Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein; or Modern Prometheus”
Among the great variety of literature genres, there is one that makes the reader feel sick, hands tremble, and sweat – the horror fiction. The 19th century gave this world the major predecessors and pioneers in this genre. Short stories by Edgar Allan Poe depicted strange abnormal murders and solutions to the mysteries. Bram Stockers’ “Dracula” is based on esoteric and mysterious ideas of eternal life gained by consuming peoples’ blood. The “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Stevenson shows how inner and hidden nature can show itself because of an experiment. The horrifying stories by Howard Ph. Lovecraft based on his Cthulhu Mythos frightened people because of his precious description on what space can bring to the earth, and what worship of ancient cult do to ruin lives. These authors inspired modern writers and artists, such as Clive Barker, Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Nevertheless, among these men writers, there was one woman who contributed much to the horror fiction literature – Mary Shelley and her “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus”.
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The idea of this great contribution to the horror fiction arose in her mind while she was traveling with her husband, Percy Shelley, to Geneva with his friend and famous poet Lord Byron. They had long conversations about science, particularly about galvanism, and Erasmus Darwin’s attempts to reanimate the dead. Throughout these conversations, they decided to compete in writing the best horror story. After some period, she had a dream in which she saw the main idea of her future work. Mary intended to write a short story, but Percy Shelly encouraged her to continue it into the complete novel.
Mary Shelly worked on this novel for three years. She had never thought that being a 19-year old girl she will ever complete such a massive work. However, as she wrote it, she developed a great plot with a mystical background, created charismatic characters and a tragedy among them, and put a secret message throughout the novel.
The idea of this is to warn the reader about what secret knowledge can bring into the world. The satanic hero depicted by talented scientist Victor Frankenstein, and his fall and fight against his creation makes this work of art a perfect example of the gothic literature.
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The main narrator in the “Frankenstein” is the second person. Very few novels are written in such a manner. Robert Walton, an English explorer is on his trip to the North Pole. He letters his sister to inform her about the difficulties that he and the crew face during this travel. One day, when their ship is stuck in ice, they found a frozen man and took care of him. When health allows him, the man tells his story. He is a scientist Victor Frankenstein. He grew up in a wealthy and friendly family from Geneva and had not many friends, Henry Clerval was the only exception. When he was 19, Victor became interested in natural science, chemistry, philosophy, and mathematics. After his mother died, Frankenstein left for Germany to attend the university. He then concentrated on learning chemistry and the electricity’s effect on corpses. Victor wanted to create an ideal human being, but instead of this, he created abomination – oversized proportions of the body, consisting of body parts Victor found on graveyards and slaughterhouses. His creation horrified him, so Victor abandoned the laboratory, realizing his mistake. The next day he returned to the laboratory and found it empty. His nervous condition made him bedridden, and his friend, Henry Clerval, took care of Frankenstein for the next few months. On the eve of returning to his parents’ home, he receives a letter with information that his younger brother was murdered. On his way home, Victor notices the abomination he created and realizes that the creature is responsible for the murder of his brother. As Victor returns home, he witnesses the execution of Justine, a good friend of the family. He decides to keep the secret of creating a monster, fearing that the family will consider him insane. After the execution he can not stay at home, so he leaves to wander the Alpine vales. Sometime after Victor finds his creation, and the monster tells his story.
Upon leaving his place of birth, the monster wandered into the nearby village. The settlers have found his appearance repulsive and attack him. The monster flees to the forests, where he finds a hovel standing near the house, occupied by the old blind man and two of his children. He feels compassion for this family and secretly supplies them with goods. From books, he found in their house, he masters his ability to read and speak, and finally decides to get acquainted with his neighbors in order to achieve some protection. He had a nice conversation with the blind old man, but the kids return unexpectedly. They are horrified with him, and they start to beat him, so he was pushed to leave the house. His loneliness and strive for revenge for his creator rose in him until he met Victor’s brother and choked him to death. That was only the first murder on his killing spree.
