May 30, 2011

The Use of Myth in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 

Frankenstein Cover, by Barry Moser

Frankenstein Cover, by Barry Moser

“Nail in my hand from my creator, you gave me life, now Show Me How to Live!” -Chris Cornell 

It was a rainy and cold summer day when Mary Shelley first conceived the idea of her now famous story, Frankenstein. She and her future husband Percy Shelly were visiting Lord Byron at his summer home in Geneva. Because of the temperamental weather, the group of writer-poets was spending most of the time inside reading, writing, and telling ghost stories. Mary was having a hard time coming up with a good ghost story, but after she heard Percy and Byron discuss recent theories from the botanist Dr. Erasmus Darwin about the scientific possibility of reanimation, Mary had a sleepless night when she “saw–with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,–I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together” (Shelley 170). However, the work Mary was about to create became much more than a simple ghost story. Frankenstein has become a modern myth which has held a significant influence over our culture to this day. Through her letters and journals we know that during the year previous to that fateful summer, Mary had been reading many biblical and classical works which had a profound influence on her own work (Harper 11-12).One needs only to look at the title page to discover the myths that lent themselves most significantly to Mary’s creation: the subtitle is The Modern Prometheus, and the epigraph is from Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?” Of the Greek myth of Prometheus and the Biblical creation story with the fall of man from paradise, philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche has said, “there exists between the two myths a degree of relationship like that between brother and sister” (Ziolowszki 25). It is no wonder that these two myths emerged to dominate the symbolism in Frankenstein. In a way, much like her tragic hero, Victor, pieces together existing body parts for his creation, Mary pieces together these myths of creation and rebellion in order to create her own modern myth, her own “hideous progeny” (Shelley 171). The story of Frankenstein is one of horror and the supernatural, a story that reveals the consequences of man’s obsession with knowledge and ambition–and, in essence, this new myth and legend, which has gone forth and prospered, upholds the Romantic traditions that paradise can only be obtained through embracing nature, brotherhood, and the imagination.

Most Romantics believed in a divinity of nature that could help mankind find his way back to paradise. According to the Romantics, there exists a higher power within and throughout nature that mankind has lost touch with because of ambitions caused by the established orders of government and religion in society. Government and religion are based on reason, which is opposed to the imagination. Too much reason and analytical thinking rips the world apart, whereas imagination holds all things together. Imagination makes man psychologically and socially whole; therefore, mankind could restore Eden with imagination. Both Prometheus and Adam possess elements of ambition and rebellion in a reach for knowledge (or reason) which result in bringing misery and destruction to mankind. Likewise, Victor Frankenstein’s ambition, his preference for reason over the imagination, and his separation from humanity ultimately cause his downfall.

The most well know story of Prometheus is from the tragedies of Aeschylus. Writing at the height of Greek culture in Athens, Aeschylus portrays Prometheus, a Titan, as a benevolent hero of mankind. He rebels against the tyrant Zeus by stealing fire from the gods and he bestows his gift of fire, which is equivalent to knowledge, to the human race. Prometheus is punished by being chained to a rock where an eagle comes to feed off his liver every day, but this noble image of Prometheus is problematic. When we first encounter him in Greek mythology through Hesiod, who was a contemporary of Homer, he is portrayed as a trickster who steals from Zeus simply to spite him, and his gift to man is seen not as a benefit but as a curse that has brought misery to humanity.

Victor Frankenstein, Mary’s “modern Prometheus,” is just as problematic as his forbearer. Victor has many good and noble qualities in himself. He is a lover of nature, and before he became obsessed with his work, he was deeply connected to family. It can be argued that the loss of his mother partly inspired his creation. At least the idea of the protection of humanity was a part of his ambition to “banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” But unfortunately he prefaced his declaration with “what glory would attend the discovery” (Shelley 30). So while Victor wished to bestow on humanity the gift of a disease free world, it was mainly the desire for personal glory that drove him on. At the end when Walton, the captain who drug him out of the frozen sea of the North Pole, wished to know the formula which sparked his creation, Victor refused to give it to him saying “learn [from] my miseries, and do not seek to increase your own” (Shelley 155), but later on his deathbed, while Victor is once again coaching Walton to “avoid ambition” he reneged at the end and blurted out: “Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.” Despite all the misery he has experiences and all the misery he has caused others, Victor still cannot fully reject his over ambitious desire for knowledge.

