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.


4 Responses to “FIRE AND APPLES:”

  1. Kim Walker Says:

    Interesting thought, that intelligence is inversely proportional to wisdom and conscience. It appears to me more like a lust issue, though. (Referring to a previous article of yours, describing lust as an insane desire to get a taste of something, that never satisfies and later rots the victim, making them insane.) It is my observation, that seeking intelligence in submission to God, as a tool to use to serve God, bring Him glory (vs. yourself), or minister to others is not doomed to the same wretched fate. From that perspective, acquiring knowledge could be considered “adding to your talents”, which God strongly advises. Thanks for the English class. These old 40 yr. old brains need to get the cobwebs out, ha ha. Hopefully you can use this in your lessons this week, decrease planning time!

  2. Kim Walker Says:

    No, wait! Now I am acting like Victor, getting addicted to these stupid collegiate discussions!!! Instead of going insane like Victor in my pathetic love and quest to analyze and discuss, can I just be called a nerd, and go on my merry way? Or perhaps just go to grad school, and get degree with all the analysis and earn some money? That would be rational….but wait, that is the OPPOSITE to the antidote I need! No more reason!!! Bad reason! 🙂 (And by the way, don’t get your feelings hurt….they are not really stupid, OF COURSE….!) And, totally unfair to do English Class at 11:38 at night….your hi-jacking our email inbox!!! You’re preying on all the Hermione’s of the world (Harry Potter), who just have to raise their hand with the answer! Shame, shame shame! ha ha 🙂

    • peterrock12 Says:

      Oh, I agree with you wholeheartedly, Kim. This was a paper I had to write on Romanticism, and while I agree that a satisfied life is a simple life, and a good day for me is chillin’ in nature and daydreaming all day; personally, I’m not opposed to “reason.” God has created the universe in such a way that art and science are brothers; therefore, so are reason and the imagination. Einstein says “Imagination is more important than knowledge” but there is another quote from someone that says something like “Imagination without learning is like wings with no feet.” What good is the head without the heart to bring meaning and purpose, but what can the heart do without the head to guide it? Victor’s chief sin, in my opinion, was ambition and neglect.

  3. […] Additionally you can check out this related post: On this subject see: […]

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