His only wish for Victor was to create a couple for him, so he will not be alone. He promised to leave forever. Victor, understanding his mistake, and feeling pity for the monster he created, promises him to create a couple for him. However, as the work on the monster's requests advances, the doubts start to rise in his mind. He thinks of chances that his new creation will accept a monster or they will hate each other. Moreover, even worse – he is frightened of the consequences if both abominations will find the way to breed, and spread all around the world. As the monster visit Victor’s laboratory to inquire about the process, a scientist notices him watching through a window and decides to destroy the body. Monster vows that he will be on his wedding night. Victor then throws the body to the ocean, but instead of getting some rest, police accuse him of a double murder. The second one is his best friend, Henry. After two months of delusion, he returns home and marries Elizabeth, remembering the monsters vow. On the wedding night, the monster comes to Victor’s house and kills Elizabeth. This murder is the most significant one, because, after it, Victor's father dies, leaving him the loneliest person in the world. Main hero turns out to be similar to his creation in motivation, thus ending this cycle. Victor starts to pursue a monster until the ices of the North Pole catch him. Robert Walton then sends the last series of letters to his sister describing Victor’s death, and how they found monster grieving above his body. The creature hates itself because of all the murders it committed, and even the creator’s death did not bring any relief. It decides to wander further into ices and commit suicide.
The entire novel depicts the long-known motive of secret and forbidden knowledge. Victor’s obsession and ability to operate and alter the life power led to the tragedy – creating a creature and leaving it alone made him lonely himself in the long run.
There is no doubt that the major inspiration for her novel Mary Shelly saw in the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole the forbidden fire from gods and presented it to people. Victor is also fascinated with the lightning, which was the major element of his studies to create artificial life. He, the same as Prometheus, does not accept the limits he has, and his strive to act as God leads him to misery and torture. Trying to help people, Victor breaks the rules of divine plans and falls into deep isolation created by his own; moreover, he cannot hide from his own creation.
However, there is also a major difference between Frankenstein and Prometheus. As soon as the titan understood that people, whom he cared about and created, have a lack of knowledge, he accepted the role of teacher. Victor in his turn abandons his creation. His main motivation was to control the power of life and death (to fulfill his plans about mother whom he mourned a lot), in the same way as Prometheus created men from water and mud. Both of them broke the divine rules of live cycles, and they were punished by torments and suffering.
Reading the novel for the first time, a reader may conclude that Victor is the victim and feel pity for him. He had lost all his friends and beloved because of his creation’s evil nature. However, looking at this novel from another perspective, a reader could notice that the monster is not the problem. The second name of the novel is “Modern Prometheus”, which means that the scientist took away the forbidden fire of knowledge and had the revenge of divine nature upon him. Nevertheless, there is also a strong connection with another Greek myth, the myth of Echo and Narcissus. Victor is strongly obsessed with his own exceptive knowledge and deep love for nature and science, and the creation of the “abhorred monster” makes him neglect his own devotion to the further vengeance of his creation. In his desire to create the most beautiful creature of all that lived on earth by means of his beloved nature and science, he hates and denies his own failure. The creature, in its turn, strives for its creator’s love and understanding and fails to find them (Berman 1990).
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In Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein”, there is also a strong motive of doppelganger throughout the novel. Doppelganger has three main definitions – 1) simply a double, alternative version of a person spoken of; 2) a complement – a version that has different qualities and completes the person; 3) and the opposite (alternative version possess the qualities that person lacks and hates). In the novel, there is a relationship that mostly fits the third definition. Through all his life Victor found his shelter and serenity in science, totally cutting off his emotions and capability to empathize. He acts like a coward when a monster kills his younger brother and then continues by killing his brother’s friend. He does not confess of the creation of a murderer, considering everyone will relate to him as a mad man. Meanwhile, the monster acts like a brave, walking to villages and searching for shelter and understanding. While Victor loses his mind and stays inactive because of his scientific failure, the creature shows the qualities of a self-confident person – it searches for love, knowledge, and understanding. Victor’s doppelganger reveals itself in a greater proportion as Victor continues to neglect his creation. The opposition of lone creature with the desire of acceptance and knowledge between the man of science, who has family and is beloved and possesses the demonic knowledge, continues until they meet in the ices. Victor became obsessive with revenge because the creature’s hands left him alone. He had completely lost his mind and followed the creature until his death. On the other hand, Creature shows traits of character that Victor lacks. The monster finds him dead in the ices and feels sorry for everything he had done. Kindness and sorrow fill him, and he decides to do what Victor had to do as soon as he decided to create a new life using secret knowledge. The creature walks away into the snowstorm, completely transformed into what his creator should be (Storment 2002). Ignorance is bliss.
