Frankenstein


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
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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.