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The Modern Prometheus: Reworked Myth in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
As the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein implies, the tragic tale of Victor Frankenstein and his creation takes elements of classical myth and reinterprets them through the advances of “modern” science. Against the backdrop of the Scientific Revolution, Shelley’s novel confronts perennial dilemmas that have been dealt with through the medium of myth. Although science and myth often seem at odds with one another, one need only consider that a good deal of ancient storytelling deals with unrealized, often fanciful, human ambitions that have since been realized. For example, the legend of Icarus depicts man’s yearning to rule the sky through flight – an ambition that has become reality through the invention of the aircraft. Similarly, Frankenstein fulfills the human desire to create life by artificial means. However, Shelley suggests that such technological progress can have serious moral implications. Although science gives man the ability to fulfill his age-old ambitions, Shelley shows that we should look to the classical myths as precautions against the irrational use of scientific power. Shelley uses the story of Frankenstein, the “modern Prometheus,” to demonstrate the consequences of transcending natural limitations and usurping divine authority.
Shelley’s most explicit mythological reference is the oft-overlooked subtitle of her novel, which describes Dr. Victor Frankenstein as a contemporary parallel to Prometheus. Prometheus, whose name means “forethought” (Prometheus), is a rebellious Titan of the Greek pantheon, who is said to be the creator of man. According to legend, Prometheus intended for man to be a being that could imitate the gods- an idea similar to that expressed in the Genesis account, albeit distorted by the subsequent disapproval that Prometheus’ godlike creations receive from Zeus. Prometheus further angers the gods when, in seeking a gift for his creation, he steals divine fire and brings it down to mortal man. In punishment for his transgression, Prometheus is chained to a rock, where an eagle descends daily to consume his liver.
The most obvious parallel between Victor Frankenstein and Prometheus is that they both illicitly create a human being. It should be remembered that Prometheus is not a god himself, but a Titan who takes up the task of creation to mock the gods of Mount Olympus. Likewise, Dr. Frankenstein usurps divine authority by creating a man through scientific means. Frankenstein’s ambitions towards godhood are also strongly implied in his first name, Victor, which may be interpreted as a subtle nod to Milton’s Paradise Lost (Prometheus). Because the novel opens with a quotation from Paradise Lost, and the monster is later seen reading the epic, it is clear that Shelley intended for her readers to draw a connection between Paradise Lost and Frankenstein. Therefore, it has been suggested that the name Victor refers to one of Milton’s recurring titles for God in Paradise Lost, “The Victor.” Shelley thus implies that through his bungled experiments, Victor Frankenstein seeks to play the role of God.
In a perverse way, Frankenstein struggles towards what sociologist Erich Fromm calls “transcendence” – “the act of transforming one’s accidental and passive role of ‘creature’ into that of an active and purposeful ‘creator’ ” (Allen 182). All people recognize that mortal life entails certain limitations. For most, these limitations revolve around the extent to which the human mind and body can enforce its will on the external world. To compensate for the perceived inability to change one’s surroundings, an individual strives towards transcendence (Allen 182). In a healthy context, the drive towards transcendence will manifest itself through creative forms such as art or music (Allen 182). However, Fromm warns that striving to overcome natural limitations may also lead to counter-creative impulses. “How does man solve the problem of transcending himself, if he is not capable of creating, if he cannot love?” Fromm writes, “There is another answer to this need for transcendence: if I cannot create life, I can destroy it. To destroy life makes me transcend it” (Fromm 37). This negative attempt to overcome human constraints is also present in Shelley’s Frankenstein. Frankenstein, in seeking to overcome his own limitations as a created being, decides to project those same limitations onto another entity by creating a creature of his own. Frankenstein hopes that the birth of the creature will cause a change of roles, in which the creature is the limited, created being, and the scientist is the transcendent creator.
As evidenced by its prevalence in world mythology, this desire for divine power is central to human nature. Frankenstein studies the works of medieval alchemists Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus, which inspire his own diabolical experiments. Throughout the Middle Ages, alchemists pursued powers that would transform one substance into another. Naturally, the highest goal of the alchemist was to transform nonliving materials into a living being (“Penetrating the Secrets of Nature”). Jabir, a famous Islamic alchemist, spoke of an art he called “takwin” – the artificial creation of life through alchemical means (Alchemy). In a similar vein, the Jewish mystical texts speak of Rabbis who sought to create Golems – living beings molded from mud or clay and given life through the mystical application of the Divine Name. The theme of “playing God” is explicit in the Golem legends because the molding of man from clay imitates God’s creation of man in the Book of Genesis. In addition, alchemists routinely sought after magical items that would grant immortality, variously called “the panacea,” “the elixir of life,” or “the Philosopher’s Stone” (Alchemy). In Shelley’s novel, the recently-discovered power of electricity provides the means of creating and prolonging life.
