Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Prometheus, for those of us who have forgotten our Greek mythology, was a “Titan known for his wily intelligence, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals for their use. He was then punished for his crime by Zeus.”

In Mary Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein steals, not fire, but the secret of life from no one, from the dark recesses of natural science; God does not appear in Shelley’s story. Shelley’s Prometheus/Frankenstein is a misguided soul who unleashes upon the world a monster so horrible that he has no name. At first, the monster provokes some sympathy; he is shunned by all who see him because of his hideous physical appearance. But the monster, or demon as Frankenstein calls him, soon forfeits all our pity by becoming a murderer and a wholly vindictive, malevolent creature.

Then, as the story progresses, Frankenstein himself becomes a monster, full of revenge and determined to destroy his creation. The lines between good and evil, between creature and creator are blurred. Mary Shelley may have intended the novel as a critique of the Industrial Revolution, a la Rousseau, but in the end there is not much basis to choose between Frankenstein and his monster. Frankenstein starts out with good intentions. The monster supposedly starts out as an innocent, loving, but horrifyingly ugly, creature. Both are warped by events and changed into ghastly fiends.

For Mary Shelley, the creator bears responsibility for sin and evil in his creature. Yet, the novel never gives an alternative. Frankenstein wishes many times that he had never created his monster, but he never envisions the possibility of having created a different kind of creature, one that is incapable of evil choices, probably realizing that such a creature would not be human-like but rather a mere robot. Nor does Frankenstein try to redeem his creation, turn it to good, and never does he even consider forgiveness as a response to the monster’s evil actions. Frankenstein writhes and struggles in his own awful responsibility, and he dreams of revenge. In the end, Victor Frankenstein is no victor at all; even his revenge is thwarted and unfulfilled.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at a very young age. She was only 21 years old when it was published anonymously in London in 1818. This first edition of the book had an unsigned preface written by Mary’s lover/then husband, the poet Percy Shelley. Perhaps Mary Shelley had some regrets of her own that were being worked out in written form. She ran away with the married Shelley when she was only sixteen and then married him after his first wife committed suicide. After Mr. Shelley’s death in a boating accident in 1822, Mary Shelley wrote these words to a friend: “Well here is my story – the last story I shall have to tell – all that might have been bright in my life is now despoiled – I shall live to improve myself, to take care of my child, & render myself worthy to join him. Soon my weary pilgrimage will begin – I rest now – but soon I must leave Italy.”

She sounds a lot like her creation, Victor Frankenstein, who entered into study and scientific experimentation with great hopes, but found his life “despoiled” and a “weary pilgrimage.”

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