Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Modern Prometheus

During my second year module 'Myths and Mythology' our lecturer led a discussion about Mary Shelly's novel Frankenstein. I found this aspect of the course very interesting so I have decided to revisit the topic in my blog. Our Myths and Mythology lecture focused heavily on the 19th century literary reception of Frankenstein and the cult following of Prometheus among the Romantics, I will not only be discussing romantic interpretation but also drawing on Classical sources to give a more comprehensive overview of Prometheus then and now.

Mary Shelly published her novel 'Frankenstein' in 1818 in the aftermath of the French Revolution. She controversially called her book 'Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus'. This led to speculation between scholars as to Marie Shelly's meaning. I think the period Shelley was writing in was very relevant to the classical contextualisation of her book.

During the Romantic period authors and artists became increasingly interested in Classical mythology, and the myth of Prometheus was particularly popular. The political climate of the time was one of Rebellion, the French revolution had made the middle and lower classes increasingly conscious of their exploitation at the hand of nobility. The impact of the French revolution was seen worldwide as France was, at that time, seen as a centre of bohemian culture idolised by the rest of Europe; Emanuel Kant even wrote on the French revolution's impact inspiring "a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm"(7:85) in its spectators. This shared 'enthusiasm' for rebellion against oppressive masters explains the connection Romantic authors and artists felt for Prometheus, who rebelled against Zeus's authority and injustice. Byron for example wrote a poem called 'Prometheus' in which he portrays Prometheus as "impenetrable" of spirit, who rebels against "inexorable Heaven, And the deaf tyranny of fate". Shelly however, digressing from the literary norms of her time, envisages a completely different Prometheus.

Harriet Hustis wrote a comprehensive discussion of Shelly's 'Prometheus' in her article 'Responsible Creativity and the "modernity" of Mary Shelly's Prometheus', I found Hustis to be an invaluable source when researching this topic. Hustis writes that "Shelly's novel focuses on an aspect of the Prometheus myth typically overlooked in the more traditional version of the Titan's defiant martyrdom, namely, an offspring's need for sustained guidance, influence, pity, and support from its creator". Although this depiction seems very different to Byron's Prometheus, almost casting him as vulnerable and unloved rather than a powerful revolutionary, It still retains the critical political aspect as Prometheus is neglected by his creator Zeus who personifies the ruling class. However, Hustis implies here that Shelly intended Frankenstein's monster to be interpreted as her modern Prometheus whereas Dr. Frankenstein himself also, arguably, has Promethean aspects to his character. Fire in the myth of Prometheus can be interpreted both as civilisation, and life; When Dr. Frankenstein creates his monster he steals the power to synthesise life from the divine.

 In 'Work and Days' Hesiod tells the story as to why humans must work so hard for their existence:

"For the gods keep hidden from men the means of life. Else you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working; soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste. But Zeus in the anger of his heart hid it, because Prometheus the crafty deceived him; therefore he planned sorrow and mischief against men. He hid fire; but that the noble son of Iapetus stole again for men from Zeus the counsellor in a hollow fennel-stalk, so that Zeus who delights in thunder did not see it. But afterwards Zeus who gathers the clouds said to him in anger: "Son of Iapetus, surpassing all cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire-a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction." (42-53)

From this extract it is clear what the romantics saw in Prometheus. The rebellious figure, despite incurring a curse on mankind, is represented as 'cunning', 'mischeivus' and 'crafty' which are far from negative adjectives. Romantics would have identified with Prometheus' defiance but also in the words
"I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction" Hesiod writes Prometheus as an innovator, a bringer of technology and enlightenment as he is clearly referring to the use of fire in casting of metal which bring about weapons, which in turn bring about war. Romantic attitudes to war, especially in France at that time where, for lack of a better word, romantic. War was the catalyst which brought about the revolution. As Aeschylus writes in 'Prometheus Bound' "All human skill and science was Prometheus' gift" (p503), this casts Prometheus as an unlikely hero who brings about change, an end of oppression into an uncertain future.

Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound

Hesiod. Works and Days

H. Husts. (2003) Responsible Creativity and the "Modernity" of Mary Shelly's Prometheus.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Rice University press.

E.Kant (1724-1804) Social & Political philosophy

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