Promethean fire

Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

One can never say enough about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was published just two hundred years ago — certainly a short review can never do it justice. Those with an academic background will be in a position to expound at length about the many aspects of this superb Gothic novel. I’m not an academic, however, so I can only talk about what strikes me most after a reading of the first edition of 1818. And what better place to start than the frontispiece to the 1831 edition, an engraving heavily influenced by Gothick sensibilities and based on an illustration by the remarkable Theodor Von Holst.

On the floor we see the Creature. Eight feet tall, he is naked (a covering sheet seems to have been thrown aside) but he wears as horrified a look as his creator, Victor Frankenstein; we see the latter hastily abandoning his work, throwing one last backwards look as he exits the room. From the skulls atop the bookcase to the semi-articulated skeleton next to the Creature we gather that Victor has been more than assiduous in his study of physiology. His attic laboratory too is well equipped: moonlight gleams through the decorative grill on a window (though which we can glimpse the silhouettes of Ingolstadt’s buildings); shines upon a bell jar connected by tubing to a copper retort and on what’s been described as “a horn-like set of Galvanic electrodes”.

It’s clear that we’re meant to imagine that sometime in the 1790s (when Frankenstein appears to be set) this prodigious student has mastered the secrets of chemistry, biology and galvanism, branches of what was then termed Natural Philosophy. That Shelley’s novel through its unofficial stage adaptations popularised the notion of reanimating the dead by means of Voltaic batteries can be evidenced in at least one political cartoon of the time. No doubt Holst’s 1831 image contributed to this.

A Galvanised Corpse: US political cartoon from 1836 by Henry Robinson

Marilyn Butler’s introduction to the 1818 text published by Oxford University Press¹ makes it clear that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s long-held interest in science ensured that Mary would be kept up to date with the latest developments and controversies, and would be acquainted with many of the pioneers who clashed with the establishment in terms of scientific theories and were tainted with accusations of atheism. In fact it’s notable that there is precious little — if any — reference to religion in the pages of the 1818 edition, though the 1831 revision (the variants are listed in Butler’s edition) considerably mutes any lack of religiosity.

But the moonlight that shone on the scientific equipment also lit up an image on the wall of Victor’s laboratory: a pair of diagonals overlaid by a pair of nested squares and including some indecipherable symbols. This curious diagram is no doubt a reference to Victor’s early interest in medieval and Renaissance occult arts and writers like Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, and particularly Agrippa. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) published his Three Books concerning Occult Philosophy in the early 16th century, and included illustrations that remind us of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous idealised Renaissance Man. One of Agrippa’s diagrams displays a naked man surrounded by zodiacal signs and enclosed within a similar construct of squares and diagonals.

I think that the presence of this diagram on the wall — along with Victor’s avowal of being an 18th-century “disciple of Albertus Magnus” and his delight at “the wild fancies” of “my favourite Agrippa” — suggest that this student wasn’t relying wholly on his knowledge of natural philosophy to create life. While he says “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials” along with a collection of “the instruments of life … that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet,” Victor is reticent about describing exactly what he has done and how he’s done it. By the “instruments of life” does he mean a giant Voltaic battery? Or is he hinting at something more esoteric — like the use of ritual implements?

Victor’s “favourite” natural philosopher was indeed Agrippa, who produced those three books on occult philosophy in his lifetime. After his death a fourth book ascribed to him was published (an English translation appeared in 1655), subtitled Of Magical Ceremonies. Among other things it describes signs and symbols, the appearance of spirits, rituals and their objects, necromancy, and of course “calling forth spirits”. I’d like to think that the author’s vagueness in describing how Victor animated his “lifeless thing” might include rather more than a jolt of electricity from a battery.

Then there are the traditional tales of beings magically created, particularly out of clay. Adam of course. And the golem which Rabbi Elijah Ba’al Shem is said to have brought to life from clay in the late 16th or early 17th century in Chelm, Poland. But our attention is drawn to Frankenstein‘s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus (‘Forethought’ in Greek) not only created a human from clay but stole fire from heaven to give to humankind; for the last action he was bound to a rock and tortured by having Zeus’ eagle peck at his liver. The parallels with Victor are obvious: both invest a creature made from base material with the spark of life, and are subsequently punished — Victor by horror and guilt for what he has done and sorrow for the deaths of loved ones, right to the end of his days.

The parallels don’t stop there. Prometheus does indeed mean ‘forethought’ (though he displays very little foreknowledge of his destiny) but it’s been theorised that the name actually derives from a proto Indo-European word meaning ‘thief’, highly appropriate in his case. In addition, a similar Vedic word — pramanth — means a bow-drill or similar implement to make fire, which is claimed is the means by which the Titan conveyed it to earth. On the other hand, traditionally Prometheus is supposed to have stored the flame in a fennel stalk. This isn’t the culinary herb but the common narthex (Ferula communis): apparently when it’s set alight its stem pith can and does smoulder for a length of time.

In Holst’s frontispiece there is a mysterious beam of light emanating from behind Victor and alighting on the Creature. Whence this beam? It can’t be from a lanthorn he’s carrying, nor is it from the open doorway. Nobody knows. It’s tempting to say this is symbolic Promethean fire in the absence of any rational explanation. It can’t be a mistake by the artist or engraver, surely? Maybe it’s condensing steam pouring from the retort on the stand behind the Creature, but I wouldn’t swear to it.

Finally, is it possible that Mary Shelley’s story of a modern Prometheus whose destiny is tragic galvanised Percy, her husband, to write his poetic drama Prometheus Unbound, which posits a happy ending for the otherwise tragic figure? After all, the first we hear of it is in a letter he writes to Mary from Padua in Italy in the autumn after Frankenstein was published, and it later becomes clear he has only just finished the first act — in fact it wasn’t to be completed for another year, to be finally published in 1820. In the poem he baulked at “reconciling the Champion [Prometheus] with the Oppressor of mankind [Jupiter]”. It’s as if Frankenstein gets to keep his bride and live happily ever after while the Creature, like Jupiter, is defeated and brought low.


¹ Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The 1818 text. Edited with an introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler. Oxford World’s Classics 1998

The first in a short series of supplementary discussions following a posted review; more to come, including on Mary’s life and treatment of death

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4 thoughts on “Promethean fire

  1. I’d consider whether the Creature isn’t the real Prometheus in the pair of Frankenstein and his creation – a Titan standing up to the privileged and mighty rulers of the modern order 😉

    1. That’s a thought! If the Creature is indeed the Jungian shadow in Victor’s psyche — as I suspect he must be — then it’s unsurprising his gigantic size (eight foot tall! That’s about 2.4 metres) makes him the Promethean Titan counterpart to Victor’s fire-stealing golem-creating Promethean trickster.

      They have a symbiotic relationship, I sense, unidentical twins joined at the metaphorical hip, so are therefore both at the same time that Modern Prometheus that Mary alludes to in her subtitle.

      1. A creator cannot but have a symbiotic relationship with his creature, the point is, let me borrow Blake’s words (who hinted at Prometheus in his “the Tyger”): “Did he smile his work to see?” We creatures , are exactly what our creator had in mind or just the patchwork represented by Frankenstein’s monster?

        1. Good point, Stefy! Your Blakeney quote puts me in mind of W S Gilbert’s and Arthur Sullivan’s song from ‘The Mikado’: “A wand’ring minstrel, I, a thing of shreds and patches…”

          I think we are patchwork beings more than ideal Renaissance humans; in other words we are all in a sense Frankenstein creatures — and some of us are monsters too.

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