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The Modern Prometheus Essay

Such is the subtitle that accompanies Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein. We’ve all heard of the famous monster created by Dr. Victor Frankenstein. But, not many know why the story is subtitled, “Or, The Modern Prometheus”. In fact, many may not even make the connection to the story of the ancient Greek god who brought fire to humans, his own creation, and was eternally punished for it. However, rhetorical analysis reveals quite a few similarities between the characters, and proves Shelley’s subtitle to be accurate. Both stories deal with topics of overstepping limits, harsh consequences, and lessons learned, which contribute to the overall theme of “don’t go against the rules of nature”; thereby validating the Prometheus allusion.

The topic of overstepping limits stands out as one of the most obvious similarities in both stories. Victor Frankenstein was obsessed with unlocking the “mysteries of creation”. He expresses this by saying, “I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”For Frankenstein, this is an immoral act that goes against all the laws of nature, as he is in no position to be performing this practice. He is overstepping his limits as a mortal by performing the action of an immortal; essentially, he’s “playing God”. Shelley uses this as an allusion to the Legend of Prometheus. Prometheus was affectionate of his creation, man. For them, he stole fire from the heavens and gifted it to them, much to Zeus’s dismay.

Here as well, Prometheus overstepped his limits by taking from a higher deity, just as Frankenstein did in a different way. Shelley uses this allusion to show that both characters have gone farther than their morals dictate, both through the underlying theme of creation. Blinded by their ambition towards creation, they both went against the laws of nature; Frankenstein through the actual practice of creation, and Prometheus through gifting the fire. By overstepping their limits, both Frankenstein and Prometheus have set themselves up for some severe repercussions to their actions.

Of course, disturbing the laws of nature has some pretty harsh consequences. Both characters endure punishment for their actions. After abandoning his creation, Dr. Frankenstein is tormented by the monster murdering his brother, William. Frankenstein finds this out via a letter, in which his father exclaims, “William is dead! That sweet child, whose smiles delighted and warmed my heart, who was so gentle, yet so gay! Victor, he is murdered!”Frankenstein’s torture continues as the monster murders more of his loved ones, including his friend, Henry, and his wife, Elizabeth.

This ends up being another allusion to Prometheus; as after finding out he stole fire from the gods, Zeus sentenced Prometheus to eternal punishment. He was to be bound to a rock and have his liver pecked out. His liver grew back each day, so he would have to endure this for all of eternity. Shelley uses this allusion to forward the point that one must suffer for breaking the laws of nature. Her allusion emphasizes that breaking these rules are fundamentally wrong, and that the perpetrators must pay for their wrongdoings.

Through their misery, both characters learn their lesson, with each character being tested in a different way. Frankenstein is put into a situation where he is asked to craft a mate for his monster, but at the last minute destroys his new creation. The mental suffering he endured from his first creation killing his loved ones taught him to think twice before tampering with something he cannot control. This too is a cleverly crafted allusion to Prometheus, as Zeus ordered one of the gods to create a woman of stunning beauty, who was also capable of lies and deceit. He offered this goddess, Pandora, to Prometheus as a companion.

However, Prometheus refused this gift, “knowing only too well that nothing good would come to him from the gods.”He learned not to take any more things from the gods. This allusion shows that the characters have indeed realized that going against nature can only have adverse effects, and emphasizes the point that going against these fundamental laws is wrong and immoral. They realize that ignorance towards these laws can have painful consequences, and that it’s just not worth it. Frankenstein had to learn this the hard way, as did Prometheus.

In conclusion, Mary Shelley’s allusions to the Legend of Prometheus in her novel, Frankenstein, are totally valid and both apply to breaking the laws of nature. Both characters were involved with creation and suffered the consequences. After enduring grueling mental and physical punishment, each character also proved that they learned a valuable lesson. We can see that Frankenstein is a modern retelling of the Legend of Prometheus. Time and time again, Frankenstein is tortured by the adverse effects of creating life, and learns that going against the laws of nature can only lead to pain and suffering. He proves this by refusing to finish his monster’s bride, just as Prometheus refused to take Pandora from Zeus. Indeed, Mary Shelley’s decision to subtitle her book, “Or, The Modern Prometheus” is appropriate and allusive.


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