When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, in 1818, she subtitled it ‘The Modern Prometheus’ a literary allusion to the Greek and Roman Prometheus myths. According to the Greek version of the myth, told by the Greek Aeschylus in his play ‘Prometheus Bound’, Prometheus was a Titan and was the friend and benefactor of all humanity. He stole fire from the heavens as a gift for the human race. This incurred the wrath of the Greek king of the gods, Zeus, who chained Prometheus to a rock, for eternity, where an eagle would come to peck out his liver, which would then re-grow within his body overnight.
Humankind was also separated from the heavens as an additional punishment. Heracles eventually releases him from this ‘eternal’ torment. However, according to the Roman version of the story, told in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, Prometheus was the creator of humans, modelling the first humans out of clay and water, in the same way that Christians believe that God created man (Genesis 2:7-8). The punishment for this was the creation of the first women, Pandora. According to legend she was given a box and told not to open it.
Unfortunately her curiosity got the better of her and she opened it letting all of the bad things in the world, trapped inside the box, out. However one thing was left in the box; hope. These legends link to Frankenstein, and give rise to the subtitle ‘The Modern Prometheus’ due to the fact that Prometheus assisted mankind, but his kindness came at a price: he is punished for his actions, and humans are alienated from the heavens. Similarly, trying to defeat death and defeat human limitations, Frankenstein creates a human like creature but alienates himself from his creation when he sees that it will never fit in with the rest of humanity.
In addition to this Frankenstein is punished for his actions, by his family being killed, in the same way that Prometheus is punished for his kindness. Likewise both Frankenstein and Prometheus attempt to play God. They are also both are punished for their actions, but eventually find relief from the punishments; Prometheus is freed while Frankenstein dies. There is also the link with Pandora, in that Frankenstein only succeeds in bringing evil into the world. The two stories also share many of their main themes.
For instance both of them have the theme of heroism, with Frankenstein being the “hero” of mankind in the fight against death, while Prometheus is the “hero” because he provides mankind with fire, an essential source of light and heat. Another theme that they share is that of punishment, with the “hero” being the one who is punished. Prometheus has to endure eternal torment, while Frankenstein watches as his family and friends are murdered around him. The Romantics produced many stories, poems and plays on the Prometheus archetype.
For instance Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Shelley wrote a poem ‘Prometheus Unbound’ in 1820, possibly as a response to Frankenstein. In addition to this Lord Byron wrote a poem ‘Prometheus’; is it a coincidence that both of these people were present when Frankenstein embedded itself in Mary Shelley’s mind? Prometheus was a hero for the Romantics as they had very idealistic views. They, the Romantics, were great supporters of the fight against the higher powers; whether the higher power is God or some sort of nobility.
Prometheus, by fighting against the gods of the Greeks and Romans, was seen as a leader and an inspiration in the fight against the superior. The story also has strong links with the history of the time. The French Revolution (1789-1799) had not long passed and Europe was in a state of upheaval. The French Revolution showed a challenge of power, as did the Prometheus story. It also shows a change of power from the God appointed King, to the people. In the same way Frankenstein takes the power of life from God, into his own hands.
He also thought that his experiments would bring purity and hope to all humankind, as the French thought they would be able to do by rebelling. Many of the descriptions of the French revolution link into the story of Frankenstein. For instance, according to Edmund Burke, the French Revolution was ‘a political monster’ which was born only to devour its creator. This is very similar to Frankenstein with the monster being born, eventually to destroy its creator (Frankenstein). As well as the French Revolution there was an upheaval in science at that time.
Chemistry had been isolated from the other sciences in 1802 by Humphrey Davy in his ‘A Discourse, Introductory To A Course Of Lectures On Chemistry’, which also bears many links with Frankenstein, in which he states “Science has done much for man, but it is capable of doing still more”, an idea which is echoed in the book. Frankenstein is very interested in the potential of science and believes that he can take science where it hasn’t been before; he thinks he can stop death.
Victor also knows the great things that science has already done and the things that were dreamed of by the ancient scientists. He wants to make some of these dreams realities. Humphrey Davy also says, “Science has enabled man to be master”, a theme found in both Frankenstein and Prometheus. Frankenstein plays God when he becomes the creator of life, while Prometheus becomes the master when he steals the fire from the heavens, which was reserved only for the gods, and gives it to humans.