BMCR 2019.12.39

Frankenstein and Its Classics: The Modern Prometheus from Antiquity to Science Fiction. Bloomsbury studies in classical reception

, , , Frankenstein and Its Classics: The Modern Prometheus from Antiquity to Science Fiction. Bloomsbury studies in classical reception. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. xiv, 273. ISBN 9781350054875. $29.95 (pb).

Comprising twelve essays, Frankenstein and Its Classics is the first scholarly collection dedicated to understanding the extent to which Mary Shelley’s seminal work of fiction and some other works inspired by it draw on ancient Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, and myth. Prometheus is the dominant figure throughout, of course, in no small part because Shelley presented her work as a modern take on the story of the Titan who stole fire and gave it to his lumpish creation, humans. After a mid-sized and pertinent introduction, as well as a brief but important preface, the collection is divided into two parts, each comprising six essays. Ranging from Romantic neoclassicism to contemporary cinema, the scope is pleasingly broad.

The Introduction rehearses the familiar story of the origins of Frankenstein : in the Year without a Summer, 1816, Shelley (still known as Mary Godwin at the time, though already referring to herself as Mrs. Shelley) stayed with her future husband and her stepsister in a small chalet near to Villa Diodati, the temporary home of Lord Byron and his private physician John William Polidori. A recently published collection of ghost stories titled Fantasmagoriana stirred their imaginations, and they began to compose their own gothic tales while whiling away the hours during bouts of bad weather. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron barely managed a fragment between them, while Polidori produced what would be published a few months later as The Vampyre, a novella initially attributed to Byron. Mary Shelley debuted an early version of the Frankenstein story, which was published in its full version on New Year’s Day in 1818. The origin story is often, as it is here, tied with a new turn in the history of Gothic literature – namely, a decisive move towards modern science fiction.

But their communal space, the Villa Diodati, would have meant something else to keen classicists as the authors present were; both Shelleys and Byron were especially keen on Greek literature. John Milton, arguably the greatest Latinate English poet of all time, had a dubious connection with the place. (The family who owned the property was distantly related to the Italian translator Giovanni Diodati, an uncle of Milton’s friend Charles Diodati. Despite the presence of a plaque at the Villa heralding a supposed visit of Milton in 1638, the villa was not built until more than seventy years after his death.) The influence of Paradise Lost on Frankenstein is nevertheless a profound one. After all, the Creature reads Milton’s epic poem along with Plutarch’s Lives, and other tales of humanity’s depravity. Such classical-adjacent sources merit further consideration for a study of this kind – namely a mobilised culture of classicism within and beyond Britain. The Shelleys kept detailed accounts of their reading, with dates and reactions usually recorded. This means a direct case can be made for the relevance of Lucretius, say, when discussing certain passages in Frankenstein. Equally, it reveals the seemingly jumbled way in which they read their classics – Milton alongside Plutarch, and the like. There seems to be a tendency in studies of the afterlives of literary texts to focus largely on the mediating text. But the case of Frankenstein alone suggests that such studies ought to consider the author’s often seemingly shambolic engagement with other materials.

The chief aim of the collection is clearly stated and emphatically achieved: “Our highest goal is to help each reader ask for herself how Frankenstein, some of its sources, and parts of its subsequent traditions all constitute important sites of classical reception” (3). The essays look forward as well as backward, inviting us to consider technocentric futures unimaginable to Shelley and her models. Acknowledging the scholarship that has explored the science fiction dimensions of the novel and its progeny, the essayists provide more focused considerations of classically inflected treatments of such scholarship. After all, only one prominent collection, The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein (2016) has so far considered Shelley’s direct references to ancient materials, most of which are dominated by Prometheus. The present editors rankle against that collection’s editor’s apparent dismissal of the importance of the originary source: “Hesiod, or Ovid, or Virgil do not have a monopoly on the myths they are telling”, writes Timothy Morton (qtd. 4). Morton is thinking of the ways in which a charismatic literary work such as Frankenstein can be invoked in passing. After all, you don’t need to cite Frankenstein to refer to Frankenfoods, Frankenscience, or any other label of that kind. The editors of the present collection propose a different approach altogether: by paying attention to Shelley’s explicit attention to ancient authors we can both clarify and deepen ambiguous, even ambivalent allusions to prior stories.

