The New Prometheus

18 Jun

“Alas for the affairs of men! When they are fortunate you might compare them to a shadow; and if they are unfortunate, a wet sponge with one dash wipes the picture away.” —Aeschylus

Byron’s poem, Prometheus, an adaptation of a legend of Ancient Greece, was written in July of 1816. One month earlier that same year Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein. On reading the poem it is immediately apparent why Frankenstein was sub-titled the Modern Prometheus.

The argument in Frankenstein is often concerned with who is the real monster, Frankenstein or his creation. In the Grecian legend it is the creature who suffers the torments who is closest. However, in the Roman legend, Prometheus is the moulder who animates a human figure of clay. Here obviously Frankenstein is closer.

The essence of Mary Shelley’s concerns is that of man meddling in the business of God, and of trying to bring life into the world without a woman. There are many parallels in Byron’s poem concerning interfering with the natural course of man.

Because the creature is not human he can never find happiness. Thus, when Byron writes of Prometheus, “Refused the even the boon to die; The wretched gift eternity Was thine—and thou hast borne it well. All that the Thunderer wrung from thee” he could equally be speaking of Frankenstein’s creation.

Looking at it from another point of view one can see Frankenstein’s own suffering. As Prometheus has given fire to humanity, by Frankenstein giving his creature life he sees “The sufferings of mortality, Seen in their sad reality, Were not as things that gods despise.” It is the creature however who feels the sentiments in lines 5 and 6 towards Frankenstein, “What was thy pity’s recompense? A silent suffering and intense.”

Mary Shelley’s fears of the crime of imitating God are echoed in the third stanza. “Thy Godlike crime was to be kind, To render with thy precepts less The sum of human wretchedness.” In his act of creation Frankenstein presumes godliness. However, unlike god he spurns his creation and condemns it, and himself, to this same wretchedness.

As Frankenstein unleashes his creation on the world, his own world falls apart with the deaths of William, Justine, Clerval and Elizabeth. Byron writes, “Thou art a symbol and a sign To mortals of their fate and force; Like thee, Man is in part divine, A troubled stream from a pure source; And Man in portions can forsee His own funeral destiny; His wretchedness, and his resistance, And his sad unallied existence” and in doing so sums up Frankenstein’s story.

The creature is a sign to beware of mimicking god or tampering with the natural order of things. Man is divine through being created by God and thus the creature inherits that divinity which is why his nature is inherently good. However while the creature begins pure, his deformity and others reactions create the ‘troubled stream’. Throughout the second part of the book Frankenstein foresees his own death but at the monster’s hands. As the monster takes everything from him Frankenstein does indeed become wretched and lose his allies and finally his resistance.

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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Literature


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