Though the parallels with ancient myths and popular themes and motifs for that time are undoubtedly huge, the main and the biggest inspiration for Mary Shelly was Milton’s poem “Paradise Lost”. This work of art is one of the best epic poems written in English. It was published in 1664 in ten books and then expanded to 10 in 1674. In this poem, Milton rethinks the whole concept of life and earth creation by God, and the role of Satan and seduction.
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The brightest moment where the reader can see the parallels between Milton’s poem and Shelly’s novel is the moment when Victor meets his creation on the mountain. The creature then tells him about his manner of self-education, and when they turn comes to “Paradise Lost”, the creature tells that he had deep emotions and excitement related to this book. To understand the role of “Paradise Lost” the reader must be acknowledged with the story of the poem.
Adam and Eve were created naive; as to the first people on the earth God gave them the power and governance of everything. They did not know about temptation because they possessed everything. But as the poem progress, they start to be curious. Satan comes to Eve and tells her about the fruit of knowledge, and then they are visited by an angel who forbids them to eat from the tree. As they eat the fruit they understand lust, mistrust. They are banished from the Eden and must work the land and suffer pain upon giving birth (Dudczak 2002).
Throughout the novel, a reader can notice the theme of forbidden fruit of knowledge. Eve has nothing to do in the Eden, but to work out the plants she loves so much. Frankenstein has a similar garden with only one diversity – his garden is the graveyard, the garden of death. On the other hand, the monster created by Frankenstein mirrors many of Victor’s deeds and actions. His Garden of Eden is in the forest where he stays calm and still naive. But this is also a place of his failure because there he starts to learn and understand the pity and injustice of the world.
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The greed for knowledge in both poem and novel comes out of the desire to become god-like. Satan knew about Eve’s desire to know more than she should, so he tempted her. In novel, Victor represents Eve with his misunderstanding the natural boundaries and strives to control life. He also wants to create a new life, so the offspring of his work will consider him their god and will worship him as a divine person. While reading the poem, the creature understands that he is a monster (Moeck 2012).
Allusions come further when the reader understands that Victor is acting like Adam. The evidence of this could be bound in the part where the monster kills Elizabeth. Adam thought that Satan will come to tempt him, considering that Eve was the weak one. Adam makes a mistake, and this failure leads to their banishment from the Garden of Eden. Victor acts in the same way. At the moment he killed unfinished couple for the monster he created, creature vowed: “I will be with you on your wedding-night”. Upon his marriage, he leaves Elizabeth alone in the house and walks away to look for the “fiend”. Victor considered that monster will attack him instead of his wife, but when he came back in the house he found Elizabeth dead (Bychowski).
Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein; or Modern Prometheus” is a great example of gothic literature with allusions on some classic motifs and genres. This work is very progressive considering the years it had been written and the age of an author. This novel is a great contribution to the horror and science fiction genres.
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Reading this novel once is not enough. There are many layers in it – the most obvious is the story of the mad scientist’s tragedy. However, after the second reading, there is much more sense in it – for instance, the warning about the scientific progress and the consequences of thoughtless decisions.
Mary Shelly had put her concerns and thoughts about the science, knowledge, and uncontrolled desire of developing to a divine creature using allusions on Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, the mythos of Narcissi and Prometheus, along with the ancient German folklore concept of the doppelganger. The tragedy of Victor Frankenstein shows us how the neglecting of society’s morals, personal overestimation, and greed of control can ruin everything the one has.