The titan Prometheus is most readily pictured chained to a rock with an eagle gnawing daily at his immortal insides - his theoretically eternal punishment for defying Zeus on humanity's behalf. However, the most obvious reference for Frankenstein's subtitle is his depiction in some versions of the Greek myth as mankind's creator as well as its benefactor; Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, has him crafting the bodies of men from clay, before stealing for them the life-giving fire of heaven. The figure of Prometheus is often invoked with a mixture of meanings. Frankenstein's title echoes that applied to Benjamin Franklin in the previous century by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who hailed him as a "Prometheus of modern times" for his famous experiments with electricity (See note to page 24).
The myth of Prometheus has inspired the works of artists and writers for millenia, including the English Romantics. The figure of a heroic rogue, struggling against an oppressive established order in pursuit of divine truth, allowed poets like Shelley and Byron to express their mixed feelings towards the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution. The connection between Prometheus and Napoleon Bonaparte was made not only by Byron himself (see below), but by several satirical cartoonists depicting the leader's downfall (as pictured).
Online edition of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', (1st-century AD)
Online edition of 'Prometheus Unbound', by Percy Bysshe Shelley, (1820)
The book's preface, by Percy Shelley writing from Mary's perspective, originates the legendary 'ghost-story competition' account of Frankenstein's conception. In 1816 the couple had travelled to Switzerland to summer with celebrated philanderer and poet George Byron, along with and at the urging of Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont who was pregnant with his child. Byron rented one 'Villa Diodati' on the scenic shores of Lake Geneva, but worldwide atmospheric disturbance from the volcanic eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia caused an abnormally "cold and rainy" (p.4) season which forced the party to stay indoors and amuse themselves by composing ghoulish horror stories.
Although the preface describes Shelley's novel as the only completed product of the contest, a year later Byron's physician John William Polidori expanded his patron's fragment into a novella of his own - one of the first works to depict The Vampyre as a suave, myserious aristocrat.
A more elaborate account of the contest is given in Mary Shelley's 'Introduction' to the 1831 edition of 'Frankenstein'
Online edition of Lord Byron's 'Fragment of a Novel', (1816)
Online edition of John William Polidori's expansion of it 'The Vampyre', (1819)
Walton's grand ideas concerning the far north are exactly those of his time - the early nineteenth-century saw a surge of speculation and exploration into possible Northern sea-routes allowing swift travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In one of the great examples of wishful thinking clouding scientific judgment, it was argued by some that successful navigation into the region around the North Pole might reveal an open Arctic sea, relatively free of ice, which would provide safe passage along the northern coasts of America and Asia, revolutionising global trade routes.
Covered by shifting ice for much of the year (See note to page 174), the Arctic Ocean's use for commercial shipping was extremely limited, a fact gradually revealed by numerous voyages like Walton's over the years – the Northeast Passage was not fully traversed until Finnish explorer Adolf Nordenskiöld's expedition of 1878. However, some observers claim that global warming is responsible for the Arctic ice-reduction which, in recent years, has made continuous trade through the Northwest and Northeast Passages a realistic possibility.
The British Library's online exhibition of historic attempts to navigate the Northwest Passage
Recent ice-reduction data at geology.com
BBC report on the Northeast Passage's commercial prospects, (2009)
A quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's darkly allegorical Rime of the Ancient Mariner; the tale of a wizened seafarer, whose voyage into the unknown regions of the Antarctic leaves him with a unique insight into the secrets of nature, and a heavy burden of guilt for disturbing them. Coleridge was among the literary men who had visited Mary Shelley's father William Godwin when she was a young girl and, although quoted directly only twice, the poem's influence runs throughout Frankenstein.
Coleridge's chief contribution to his and Wordsworth's seminal anthology Lyrical Ballads (1798), the poem fulfils his goal of heightening the depiction of supernatural situations by maintaining "the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real". This ambition is echoed in the preface to Frankenstein, which sets out the novel's intention "to preserve the truth of the elementary principles of human nature" despite its fantastical subject matter.
