The original, complete title of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. We all know what Frankenstein is, although many of our conceptions are wrong (seeing the creature as Frankenstein, for example, or thinking that the community rises up and destroys the creature as a way to defend itself, popular misconceptions derived from film versions, particularly the 1931 Boris Karloff version). Yet we don’t know much at all about Prometheus, the other half of the title. The title itself tells us that Frankenstein, the doctor, not the monster, is the modern Prometheus, but what does this analogy mean?
A great essay would compare Frankenstein with the Prometheus myths and explore how Mary Shelley reconceives the Prometheus myth to create a modern Prometheus. As Harriet Hustis points out, there are two primary versions of the Prometheus myth: Hesiod’s The Works and Days and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. Hesiod’s version portrays Prometheus as a trickster while Aeschylus sees Prometheus as someone working to help humankind. However, there are many treatments of the material, from Sappho to Aesop (yes, as in the Fables).
If you’re not familiar with Prometheus at all, you have probably at least heard the idea of “stealing fire from heaven.” That’s Prometheus. But it goes beyond that simple description. In Hesiod, Prometheus is a trickster who challenges Zeus, but in other versions, such as Aeschylus, he is the savior of mankind. Zeus actually wanted to destroy humankind and create his own humanity, but Prometheus stole life and fire back from Zeus and allowed humankind to live on.
Prometheus was the son of two powerful Titans, yet he helped Zeus and the other children of Cronus–the Olympians–overthrow the terrible mad Titan king, their own father, Cronus. But Prometheus took pity on humankind after seeing that Zeus would destroy them. In some accounts, Prometheus actually created mankind out of clay, gave them civilization through writing and science, and then allowed them to live by stealing fire back from Zeus.
His punishment for defying Zeus, though, was to be chained to a rock, his liver eaten by a giant eagle over and over again, every day.
Mary Shelley sees Frankenstein as Prometheus, the man who steals the secrets to create life and puts himself in place of the creator, God. He creates life, but it leads to disastrous consequences. The very name of Frankenstein when used as an adjective describes the creation of something that gets out of control and and becomes destructive or that is used for destructive purposes.
But we can now move into something even more interesting, how Ridley Scott uses these same concepts in his 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus. There, we see the creation of life at the beginning. The aliens (the apparently good ones, not the evil alien creatures from the first movies) create mankind. They cannot foresee what will happen, however. They cannot see how destructive mankind will become. But the destructiveness of mankind really isn’t the issue. Instead, the movie focuses on the aliens (again, the good ones) as versions of Prometheus. They continue to play the creator role as they experiment and create the other lifeforms, the typical aliens from the first movies. They create the aliens as a type of weapon, but the creations become too powerful and eventually overcome them. Their creations–the aliens from the original Alien movies–destroy their creators.
But then humankind comes along and meddles yet again in the affairs of these gods, and then humans have to destroy the created aliens over and over again. In a sense, the never-ending alien franchise is the punishment of Prometheus himself. The alien creatures (from the first Alien moves) are implanted inside humans and then gestate and presumably eat their hosts before they burst out. It apparently keeps happening, too. First, there is the movie Prometheus (the prequel, after all), then it happens again in Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), and Alien: Resurrection (1997), not to mention the Aliens vs. Predator franchise. Aspects of the Prometheus myths are all over the place, from the creation of life, to the dangers of science and experimentation, to eternal punishment, as the creatures are seemingly immortal.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus teaches us about the destructive powers of science, and Ridley Scott’s film franchise continues this theme by again and again showing how creating life can lead to destruction. And humankind’s punishment is felt even now, hundreds of years before the events in the films take place, as we are subjected to more and more films in the franchise, where each one seems worse then the one before, although Prometheus, admittedly, wasn’t that bad.