, p.43). Thus ends the creation and abandonment of the monster.
Prometheus, unlike his modern counterpart, did not abandon his creations to the sands of time and winds of fate. He aided humanity in several crucial ways, allowing Aeschylus to have him say “Every art of mankind comes from Prometheus”(Prometheus Bound, Ln.505). Dr. Frankenstein, on the other hand, abandons his creation and leaves it to go out into a cruel world on its own. As we shall see, the monster, without any Pandora to give it hope, will fall in its sense of hopelessness and abandonment. This is perhaps the most critical departure from the classical mythological framework in Shelley’s masterpiece. This is not the tale of a benevolent creator willing to go to any length to aid his creations. This is a fickle creator; unable to weigh right and wrong in creation, and not willing to take responsibility for it until it is too late.
After its abandonment the monster stayed some time in the woods near Ingolstadt, discovering such things as the difference between his senses and the wonderful utility of fire. Later, upon leaving the woods in search of food he was first driven from one village by the fears incited by his hideous appearance. Finally he settled down near a small, poor family and began to learn of the world. He had, to this point, managed rather well, especially considering that he did not have his Prometheus there to guide him and give him all the arts that Aeschylus credited Prometheus with giving. The cottagers, in a way, took that Promethean place that Frankenstein failed to provide, educating the monster in the ways of mankind. They allow the monster to stay, of course, because they cannot see him. He has learned from his other encounters that his appearance will lead to his being driven off. He learns from the cottagers speech, letters, and reads some of the classics of literature, that he finds in a bag in the woods. In doing so he is marked by the contrasts between his own situation and that of Adam in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Adam is driven from Eden for disobeying God and eating the fruit of knowledge. The monster, however, has done nothing to deserve being driven forth, instead he was abandoned, something God never did to Adam even when he drove him out of Eden. Lastly, the monster finds Frankenstein’s journal, and learns of his creator and how differently he was treated and created by him than Adam by God. The cottagers however, drive him forth once they set eyes on his hideousness, despite the good deeds he has done for them and his supplications for pity. His heart so hardened, he set out to punish his creator.
After killing Frankenstein’s brother and arranging for the blame to be cast on one of Frankenstein’s friends, the monster comes to speak to Frankenstein and relates the tale of his education. His request of Frankenstein is this, create a female for him or suffer quick and abiding ruin. After originally refusing, Frankenstein consents, then nearing completion of the woman he again refuses and destroys her. The monster, his Pandora destroyed, swore his revenge, “I will be with you on your wedding night”(Ch.20, p.153). He ends by killing Frankenstein’s one and only friend, Henry Clerval, as well as his wife, Elizabeth. Fleeing towards the North pole the monster was chased by Frankenstein, “I must pursue and destroy the being to whom I gave existence; then my lot on earth will be fulfilled and I may die”(Ch.24, p.195). So it goes, Frankenstein dies and the monster goes on to the pole to “ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames.”(Ch.24, p.204).
So ends the tale of the ‘Modern Prometheus’, in the end, when surrounded by his ruin, Frankenstein takes responsibility for bringing his creation into the world, although only to take it back out. Prometheus worked ceaselessly as a creator on behalf of his creation, as do most creator figures in mythology. Frankenstein does not. Quite the contrary he tries to ignore his creation and to curse it. Frankenstein even goes so far as to abandon his studies in science and find “not only instruction but consolation in the works of the Orientalists”(Ch. 6, p.53). He is only brought back to his creation by the monster’s murder of his young brother. That act, of course, brings with it curses. In the end both Frankenstein and Prometheus come to ruin, but whereas Prometheus is eventually vindicated and released from his agony, Frankenstein finds only an agonizing death, his duty to his creation unfinished. The tale of Prometheus is not a tragedy at heart, but a story of hope and enlightenment, even the Pandora segment. This tale is tragic at heart, the tale of science and creation gone wrong. The strongest moral we receive in our analysis is perhaps that of Eden, that mankind should not take upon itself the knowledge and powers of the creator. Prometheus’s name means Foresight, and foresight is precisely what Victor Frankenstein, and by extension humanity, lacks. The divine have the ability and will to see to the good of their creations, an ability Prometheus and the Christian God make use of; it would seem that this tale of the ‘Modern Prometheus’ implies that mankind does not.
The version of Frankentstein I used was the Bantam Classic library edition, 1991.
Background credit -- Prometheus and Zeus' Attacking Eagle (1989) Artist: Gabor Peterdi (Jane Haslem Gallery -- see directly below)
Last Updated 10/23/2005