Promethean Fire, Promethean Clay

July 17, 2009

So Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is subtitled, “The Modern Prometheus”.

Every essay I’ve ever read about Frankenstein that talks about that subtitle says it is a reference to the myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind. The implication of the subtitle becomes, Prometheus transgressed against the gods by stealing fire (=science), and Frankenstein did the same thing. The question becomes, did Prometheus really deserve to be punished, or was he a tragic hero punished unjustly by Zeus?

But there’s another aspect to the mytical Prometheus that I haven’t ever seen connected to Frankenstein, but that seems almost more apt for a Frankenstein subtitle: Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus created mankind out of clay, on the orders of the other gods. If we consider the subtitle in light of this myth, the comparison is not between a transgressive Prometheus and a transgressive Frankenstein; the comparison is between a Prometheus who created life under the orders of the gods, and a Frankenstein who created life illicitly.

I don’t know why this second interpretation is never used. It has slightly different implications, and seems more appropriate, since it draws a parallel between Prometheus’s actions and Frankenstein’s actions, rather than just a parallel between their attitudes towards authority. It also makes the subtitle a judgment of Frankenstein’s character, rather than a judgement of Prometheus’s character, which seems more reasonable, since the book is about Frankenstein not Prometheus.


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