A Failed Prometheus

In her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1831), Mary Shelley alludes to the myths of Prometheus as the creator and champion of mankind as a method to cast Victor Frankenstein in a negative light. Shelley’s novel, as suggested by the subtitle, slightly diverges from the traditional myths to emphasize a shift from an ancient story of heroism and responsibility to a modern one of cowardice and negligence. While Harriet Hustis’ article “Responsible Creativity and the ‘Modernity’ of Mary Shelley’s Prometheus” argues that Shelley’s modernization of the legends of Prometheus centers on Victor’s lack of responsibility towards his creation through the abandonment of his hideous child, Hustis’ analysis can be extended to include additional circumstances of departure from the myths that alter the perception of the true nature of Victor’s character. Although Victor parallels the character of Prometheus through his innovative role as a creator and his consequent subjection to a life of anguish, his contrasting selfish intentions, unjust treatment of his creation, and unresolved suffering ultimately shape him as a failed Prometheus.

While both Victor and the mythological character of Prometheus exhibit the characteristics of a creator, demonstrating a shared desire to instill life where none exists, Victor’s motives prove egocentric and contrast the selfless intentions of his counterpart. Victor’s initial infatuation with science stems from a mere childhood “curiosity” to understand the unknown and hidden “secret[s]” of the universe (Shelley 38). However, as pleasurable feelings of “rapture” and “deligh[t]” begin to accompany his studies, prompting Victor to embark on a journey of self and formal education, Shelley emphasizes that Victor’s interests are becoming fueled by alternative motives (Shelley 38). As Victor ages, his academic dedication results from an increasing desire for self-satisfaction rather than solely a thirst for knowledge. Therefore, through Victor’s realization that he would only be “grati[fied]” (Shelley 53) if he could “unfold to the world” a discovery of the “deepest mysteries of creation” and power (Shelley 49), it becomes apparent that Shelley alludes to the “obscur[e]” legend of Prometheus as the “maker of man” (Hustis 850). Shelley reveals that her modernization of the altruistic mythological character begins to take its shape with a disparity of intentions. According to the legend, Prometheus is given a task by the superior authority of Zeus to construct the human race. Prometheus utilizes “clay,” a substance generated from water and the earth, to meticulously mold and configure each being in the “image of the gods” (Raggio 46). While the ambiguity of this myth variation leaves limited explanation, a close reading of Prometheus’ creative process, namely his materials and inspiration, suggests the virtue of his intentions and highlights Shelley’s divergence from the legend. In carefully crafting each individual mortal to mirror the divine magnificence of those residing mightily in the heavens, Prometheus strives to position the human race, while inferior to the gods, as differentiated from and of higher status than the beasts of the earth. With an upright stature and appealing demeanor, Prometheus enables humankind to reach closer to Mount Olympus, more dignified and worthy of the gods’ attention. However, in contrast to his counterpart, Victor independently and of his own accord decides to undertake a similarly “bold” project (Shelley 52). Through a declaration that he can accomplish what the “wisest [of] men” could not, Victor, demonstrating hubris, discloses his belief that he is greater than his own kind (Shelley 53). Victor further conveys that when he succeeds, expressed haughtily without doubt in a matter of fact statement, he will create a new generation of organisms that will both “bless” him and shower him with “gratitude” (Shelley 55). Insinuating that he can and will reach a God-like status of divinity, Victor not only further discloses his conceit, but also his underlying motives to elevate his prestige among society. With the hope that he might receive “glory” and fame if credited as the first individual to achieve the unfathomable, Victor reveals that, unlike Prometheus who acts in the interest of the well-being of others, he is motivated by the idea of self-promotion (Shelley 42). As a result, Victor, acting solely with a selfish expectation for instant recompense, fails to mirror the diligence and thoughtfulness of his counterpart’s creative process. Despite his recognition of the insufficiency of his ingredients, Victor resolves to continue the construction of his creation with elements of the human body “corrup” and “degraded” by death” (Shelley 53). Victor parallels Prometheus through his utilization of inanimate materials. However, the grotesque nature of his decaying parts drastically contrasts the wholesome substances of his counterpart; implying that Victor’s character, actions, and motives are associated with darkness and negativity. Furthermore, in finding that the elaborate and minute “intricacies” (Shelley 54) of the human figure would “impede the [speed] and progress” of his project (Hustis 848), Victor chooses to expand the frame of his being to one of “gigantic stature” (Shelley 54). In addition to his blatant remiss of using inadequate human remains, Victor’s desire to disregard minor and time-consuming details highlights a further divergence from Prometheus’ demonstration of pensive consideration. Victor demonstrates through his process that his focus is on the “abstraction” and achievement of creating life rather than the quality of his creation (Hustis 848). Although he can be perceived to emulate God or a demi-god like that of Prometheus through the embodiment of the power and innovative role of a creator, Victor fails to exemplify Prometheus’ God-like mentality of selflessness and integrity. While Prometheus is depicted with a concern for how his creations come into existence, mindful of the traits they will exhibit and the condition of the lives they will lead, Victor is characterized only with a concern for his own success. As a contrast to his unselfish and benevolent counterpart, Victor is perceived as self-centered and ultimately cast in an unfavorable light.

