| PROMETHEUS: A SYMPOSIUM |

FRANKEN-MYTHBUSTERS: MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN EXPOSES THE PATRIARCHAL PROMETHEUS

By Sophia Scarfe

***

The Montréal Review, May 2024


The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833) by Paul Delaroche, The National Gallery, London

Greek myths have long influenced society, dating back thousands of years and continuously being retold within facets of art and literature. The absurd, degrading values displayed in these myths are often overlooked as they have acquired a legitimacy that is only recently being questioned and challenged. Oppression, exploitation, and death are embraced within myths often leading audiences to believe that these evils are necessary aspects or simplistic side effects of an act of heroism. Thus, myths often portray women as domestic maternal objects that hinder male glory.

The 19th-century novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley reinterprets one of these oppressive, traditional myths: the myth of Prometheus. Popularized within such recent films as Oppenheimer, Poor Things, and Lisa Frankenstein, the retelling of Prometheus holds the same power over our culture today as it did when Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816. In the novel, Shelley critiques the glorification of patriarchal traits such as a desire for control and the possession of beauty and power, all of which are promoted in the Greek myth, particularly in Aeschylus’s version, Prometheus Bound. 

Mary Shelley’s works have been examined through many different lenses, especially within the feminist literary field. Speculative works investigate and psychoanalyze her background, tying red strings between events in her life and events in her novels. Conclusions on Frankenstein range from theories on homoerotic themes to manifestations of the Oedipus complex to the monster representing Shelley's reanimated dead child. From these extremities flows an overarching analytical conclusion: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was more than a story, it was an expression of some cultural commentary.

Barbara Johnson, a prominent literary analyst of Mary Shelley, considers Frankenstein to be an “elaborate and unsettling formulation of the relation between parenthood and monstrousness” (Johnson, 2). Supporting her idea that Frankenstein is “the autobiography of a woman [Mary Shelley],” Johnson concerns herself with Shelley’s past. Elaborating that Victor's rejection of the Monster parallels Shelley’s mother dying during Shelley's birth and Shelley's own child dying (Johnson, 6).

These interpretations confine our understanding of Shelley’s intentions when creating Frankenstein, wrongly allowing for her identity as a woman and mother to lead the conversation. While I concede that personal identity is integral to making art, I also believe that reading and analyzing Shelley in the context of her biography perpetrates literary analytical bias. Restricting Shelley to her identities and life events dismisses possible larger thematic implications such as her critique of Greek mythology as a whole.

Analyzing the novel from this perspective, it was clear how Frankenstein applied to wider cultural contexts such as mythology and feminism. These conclusions are supported by Shelley herself, along with contemporary theorist Gayatri Spivak. In his introduction of Frankenstein, Maurice Hindle notes that Shelley’s “novelistic response of Frankenstein” was focused on the idea of Prometheus as a figure who “creates and manipulates men into life, rather than [someone who] save’s them” 1. Proving that in the genesis of the novel, Shelley saw the true implications of the myth. Furthermore, Gayatri Spivak verifies the feminist literary critique in the novel. Spivak dictates that Frankenstein is “a text of nascent feminism that remains cryptic…. simply because it does not speak the language of feminist individualism which we have come to hail as the language of high feminism within English literature” (Spivak, 254). Spivak’s and Shelley’s viewpoints assert that Shelley’s perspective on Prometheus himself and the theory of feminism are essential when analyzing Frankenstein.

Shelley uses the characters in the novel as a tool to expose the myths’ harmful message. The unforgiving nature of male dominance and so-called “heroism” fueled by myths are portrayed by Shelley in an almost ironic prophetic light. Victor Frankenstein is made to be the epitome of a mythic protagonist or at least he convinces himself and those around him he is. He is seen as an architect: a limitless artist who paints with the hand of nature and godly science. Creating a character that fantasizes himself into this position - leading to him making devastating and deadly choices - is a direct criticism of the mythical male hero. Because Victor perceives himself as a revolutionist who is without free will, he truly believes he is fulfilling his destiny, “I was capable of a more intense application, and was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge” and tells Walton how “the birth of that passion… afterwards ruled my destiny” (Shelley 38, 40). This is highly comparable to the monologue in Prometheus Bound in which Prometheus signs his actions away to fate, proclaiming:

All that shall come to pass; no sharp surprise
Of pain shall overtake me; what's determined
Bear, as I can, I must, knowing the might
Of strong Necessity is unconquerable.
But touching my fate silence and speech alike
Are unsupportable 2

When shown side by side, the two resemble the incessant excuses made by men for their own mistakes. Victor mirrors Prometheus’s patriarchal traits of stubbornness and pride, guiding them both to their punishment. Mary Shelley blatantly shows the insidious consequences of Victor's defiance as a warning to those who seek glory, gratitude, and control much like Prometheus. Engaging in this narrative unveils the necessary ending to every female character's life, as there is no alternate option. Victor's “fate,” which he so fervently imprisons himself in, is a catalyst for every woman's death and loss of autonomy in the novel.

Setting the haunting tone of the story, Victor’s mother, Caroline, theatrically dies to save the life of her sick child, Elizabeth. Living just three chapters, Caroline is identified as helpless until she is “saved” by Victor's father who then treats her like “the help.” Shelley guides the reader through Caroline's maternal role using a phenomenon first recognized in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and The Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. In The Madwoman in the Attic, literary feminists Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar identify the use of feminine archetypes in literature, designating women either as “angels” or as “monsters” in a novel. Shelley utilizes these literary and cultural identifiers to reveal the consequences of reducing women to these roles. Categorized by a woman's adherence to her oppressed place in society, angels were women who were pure, of heavenly disposition, fair, gentle, and had a, often not necessary, self-sacrificial capacity (Gilbert and Gubar). Caroline, as the submissive angel, does not resist the constraints put on her and instead sacrifices herself for Elizabeth which ultimately leads to her demise.