Thus, Frankenstein reflects the meeting of science with the mythical tradition of alchemy. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, attempts to revive lifeless bodies through the use of electricity were already underway. When the first wife of Shelley’s husband Percy drowned, the London Society attempted to resuscitate her through the use of electricity and artificial respiration (“Penetrating the Secrets of Nature”). More notable, however, were the experiments of 18th century Italian physician Luigi Galvani who was beginning to uncover the electromagnetic basis of the nervous system (“Penetrating the Secrets of Nature”). A sort of popular mythology developed around Galvani’s experiments, and by Shelley’s time the word, galvanism, “implied the release through electricity of mysterious life forces (“Penetrating the Secrets of Nature”).” Reflecting on Galvani’s experiments, Mary Shelley speculated that “perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvinism had given token of such things (Frankenstein).”
In Shelley’s novel, the contemporary advances of science bring into reality the archaic ambitions of the magician. Shelley’s work begs the question – is science a “new” worldview, or is it merely the realization of ancient aspirations? This is a question which Christian writer C.S. Lewis later attempts to answer in his science-fiction novel, That Hideous Strength. Lewis, perhaps taking his cue from Shelley, presents the scientist as a sort of modern magician, employing technological methods in lieu of mystical powers to control the forces of nature. This view is evidenced in Lewis’ novel by having the scientific organization NICE plan to resurrect and work cooperatively with the sorcerer Merlin. Lewis, however, adds a religious dimension to the subject only hinted at in Shelley’s work. Given that the sorcerers of previous generations worked under the influence of demons, Lewis speculates that science, pursued outside of an ethical context, may allow evil forces to acquire powers which were only dreamt of in the past.
In criticizing unethical scientific practice from a Christian perspective, Lewis unearths a new dimension of meaning that is also present in Shelley’s work. Frankenstein suggests that when man uses science for selfish and impulsive ends, there are severe moral consequences. From a theological standpoint, the desire to create life in one’s own image is a symptom of man’s fall into sin. This is implied in Genesis 5:3: “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.” In a twisted way, Frankenstein’s monster is his offspring -the corrupted son of his misplaced ambitions. Symbolically, Dr. Frankenstein is cast into the role of Adam from Paradise Lost, having fallen from grace through his desire to usurp God’s creative sovereignty. The monster serves as a metaphor for the corrupted human race, made in the image of Adam. Although depicted in monstrous terms, the creature is the pitiful victim of Frankenstein’s bungled experiment. Forced to live out the consequences of a sin he did not commit, the creature can only quote Paradise Lost in asking: “why have you made me this way?”
A second feature of Adam’s fall that subtly parallels both the Prometheus myth and Shelley’s Frankenstein is the imparting of a forbidden knowledge to the human race. According to the Greek myth, Prometheus steals the fire of the gods and brings it to the fledgling human race, resulting in his own condemnation. Traditionally, light and fire have been symbolic of knowledge as evidenced in colloquial phrases such as “shed some light on the matter”. In the Genesis account, the serpent introduces the knowledge of “good and evil” to humans, thus facilitating their fall from innocence. The serpent of Eden plays a role similar to that of Prometheus in his attempt to “steal” the fire of knowledge and to place it in the hands of man. A further parallel is established when one recognizes that the name Lucifer – often associated with Satan – literally means “bearer of light”; that is the illicit bearer of the light of Divine Knowledge, which he attempts to give to man.
This second parallel has important ramifications for Shelley’s Frankenstein. Writing in an era when science was generally viewed with great enthusiasm, Shelley clearly casts Dr. Frankenstein in the role of the serpent who offers the world miraculous knowledge, but with dire consequences. Like Prometheus and Lucifer, Frankenstein attempts to “steal” that which belongs in the realm of the Divine, the ability to create life. In this parallel lies one of the most haunting of Shelley’s observations. If Frankenstein assumes the role of Satan, then Shelley intends for her readers to recognize that the consequences of Frankenstein’s experiment will reach far beyond his own sphere of influence. Like the serpent in the garden, Frankenstein has opened a Pandora’s Box, the effects of which will corrupt and destroy the rest of humanity. In the unrestrained use of scientific knowledge, Shelley recognized that the seed of a second “fall from paradise” was already being sown.
Because of this precautionary message, Frankenstein should not be overlooked as an old work of science-fiction. Shelley’s novel warns future generations of the consequences of usurping divine authority just as Moses’ account of the Garden of Eden did. Shelley alludes to classical myths to demonstrate that Frankenstein deals with fundamental human needs and aspirations. As long as man attempts to transcend his natural limitations, there is the danger that he will go too far and cause irreversible damage to humankind. Ultimately, Frankenstein should read with a mythological understanding not only because doing so will deepen the reader’s understanding of Shelley’s message, but also because myth transcends cultural and generational boundaries to speak to the human condition.
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Allen, Bem P. Personality Theories: Fourth Edition. Pearson Education: Boston 2003.
“Frankenstein.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 12 November 2005.
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Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society. New York: Rinehart 1955
Huber, R.J., Widdifield, J.K., & Johnson, C.L. (1989). Frankenstein: An Adlerian Odyssey. Individual Psychology, 45, 267-278.
“Penetrating the Secrets of Nature.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. 25 July 2005. National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/frankenstein/frankhome.html
“Prometheus.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 3 February 2006. Wikimedia. 16 April 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prometheus
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