Through a focus on the relationship between a creator and his creation, Shelley emphasizes that, unlike the mythological character of Prometheus, Victor demonstrates an abuse of creative power and a lack of responsibility towards his progeny; modernizing an ancient story of compassion and support to one of indifference and abandonment. Despite his efforts to establish mankind as the supreme species, Prometheus learns upon completion that “all the gifts of nature” were allocated “among the animals” (Raggio 45). While the beasts of the earth were bestowed with greater strength, speed, and bodily defense systems like sharp teeth, scales, and fur, the human race was left vulnerable and defenseless. Mankind, “naked…[,]unprotected,” and unable to survive on their own, ultimately represents the inferior species (Raggio 45). As Victor looks upon the hideous and uncanny appearance of the being that “lay at [his] feet…convulsi[ing with] motion,” he similarly reveals that the fulfillment of his desire did not turn out as intended (Shelley 58). Through the grotesque and animalistic deformations of semitransparent “yellow skin,” “watery eyes,” “straight black lips,” and a “shriveled complexion,” (Shelley 58) Victor reveals that his creation appears nothing like himself or a being as “wonderful as man” (Shelley 54). Although each creator reveals that the product of their toils fails to align with their visions, Victor, contrasting the sympathetic emotions of Prometheus with expressions of bitter disappointment and dread, perceives this event as a horrifying disaster rather than as heart breaking. Therefore, alluding to the “primary” legend of Prometheus as a fire-bearer, Shelley reveals that her modernization further stems from an emphasis on the divergence of each character’s reactions as a result of their individual interpretations (Hustis 846). Upon learning that his creations are destined to suffer lives of pain, despair, and hardships, Prometheus is immediately filled with sorrow. “Inspired by pity” and his recognition of humankind’s state of helplessness, Prometheus chooses to intervene and consequently, “steals fire” from the gods on Mount Olympus to give to the human race (Hustis 847). With fire came survival and a newfound ability to excel in the arts of agriculture, tool making, and weaponry. With this gift of “reason and wisdom” came civilization and thus, the prosperity and superiority of mankind (Raggio 45). In contrast, Victor expresses “breathless horror and disgust” at the “demoniacal” appearance of his creation (Shelley 58,59). This declaration of his personal fear and revulsion in addition to the grotesque and animalistic description of the being’s physical appearance further discloses Victor’s disapproval and adverse feelings towards his creation. As he refers to his creation solely as a “thing” and a “creature,” it becomes apparent that Victor exhibits detachment (Shelley 58). Through a refusal to recognize his creation as human or even as his child, Victor not only reveals that he is “unable to endure” and love a thing so frightening and ugly, but also that he desires to separate himself from a monstrous achievement that will taint his reputation (Shelley 58). Therefore, while Prometheus demonstrates compassion and a desire to help through an understanding of his “offspring[s’] need for…guidance…and support,” Victor, unwilling to embody the parental role of his counterpart, abandons his creation (Hustis 845). With inhuman characteristics and a horrifying physicality, Victor’s creation is perceived as a monster and destined to suffer the life of an outcast. However, unlike Prometheus who hoped to ensure the “survival [and] long-term happiness” of his children, Victor, consumed with fear and distaste, turns his back on his only child (Hustis 848). By denying his creation of affection[,]” and endearment as well as the knowledge of how to assimilate into society, Victor ultimately condemns his creature to a life of exclusion and misery (Shelley 103). As a result, while Prometheus is depicted as heroic by alleviating the sufferings of his progeny, Victor is perceived as negligent and, in turn, abusive. Exemplifying the source of his creation’s afflictions through his cowardice and selfishness, Victor fails to mirror the responsibility exhibited by his counterpart and consequently, is perceived as lesser in character.

