Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus
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This paper seeks to show how Mary Shelley’s character Victor Frankenstein, from her novel Frankenstein is another version of Prometheus, a character from Greek mythology. Frankenstein, in a lot of ways, mirrors the Titan who was punished for the theft of fire for the sake of mankind. The defiance that Frankenstein displays in the novel, of the natural laws and the divine modes of creation makes him a modern-day Prometheus. This paper shall also seek to show the importance of this analogy to the Romantics. Revolution against established authority was one of the major concerns of the Romantics, who sought to express this concern in their literary creations. Mary Shelley’s own concerns regarding male authority can also be seen in this analogy that is a conscious device within her work.

Victor Frankenstein, a Modern Prometheus

The character of Victor Frankenstein has intrigued critics since the time of the publication of the novel, Frankenstein. Derided by some as a blasphemous character who seeks to appropriate the functions of God and meets his just end by the end of the novel, Frankenstein has also been compared to the mythic character of Prometheus for the defiance that he exhibits by the very act of creation that he commits. By doing so, he challenges the authority of the Christian god, very much like Prometheus, who questions the right of Zeus to withhold knowledge from mankind. Rebellious figures both, Frankenstein goes one step ahead and actually attempts to appropriate the functions and powers that are conventionally associated with God.

Modeling a character on Prometheus is part of an ethos that supports revolution and liberty. This was the prevalent ethos amongst the writers who were a part of the Romantic movement in England during the nineteenth century. By explicitly stating the analogy between Frankenstein and Prometheus, Mary Shelley erases any doubt as to the nature of the character of Frankenstein. The use of the figure of Prometheus for revolutionary purposes can be seen in the work of another writer of this period, P.B. Shelley. Mary Shelley’s husband, in his poem Prometheus Unbound portrays his main character Prometheus as a long-suffering revolutionary who finally manages the overthrow of the tyrant Jupiter (Shelley, 2001). The influence of the ideas of her husband can definitely be seen in the work of Mary Shelley. Frankenstein, even while he is performing his scientific experiments, is aware of the blasphemous nature of it. When he says,
“A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.”, he proves that he knows his aspirations: become capable of something that only God was capable of. In an act that would provide mankind with the secret of life and death, Frankenstein is similar to Prometheus who aimed to do something very similar through his theft of fire that enabled man to raise himself above the savage state in which he had existed till then. For their crimes, both the characters are separated from their fellow-beings and are tortured by a providential authority, which seems to be a punishment for transgression. Prometheus undergoes separation from his beloved in a manner that is similar to that of Frankenstein’s misery at the death of the members of his family.

A thirst for knowledge and the urge to discover what is new characterizes both Frankenstein and Prometheus. Frankenstein is engaged in the constant pursuit of new experiences and it is only when his torture at the hands of his creature begins that he retracts from his policy of acquiring new knowledge. Similarly, Prometheus’s attempts to steal fire are born out of a thirst for knowledge. Apart from this thirst for knowledge, these two characters also share a desire for the improvement of other beings through knowledge. Like the theft of fire that was carried out for the welfare of man, the creation of the monster is a part of a process whereby Frankenstein attempts to provide mankind with the knowledge of the mysteries of life and death. The fire that Prometheus steals can be equated with the life that Frankenstein seeks to conquer. Critics like Burton Hatlen have termed the novel as a depiction of the disasters that would ensue due to the appropriation of the functions of the female and the creation of a paternalistic world (Hatlen, 2003, p. 290). However, it is more a portrayal of a pursuit of knowledge that leads to a questioning of hierarchies than anything else.

Through a juxtaposition of the Greek character of Prometheus and her protagonist, Mary Shelley creates a situation in her novel where the reader is better able to identify and appreciate the revolutionary nature of Frankenstein’s actions. Apart from this, the novel also exemplifies the ideals of the age, one where authority and rebellion are in conflict and the threat of the breakdown of hierarchies and as a consequence the stability of the society looms large in the novel. The threat materializes through the efforts of the novel and results in untold sufferings for the protagonist, in a manner that is strikingly similar to the miseries that Prometheus has to undergo at the hands of Zeus. Both these characters, through their propensity to rebel against tyrannical authority have thus, become a part of our cultural sensibilities that shape the way we perceive and respond to life and its vagaries.

Shelley, Mary. (2003). Frankenstein. Joshi,Maya, (Ed.). New Delhi: A Worldview Critical Edition.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. (2001). Prometheus Unbound. Reiman, Donald H.,& Fraistat, Neil, (Eds.)New York:A Norton Critical Edition.
Hatlen, Burton. (2003). Milton, Mary Shelley and Patriarchy. Joshi, Maya, (Ed.), Frankenstein(290) New Delhi: A Worldview Critical Edition.