In the Prometheus myth, fire is a tool that benefits mankind, yet left unchecked, it erupts into a destroyer. Mary consistently uses the image of fire to show how the increase of knowledge unchecked with wisdom and imagination can also lead to destruction. When Victor was fifteen years old, during a thunder storm he “beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak…so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump…I never beheld any thing so utterly destroyed” (Shelley 31). And so, through lightning, Victor was introduced to the power of electricity, and the power of knowledge. Years later, after his promise to create a mate for his creation, Victor was unable to be lifted up even by nature. He had become the victim of his ambition, the slave to his creation. It was as if he were chained to a rock with an eagle gnawing at his insides: “I am a blasted tree; the bolt has entered my soul; and I felt then that I should survive to exhibit, what I shall soon cease to be–a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity, pitiable to others, and abhorrent to myself” (Shelley 119).

Fire and the increase of knowledge have the same destructive result for Victor’s creation, who is never bequeathed with a name or identity from his creator. When the creature was still in his innocent state, the only light he had or needed was “a gentle light that stole over the heavens, and gave me a sensation of pleasure.” Knowledge is not in itself evil. At a distance from man it is not destructive; it gives us enough understanding to “enlighten [our] path.” However, man’s ambition to use knowledge to gain control and power only serves to corrupt and destroy him. When Victor’s creation stumbles upon a lit fire left by some wandering beggars, it is the beginning of his destruction. He learns the benefits of warmth by the fire, but just as quickly he learns of its destructive nature when he puts his hand too close: “How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite affects!” The first thing the creature did was to go about collecting wood to increase his fire; thus his ambition for knowledge began, “I was in the greatest fear lest my fire should be extinguished” (Shelley 76-77). Later Victor’s creation literally increased his knowledge; as he hid out and observed the De Lacey family, he learned to read, and he studied from the books he had found. Like creator, like creature, he lamented to Victor that “Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was” (Shelley 97), and when he was rejected by the family he had grown to love in secret, he became overcome by rage and used his new tool of fire to utterly destroy their cottage. Desire for revenge consumed him, and he sought to rebel against and overpower his creator, but in the end his rebellion and revenge only created an increase of misery for himself, and he conceded that the only way to end his torment was through self-destruction: “Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of these torturing flames” (Shelley 164). The result of both Victor and his creation’s ambitious increase of knowledge was utter destruction for each.

It is no coincidence that Milton’s Paradise Lost is explicitly referred to so much in Frankenstein; Mary had Percy read it aloud to her a few months after she began her novel (Ketterer 23). In this story man is still the victim of the crimes of a higher spiritual being, Satan, but he also has his own share in the blame. Adam has been specifically told by God not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, yet when prompted by Satan (through Eve) to eat and “become like God,” he takes the Fall. This interpretation of the Biblical creation story is in agreement with the Romantic notion that humanity was once in a state of perfection and unity with the earth and nature, but when knowledge, or reason, entered the world, man became separated from God and from nature. But it is not simply knowledge that corrupts man; it is his motivation to acquire that knowledge. Satan had rebelled against God and tried to usurp the throne of the Almighty, and at his advice Adam disobeyed his benevolent Creator with the ambition to be “like God.” 

Milton’s epic is based on the Bible, the Holy Scriptures of Christianity, and his work ironically becomes like Scripture to Victor’s creation. Paradise Lost becomes the monster’s guide, the one work by which he judges himself and those around him (Shelley 95); for example, he appeals to his creator with “Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed” (Shelley 74). While Victor alone play the role as an unjust, unmerciful and imperfect creator who creates a flawed being in his own corrupted image, both he and his creation share the dual role of Adam and Satan in this story of the fall from Eden.

