Mary Shelley was the daughter of the famous feminist and author, Mary Wollstonecraft, who is best known for her work The Vindication of the Rights of Women. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a young university student, Victor Frankenstein, obsesses with wanting to know the secret to life. He studies chemistry and natural philosophy with the goal of being able to create a human out of spare body parts. After months of constant work in his laboratory, Frankenstein attains his goal and brings his creation to life. Frankenstein is immediately overwrought by fear and remorse at the sight of his creation, a "monster." The next morning, he decides to destroy his creation but finds that the monster has escaped. The monster, unlike other humans, has no social preparation or education; thus, it is unequipped to take care of itself either physically or emotionally. The monster lives in the forest like an animal without knowledge of "self" or understanding of its surroundings. The monster happens upon a hut inhabited by a poor family and is able to find shelter in a shed adjacent to the hut. For several months, the monster starts to gain knowledge of human life by observing the daily life of the hut's inhabitants through a crack in the wall. The monster's education of language and letters begins when he listens to one of them learning the French language. During this period, the monster also learns of human society and comes to the realization that he is grotesque and alone in the world. Armed with his newfound ability to read, he reads three books that he found in a leather satchel in the woods. Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, Milton's Paradise Lost, and a volume of Plutarch's Lives. The monster, not knowing any better, read these books thinking them to be facts about human history. From Plutarch's works, he learns of humankind's virtues. However, it is Paradise Lost that has a most interesting effect on the monster's understanding of self. The monster at first identifies with Adam, "I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence." The monster, armed only with his limited education, thought that he would introduce himself to the cottagers and depend on their virtue and benevolence; traits he believed from his readings that all humans possessed. However, soon after his first encounter with the cottagers, he is beaten and chased off because his ugliness frightens people. The monster is overwrought by a feeling of perplexity by this reaction, since he thought he would gain their trust and love, which he observed them generously give to each other on so many occasions. He receives further confirmation of how his ugliness repels people when, sometime later, he saves a young girl from drowning and the girl's father shoots at him because he is frightful to look at. The monster quickly realizes that the books really lied to him. He found no benevolence or virtue among humans, even from his creator. At every turn in his life, humans are judging him solely based on his looks. The monster soon realizes that it is not Adam, the perfect being enjoying the world, which he is most alike. Instead, he comes to realize that he most represents Satan. The monster is jealous of the happiness he sees humans enjoy that he has never attained for himself. The monster tells Frankenstein that he found his lab journal in his coat pocket and read it with increasing hate and despair as he came to understand what Frankenstein's intent was in creating him. The monster curses Frankenstein for making a creature so hideous that even his creator turned from him in disgust.
Shelley's intent here is plain to see. "The fate of the monster suggests that proficiency in `the art of language' as he calls it, may not ensure one's position as a member of the `human kingdom." In a sense, she is showing that both her parents were mistaken when they advocated greater education reform for people. They thought education would make people better, which in turn would improve society for all. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein contradicts this belief.
Starting with the full title of Mary Shelley's book, Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus one can instantly see that mythology was integral to her book. Lord Byron, poet and friend of the Shelley's was writing a poem entitled Prometheus, and Mary was reading the Prometheus legend in Aeschylus' works when she had a dream, which was the impetus for her book. The Greek god Prometheus, is known for two important tasks that he performed, he created man from clay, and he stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. The stealing of fire really angered Zeus because the giving of fire began an era of enlightenment for humankind. Zeus punished Prometheus by having him carried to a mountain, where an eagle would pick at his liver; it would grow back each day and the eagle would eat it again.
The presence of fire and light in this gothic story helps to point to the similarities to Prometheus and Victor Frankenstein, the creator of the monster, in Shelley's book. The book uses light as a symbol of discovery, knowledge, and enlightenment. The natural world is full of hidden passages, and dark unknown scientific secrets; Victor's goal as a scientist is to grasp towards the light. Light is a by-product of fire that the monster learned quickly when he is living on his own. The monster experienced fires' duality when he first encountered it in an unattended fire in the woods. He is mesmerized by the fact that fire produces light in the darkness in the woods, but is shocked at the sensation of pain it gives him when he touches it. Victor is defiant of god in the same way that Prometheus was defiant of Zeus. Victor steals the secret of life from god and creates a human out of spare body parts. He does this out of an altruistic wish to spare humankind from the pain and suffering of death. Thus, Victor Frankenstein embodies both aspects of the Promethean myth creation and fire. Victor in a sense has the same experience with the fire of enlightenment similar to his monster; he is "burned" by the fire of enlightenment. Victor also suffers from the classic Greek tragic condition of hubris for his transgression against god and nature.
The book also adopts two other great mythic legends. One is Adam from the Bible. Victor Frankenstein bears striking resemblance to Adam and his fall from grace for eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The other is Satan, a mythic figure that Shelley admired from her readings in Milton's book Paradise Lost. In an interesting juxtaposition of booth myths, she expands on the motif of the fall from grace in her book when she portrays the monster comparing himself to Adam; after he read, Milton's book Paradise Lost. The monster tells Victor, that he at first identifies with Adam God's first creation. "I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence." However, after several incidents of mistreatment that he suffered from the humans he encountered in his travels; the monster soon realized that it is not Adam, the perfect being enjoying the world, which he was most alike. Instead, he came to realize that he most represented Satan. The monster's feelings of hatred and despair stem from the fact that humans found him grotesque to look at and would not accept him as a member of human society. The monster cursed Victor for making a creature so hideous that even his creator turned from him in disgust. Thus, it is obvious for all to see that Shelley's Frankenstein is replete with mythological references and they are central to the plot.
This was required reading for a graduate course in the Humanities. Recommended reading for anyone interested in history, psychology, philosophy, and literature.