Understanding the Modern Prometheus in Frankenstein

face of a prisoner

The original full title of the novel now commonly known as Frankenstein was Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Apart from its title page, Frankenstein contains no explicit textual references to Prometheus. The first Frankenstein reviewers in 1818, and literary critics since then, have tended to associate Prometheus with Victor Frankenstein. For Shelley, the modern Prometheus was more abstractly class divisions and failures of sympathy in society.

Four lengthy literary reviews of Frankenstein in 1818 explicitly referred to Prometheus ten times other than in the novel’s title. Five Promethean references are in contexts implying creation. Five references are used in non-creative circumstances as an alternate name for Victor Frankenstein, the creature’s creator. An additional indirect reference is via a quote from Paradise Lost. The references:

  • review in The Quarterly Review
    • “torturing the living animal to animate lifeless clay, our modern Prometheus formed a filthy image”
    • “The monster … meets his Prometheus {maker} in the valley of Chamouny”
    • “Prometheus following in another” {Victor on another sledge following the creature}”
  • Walter Scott’s review in Blackwood Edinburgh Magazine
    • epigram quote from Paradise Lost, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay, To mould me man?”
    • “the prodigious and hideous specimen of his Promethean art”
    • “recollecting the consequences of his first essay in the Promethean art”
    • “very nearly conducted the new Prometheus to the gallows” {Frankenstein accused of Clerval’s murder}
  • review in The Belle Assemblée: three uses of Prometheus as substitute for the name Victor Frankenstein, not in contexts implying creation
  • review in The British Critic: “the woman is almost completed, and wants only the last Promethean spark to enliven her”

Shelley interpreted Prometheus more broadly and creatively than did early reviewers of Frankenstein. In Queen Moab, printed in 1813, Shelley declared that Prometheus “represents the human race.” According to Shelley, the fire that Prometheus brought was fire used to cook meat. Humans’ cruelty to animals in eating them became in Frankenstein cruelty toward a physically repulsive creature born abnormally.

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