If one were to quickly read through Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, a great deal of important allusions would be looked over. One of her harder to miss intertexts that she alludes to is the Greek myths regarding Prometheus. This intertext is made evident before the first sentence of the novel even begins; it is included in the subtitle of the book: Frankenstein or a Modern Prometheus. Because of this early mention of Prometheus directly in the title, some may think that the significance that this intertext will have on the entire novel is obvious; they assume that the intertextual moments are only important because it serves as the foundation to most of the story and plot that Shelley delivers in Frankenstein. Even with this being true, the real significance of this intertext is how it highlights and extends Victor’s character by relating him to Prometheus.
The parallels that are seen between Prometheus and Victor Frankenstein are exposed as soon as the Victor’s narrative begins. The first chapter describes the type of family that Victor grew up with. His lineage was portrayed as being one of the most distinguished from the republic of Geneva. Victor’s ancestors had been, “for many years counsellors and syndics; and [his] father had filled several public situations with honour and reputation,” (Shelley, 39). This type of upbringing that is described closely relates to Prometheus’. Prometheus was the son of the Titan, Iapetus, and goddess, Clymene. Raised with the gods, he—like Victor—was brought up in a world of power, knowledge, and wealth. With this knowledge of the relation Victor has with Prometheus, the reader is able to relate Victor to someone who could have godlike abilities, arrogance, and pride. These early intertextual moments help to foreshadow the
Additionally, the correlation between these two grows further as Victor’s narrative continues and he describes his youth and his increasing desire for godly knowledge. This intertext is crucial in allowing the reader to see Victor’s true character in the relation he has to Prometheus. Prometheus is well known in Greek mythology to have been extremely passionate for knowledge. He was taught mathematics, architecture, metalworking, writing, astronomy, navigation, and much more by the goddess Athena after helping to free her from Zeus. Frankenstein says, “The world was to me a secret, which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember” (Shelley, 47). This clearly shows his passion for learning, which he took to the University of Ingolstadt, where he was a slave to his schoolwork. This type of work relates immensely to that of Prometheus, and moreover, signifies this stories’ theme regarding Victor as someone who takes on more than he can handle.
This unquenchable thirst for knowledge also led to the ability for both Prometheus and Victor Frankenstein to create life. Victor had the notion and desire to be godlike by discovering the secrets to life and death. During his years at Ingolstadt, he devoted himself to this cause. After failing many times he finally succeeds by sending a bolt of lightning into his creature, as if he were a god. Likewise, Prometheus was the creator of mankind: he brought forth man from molded clay. This intertext’s importance is therefore seen because both of these ‘higher beings’ defied even higher powers in their indulgent quest for knowledge and overreached unwritten boundaries. These indulgencies are further depicted when it becomes clear that Victor is seeking some type of worship from his creation: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me,” exclaimed Victor (Shelley, 89). This theme is also expressed by Prometheus in his attempts to win over his creations by coddling and gifting them.
These parallels seen in the story are significant in how they help to illuminate Victor’s character and allow a reader who knows the story of Prometheus to relate with him on a higher level. The analogous elements in Frankenstein signal to the reader clues as to what will happen with Victor later on in the story after the creation of his monster. Because Frankenstein mirrors Prometheus, Victor’s eventual downfall is expected, especially after flying as high as the gods. Prometheus defies Zeus by tricking him for the betterment of mankind by stealing fire from Zeus after he was prohibited from doing so. As punishment, Zeus chains Prometheus to a rock and has his liver eaten daily by an eagle and it grows back to be devoured again every next day. This is significant in how it relates to Victor’s own never ending demise, which comes in the deaths of everyone he’s close too. The isolation and deep distress Prometheus suffers emphasizes Victor’s mirrored situation.
In addition to highlighting the features of Victor that relate with Prometheus, the intertext also accentuates Victor’s differences with Prometheus. After creating mankind Prometheus fought for his creations. He attempted to better their lives and give them hope by nurturing them, teaching them mathematics, architecture, metalworking, and many other useful skills. Contrary to Prometheus who acted responsibly after creating man, Victor Frankenstein fled from his creation in horror. He abandoned his responsibilities and left his creation to make sense of the complications of his new environment without any outside guidance. This departure from the story of Prometheus is crucial to many of Frankenstein’s themes and questions, such as could Victor be the actual monster of this story? In comparison to Prometheus, who acted with responsibility rather than fear, Victor seems heartless. These differences point out the significance that if you plan on overstepping divine laws you must be willing to be accountable for your actions. Victor is once again seen in a mortal light, unlike the picture that is previously portrayed.
The parallels between Prometheus and Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein are irrefutable. Prometheus is a story that deals with human responsibility, life and social isolation, which directly relate to the themes that are in Frankenstein. Though the two differ are some key parts, the intertext only further helps the reader understand and appreciate Frankenstein’s true identity. The intertextuality of this novel doesn’t just help to create an interesting plot, but it allows the reader to take what is written and develop further ideas through the addition of Prometheus’ story.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. “Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus.” Collier
Books. New York, 1961.
For my final paper revision I tried to make a few key changes. I first tried to refocus my argument in my introduction paragraph. I felt that originally my argument wasn’t strong or may not have been present at all. I tried to talk about how my topic (the significance of Prometheus as an intertext) could be seen as just useful toward the plot, but if examined more closely, Prometheus is a key allusion because of the related themes the two stories have.
Next I tried to make sure that all my body paragraphs weren’t just a statement of how the two stories related. This was one of the more difficult parts. I think I was successful in improving this part of my paper, but I think I could have reexamined a few more things to really stress the “significance” of the allusion and have less of me rehashing the story. In doing this I tried to make sure that the quotes I included were used successfully to demonstrate the points I was making. When I first looked over this paper, one quote in particular was positioned at the end of a paragraph and I hadn’t developed whatever point I was trying to make.
Finally, I attempted to have my conclusion come full circle with my paper and restate my thesis, but while still furthering it. I can’t decide if I was successful in this or not. I would still like to practice writing better conclusion. However, whenever writing papers it seems like I run out of things to say or that I state everything I had so my conclusion suffers and becomes completely repetitive.