Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Satanic-Promethean Ideals
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a novel in conscious dialogue with canonical classics and contemporary works. It contains references to Coleridge, Wordsworth, and P. B. Shelley, but also to Cervantes and Milton. It is the latter's Paradise Lost which informs the themes and structure of the novel more than any other source. Like many of her contemporaries, Mary Shelley draws parallels between Milton's Satan and the Titan Prometheus of Greek myth. However, the two are not simply equated (as in Byron's poem, "Prometheus"), but appear in various facets through both Victor Frankenstein and his creation. Furthermore, God, Zeus, and Adam are also evoked through these characters. Though its treatment of these mythical figures identifies it with Romantic Satanism,1 Frankenstein reaches a moral conclusion at odds with the ideals of Shelley's contemporaries, and far closer to those of Milton.
The novel's alternative title is "The Modern Prometheus." It can be asked who in the story is supposed to be Promethean. Since this title is the alternative to "Frankenstein," it seems obvious that the doctor is meant, although it will be shown later that the monster also bears significant similarities to the Titan.
According to the Greek myth, Prometheus (whose name means "forethought"), against the will of Zeus, stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. With fire came the beginning of a crafts and civilisation itself. In this respect, Victor Frankenstein's quest for knowledge is Promethean, as is his belief that his researches will benefit humanity.
The other consequence of the theft of fire is that it incurs the wrath of Zeus, who had Prometheus chained to a rock where he would undergo the perpetual torture of having his liver daily eaten by an eagle (some versions of the myth cite a vulture as the bird of prey, but the eagle is a symbol of Zeus, and thus more appropriate). Frankenstein is treading upon the domain of the gods in his attempt to create life, and he suffers perpetual torture without death at the hands of his own creation, who does not eat his liver, but destroys the lives of his loved ones.
Both Prometheus and Frankenstein are given the opportunity to end their suffering, but they refuse out of pride and stubbornness-heroic virtues in the classical world, sins in Christendom. The god Oceanos tells Prometheus, "give up this angry mood of yours and look for means of getting yourself free of trouble... you are not yet humble, still you do not yield to your misfortunes, and you wish, indeed, to add some more to them" (Aeschylus, lines 317-318, 322-323).2 Likewise, Victor is the author of his own suffering, as the creature explains, "This passion is detrimental to me, for you do not reflect that you are the cause of its excess" (Shelley 191). Victor is also given the...