FRANKENSTEIN AND ITS CLASSICS: The Modern Prometheus from Antiquity to Science Fiction

Edited by Jesse Weiner, Benjamin Eldon Stevens and Brett M. Rogers

Bloomsbury (2018) p/b 273pp £21.99 (ISBN 9781350054875)

This fascinating and accessible collection of essays takes the opportunity offered by the bicentennial of Frankenstein’s original publication to look both back and forward. The first volume to focus specifically on Frankenstein’s classical receptions, it is also an invitation to think about our own possible techno-scientific futures. It raises important questions about the role of the Humanities, and indeed, on an even grander scale, what it means to be human: ‘If ancient classics continue to form part of our ‘humanities’, then how might they be read as the definition of ‘humanity’ undergoes techno-scientific change?’ (12) And like all good Classical Reception studies, it asks the question that works two ways: ‘How do Greek and Roman myth, literature, and philosophy inform Frankenstein, and how might Frankenstein work to reanimate our modern readings of ancient classics?’ (3)

In its organisation, too, the volume works with multiple chronologies. Many of the chapters, particularly those in the first section ‘Promethean Heat’, focus on Frankenstein’s engagement with the past: with the author’s own past, with the literary and intellectual context of the novel, and with ancient literature. Other chapters, many in the second part ‘Hideous Progeny’, then consider the role Frankenstein has played as mediator in the reception of antiquity in later works. The book is rightly billed as having wide appeal: ‘for readers of Frankenstein and the traditions it has inspired, for viewers of the many film versions and adaptations, and for scholars and students of Classics, SF studies, Romanticism, and more—to explore some of the ancient roots of MWS’s paradigmatically “modern” monster’ (14). 

For the classically interested reader, I offer here just a few examples of those ‘ancient roots’. The Promethean connection is of course the most evident, right from the novel’s subtitle. Martin Priestman’s chapter shows that Frankenstein is informed by multiple versions of the Prometheus myth: from Hesiod, to Aeschylus, to Ovid—to their revival in the scientific setting of the late 18th century. This connection between the ancient world and concerns contemporary with Mary Shelley is also at the centre of Andrew McClellan’s chapter, which traces the theme of revivification through Lucan’s Bellum Civile and writings about the French Revolution and Napoleon. In their introduction, the editors put forward ‘the case of Plutarch’ (5-9): ‘the second-most prominent’ example of classical influence on Frankenstein, and ‘the single most direct classical influence on the Creature himself’ (5), but one often overlooked in treatments of the novel. The Parallel Lives include stories of the origins of society: compellingly apposite for a Creature in search of his own origins. And the ‘parallel lives’ of the ancient lawgivers and the peaceable De Laceys teach the Creature the importance of membership in a socio-political community (even though the Creature will ultimately mirror not Solon and Lycurgus, but Theseus and Romulus at their most murderous). 

From the perspective of classical reception, the contributions of Genevieve Liveley and Benjamin Eldon Stevens stand out, as they use documentary evidence (journals, letters) to show that Mary Shelley was working closely with classical texts: Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the one case, Apuleius’ Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass in the other. The use of ‘patchwork paratexts’ (to quote from Liveley’s title) adds a depth to these reception studies, taking its cue from Mary Shelley’s own words. 

One strength of the volume that the editors do not, to my mind, emphasise enough, is its appeal for readers interested in gender studies or female agency. The opening anecdote sets the scene: a ghost-story competition amongst friends, from which Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein emerged, whilst the attempts of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron did not get off the ground. That the paratexts prove Mary Shelley’s knowledge of the classical languages is important in setting her alongside her male contemporaries. The gendered reading is central to two chapters that turn Frankenstein’s subtitle, the hinge of the volume, on its head: Matthew Gumpert’s ‘The sublime monster: Frankenstein, or “The Modern Pandora”’, and Emma Hammond’s ‘Alex Garland’s Ex Machina or The Modern Epimetheus’. The first equates Frankenstein’s Creature with Pandora—a synthetic, and sublimely beautiful, creation. This chapter is exemplary in its bi-directionality, not only changing our reading of Frankenstein but also setting the canonical poetry of Hesiod in a different light. The second again returns to Hesiod, and to Pandora: as a cyborg, ‘the ghost in the machine who haunts “creature”-creation narratives in the Western canon’ (190)—even the ancient paradigm for passing the Turing test.

Dr Lilah Grace Canevaro

The University of Edinburgh

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