THE MODERN PROMETHEUS IMPORTANT REFERENCES Paradise Lost Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me man? Did I solicit thee From darkness to promote me? Lines from John Milton’s Paradise Lost From the title page of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheuse, 1818 In Frankenstein, the intelligent and sensitive monster created by Victor Frankenstein reads a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which profoundly stirs his emotions. The monster compares his situation to that of Adam. Unlike the first man who had “come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature,” Frankenstein’s creature is hideously formed.
Abandoned by Victor Frankenstein, the monster finds himself “wretched, helpless, and alone. ” This is so unlike “the biblical creation of Adam and Eve” Surrounded by Ice A sledge . . . had drifted towards us in the night, on a large fragment of ice. Only one dog remained alive; but there was a human being within it. . . . His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. Robert Walton to his sister Mrs. Saville Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheuse, 1818
Frankenstein opens with a series of letters written by Arctic explorer Robert Walton, engaged in a personal quest to expand the boundaries of the known world. It is Walton who first encounters Victor Frankenstein in the Arctic desperately searching for the monster he has created. The explorer becomes the only person to hear Victor Frankenstein’s strange and tragic tale. The Spark of Life I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak . . . and so soon as the dazzling light vanished the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. . . I eagerly inquired of my father the nature and origin of thunder and lightning. He replied, “Electricity. ” Victor Frankenstein to Robert Walton Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818 In Mary Shelley’s day, many people regarded the new science of electricity with both wonder and astonishment. In Frankenstein, Shelley used both the new sciences of chemistry and electricity and the older Renaissance tradition of the alchemists’ search for the elixir of life to conjure up the Promethean possibility of reanimating the bodies of the dead
Unveiling the Recesses of Nature The modern masters promise very little. . . . but these philosophers. . . have indeed performed miracles. . . . They have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows. Professor Waldman to his class at the University of Ingolstadt Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818
By the early nineteenth century, philosophers like physician Erasmus Darwin and chemist Humphry Davy, both well known to Mary Shelley, pointed the way to mastery of the physical universe. Discoveries about the human body and the natural world promised the dawn of a new age of medical power, when such things as reanimation of dead tissue and the end of death and disease seemed within reach. Midnight Labours Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the ifeless clay? Victor Frankenstein Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818 With feverish excitement, Victor Frankenstein pursues nature to her hiding places. By moonlight, he gathers the body parts he needs by visits to the graveyard, to the charnel house, to the hospital dissecting room and the slaughterhouse. Although he finds his solitary preoccupation repulsive, he is not deterred from his quest to restore life. Hideous Progeny I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. . . His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing . . . [it] formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips. Victor Frankenstein Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818 Overcome by the horror of what he has done, Victor Frankenstein abandons the “miserable monster” he fathered in his laboratory.
That evening a nightmare disturbs his sleep; Elizabeth, his fiancee, becomes in his arms the decaying corpse of his own dead mother. The next morning when he returns to his “workshop of filthy creation,” the monster has escaped. Poor, Helpless, Miserable Wretch But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses; or if they had, all my past life was now a blot, a blind vacancy in which I distinguished nothing.
From my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me. . . . What was I? The Monster Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818 Mary Shelley gave her monster feelings and intelligence. Fatherless and motherless, the monster struggles to find his place in human society, struggles with the most fundamental questions of identity and personal history. Alone, he learns to speak, to read, and to ponder “his accursed origins. All the while, he suffers from the loneliness of never seeing anyone resembling himself. Remaining Silent I paused when I reflected on the story I had to tell. A being whom I myself had formed, and endued with life, had met me at midnight among the precipes. . . . I well knew that if any other had communicated such a relation to me, I should have looked upon it as the ravings of insanity. Besides, the strange nature of the animal would elude all pursuit, even if I were so far credited as to persuade my relatives to commence it. . . I resolved to remain silent. Victor Frankenstein Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818 Abandoned by his creator, the monster takes his revenge on Victor Frankenstein by killing his younger brother, William. Frankenstein’s silence, in the face of the monster’s murderous actions, exacts a terrible price. His self-imposed isolation from society mirrors the social isolation the monster experiences from all who see him. Frankenstein’s decision to remain silent about the monster leads to further tragedy.