In Victor’s Eden, his childhood in Geneva, he is surrounded by those whom he loves and is loved by, and in his company are those who embrace a love and passion for nature and the poetic imagination. When he leaves for the university to pursue knowledge, his fall from grace begins. Victor reaches for the apple in his attempt to be “like God” and “render man invulnerable to any but a violent death” (Shelley 30); the result is ban from Eden. As stated earlier, he is unable to be affected by nature, and he is disconnected from love. After denying his own “fallen angel’s” demands for a mate, Victor longs for a life with his betrothed: “I…dared to whisper paradisiacal dreams of love and joy; but the apple was already eaten, and the angel’s arm bared to drive me from all hope” (Shelley 139). Victor had a few opportunities for redemption; had he stayed in touch with his family and friends he may not have committed his unnatural act, but as he said himself, “my imagination was too much exulted…to doubt my ability to give life.” Here Victor took the role of Satan as his ambitions drove him to be just like God: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (Shelley 39-40). But like Satan in Milton’s epic, he took a hard fall: “like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained to an eternal hell…I trod heaven in my thoughts…until I fell, never, never again to rise” (Shelley 155-156). 

Victor created a deformed being in his imperfect image; Victor was psychologically disfigured, and his creation became the physical image of his mind. Even though Victor abandoned and rejected his “Adam,” the creature still had his own Eden in a forest where he lived in unity with nature, until he stumbled upon fire and began his own search for knowledge. This “monster” is at first portrayed as the ideal Romantic; he was a lover of nature, and his only ambition was “to be known and loved by…amiable creatures” (Shelley 97). However, simply because of his deformity, he was rejected by all of humanity, and in his isolation and loneliness he vowed revenge on his creator, but instead of going straight after Victor, he followed the role of Satan in Paradise Lost (IV.381-392); he set himself to destroying everything that Victor loved: “from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me, and sent me forth to insupportable misery.” The creature set out to overpower his creator, and he more or less succeeded, but in his ambition to make Victor his slave, he became a slave to his own depravity. By acting on the threat that barred Victor from returning Eden (killing Victor’s love, Elizabeth, on their wedding night), the creature “was the slave, not the master of an impulse, which I detested, yet could not disobey…Evil thenceforth became my good” (Shelley 162).

Both Prometheus and Adam are promised a day of salvation: Prometheus will eventually be freed by Hercules, and Adam and his descendents have the promise of Christ’s redemption. There is no Savior waiting in the future for either Victor or his creation, but Mary points the way to paradise through the Romantic ideology of the supporting characters, who show the reader how to avoid the destruction wrought and suffered by Victor and his creation. For Victor there was his best friend, Henry Clerval, who sought to bring Victor out of isolation: “Study had before secluded me from the intercourse of my fellow-creatures, and rendered me unsocial; but Clerval called forth the better feelings of my heart; he again taught me to love the aspect of nature, and the cheerful faces of children. Excellent friend! How sincerely did you love me, and endeavor to elevate my mind, until it was on a level with your own” (Shelley 52). But it was too late; Victor had already condemned himself. For the creature it was the old, blind man De Lacey. Unable to see his bulk and disfigurement, De Lacey gave the monster his only taste of acceptance an invited him in his cottage.  Victor’s creation declared, “You raise me from the dust by this kindness; and I trust that, by your aid, I shall not be driven from the society and sympathy of your fellow creatures” (Shelley 99), but it was not meant to be. De Lacey’s family returned, and fearing Victor’s creation on sight, drove him out and therefore ignited his wrath. In the end, both Victor and his creation lament their ambition for knowledge and long for a simpler time and place, a return to Eden, in almost parallel statements. Victor states, “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Shelley 39), and his creation states, “sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known or felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!”   

Mary Shelley uses her Romantic Tragedy to teach us that if we can curb our ambitions of power and conquest, and if we can embrace the divinity of nature and treat all men as brothers in loving kindness, we might be able to achieve the unity and paradise expressed through poetic imagination. In so doing, she has created her own myth that has become as timeless as the works she used to create it. Mary’s “hideous progeny” has gone forth and prospered and is still inspiring us today in many new ways and through many new media and genres. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein stands as a warning to modern man: As we ever more speedily increase our consumption of information and ever more embrace personal ambition and glory as positive traits for our heroes, we neglect to nurture the Spirit and the brotherhood of man, the very places through which Wisdom calls out to the soul.

Peter L Richardson
February, 14 2005

Harper, Henry H. Letters of Mary W. Shelley. Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1871.

