Frankenstein: Forbidden Fruit and the Promethean Mirror

Prometheus Bound

Mary Shelley subtitled Frankenstein ‘A Modern Prometheus,’ invoking the mythic archetype of the titanic transgressor, the rebellious figure who pursues forbidden knowledge and power and has to pay for his hubris. Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to man. His punishment is to bound to a mountaintop for all eternity. Each day, an eagle eats his liver. Each night, the wounds heals, and the next day the torture begins again.

The Modern Prometheus, as envisioned by Shelley, pursues nature’s greatest secret. Victor Frankenstein wants to grasp “the principle of life” so he can “infuse a spark of life into [a] lifeless thing.” He says, “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should break through.” The idea of breaking through boundaries is, of course, key to the enduring power of the Promethean myth.

Through Victor’s grand ambitions, Shelley explores the power humans have to imagine possibilities beyond what our senses reveal about the world. We perceive unseen forces at work in the cosmos; we infer law-like principles at play in nature. Humans are uniquely skilled at imagining everything from spirits and gods to mathematical abstractions and geometric forms. We can’t help but be curious about what’s really ‘out there’ beyond the veil of appearance—can’t help being tempted by the fruit of knowledge that grows there and the power it bestows.

When we part the veil and peer into the other side, though, are we gazing at something we were meant to see, or at a realm that is beyond human capacities and thus dangerous even to behold? Quite often, people think ‘God’ is on the other side—that ‘He’ has drawn the line, and it is out of pride that we want to trespass and set up camp in ‘His’ space. As sinful, broken creatures, we simply don’t know when to quit. A human is, by definition, the kind of being who won’t, or possibly can’t, accept limitations on its nature. Since we were made in God’s image, we are invariably tempted to become what we behold that mirror image to be, ignoring the fact that the same scripture which tells us we’re made in ‘His’ image also says we see through a looking glass, darkly.

Modern Prometheus at work

A survey of human history reveals that, despite our reservations, we have been playing ‘God’ right from the beginning. Restless creatures that we are, humans have always been asking questions, testing possibilities, and putting answers into practice. Victor Frankenstein articulates this ambivalence when he says a “human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility,” the pursuit of knowledge being no exception. But, he adds, if “this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit to interfere with the tranquility,” great advances and historical accomplishments would’ve never happened. In other words, if we didn’t continually test the bounds and explore ‘God’s territory,’ we’d still be hunting and gathering—we’d still be following and praying to animals.

Because we’ve indulged our Promethean urge, however, most humans don’t worship animals anymore. We keep them as pets. We clone them. We’ve pursued the principle of life down to its fundamental molecular formula and are beginning to re-write the code. With the power of genetic knowledge, we’re remaking life itself in our image. Modern civilization has re-framed the boundaries of its looking glass and is both enamored and terrified by what it sees. Undeniably, science and technology have enriched our lives—enhancing our ability to alleviate suffering, to travel previously unthinkable distances and communicate with each other on a global scale—but we can also annihilate ourselves with the push of a button. Global temperatures and sea levels are rising—the whole planet could be doomed.

Are we already trapped on the mountaintop?

If popular culture is a mirror, it certainly casts an anxious image. Over the last decade or so, there’s been an explosion of dark conspiracy theories festering in Internet chat rooms. There are countless apocalyptic movies and dystopian novels, as well as TV shows about zombie hordes and viral pandemics and alien invasions. Superhero epics now get two hundred million dollar budgets because Hollywood knows it’s a relatively safe investment. Why? More than ever the public enjoys the archetypal fantasy these modern myths tap into: the collective dream that a determined individual will rise up or sweep in and set the world right—reorder a culture that has gone too far, that has crossed an important but imperceptible boundary and can’t find its way back.

Mary Shelley

The prophetic genius of Shelley’s 200 year old novel is that it asks us to contemplate the  motivations and emotions that drive us to such extremes in the first place. Victor is a brilliant, ambitious medical student who sees what he’s doing and why he’s doing it in a highly distorted way. His intentions are complex to the point of contradiction and self-delusion. He wants to “banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death,” which sounds like a noble Promethean motivation. However, his research and experiments eventually fuel a desire that sounds less altruistic and more about his own vanity: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” This is the essence of hubris: crossing the taboo boundary in search of personal glory. This isn’t tempting fate in order to provide warmth and comfort for humanity. It’s wanting people to praise you because you had the gall and ingenuity to pull a fast one on Zeus.

If Victor would have been more Promethean, he would’ve been willing to accept the full consequences of his actions. And that’s the real tragedy in  the novel. He’s able to master the principle of life and bring a new being into existence, but he is unwilling to take care of the Creature—to be its parent and nurture its potential humanity. Victor is too immature. He   rejects his artificial son because, well, it’s ugly. More than anything Victor wants to ‘play’ God. He fantasizes and courts the idea, but when it comes   to dealing with the long-term responsibilities, Victor’s performance is a   one night stand. He’s God, the Creator, but not God, the Father.

By the time he realizes it, though, it’s too late. The Creature has become The Monster, and the horror plays out with a chilling, law-like precision. The Latin root of the word ‘monster’ means ‘warning.’ The message is clear: selfish creation begets absolute destruction. And all of it could have been avoided, Shelly suggests, if Victor could have looked into the Promethean mirror clearly and been more critical, more honest, about his true intentions.

Monster means 'warning'

Frankenstein holds the same mirror up to its readers. And as we push deeper into this undiscovered country opened up by modern science and technology, are we going to make the same mistakes as Victor? Shelly’s novel implies that it’s not the Promethean urge itself that’s problematic. The sin isn’t in wanting to explore hitherto forbidden territories. It’s in running away from the implications of what you find. It’s in disowning what you create in the process. Humanity does have to accept at least one limitation: we can’t have the fruit of forbidden knowledge and eat it to.

4 Responses to “Frankenstein: Forbidden Fruit and the Promethean Mirror”

  1. good to see this – more than a trinity within the facts that her mother wrote A Vindication of The Rights of Women, and her father, William Godwin wrote a great book An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice which Percy Shelley read from throughout his life.. which Byron was also influenced by

  2. Progressive parents beget a revolutionary daughter. She wrote one of the most influential novels of the modern world when she was 18! Check out my blog on her life, greatest goth chick ever.

  3. thanks.. fully familiar with her life, her parents’ lives, and Shelley’s life and all his writings

  4. Cool:) So what do you think of calling her and Percy ‘Goth’?

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