Promethean Fire, Promethean Clay

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.


5 Responses to Promethean Fire, Promethean Clay

  1. e7th04sh says:

    I’d say both apply.

  2. Brian Patrick Cork says:

    It’s been far too long since I visited with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But, I am heading downstairs to my family library as soon as I finish this comment.

    God is said to have created man in his image – or, the image He desired. He gave man the choice of good or evil. Man, according to the Bible, chose evil.

    Prometheus made man upon direction of a God. He then handed him Pandora’s box, and distributed evil that preyed upon the world of man.

    Victor Frankenstein created a creature that was the image of a man but was more animal, at first, in his views. But, he called his own creation evil from the beginning, treated him accordingly, and the creatures self image was that of a monster. The monster allowed himself to become the victim of men and attacked them with vengeance in his heart.

    Man actually created Zeus. So, naturally he gave man Pandora’s box in retaliation because too many men fail to recognize their own internal evil. I think I mean that men find it hard to accept they are evil or don’t want to take responsibility for it.

    God created Victor Frankenstein and gave him, as with all men, the gift of discernment and choice.

    God did not create the monster.

    Victor Frankenstein never gave the monster, his creation, any choice.

    Victor Frankenstein can represent a man that, through his own free will (a kind of Pandora’s box) unleashes evil on the world. The monster is only a symbol of man’s potential for evil.

    I am already thinking this is likely going to be one of those instances where I wish I could revisit a comment and revise it from time-to-time. I feel as though I painted myself into a few corners here. But, I really appreciate your thoughts around Prometheus and Frankenstein and am inspired to chime in.


  3. Hmm… I think I understood that. I like the Victor Frankenstein-Pandora’s Box connection, though I’m not sure it was part of Mary Shelley’s original intentions.

  4. Brian Patrick Cork says:

    Perhaps there is hope for me yet.

    Perhaps Frankenstein was thinking “outside the box” (I just know I am going to regret that) when he created the the monster (life) illicitly – ironically using the discernment given to him by God.


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