Ketterer, John. Frankenstein’s Creation: The Book, The Monster, and Human Reality. University of Victoria, 1979.

Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” From The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition. ed. M.H. Abrams. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Shelley, Mary. The Mary Shelly Reader, containing Frankenstein… (1818 edition). ed. Betty T. Bennett & Charles Robinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. The Sin of Knowledge, Ancient Themes and Modern Variations. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Up For The Challenge, PLR '99

Up For The Challenge, PLR '99

“You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” 1 John 4:4

I remember when the movie, The Blair Witch Project, first came out and rumors perpetuated that not only was it a true story, but the movie was, in fact, the actual footage found of campers who were oppressed by some demonic force in the woods. My brother saw it and it freaked him out. He drug me to the theater and when it was finished he asked, “So? What do you think?” My response angered him: “I don’t know. It was kind of boring.” “What?!” he exclaimed, “What if that’s real? What would you do if you were in the woods and something like that happened?” My reply only made him more upset: “Dude, if it’s real, they are only demons, I would just pray to Jesus, and that would be the end of it.” God has made it clear in the Bible that Christians have authority over demons. Not by any merit of our own doing, but if we pray in faith in the name of Jesus, then He will be faithful to respond. 

Are demons even real? If you claim to believe in the Bible, then you believe in demons, and you believe that they can possess people. You just can’t get around the fact that demon possession is in the Bible and that Jesus and his followers cast out demons. Much of the Church now days seems to fall into two extremes; the first is that demons are no longer an issue, or that Jesus and his disciples simply misunderstood demonic possession for mental illnesses. If they are no longer an issue; why not? What happened between the time of the Acts of the Apostles and now? Did the Church somewhere along the line exterminate all demons? That is not likely. When Jesus himself was casting out a group of demons, they begged him not to torture them before the appointed time and not to send them into the abyss. Jesus granted their request by sending them into a herd of pigs (Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-17, Luke 8:26-37). They ran the pigs off a cliff into the sea to drown, presumably to be set free to bother some other unlucky humans. While no one on earth knows when “the appointed time” is, it makes sense to assume that this is the same appointed time of the end of the age when Jesus returns to judge all mankind and the fallen angels, i.e. demons. It’s safe to say that this time has not yet come.

Some in the Church claim that all demonic possession was just different types of mental illness that Jesus and his followers misunderstood to be demons, but what does that say about the God you worship? If Jesus is the Son of God, shouldn’t he be a little savvier in determining a diagnosis? The reason why demonic possession and mental illness go hand in hand is that both make the other more likely. Demons can more easily manipulate and corrupt someone who is suffering from a mental illness, and likewise, if someone allows a demon a foothold into their emotions and mental state, the demon will likely cause a mental illness as it gains more power and influence over the individual.

The other extreme is to sensationalize demonic possession. Stories from the Church have given plenty of fodder to Hollywood for decades and they don’t seem to be waning in popularity. America loves a good demon movie, and we even want it to be based on a true story as long as we can leave the theater thinking it will never happen to us. If you aren’t a Christian, chances are you would have no clue if a demon has attached itself to you; at least at first. Rarely does anything happen as dramatically as Hollywood celebrates. Usually it all starts with a deep emotional wound from childhood, or an obsession with some kind of sin like greed or lust, etc. Emotional pain and unrepentant sin is the demons’ foothold. It is how a person responds that determines how much power and influence a demon can have over the individual. Needless to say, the more you give into demonic “thoughts” the more it will control you, but it’s unlikely you’ll gain supernatural powers or have to worry about your family finding you crawling on the ceiling. Giving in to the demon might make you feel powerful and give you sense of superiority over some innocent victim, whether it be a person you abused or just a coworker you screwed over, but more than likely you’ll either end up clinically insane or just extremely selfish, depressed and lonely. Demons don’t want to use you to take over the world, they just want to hurt you because they lost the war when they rebelled against their Creator, and they know hurting you is the only way they can really hurt Him.

