The Second Life Of Prometheus Myth In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein subtitle implies that Victor Frankenstein and the creation of Frankenstein take elements from classical mythology and reinterprets those through the “modern” science. Shelley’s novel, set against the Scientific Revolution, confronts perennial problems that had been solved through myth. Science and myth are often in conflict, but one only has to consider the fact that a lot of ancient storytelling deals not only with unrealized ambitions, but also with realizing them. The legend of Icarus illustrates man’s desire to conquer the sky by flying – an aim that has been made a reality with the invention the aircraft. Frankenstein is a similar example of the human desire for artificial life. Shelley warns that technological advances can have grave moral consequences. Shelley suggests that science has the potential to give man his old ambitions. But, Shelley also shows how we can look back to classical myths to guard against the rational use of scientific powers. Shelley uses Frankenstein’s story, “modern Prometheus,” as an example of the dangers of transcending natural limits and assuming divine authority.

Shelley’s most explicit mythological mention is the much-overlooked subtitle in her novel. This describes Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his contemporary counterpart, Prometheus. Prometheus is the name of a rebellious Titan in the Greek pantheon who is believed to have created man. Legend says that Prometheus created man in order to imitate gods. However, this idea was distorted by the rejection that Prometheus and his godlike creations received from Zeus. Prometheus also angers the gods, as he steals divine light in his quest for a gift. Prometheus is punished for his sins by being chained to the rock. An eagle descends every day to eat his liver. Prometheus was not a god. Instead, he is a Titan that takes on the task. In the same way, Dr. Frankenstein takes over divine authority and creates a man using scientific methods. Frankenstein’s desire to become a god is also implied strongly in his first name Victor. This could be taken as a nod to Milton’s Paradise Lost. Shelley made clear that she wanted her readers make a connection between Paradise Lost’s epic and Frankenstein in the opening of the novel. So it is possible that Victor, Milton’s recurring title, “The Victor,” refers to Frankenstein’s failed experiments.

Frankenstein attempts to transform his passive, accidental role as a “creature” into an active, purposeful “creator”. (Allen 182). Everybody knows that mortal existence has limitations. Most people see these limitations as the limits of the human mind’s ability to control the outside world. An individual seeks to transcendence to overcome the perception of inability and impossibility to influence one’s surroundings (Allen 180). The drive to transcendence can be expressed through art and music in a healthy environment. Fromm warns against the danger of pursuing creative impulses while trying to overcome your natural limitations. “How can man transcend his limitations if he is incapable of creating and cannot love?” Fromm says, “There is an alternative to this need of transcendence: I cannot create it, but I can destroy. To destroy life, I transcend it”(Fromm 37). Shelley’s Frankenstein is also a negative attempt at overcoming human limitations. Frankenstein creates a creature to help him overcome his limitations as a creator. Frankenstein hopes that the creature’s birth will change the roles of both the scientist and the creature.

It is evident that the human desire to attain divine power is a central part of our nature, as evidenced by its widespread presence in world mythology. Frankenstein has studied the works and diabolical experiments of Paracelsus as well as Albertus Magnus, a medieval alchemist. Alchemists sought to transform substances into other substances throughout the Middle Ages. Alchemists had a high goal: to make non-living materials liveable (“Penetrating the Secrets of Nature”) Jabir, an Islamic alchemist and renowned speaker, spoke of “takwin” as the artificial creation (Alchemy) of life. The Jewish mystical books speak in similar vein about Rabbis who created Golems from clay and mud. Because clay molds man, it is similar to God’s creation of Adam in the Book of Genesis. Alchemists also sought out magical items that would give immortality. Shelley’s novel reveals that electricity, a newly discovered power, can be used to create and prolong life.

Frankenstein is a symbol of the merging science and alchemy. In the 18th and 19th centuries, electricity was already being used to save the lives of dead bodies. Percy Shelley was the first wife of Shelley. The London Society attempted to save her by using electricity and artificial respiratory. Luigi Galvani (18th century Italian physician) was attempting to unravel the electromagnetic base of the nervous. Galvani’s research led to the creation of a mythology that, by Shelley’s reckoning, implied the release via electricity of mysterious life powers.

