How Are Prometheus and Frankenstein Alike?
It might seem like a stretch of the imagination to connect an ancient Greek tale of theft and torture to a 19th-century Gothic horror masterpiece. What could Prometheus and Frankenstein possibly have in common?
But writer Mary Shelley drew the connection herself when she wrote her tale of science gone too far. She subtitled her novel The Modern Prometheus, inviting readers to make the connection between the ancient Titan and the modern mad scientist.
So what did Mary Shelley mean when she compared the overachieving scientist of her novel to the ancient thief of fire?
The answer to that is rooted in ancient divine law, contemporary scientific achievement, and the author’s own troubled life.
Read on to find out how the author of the first science fiction story drew inspiration from a two thousand year old tale!
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published on January 1st, 1818. The young author was only 20 years old when her novel changed the literary world.
When she started writing the story at age 18, Mary Godwin, as she was called in her youth, had already lived a full and tragic life. Her mother died when she was very young and Mary herself had suffered the loss of a child, the first of many such losses she would experience.
In 1816, Mary had wed poet Percy Blysshe Shelley after the death of his first wife. The two had already been living together for nearly two years, the first of many scandals that would hound their lives.
The Shelleys lived a nomadic existence, moving between friends’ houses and rented estates throughout the continent. It was during a stay in Switzerland that Mary conceived the idea for her most famous work.
During a wet summer the Shelleys, along with friend Lord Byron, entertained themselves by telling German ghost stories. The three writers challenged one another to write their own tales, inspired by their surroundings and the rising popularity of the Gothic horror genre.
Mary Shelley claimed that she spent days agonizing over what story she could come up with to possibly outdo the older poets she lived with. Inspired by the trends of the world around her, as well as her own experiences of loss and loneliness, she dreamt of a tale of a scientist who took his work to impossible extremes.
Mary won the contest with her tale of a hubristic doctor who defied God to bring the dead back to life. With the encouragement of her husband, she expanded the story into a full-length novel.
The Shelleys lived in an age of scientific advancement in which academics like themselves kept informed of the latest discoveries. One that influenced Mary Shelley greatly was Luigi Galvani’s work that studied the ways in which electromagnetic currents flowed through animals.
Galvani had managed to make a dead frog’s legs twitch by running electric currents through them, but Shelley imagined something greater. What if a scientist could bring an entire human back to life?
The Dr. Frankenstein of Shelley’s imagination was no hero of the Enlightenment, however. In taking science too far, he created a monster.
One feature common to nearly all religions is the power of the gods over life and death.
Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein blurred this line. He claimed the power to create life and defy death.
In bringing his monster back from the grave, Dr. Frankenstein defied divine will. In his case, it was the Christian God who was offended by the hubris of science.
In the case of Prometheus, it was Zeus who grew angry when humans received a gift they should not have. The gift Prometheus gave was not the power over life and death, but it enabled humans to survive nonetheless.
When Zeus was tricked into accepting scraps as an offering instead of the best cuts of meat from the sacrificial ox, he retaliated by punishing humans. He took away fire, leaving them unable to cook their food, forge weapons, or keep themselves warm.
The Titan Prometheus, who had always taken pity on mortals, saved mankind by giving fire back to them. He stole the fire from Zeus’s own hearth in an act of both theft and defiance.
Prometheus was harshly punished by Zeus for defying his will, enduring centuries of torment while bound in unbreakable chains. Dr. Victor Frankenstein, however, received a much more psychological torture.
The Creature, as Shelley called Frankenstein’s monster, horrified its creator. Dr. Frankenstein abandoned the reanimated monster, convinced his experiments had created a creature of pure evil.
The Creature that Frankenstein created, however, was not initially motivated by evil. Abandonment and loneliness however, combined with the blurred lines between life and death, led it to kill those close to the doctor.
Victor Frankenstein was driven nearly mad, both by the losses he endured and his own sense of guilt and paranoia. Shelley’s doctor died alone in a desperate attempt to track and kill his own creation.
While Victor Frankenstein and Prometheus suffered very different fates, both were tormented by their own actions. Each committed a different act of defying the will of the divine and, in their own ways, were punished for their hubris.
At the root of this caution against defying the gods is the concern that humans themselves may become too close to being gods themselves.
As the daughter of two philosophical writers, Mary Shelley was undoubtedly influenced by the works of ancient Greece and Rome. She was known to have read Ovid and studied the philosophies of Pythagoras.
She was known to have read contemporary interpretations of Pythagoreanism, which held Prometheus as a villain.
Early 19th-century vegetarian movements, claiming their roots in ancient philosophy, claimed that Prometheus had led humanity astray by encouraging them to use fire to cook the flesh of animals. The Shelleys were known to follow this lifestyle.
More influential on her own work, however, was probably Aeschylus’s famous play Prometheus Bound. One of the most well-known works about the ancient myth, the play detailed the Titan’s own supposed feelings about his life and actions.
While Aeschylus depicted Prometheus as the hero of the story, the Titan’s boasts about the gifts he had given mankind may have seemed familiar to someone living in an age of rapidly advancing scientific discovery:
Hear the rest and you shall wonder the more at the arts and resources I devised. This first and foremost: if ever man fell ill, there was no defense… but for lack of medicine they wasted away, until I showed them how to mix soothing remedies with which they now ward off all their disorders.
-Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 441 ff (trans. Weir Smyth)
Prometheus had given man the gift of knowledge, claiming to be the source of almost all human progress. His assertions that mankind was ignorant and nearly defenseless before his intervention may have reminded Shelley of the boasts made by some scientists about their discoveries.
Prometheus had set out to help mankind but overstepped into defiance of the laws of the gods. It was easy for some people of the 19th century, seeing scientists like Galvani seeming to make steps toward blurring the line between life and death, to imagine that their society, too, was taking their scientific advancement too far.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein serves as a cautionary tale about hubris and knowing one’s limitations just as the ancient story of Prometheus did. When the desire for advancement ran contrary to natural law or the will of the divine, the only outcome was tragedy.
The story of Prometheus was over two millennia old when Mary Shelley wrote her genre-bending novel, Frankenstein. Yet the young writer drew inspiration from the ancient tale.
In the character of Prometheus, Shelley saw a figure that defied the gods to give mankind power that could be used for ill. She saw that same hubris in her own world.
Scientists of Shelley’s time were pushing their disciplines to new extremes, even experimenting with the use of electricity to cause reactions in dead flesh. Like Prometheus, they were meddling with powers that most laypeople believed belonged in the hands of God alone.
Mary Shelley was already preoccupied with loss and death, having experienced much of it in her young life, and took inspiration from the popular Gothic horror novels of the time. The beginnings of her story, in an isolated Swiss chateau during a dark and damp summer, furthered her preoccupation with sinister forces.
The result was a classic story of a scientist who took the power of life and death out of God’s hands and meddled with forces he should have had nothing to do with.
Like the ancient Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein was punished for his hubris and presumption. His torment was psychological but was seen as every bit as divinely ordained as the binding of Prometheus had been two thousand years before.