A case in point is Plutarch, a largely ignored but hardly inconspicuous point of reference in the novel. While Plutarch’s popularity has greatly diminished in our time, so the editors assert, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Lives ranked among the most highly regarded Greco-Roman texts, in both the Creature’s native tongue – French – and in English (six English translations were published between 1710 and 1800 alone). The Creature’s reading of Plutarch serves the novel’s emergent themes. Some of the first words he reads, for instance, come from the life of Theseus, a man who also sought out his father. Tragically but no less fittingly, he will turn to patricide, just like Theseus. (Reading kills, it seems.) The Creature also develops a clear distinction between virtue and vice from his reading of the Life of Alexander. Having a working knowledge of sources such as Plutarch’s Lives doubtless enhances our compassion for the Creature. But this is not to say that the Creature’s understanding of human behaviour is shaped by (to use the editor’s terminology) singular sources in the way in which Morton rejects. Denied kin and companionship, the Creature cannot enact the positive lessons found in Plutarch’s morally complex accounts of notable men. The editors of the present collection are right to amplify the importance of understanding the source material; but the suggestion that the Creature, or Frankenstein and other characters, merely embody such sources fails to account for the failures of reading, or blatant misreading, that pervades the novel. Ironically, when their engagement with the Frankenstein story is closer to Morton’s approach, the editors are on much surer ground. After Plutarch, they jump centuries forward to John Scalzi’s 2006 novel The Ghost Brigades, which centres on a genetically advanced soldier named Jared Dirac. Jared explicitly likens himself to Frankenstein’s Creature, not merely Shelley’s version but every celluloid iteration he can find, and then, beyond that, a long lineage of Pygmalion creations. Scalzi’s work is new to me, so, to my mind, this sort of link is one clear and potent benefit of a wide-ranging study centred not on period surveys, or even on genre, reception and the like, but on the persistence of mythic counterpoints.

Even though the essays themselves are organized roughly in chronological order, there is clearly a strategic focus on thematic connections and shared questions. The first group, “Promethean Heat”, explores Frankenstein ’s engagement with the past, principally events preceding the novel’s composition and publication in the period 1816-18. Of particular interest among this group is an attempt to demonstrate some of the ways in which Shelley transmutes ancient sources, sometimes through other works. Genevieve Lively makes a convincing case for Ovid’s presence in Frankenstein, particularly through George Sandys’s widely read Ovid’s Metamorphosis Englished. There are clear formal parallels, as Lively shows, but more than that: Ovid and Shelley share common narrative strategies, not least of the denial of a happy ending for the creator and the created. Martin Priestman attends to different facets of the Frankenstein story, namely the cinematic tradition popularised by James Whale in 1931. But he raises significant questions that enhance our understanding of what the story is doing with classical sources, most notably: which version of the Promethean myth bears the larger burden of the modern (literary and filmic) reworkings, Hesiod’s or Aeschylus’s?

Andrew M. McClellan, meanwhile, considers Shelley’s engagement with Lucan. Whereas other scholars in the collection make a number of broad connections, McClellan instead compares specific scenes: Frankenstein’s creation scene and, from Lucan’s Bellum civile, an extended episode in which Sextus visits the witch Erichtho, who revivifies a corpse in order to predict the future. In the next chapter, Suzanne L. Barnett takes a whole new approach: she looks at Percy Bysshe Shelley’s role in forming a ‘Romantic Prometheus’, a noble sufferer who endures Jupiter’s wrath with stoic resolution, alongside other contemporary treatments that would have been on Mary Shelley’s radar. Combining the broader intellectual histories of the previous chapters with the close reading of McClellan, this is a particularly effective piece. David A. Gapp’s essay, following this, seems out of place. He revisits the volcanic eruption that led to the so-called ‘Year without a Summer’; but if its position in the collection at this point seems odd, the content is still important, not least in grounding the Frankenstein story within its proper European context. The final chapter in this section, by Matthew Gumpert, connects Frankenstein’s Creature with Hesiod’s parable about the creation of a superlative, superhuman, synthetic artefact. Gumpert’s essay pairs well with Barnett’s: if Frankenstein is the “Modern Prometheus”, then the Creature is a modern Pandora.

