According to the Greek poet Hesiod, the Titan demi-god Prometheus was responsible for the creation of men. He manufactured them from clay, from the natural earth. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, she left little doubt that the creator of the monster, Victor Frankenstein, by making a living creature from inaminate parts was a new Prometheus. But her metaphor extends beyond the immediately obvious. In Hesiod’s myth, Prometheus had an inflated sense of self importance and was determined to be adored by men.
Because men had no control over fire they were destined to remain mere animals. The forbidden knowledge of fire, the most basic and natural form of energy was the domain of the god, Zeus. The ego-centric Prometheus became obsessed with devising a means by which he could procure fire and with no other motive in mind than glory, he cunningly stole fire from Zeus and gave it to a grateful mankind. Prometheus’ trickery was bound to invite catastrophe. Zeus’ retribution was swift and twofold. Firstly, with the help of Hephaestus, Hermes and Aphrodite, he fashioned out of clay the first woman, Pandora.
Thereafter, men would no longer be born directly from the earth; now through women, they would undergo birth by procreation, and consequently old age, suffering and death. She was given a box which contained all manner of misery and evils and was responsible for letting them escape, to torment humankind forever. Secondly, Zeus caught Prometheus, chained him to a rock, and each day an eagle would visit him and feed on his liver. Prometheus’ liver, however, replenished itself overnight, so he was condemned not so much to a single act of punishment but to perpetual torture.
This is the price of tampering with nature. Prometheus’ ultimate downfall was caused, not by a poorly executed theft, but by the driving force of his own self-interest. By characterising Prometheanism, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a critique of male egoism. Shelley represents male egoism through the assertiveness of her glory seeking characters. The attitude of her narrator, Robert Walton, is typified by his belief in his ‘God given right’ to have ultimate success in Arctic explorations.
He writes to his sister Margaret asking, “do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose? Shelley 17) This attitude continues as he tells Victor that he would sacrifice anything, including men’s (presumably other men’s) lives for the success of his polar expedition and for “the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race”(28). This boast, made in the very midst of vast polar ice fields, impels Victor to tell his story, as both a confession and also as a warning to Walton. If Victor is the ‘Modern Prometheus’, Walton is certainly his apprentice.
Like Victor’s knowledge of how to create a living being from dead matter, the knowledge which Walton seeks is forbidden; the secret of nature. By the end of the novel Walton has become aware of the ominous aspect of the Arctic. Certainly, the cruelty of the Arctic has not been lost on the crew of his ship who threaten mutiny. Their human spirit, in striving for forbidden knowledge, when confronted with the terrifying and mysterious abyss of nature, prefers to retreat trembling from the inhuman and seemingly infinite icy wilds.
On his deathbed, Victor asks them, “Did you not call this a glorious expedition? “….. “You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactor of your species; your names adored, as belonging to the brave men who encountered death and honour, and the benefit of mankind”(214). Despite Victor’s rousing speech, the crew resolve to return to the safety and warmth of ‘Mother England’, no longer able to call themselves ‘true men’. Or, perhaps they have some forethought that, in finding absolution in ‘Walton The Confessor’, Victor’s parting words would be, “Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition… 217).
With these last words, Victor is finally able to release himself from his dogma of glory and from life itself but his unflagging egoism will not let him concede that he might have acted in error: “I have myself been blasted in these hopes (of discovery), yet another may succeed”(218). Another, almost passing, reference to Prometheanism appears when Walton tells Margaret that his lieutenant is likewise “madly desirous of glory”(20). Victor’s closest friend, Henry Clerval, is one male who pursues his objectives without striving for glory.
This is due to the moderating influence of a female, the epitome of a contemporary male’s idea of femininity, Elizabeth Lavenza. Whilst growing up together, she “… unfolded to him the real loveliness and beneficence, and made the doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition”(38). As Victor Frankenstein relates his story to Walton, he speaks of the desire to learn beyond the physical sciences, to discover metaphysical secrets which is more than a simple quest for wisdom.
Fuelled by his perceived elevation in esteem and admiration at Ingolstadt University, it becomes his obsession to find everlasting life, a quest for forbidden knowledge. Like Prometheus, he is driven by the thought of glory more than the benefit he might bestow upon humankind: “Wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death! ”(40). And like Prometheus, he is able to fashion a living being from inaminate parts.
But here he has made a double transgression. Not only has he gone against nature, and circumvented the act of procreation, he has used the parts of dead humans to achieve his result. Compounding his crimes, Victor makes his gravest error. His egoism does not allow him to fulfil his obligations as a creator; to nurture and provide for his ‘offspring’ . Victor finds the look of the ‘demoniacal corpse’ too abhorrent; “…. but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart”(57).
Shelley employs the monster to mete out Victor’s punishment. Frustrated by a lack of compassion, the monster seeks revenge upon his creator. By killing William, Clerval, and Elizabeth, the monster enslaves Victor to the turmoil of his own mind and emotions, thereby destroying any hope of tranquillity, and his subsequent ability to rationalise clearly and deeply. Victor’s ability to devise a plan whereby he can destroy his creation is overshadowed by his own predicament, merely pursuing the monster to wherever the monster wishes to lead him.
Victor’s perpetual punishment is not so much physical as mental and emotional. By contrast, Clerval’s death has nothing to do with his ambitions. Perhaps, because his motives are honourable, that is, not ego driven, that he is allowed to die quickly. But like William, Victor’s brother, and Elizabeth, it is the affection bestowed on him by Victor that makes him a victim; his death is but another part of what keeps Victor, like Prometheus, “chained in an eternal hell”(211). In an attempt to placate the monster, Victor agrees to make a female companion, a Pandora.
But when half completed, he claims, like Pandora, “she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate” or “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth”(165). In the presence of the monster, he destroys his work. But it is the lack of glorification were she to become what he predicts which really stops him proceeding. If his egoism had allowed him to believe humanity would marvel at his achievements, he would have kept going. So, with his Promethean traits in tact, Victor’s self-interest determines his actions once more.
Further retribution from the monster is a fait accompli . Victor’s egoism even denies him the opportunity of understanding the implications of the monster’s promise to be with him on his wedding night. Victor’s self obsession leads him to say, “Villain! before you sign my death-warrant, be sure that you are yourself safe” (168). As far as Victor is concerned, the safety of Elizabeth is not a consideration; as far as his ‘perpetual torture’ is concerned, her fate is sealed. The seeking of glory is a pursuit of ego driven males which, if left unchecked, deserves the fate of Prometheus.
Shelley tells the story of three men who deal with Prometheanism in three ways. Innocent Clerval lived a happy, fulfilled, albeit brief life. Victor, refusing to repent until his last breath, and unable to pursue the monster, is ‘chained’ to his bed with only his memories to persecute him. And Walton relinquishes his own egoism and abandons his quest in the Arctic thus allowing the story of ‘The Modern Prometheus’ to be told. The product of Prometheanism, the hapless monster, regretful of his own existence and with revenge complete, exits stage right, presumably to his death in the unknown wilderness.