The Myth Of Prometheus In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

3231 words - 13 pages

Knowledge is a distinctively human virtue. After all, if not for the want of human
beings to learn of and master our habitat, would we not still be counted among the
beasts? For all of the good that knowledge brings to us, however, knowledge can just
as easily bring pain. We discover new types of medicine to extend our lives, but that is
balanced by our awareness of our mortality. We find new advances in technology with
which to bring convenience into our lives, but those advances are countered by the
resulting pollutions that are poisoning our world. These conflicting aspects of
knowledge and its consequences were first discussed thousands of years ago by the
ancient Greeks. The Titan Prometheus bestowed upon mankind the gift of knowledge,
but that gift came with a price. In Frankenstein: or, A Modern Prometheus, Mary
Shelley brings the ideas of Prometheus into the early 19th century by co-opting three of
the central themes of the Prometheus myth—the themes of knowledge with
consequence, the underlying sexism within the story of Pandora, and the use of
lightning as a means of representing knowledge.

A brief discussion of the myth of Prometheus is warranted. There are two major
myths involving Prometheus—those of Prometheus pyrophorus, who brings fire from
the lightning bolt of Zeus to benefit mankind, and that of Prometheus plasticator, who
creates man out of clay. These two major themes involving Prometheus at first seem
disparate but upon close examination fit together quite well. Prometheus is both the

creator and benefactor of man. Eventually, “[b]y about the second or third century A.D.,
the two elements where fused together, so that the fire stolen by Prometheus was also
the fire of life with which he animated his man of clay” (Joseph 43). This image of
lightning providing a “spark” to the fires of knowledge will come to figure prominently in
Shelley’s work.

There are other views of Prometheus as well. Susan Tyler Hitchcock, in
Frankenstein: A Cultural History, summarizes that Prometheus is “a savior who brought
not just fire but language, tool making, …medicine—all the arts and sciences—to
humankind” (52). M.K. Joseph asserts that Prometheus becomes both “a
representation of the creative power of God” as well as “an accepted image of the
creative artist” (43). It is also worth noting that in the earlier versions of the Prometheus
myth, after Prometheus’ transgression against the king of Gods, a vengeful Zeus sends
Pandora into the world to bring to mankind “grief, cares, and all evil” (Shattuck 15).
Roger Shattuck then notes that “[t]he most famous literary treatments of the
Prometheus myth…leave out Pandora as an awkward appendage or complication” and
in doing so the later authors of works about Prometheus “avoid dealing with the full
consequences to humankind of the knowledge Prometheus brings as narrated in
Hesiod’s earliest versions” of the myth (15)....

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