The second group, “Hideous Progeny”, looks at the novel’s role in mediating the creative reception of Greco-Roman myth, literature and thought in later works. There is invariably overlap between the distinct parts – and a handful of ongoing concerns recur throughout. But the structuring lends itself to a clear treatment of the novel’s nuanced response to and influence on other works; often the concerns are related, but sometimes not explicitly so. A necessarily brief but potent feature of the book comes at the end: Samuel Cooper’s list of further reading and viewing, ranging from Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823) to the Penny Dreadful television serial (2014-16). Benjamin Eldon Stevens takes a broad yet detailed approach to one of the most iconic scenes of Shelley’s novel: the Creature’s murder of Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s bride, on her wedding night. Stevens usefully places the bedroom tableau in a longer tradition reaching back to the story of Cupid and Psyche as told by Apuleius and extends to the works of Salman Rushdie and others. Embedded with some nuanced close readings of the diverse materials, a brief comparative table that itemises common elements is especially illustrative. Carl A. Rubino also places Shelley’s novel within a longer tradition, though he attends more to intellectual than literary connections. Proustian in spirit, his chapter considers the reverberation of Lucretius’ investigation into the mechanics of the world through Frankenstein, via Newton and Voltaire, and on to Michel Serres, among others. Exploring a quite different view of worldly perception, Neşe Devenot connects the Promethean aspects of the Frankenstein story with the self-mythologization of the psychedelic activist Timothy Leary.

Jesse Weiner, next, heads up a trilogy of essays that attend to the filmic afterlives of Shelley’s novel. In particular, Weiner reads Bill Morrison’s 2010 movie Spark of Being – and Shelley’s novel – as an Ovidian tale of forms changed into new bodies ( Metamorphoses 1.1-2: in nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / corpora). In the next essay, Emma Hammond revisits prior discussion of the Pandora creation myth in an extended response to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015), a prominent example of the ‘ghost in the machine’ theme in modern Science Fiction (SF). In the final chapter, Brett M. Rogers anatomises common features of the ‘Postmodern Prometheus’ in recent SF. Broad in scope, this essay (along with many others in the collection) asks fundamental questions pertinent to modern critical and creative engagements with the ancients’ understanding of humanity and our place in the world. As our relationship with genetic engineering, technoscience and the like deepens, in what ways does our response to Promethean creators shift? Does our intellectual or emotional response to Pandoric creations change? All together, these wide-ranging yet often impressively nuanced essays expand our knowledge of the ways in which the Frankenstein story brings ancient thought to bear on modern concerns in literary, philosophical and cultural terms, and much else besides.

Authors and titles

List of Contributors
List of Illustrations

Introduction: The Modern Prometheus Turns 200, Jesse Weiner, Benjamin Eldon Stevens, and Brett M. Rogers

Part One: Promethean Heat
1. Patchwork Paratexts and Monstrous Metapoetics: “After tea M reads Ovid”, Genevieve Liveley, University of Bristol, UK
2. Prometheus and Dr. Darwin’s Vermicelli: Another Stir to the Frankenstein Broth, Martin Priestman, University of Roehampton, UK
3. The Politics of Revivification in Lucan’s Bellum Civile and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Andrew McClellan, University of Delaware, USA
4. Romantic Prometheis and the Molding of Frankenstein, Suzanne L. Barnett, Francis Marion University
5. Why “The Year without a Summer”? David A. Gapp, Hamilton College, USA
6. The Sublime Monster: Frankenstein, or The Modern Pandora, Matthew Gumpert, Bogaziçi University, Turkey

Part Two: Hideous Progeny
7. Cupid and Psyche in Frankenstein : Mary Shelley’s Apuleian Science Fiction? Benjamin Eldon Stevens, Trinity University, USA
8. “The Pale Student of Unhallowed Arts”: Frankenstein, Aristotle, and the Wisdom of Lucretius, Carl A. Rubino, Hamilton College, USA
9. Timothy Leary and the Psychodynamics of Stealing Fire, Neşe Devenot, University of Puget Sound, USA
10. Frankenfilm: Classical Monstrosity in Bill Morrison’s Spark of Being, Jesse Weiner, Hamilton College, USA
11. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina or The Modern Epimetheus, Emma Hammond, University of Bristol, UK
12. The Postmodern Prometheus and Posthuman Reproductions in Science Fiction, Brett M. Rogers, University of Puget Sound, USA

Other Modern Prometheis: Suggestions for Further Reading and Viewing, Sam Cooper, Bard High School Early Colleges Queens, USA