Online edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner', (D. Appleton & Co., 1866)
Frankenstein's arranged marriage to his first-cousin Elizabeth Lavenza would not have raised as many eyebrows in 18th-century Switzerland as it does among today's readers, such matches having a long history within noble bloodlines. Their possible degenerative result only became a serious topic of concern towards the end of the 19th century, and remains hotly contested in some quarters. However, the fact that the two are also raised as siblings from a young age makes their relationship socially as well as genetically incestuous. Even in the 1831 edition, in which Shelley severs the lovers' blood ties, the domestic introversion of Victor's relationship with Elizabeth suggests the misguided, self-destructive egotism which defines his character.
Clerval's youthful preference for "books of chivalry and romance" is typical for his time, Orlando Furioso (See note to page 46) and Amadis de Gaula being prime examples of a genre which had been both beloved and maligned throughout the early modern period, associated by many with a reckless idealism in the face of reality. The presence of St. George and Robin Hood on his roster of favourites seems to reflect the popular reading of Mary Shelley's England more than Victor Frankenstein's Geneva.
Online edition of Ariosto's 'Orlando Furioso' as translated and abridged by John Hoole (1791)
Online edition of various ballads concerning 'Robin Hood', compiled and edited as a history by Joseph Ritson (originally published 1795)
Online edition of Montalvo's 'Amadis de Gaula', as translated and abridged by Robert Southey (1803)
Online edition of St. George's entry in Jacobus de Voragine's 'The Golden Legend, or Lives of the Saints', as translated by William Caxton (1483)
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) was a German scholar whose writings blended theology and astrology with an interest in the occult. By the time of the Enlightenment his ideas had been discredited, and his post-mortem reputation tainted by rumours of Faustian occultist practices. Yet, despite his later condemnation by skeptical rationalists, Agrippa's best known work De Occulta Philosophia constitutes an early attempt to explore the same questions of mortality that concerned early nineteenth-century scientists.
Of particular relevance to Frankenstein's experiments are those passages which explore the connections between body and mind, theorising the soul as a force which charges the physical frame; "first infused into the middle point of the heart, which is the center of mans body, and from thence it is diffused through all the parts and members of his body" (Book Three: Chapter xxxvii). Even more suggestive is his theoretical contemplation of necromancy, speculating on the impossible, godlike knowledge which would be needed to discover "by what influences the body may be knit together again for the raising of the dead" (Book Three: Chapter xlii).
Online edition of Cornelius Agrippa's 'De Occulta Philosophia', originally translated by "J.F." (1651)
Online edition of 'The Poetical Works of Robert Southey', containing his 'Cornelius Agrippa' (first published 1799)
Online edition of Mary Shelley's 'The Mortal Immortal', featuring Agrippa as a character (1833)
The experiment performed by Frankenstein's father, and his description of electricity as a 'fluid', are references to the work of American polymath Benjamin Franklin. He conducted a similar experiment in the 1750's to prove that lightning was electrical in nature, his research leading not only to the widespread use of protective lightning rods for tall buildings, but to an explosion of popular interest in the possible applications of electric power. In later editions of the book Frankenstein's electrical education is provided by an anonymous scientific visitor, and this passage includes a telling mention of 'galvanism' (See note to page 38).
Pliny the Elder's 1st-century 'Natural History' is one of the largest ancient Roman works to have survived intact into the modern day. Covering art, zoology, botany and minerology, it constitutes one of the earliest attempts at an encyclopedic catalogue of scientific knowledge. Georges-Louis Leclerc (1707 – 1788), the Comte de Buffon, published his own Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière in thirty-six volumes over four decades. Hugely influential for turn-of-the-nineteenth-century natural philosophy, his work highlighted areas, such as the divisions between species, and enormous age of the earth, which would go on to play an important role in the development of evolutionary theory.
Online edition of Pliny's 'Naturalis Historia', translated by Philemon Holland (1601)
Online edition of Buffon's 'Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière', translated by William Smellie (1780)