An essay on comparing Victor Frankenstein to the greek God Prometheus.
Literary Analysis of Mary W. Shelley’s “Frankenstein”
The Modern Prometheus
According to Greek mythology, Prometheus in one account of the legend was assigned by Zeus the task of forming man from water and earth, which Prometheus did, but in the process, became fonder of men than had been anticipated. In another legend, Prometheus stole the fire from the end of Zeus’s lighting bolt in order to free humanity (or mortals) from their dependence upon the gods and was punished by Zeus by being chained to a peak in the Caucasus mountains, here to have his liver torn out on a daily basis by an eagle (in some accounts of the legend it was a vulture) only to be restored at night because of his immortal status. It was the first of these legends about Prometheus, the creation of human beings, that Mary W. Shelley possible based in part her story of “Frankenstein”.
So how does an ancient Greek God of mythology come into play as a title (albeit a secondary title) for an early 19th century ghost story and how does it relate to the story and life of Victor Frankenstein? We shall look at Prometheus, a God, to Victor Frankenstein.
We have to look at Victor Frankenstein in a way, as a modern day Prometheus; for Victor Frankenstein's ultimate goal was to breathe life into something that was dead. Was this the result of an unstable mind or a fantasy borne from the death of his younger brother? Either way he finds the concept of creation; that of playing God to create a being, on both a scientific and spiritual level, which he details in these two different exerts from the book:
"It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world."
“A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.”
Therefore, he creates a creature from the parts of deceased human beings and brought them to life by using his knowledge of the Natural Philosophy.
To understand the concept of Natural Philosophy, we have to delve into the understanding of what Natural Philosophy is as it was understood during the early 19th century and how Victor came to be interested in the sciences needed to create his being. In essence, natural philosophy in the early 19th century was the study of mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology and to some extent the study of the human body and the way it functioned.
We see according to the writings of Mary W, Shelley that when at the age of 13, Victor discovers the works of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus, all alchemists from an earlier age (and unbeknownst to him at that time, their works were outdated). It was his voracious appetite for knowledge that eventually leads him to study science and alchemy, and thus his interest in the spark of life and the studied theories of the creation of human life that. He explains that:
"The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember....It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in it highest sense, the physical secrets of the world." Chapter 2
When Victor Frankenstein had attained the age of about seventeen, his parents resolved that he should become a student at the University of Ingolstadt. Was this because that he was learning the wrong concepts from reading books alone or was it because they thought he needed a broader education that a university could provide to him.
What ever the reason was for his parents sending him off to the university, it was here at the University of Ingolstadt he met a chemistry professor, M. Waldman, whom he later befriended, and thus Frankenstein became devoted to the study of human creation and the spark of life that he had abandoned earlier in life.
Waldman assured him that, “The labors of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.” Chapter 3
“From this day natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, became nearly my sole occupation.” Chapter 4
During the course of his studies, Victor observed how the form of man was degraded and wasted and it was during this time of observation and analysis of causation that he discovered a secret that caused the change from life to death, and death to life. So in earnest he went back to his own laboratory and began his work of creation, he accomplished his work by collecting the parts of his creation himself by visiting morgues and cemeteries for the necessary body parts.
It is stated that in the writings he worked “hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart." Chapter 5
After supposedly numerous attempts to reanimate a body he finally succeeds, he is now, as proposed a modern day Prometheus, the bringer of life.
So, we have seen that from Victor’s earliest learning beginnings to the bringing of life to his creation he had succeeded through science and spiritual beliefs the creation of life from death. But, we have also learned even from Victor Frankenstein himself that once he successfully imbues the monster with the "spark of being" he struggled to find, he is filled with fear and regret.