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Frankenstein: A Modern Day Prometheus?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of history’s most famous novels.  It has inspired countless movies and “Franken-” has become a prefix for anything gigantic made from parts of something else.  The novel has been, and continues to be, a topic in the discussion about medicine and morality.  The story of Prometheus has also been an inspiration and topic of discussion much in the same way as Frankenstein, and share similarities with each other.

Prometheus was the last of the great Titans, the Old Gods to the Greeks and Romans.  Taking no sides in the war with the Olympians, he was spared by Zeus and quested with the creation of mankind.  His brother Epimetheus, however, had dealt the various attributes of life to the rest of creation leaving humans weak and naked.  With no way to protect itself from the predatory forces of nature, Prometheus took pity and bestowed upon mankind fire, that it may have even the faintest chance to survive.  However, Prometheus stole that fire from Mount Olympus, from the Heavens themselves, clean from the hand of Zeus.

Prometheus

Prometheus

A grave and terrible punishment was to follow, far worse than that of the other Titans, chained to the walls of the blackest pits of Hades.  Prometheus was chained to the Caucasus Mountains where everyday, a fearsome eagle would eat at his liver and by night, he would be healed.  How sad would such a being be? How frightened and aghast would be the creations he left alone?

Separated by more than two millennia, we are suddenly introduced to a young Victor Frankenstein.  Mary Shelley, at only age nineteen, had decided to present her own Modern Prometheus.  Frankenstein, as the novel would eventually be called, showed not the ambitions of Gods but that of a man and his selfish ambition.  This was not to be a grand creation of divine spark but rather an abortion, a curse not to the death but born of the dead.  The birth of a monster in the most unnatural way:  pieced back together from the rot and gnarled decay.  Morals are damned to this man, though how dearly he would learn not to trifle with matters he could never have understood.

It could be supposed that the desire to reanimate the dead as Victor would obsessively and meticulously strive to achieve is central to the whole of mankind.  It is a preservation of the purest kind.  However, Victor does not simply reanimate a person; he creates his own.  He pieced the body together; hence how deformed the creature is originally depicted.  His limbs are mismatched and grotesque.  He, himself is huge in proportion, described as eight feet tall with the dead eyes of a cadaver.  However, most importantly it seems, the monster is his own person.  He is not a recollection of his former selves.  Despite being the design of immoral machinations, he seems to hold within him a soul unique to his design.  Victor would not know this for some time as, unlike Prometheus stolen away by Zeus, he was stricken by the terror of what he had truly done and fled.  Into the night and eventually back to his home in Geneva, the abandonment of his creation would set in motion the curse which would carry him to his end.

Prometheus

Mary Shelley

Two years go by and the image of the monster becomes but a dream only to be shattered by cold reality.  Victor’s brother, merely a toddler, lies dead, the life strangled out of him.  Justine, an old family friend has no alibi and she is tried.  In the hysteria, she is sentenced to death by hanging.  Amidst the woodlands of Germany, he sees it.  Shaken by the tragedy he goes to it and there, with the speed of the wind, it bounds before him.  There the monster presents itself to Victor, intelligent and fully realized.  Unlike the representation made popular by later films, this is no lumbering oaf wandering zombie-like in search of his next victim.  No, this is a creature who knew whom he had murdered and whom he had framed for it.  With a physical constitution beyond comprehension, Victor was confronted with the force he had created and why such horrors fell in the creature’s wake.

He explains how he fled the night he was birthed and how forsaken he felt.  Like a child, though fully grown, he writhed in an effort to gain control of his sense and to become aware of his situation.  After the inhabitants of one village forced him to flee out of their horror, he found refuge in a hovel connected to a small homestead.  He remained hidden there and spied upon his unsuspecting hosts.  He learned their sounds, made sense of their noises, pieced words together and through the passage of time and fortune he learned language and literature.  He was eventually able to lay his hands upon Milton’s Paradise Lost and quite to his dismay likened himself to Satan, forsaken by God and cursed to wander without knowledge of the Creator.  Piecing together clues from scraps found in his pocket from the night he was given life, he knew that unlike Satan, his creator was but a man and therefore tangible.  However, to reach to his creator, he would sink into depravity.

PrometheusKnowing that his sin held perfect penance in the death of his brother and his friend, Victor loathes the creature yet gives in to his demands: to create a wife for his creation, that they would quit the world together.  Traveling to England to perfect the process of creating a female form, Victor cannot bear to repeat his egregiousness.  He destroys the form and is confronted again by the creature.  Deeming his creator’s destruction to be his only purpose and forsaking mankind entirely, he flees with the ominous warning; “I will be with you on your wedding night.”

In the echo of the warning, Victor’s friend Clerval is strangled to death on the shores of Ireland.  He escapes back home, resigned to his fate knowing surely that the monster will come for him.  He deems his wedding to be two weeks from the day he returned.  His childhood love Elizabeth and he are wed and by boat they journey off together as husband and wife.  Perpetually afraid for his own life, he leaves Elizabeth to secure the perimeter of the inn in which they had sought refuge.  A scream, another scream and a sudden realization of selfishness and utter ignorance, Victor rushes into the room where Elizabeth lies strangled and thrown across.  The monster escapes and Victor flies in pursuit.  With news of his father’s death of grief, Victor’s sole purpose becomes the destruction of that which he created.

The monster leads him on a chase to the ends of the Earth.  Broken and emaciated, the novel ends as it began, with Victor recounting his story to the captain of an ice runner in search of the North Pole.  The captain had taken him aboard after finding him in a desperately failing pursuit of an enormous black shape amidst the ice.  Weak in his failing form, Victor’s breath ceases and the monster silently forces itself into his cabin to steal away the body.  The captain owning the final eyes to ever see the creature, he is witness to the epitaph that the creature with the body of his creator will travel as northerly as possible and cast creation and creator into flames.

So ends the Modern Prometheus, Frankenstein.  However, time marches on and though stories of such a thing have persisted into the past, they only ever seemed to be just that: stories.  In the twenty-first century though, we begin to see more and more science fiction becoming science fact.  The lines are blurred and with it the right and wrong of the morals of such stories.  We are at a technological dawn where we may soon be able to upload your mind into a machine.  Just next year we will be living in the aftermath of the first human head transplant be it successful or not.  Cloning, artificial insemination, these are all leading to creating something from essentially nothing.  Still half blind to the truly infinite ways in which we came to be as a species, wandering and stumbling to find our place in the universe, at what point do we begin to consider ourselves the Creator?  Perhaps the outcome will be a middle ground, somewhere between the benevolent desires of Prometheus’ divine sparkle and the selfish, obsessive pursuits of Victor Frankenstein.  Or perhaps the curse of Prometheus will persist into the next generation.

(Joe Rotondo)

About the author

Joseph Rotondo

Joseph has been at home among monsters since the very beginning. From the primal roars of Godzilla to the subtle seductions of Dracula, the thrill of terror has always made him feel alive. Monsters, in their very nature, are meant to horrify. It is this horror he seeks to dissect. In the pursuit, the words “nerd” and “geek” have been thrown around but, ever modest, Joseph prefers the term “genius” to truly describe his purpose.

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