Prometheus and Victor Frankenstein may share one similarity, in that they both figuratively and quite literally steal fire from the gods, but that is where their similarities end. This paper will explore the character of Victor Frankenstein, pitting him up against the figure of Prometheus and explaining why the two share a stark difference in terms of character and motive for their actions. The differences they share, seen through the lens of the scientific revolution, will show why Victor’s actions are ultimately a warning against the reckless pursuit of knowledge and unchecked ambition.
Prometheus is often seen as a prominent figure of rebellion, a titan that defied the gods by giving man the gift of fire, actions that he is eternally punished for. This is where the contrasts between the characters of Prometheus and Victor Frankenstein begin. Unlike Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein never truly receives his rightful punishment. A point can be made that they are both made to suffer for their actions, however, there is a stark difference between the torments that the two face and what it reflects in each of their characters.
Both share a defiance for god and the supposed natural order of things but are punished for different reasons. For Prometheus, it is a direct result of his defiance and his care for his creation. He takes responsibility for the fate of man in spite of Zeus’s wrath, risking himself to give life.
On the surface, Victor Frankenstein can be seen in a similar way, as he is able to bring something back from the dead, which defies nature and science.
However he is not working in defiance of something. Instead, he undergoes his experiment simply because he is a scientist and this is his ambition. Victor doesn’t consider the risk that this poses and unlike Prometheus, do this for the greater good of the world, which should be what the study of science is about. Instead his methods are inclusive and problematic in what they set out to achieve. In the end, he simply dies without really learning his actual mistakes or taking responsibilities for his actions and those of the monster he has created. Sure, he tells Walton to learn from him, that knowledge for evil ends leads to disaster, but throughout the novel that’s not really the lesson that is presented to him. In foresight it most likely would have been better for everyone if Victor had not gone through with his experiments and although it shows that he has learned that particular lesson, those actions are already done and something that he can never take back.
Instead, throughout the novel he is presented time and time again with the opportunity to make peace with, aid, and even accept this being of his own creation. Yet he seems to so strongly believe that because he is responsible for giving the monster life he must give it death as well, refusing to see an alternative. Perhaps the greatest point of contrast between these two characters is the love that they hold for their creations. Prometheus loved man more than the Olympians and risked whatever punishments he would receive in order to give man the gift of fire. Victor Frankenstein does not hold this love, in fact, whatever love he does have throughout the story is destroyed because of his unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions. This lack of responsibility is a recurring theme throughout the novel, one that is the strongest argument towards the type of critique that the novel has towards the Scientific Revolution. His act of stealing fire from the gods by creating life is done purely out of curiosity and ambition, the latter quality being one of the main causes for the downfall of his character.
This reckless pursuit of knowledge he has, along with the vanity of putting himself in this godlike position, are not tempered with a moral responsibility that can justify the risks. Instead, he is fearful and runs from the guilt and responsibility that he is faced with after realizing that he has brought new life into the world without any means of providing for it. Throughout the novel, Victor is repeatedly presented with opportunities to either right his wrongs or minimize the casualties that come in the wake of his creation. The first and arguably most fundamental decision that spurred the rest of the conflict in the novel was his decision to give up responsibility for his creation and leave it to fend for itself. Victor’s neglect of the creature is where we truly see the greatest flaw of his character and as the novel goes on his decisions only reinforce the continuous mistake that he makes. After the news about the death of his brother he does not tell his family or the police for fear of his own life. Instead of owning up to his actions, he flees to heal his “tortured soul” and it’s only when the monster seeks him out and tells him his story that Victor is confronted with the reality of what he has done again.
This is when he is presented with a second opportunity to mitigate whatever damage and suffering may come from his previous actions. The monster requests that Victor create it a mate of its own with the promise that it would cease tormenting him and leave Europe. Although the word of the monster can be seen subjectively, the decision to grant its wish still falls on Victor as well as the repercussions of deceiving it, which he does with the knowledge that it has vowed to take revenge on his family for the neglect that both he and society have wrought on it. The monster in retaliation arrives at his wedding night and strangles his bride Elizabeth in her room, despite Victor’s attempt to make sure that it was safe. In a way he is even more responsible for her death than the others that the monster has caused, since he is aware of its threat and directly puts a target on Elizabeth’s back by agreeing to marry her when he has denied the monster of the same thing.
The fundamental flaw of Victor’s character then is that he does not learn from the many mistakes and tragedies that happen in the novel. He is aware of the risks that neglecting and defying the monster pose but proceeds to do so anyways at the cost of his own loved ones’ lives. There’s a vanity that he holds when it comes to dealing with his creation. Initially he chooses to reject the responsibility of it and it’s most likely that if the monster were to have attacked or killed someone not in his family or social group, he would have continued on with his denial of its existence. It’s only with Elizabeth’s death that he takes action and goes after the monster for his revenge, however it is still for a selfish reason. Instead of guilt, duty, or a sense of right and wrong, he acts in rage because the monster has taken something from him. He then continues the path of revenge that started because of his cowardice and initial refusal to care for his creation. In this way, although Victor Frankenstein is by all means a flawed character, I cannot consider him admirable because the motives for his studies are problematic, ultimately not paired with the betterment for anything but his own curiosity.
Victor selfishness is his greatest downfall and serves as the greatest point of contention to his title of the modern Prometheus, one that Mary Shelley may have given him satirically, showing how a modern version of someone opposing the will of the Gods would be perceived. His experiments seek to only serve his own ambition and we are shown that as he slips deeper and deeper into his obsession with unraveling the creation of life, he begins to grow colder and neglects everything else in his life, friends, family, studies and any social ties that he has. The concept and act of neglect is an essential part of his character, as only his ambition matters. Things and people disappear from his life when it becomes convenient to him, his family and friends during his period of obsession with creation and his creation itself when he has a chance to see it through different eyes, those of a man and not a scientist.
All of this goes back then to the relationship between the created and the creator, the greatest point of contrast between Victor and Prometheus. For Victor the monster is a byproduct of his flawed ambition. It’s the act of science and perhaps the taboo of defying God’s laws by creating life that influenced him and is truly where his love and care lies. Prometheus on the other hand, defies the gods and gives fire to man because of his love for them. His actions, although perhaps ambitious, are done for something larger than himself and ultimately out of love for his creation. He takes responsibility for man’s fate in a way that Victor Frankenstein’s actions directly contradict and is directly punished for it by an authoritative figure. Victor’s punishments are internal since he only has to deal with the guilt of his actions, and even then refuses to act until it is too late. Victor Frankenstein is not a modern Prometheus. He’s an example of unchecked ambition and the repercussions of running from responsibility.