Although Victor and the mythological character of Prometheus each endure the consequences from their decisions as creators, unlike Prometheus, Victor’s suffering proves unresolved and as a result, suggests the immorality of both his actions and the nature of his character. Through Victor’s choice to make man and Prometheus’ decision to steal fire from Zeus, each character “undertak[s an] act of daring responsibility” manifested in the form of a defiance of supreme authority (Hustis 847). Despite the successes of both Victor and Prometheus as they come to possess the power of a divine entity, namely God and the gods of Mount Olympus respectively, each character must face the ramifications of the implementation of their “creative power” (Hustis 846). While both Victor and Prometheus are subjected to a life of misery, Victor suffers emotionally whereas Prometheus endures physical torture. As Victor’s creation begins to embark on a “murderous rampage” as a result of his rejection and abandonment (Hustis 852), killing his creator’s loved-ones, Victor becomes filled with a “heart-sickening despair” (Shelley 87). Victor conveys that in addition to a life defined by “miserable reflections” of an accomplishment that failed to fulfill his aspirations for acclaim and esteem, he now also suffers the pain and anguish that stems from the horrific and “unalterable evils” committed by his creation (Shelley 94,95). Due to an abuse of power through negligence, exemplified in the “thoughtles[sness]” of both the generation and spurning of his creation, Victor is consumed not only with unhappiness and regret, but also the tormenting emotions of anxiety, apprehension, and terror as he awaits the arrival of another abhorrent incident (Shelley 95). According to the legends, Prometheus was similarly left to endure a miserable life of agony as a punishment for his “transgres[sion]” (Hustis 846). With a desire to sustain the existence of the human race, Prometheus defies the will of Zeus and bestows the unknown element of fire to humankind as a gift to promote societal advancement and survival. As a punishment, Prometheus is “bound…[with] chains” to a post and left to have his liver “feasted on” by an eagle (Philips 296). Prometheus, an immortal demi-god, “regenerat[es]” his liver each night and consequently, is exposed to the same physical trauma every day (Philips 296). However, according to many myth variations, Prometheus’ suffering, unlike that of Victor, proves not to be a life sentence. While Prometheus’ life of misery ends with the “slay[ing] of the eagle” by Heracles (Philips 296), Victor explains that only “in death” will “his spirit…[finally] sleep in peace” (Shelley 225). Therefore, Shelley’s modernization emphasizes a “departure” from the ending of the traditional myths (Hustis 845). Through the consideration of each character’s intentions and utilization of power, it becomes apparent that Shelley’s divergence exemplifies a tactic to highlight Victor as a morally corrupt and reprehensible character. While each character commits an offense, Prometheus’ “rebellion” is not only perceived as an act of “audacity,” but also a “gesture of compassion” and responsibility to change the “benighted state” of mankind (Hustis 847,848). In contrast to the egocentric character of Victor who cruelly spurns his creation out fear for the damage it might inflict on his life and reputation, Prometheus reveals his will to suffer for the well-being of others. When comparing the bravery of Prometheus and the goodness of his intentions to the self-promoting, cowardly, and immoral nature of Victor, Shelley casts Prometheus as heroic, honorable, self-sacrificing, and – unlike Victor – undeserving of punishment. By creating a disparity of endings through Prometheus’ sudden release and Victor’s unresolved suffering, Shelley not only implies Victor’s guilt, but also the ugliness of his true nature.

In her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley alludes to the traditional myths of Prometheus as the maker of man and the savior of the human race as a tactic to shape Victor Frankenstein as a failed Prometheus. While Prometheus is cast as selfless, willing to suffer for the survival and advancement of the human race, Victor, failing to mirror the heroism of his counterpart, abandons and rejects his own creation out of fear and self-interest. By modernizing, or diverging from, the legends through differing motives, reactions, and resolutions, Shelly highlights the true egocentric and morally corrupt nature of Victor.

Works Cited

Hustis, Harriet. “Responsible Creativity and the ‘Modernity’ of Mary Shelley’s Prometheus.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 43.4 (2003): 845-58. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Philips, F. Carter, Jr. “Narrative Compression and the Myths of Prometheus in Hesiod.” The Classical Journal 68.4 (1973): 289-305. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Raggio, Olga. “The Myth of Prometheus: Its Survival and Metamorphoses up to the Eighteenth Century.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtald Institutes 21.1/2 (1958): 44-62. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus: Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Maurice Hindle; Revised Edition (Penguin Classics). Ed. Maurice Hindle. London: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.

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