Frankenstein and Prometheus: A Match Made in Hell
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a man who reanimates a corpse. Shelley alludes to Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound in her title. Similar to Victor Frankenstein, the tragic figure of Prometheus was especially popular among the Romantics because he was solitary, inventive, and a rule-breaker. Shelley used the protagonists to compare and reflect on her contemporary world. In the modern world, where God is no longer central, technology and human inventions not only benefit humankind but also cause unforeseeable pain.
Frankenstein wished to make new scientific discoveries by creating a new race of humanity. He rebelled against God’s natural order and used modern technology to create life. This is the role, in myth, of Prometheus. Ovid says of the creation of humankind, “...[W]e come from the natural order of things, the aether having left some trace of its heavenly self for Prometheus to mix with new-fallen rainwater and mold into shape, not unlike that of the gods” (Ovid 3). The former quotation calls Prometheus a creator of life, in other words, God.
Prometheus not only created life, but he also violated the natural order of the universe to help it thrive. Prometheus stole Zeus’s property in the form of lightning, and created fire, as an act of rebellion. It was his gift of Zeus’s fire that gave humanity access to all technologies which helped it survive. Correspondingly, Frankenstein harvested a lightning strike to electrify and bring his creation to life. He usurped the role of God, just like Prometheus usurped the role of Zeus. As Prometheus had acted like the king of the gods, Frankenstein had arrogantly acted as a divine, scientific creator.
Both Prometheus and Frankenstein acted with good intentions, but they ultimately suffered after failing to foresee the consequences of their actions. Prometheus gets punished by Zeus by being nailed to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle every day only to have it grow back that night causing a never-ending cycle of torture. Frankenstein deteriorates over time as his creation, the monster, murders his loved ones. This ultimately drives Frankenstein to die nearly alone in the North Pole; similar to Prometheus who is punished alone in the Caucasus mountains.
Both Frankenstein and Prometheus’ plans to do good in the world go wrong. Prometheus, ironically known as the God of Foresight, failed to predict (or at least prevent) his own suffering. Frankenstein, a man of science and empiricism, could not use his knowledge to predict or fix the tragic consequences of what he had created. Frankenstein embodies the Enlightenment’s complete faith in science. Shelley comments on the character's hubris, through Frankenstein's constant comparison to God saying that “a new species would bless [him] as its creator and source…” (44). Prometheus also talked about all the ways he had helped humanity--not just fire, but also medicine, architecture, navigation, and agriculture (Aeschylus 476-506). In Aeschylus, the gods Hermes and Ocean criticize Prometheus for being overly proud and not accepting the limits of Zeus’s natural order.
Though there are several similarities between the two stories, they also differ. Prometheus suffers because of his actions, not at the hands of it. Frankenstein suffers at the hands of his creation, not because of it. Frankenstein, a modern retelling of Prometheus, deviates from the myth by having Victor Frankenstein, the technologist, replace God. Prometheus steals technology from the god that he had helped enthrone. Frankenstein’s modern world order, the world of the Enlightenment, contained the seeds of his destruction.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Tom Doherty, 1988.
Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Translated by David R Slavitt, John Hopkins University Press, 1994.