Caroline’s death, however harsh, does not change Victor's ambitions or pursued lifestyle; in contrast, he sets off to Ingolstadt to delve into his obsession with creating life. Because of Caroline’s passing, Elizabeth is left alone to take on the assigned maternal role of Caroline, forcing her to give up all her autonomy to be in aid of the men.

Groomed from a young age to be Victor's lover, Elizabeth is introduced into the story as an object by Caroline, “I have a pretty present [Elizabeth] for my Victor- tomorrow he shall have it” (Shelley, 37). Victor treats Elizabeth as such, regarding her as an angel who is his sublime possession. He focuses only on her beauty, “none could behold her without looking on her as of a distinct species, a being heaven-sent” (Shelley, 36). Left with no aspirations of her own, Elizabeth's character contrasts Victor's ambitious and narcissistic tendencies.

Astonishingly selfish, Victor focuses on his own, self-made agonies while away and leaves his whole family vulnerable by hiding the truth of his dangerous creation. Victor repeatedly abandons his “dear” Elizabeth when she requires his help and comfort; such as when she is mourning the deaths of Caroline and Justine. Even when the monster threatens Victor, suggesting, “I shall be with you on your wedding night”, Victor never even considers Elizabeth's safety (Shelley, 173). He only speaks of how she will be heartbroken if he dies, never considering she could die as well. When Elizabeth senses something is wrong, she pleads with Victor to tell her, “What is it that agitates you, my dear Victor? What is it you fear?”, and he again dismisses her fears. Instead of informing her of the threat, an 8-foot-tall murderous monster, he sends her away to be alone (Shelley, 198). Elizabeth, left in the dark, is then tracked down by the monster and strangled to death. 

During Victor’s time away, the monster -out of rage towards Victor who abandoned him- murders Victor’s youngest brother, William Frankenstein. Justine, the Frankenstein’s maid and Elizabeth's best friend, is then accused of being ‘William's murderer. Elizabeth is horrified and distraught by the sudden death of William and Justine’s accusations. Victor -with full knowledge of the actual events of Williams's murder and Justine's innocence- decides that his own pride and reputation were more of a priority than Justine's life and Elizabeth's emotions. Clouded by his own vain delusions, Victor convinces himself and everyone he loves that Justine’s life will be magically spared (Shelley, 81, 82). Although this could happen -it didn’t. Victor can save Justine’s life by simply telling the truth, yet he doesn’t as he believes those around him will see his story as “the ravings of a madman” (Shelley, 83). While Victor complains of how horrid his life is because of Justine’s impending death, he watches as Elizabeth cries at the feet of Justine’s cell speaking of her execution, “No! No! I could never survive so horrible a misfortune” (Shelley, 88). However, Victor truly believes he is in a worse position than Justine, saying, “The tortures of the accused did not equal mine...” (Shelley, 86). Victor's inflated ego controls Justine’s autonomy and therefore solidifies her death. Justine is executed as a guilty murderer the next day.

Shelley created the cycle of female deaths shown above on purpose. While these deaths of influential women in Victor's life would typically produce a moment of recognition that he is furthering the possibility of more deaths by hunting the monster, Victor continues his journey. He is so preoccupied with his own desires and aspirations that he doesn’t care enough to risk them to protect Justine or Elizabeth. Unsurprisingly, in the chapters where the women die, Shelley dedicates endless paragraphs to his emotions surrounding the deaths rather than the deaths themself. From this extensive internal dialogue, we can analyze Victor in a way that we weren’t able to with Prometheus. We can explicitly see that beyond the absurd desire for possession of power and beauty that Victor and Prometheus share, Victor is cruel, selfish, and illogical. Compared to Prometheus, who we see has no remorse for his actions, Victor feels guilt that further fuels his quest. The in-depth descriptions of his intense emotional states and reactions to the women’s deaths are a major contrast to myths that lack these traits. Thus, Mary Shelley takes the catastrophic themes within Prometheus and critiques them by putting them into an obtainable format and context that a general audience can grasp. The roles and actions within the novel by Victor and the women are realistic. Women are not turned into monsters with snakes for hair but they do die from male ignorance and apathy. Every day, women are groomed like Elizabeth and suffer in place of men like Justine. Therefore, the female deaths in the novel are far more obviously preventable and devastating. Frankenstein removes the magic haze surrounding the myth of Prometheus and reveals that all that is left is the horrific reality of Victor's actions.

Weaving the patriarchal traits of men, the sacrificial deaths of women, and the self-anointed mythical fate of Victor, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein proves an honest and complex feminist literary critique of  Prometheus Bound and all traditional mythology. Shelley made no mistake when declaring her novel The Modern Prometheus as she braved to speak on the bountiful horrors placed on society by male domination.

Evoking all who read Frankenstein to consider the true villain in the story and if the villain is a person at all.

Sophia Scarfe is double majoring in Psychology and Philosophy at Virginia Tech University.

Cited Work

  1. Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press, 2020.
  2. Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. London, Printed for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, 1818.
  3. Ruffell, Ian. Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound. , 2012. Print.
  4. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 12, no. 1, 1985, pp. 243–61. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343469. Accessed 17 Mar. 2024.
  5. Johnson, Barbara, et al. “My monster/my self.” Diacritics, vol. 12, no. 2, 1982, p. 2, https://doi.org/10.2307/464674.
  6. Maurice Hindle, "Introduction." In Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Penguin, 2003), xxviii.

| PROMETHEUS: A SYMPOSIUM |

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