Following the example of Jesus and the early disciples, the Church continued to perform exorcisms on anyone who seemed to be demonically possessed and oppressed. Like with everything else concerning the gospel, the Catholic Church created a lot of needless formality and procedure around exorcism, which has led to a lot of misunderstanding and mysticism from those outside the priesthood. Realizing this stigma, protestant churches either gave up the practice altogether, or they changed the name to deliverance and now keep things more simple, but deliverance can still be pretty messy. If you’ve got a bona fide demon in there, it won’t let go too lightly.*  

Whispering Eve, PLR '99

Whispering Eve, PLR '99

The problem, in my opinion, is that churches today seem to either place too much emphasis on deliverance from demons or just ignore the reality of them altogether. I once flirted with attending a church that was deliverance focused, and they spent most of the teaching time on how to rebuke demons, and then most of the service delivering the same people from the same demons week after week. After a couple of weeks there, you would think there was a demon hiding under every rock, and every time something uncomfortable happened it was the devil attacking you! Of course, your problems had little to do with the poor choices you might have made that week, or that we live in a fallen world with a lot of selfish people in it. We are instructed to be aware of the devil’s schemes, but we are told this so that we can avoid continually falling into his traps and snares. Spiritual warfare is an important skill for every Christian to develop, the Apostle Paul says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12), and our most important weapon is prayer. However, too many Christians become dependant on deliverance ministry from others who claim to have the faith and power. They get all “cleaned up” in a hyped up and emotional prayer, and then jump right back into the mud. The Apostle Peter reminds us of the proverb, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud” (2 Peter 2:22).

The focus of every believer needs to be Jesus. He is our Savoir, he is our deliverer, and he is our example of how to live a righteous life. If Christians spent more time trying to live like Christ and developing their characters according to his teaching, there would be less need for deliverance. In speaking of his power over demons, Jesus teaches us, “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first” (Luke 11:24-26). The lesson is that if you get deliverance from demonic oppression, you need to then follow through and fill up the empty space with something new, specifically the Holy Spirit. Jesus told his disciples at the last supper that after he goes, he will send a helper, a Counselor, to teach us how to live righteously and to lead us into obedience to God. We 21st century Christians also have the benefit of the Bible to keep us in check and from being deceived by the very demons we have authority over.  It is this same Holy Spirit that gives the common believer the power through prayer to heal and to cast out demons when s/he prays in the name and authority of Jesus. The natural progression of a believer should be to become more and more like Jesus in character through following his example in the Bible and learning to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. The more a believer becomes like Jesus in character, the more intimidating s/he will be to our common enemy, Satan, and all his followers. Of course the enemy will do whatever it can to keep your faith from growing, but the more righteous choices a believer makes, the less ground any demons will have to stand on. Speaking of their public ministries, John the Baptist proclaimed of Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). In the same way, the more of Jesus we have growing in us, the less likely a demon will be able to manipulate your emotions and thoughts and bring you down from the inside. 

The Outcome, PLR '99

The Outcome, PLR '99

The art of spiritual warfare, including deliverance, should be an active and strong ministry in any church that is gaining ground for the Kingdom of God.  It should be expected that new believers (and even mature believers who are often called to go through deep personal struggles) to have a few demons plaguing them and not wanting to let go, but once the individual believer experiences deliverance and is free from the demonic oppression, s/he should use that freedom to grow stronger in faith and in following Jesus. If church leaders deny or ignore the possibility of demonic oppression, they are ignoring the mandate to be aware of the schemes of the devil and leaving the congregation open to spiritual attack. There are some problems that counseling and Prozac simply can’t handle. Likewise, someone who has gone through experiences that make them susceptible to demonic oppression will also more than likely need some kind of counseling in addition to deliverance, and it is not unusual for the counseling to take some time. In order for all believers to grow strong in faith, we need to have discipleship with someone who is more mature. If believers spent more time in fellowship with the Lord through prayer and worship and Bible study, and in fellowship with each other for support and accountability, the need for deliverance would be few and far between and focused mostly on new believers because there simply will be no place for the demons to take hold of. The Apostle James exhorts, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

Peter L Richardson

*The purpose of this essay is not to discuss what deliverance from demons should look like, but rather to help Christians understand how to prevent the need for personal deliverance in the first place. If you believe that you or someone you know is in need of deliverance, and you are not involved in a church experienced with deliverance ministry, I suggest starting with the book It’s Only a Demon, A Model of Christian Deliverance by David Appleby.