Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

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Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"

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...

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...fe-giver. However, it could be argued that Frankenstein is better connected to Prometheus the fire-stealer. Frankenstein’s experiments with the two edged sword of forbidden knowledge had the possibility of bestowing great good upon humanity or perhaps the destruction of humankind.

Shelley has utilised both versions of the myth to great effect in the development of the main theme. Her character, Frankenstein, effectively destroyed all he held dear as a consequence of his obsession with the pursuit of forbidden knowledge.

Works Cited:

Griffith, G. V. 1997 Frankenstein in the Context of the Romantic Era. Retrieved April 2004 from

Hindle, M. 1994, Mary Shelley Frankenstein Penguin Books, London

Hunter, J. P. (ed.), 1996, Mary Shelley Frankenstein. The 1818 Text, Contexts, Nineteenth-Century Responses, Modern Criticism, W.W. Norton & Company, New York

Newey, K. 1993, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Sydney University Press, Sydney

Schmidt, A. 1999, The Myth of Prometheus, Retrieved April 2004 from

Oates, J.C. 1984 Frankenstein’s Fallen Angel, in Critical Inquiry, Vol 10 No.3. Retrieved April 2004 from
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