Shelley’s novel shows how science’s modern advances make possible the archaic dreams of the magician. Shelley’s book raises the question of whether science is a “new” view or merely the realization ancient aspirations. C.S. Christian author attempts to answer the question. Lewis attempted to answer the question in his science fiction novel, That Hideous Strength. Perhaps taking cues from Shelley’s work, Lewis presents the scientist in his science-fiction novel, That Hideous Strength, as a modern magician who uses technological methods instead of magical powers to control nature. Lewis’ novel illustrates this view when NICE, the scientific organisation, plans to resurrect Merlin. Lewis’ novel adds a religious dimension that Shelley did not mention. Lewis speculates on the possibility that evil forces could be enabled to obtain powers by science if it is not conducted in an ethical context.

Lewis finds a new meaning in Shelley’s critique of unethical scientific research by looking at it from a Christian perspective. Frankenstein argues that science should not be used for selfish, impulsive purposes. The desire to make life according to one’s will is a sign of man’s sinful nature. Genesis 5:3 reveals that Adam had a son after he lived 130 years. Seth is Frankenstein’s offspring, the corrupted child of his misplaced ambitions. Symbolically, Dr. Frankenstein plays the role of Adam in Paradise Lost. He has fallen from grace because he wants to take God’s creative sovereignty. The monster is used to symbolize the corrupted human races, as depicted in Adam’s image. Although the monster is depicted as a monstrous creature, Frankenstein’s disastrous experiment made him a pitiful victim. The creature is forced by Frankenstein’s bungled experiment to experience the sins he did never commit.

The human race being given forbidden knowledge is another feature of Adam’s descent. This parallels Shelley and Prometheus myths. The Greek myth says that Prometheus steals fire from the gods to bring it to the young human race. He is then condemned. In the past, fire and light have been used to symbolize knowledge. The serpent of Genesis introduces knowledge about “good and bad” to humankind, thus aiding their fall from innocence. The role of the serpent in Eden is similar that of Prometheus, who attempts to “steal” the knowledge fire and give it to man. An additional parallel is found when one realizes the literal meaning of Lucifer (often associated with Satan) which means “bearer-of-light”; he is the illicit bearer-of-the-light of Divine Knowledge, which is what he attempts give to man.

This parallel has important implications on Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley wrote this book in an era where science was viewed enthusiastically. He clearly cast Dr. Frankenstein as the serpent who gives the world miraculous knowledge. But with terrible consequences. Frankenstein, much like Lucifer and Prometheus, seeks to “steal” the Divine’s ability to create life, as well as the realm of God. This parallel is one of Shelley’s most disturbing observations. Shelley wants her readers to see that Frankenstein will be playing the Satanic role. Frankenstein has created a Pandora’s Box which, like the serpent of the garden, will cause the rest to be destroyed and corrupted. Shelley saw that the seed of another “fall from paradis” was being planted through her unrestrained scientific knowledge.

Frankenstein should be treated as a science-fiction classic because of this cautionary message. Shelley warns future generations of God’s power by writing Frankenstein. This is similar to Moses’ story about the Garden of Eden. Shelley makes reference to classic myths in order to show that Frankenstein addresses fundamental human needs. The danger is that man can go beyond his natural limits, causing irreversible damage. Frankenstein should be read with a mythological perspective. This will help the reader understand Shelley’s message better, and myth transcends generational and cultural boundaries to speak directly to the human condition.

Works cited

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Allen, Bem. Personality Theories. Pearson Education: Boston 2003.

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Fromm, Erich. Erich Fromm’s book The Sane Society focuses on how humans can create a more healthy, balanced 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 Nature’s Secrets.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. July 25, 2005. The National Institutes of Health is a government agency devoted to health research.

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. On the third of February in 2006. Wikimedia. 16 April 2006.