Allusion in Frankenstein
Genesis: In the Bible, the book of Genesis tells the Judeo-Christian creation myth. In it, God creates Adam, the first man, and then God then creates animals to keep Adam company. God soon realizes that Adam needs a creature that matches his intelligence, so he creates Eve, the first woman, out of Adam’s rib. Adam and Eve live in paradise but are forbidden from eating from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. However, Satan convinces Eve to eat an apple from the tree, causing both Adam and Eve to fall from grace. Similarly, Frankenstein’s creature requests a mate from his maker to match his hideous physical appearance. In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein represents an indifferent, neglectful god who creates a life and then abandons it to a cruel world. This can be interpreted as commentary on the Genesis story, as God creates beings, allows them to be tempted, and then casts them into a cruel world for defying expectations. The allusion to Genesis also touches on the theme of a fall from grace that affects every character in the novel.
Prometheus: In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus creates humanity. To help his creations progress, he steals fire from the gods and gives it to humans against Zeus’s wishes. This fire sparks industry and a loss of innocence for this race. Zeus punishes Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and sending an eagle to eat his liver every day. The subtitle for this Shelley’s Frankenstein is the phrase “or the Modern Prometheus.” Frankenstein is the “modern Prometheus” who steals god’s power to create life. For stealing this power, he is punished, much like Prometheus is punished for stealing fire from the gods.
Paradise Lost: Written in 1667, Paradise Lost is John Milton’s epic poem. It consists of 12 books and details the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The first two books focus on Satan and his host directly after they are thrown into hell for rebelling against God. In this story, Satan is given motivations that explain his decision to challenge God. His pride and vanity make him believe that he would be a better ruler in heaven. The creature in Shelley’s Frankenstein often compares himself to the “Arch-fiend.” However, readers should question whether or not Frankenstein actually represents Satan and the insolent pride that makes him believe he could be God.
Allusion Examples in Frankenstein:
"Prometheus..." See in text (Letter I)
In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. Fire was forbidden to humans, and because of this crime, Zeus chained Prometheus to a mountaintop for eternal torture. Shelley subtitles her novel The Modern Prometheus because of Victor's thirst for forbidden knowledge, his eventual ability to create life, and his miserable consequences; in a sense, this makes him Shelley’s Prometheus.
"I am going to unexplored regions, to “the land of mist and snow;” but I shall kill no albatross; ..." See in text (Letter II)
This is a direct reference to Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a lengthy poem considered to be one of the first of the romantics. The main character of that poem, also a sea captain exploring the Arctic (“the land of mist and snow”), encounters misfortune, including a ruined ship and starved crew, after killing an albatross. Similarly to Frankenstein, the mariner’s story is a frame story, where the mariner recounts his story to a narrator. In referencing it, Walton shows that he is well read, despite his worries of self-education—and that he seeks to reassure his sister that a similar fate will not befall him.
"“Ancient Mariner.”..." See in text (Letter II)
This is an allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1798 poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In this poem, the Mariner kills an albatross during a sea voyage. The albatross symbolizes all of God's creatures, and sailors consider the bird a symbol of good luck. Killing the albatross curses the entire ship. Walton assures Margaret of his safety by claiming that he will not return as the “Ancient Mariner.”
"heroes of Roncesvalles, of the Round Table of King Arthur, and the chivalrous train who shed their blood to redeem the holy sepulchre from the hands of the infidels...." See in text (Chapter II)
Henry Clerval was fascinated by historical tales of heroism. He drew inspiration from a number of historical sources. These included soldiers of the Battle of Roncesvalles who sacrificed themselves for the salvation of their comrades. The knights of King Arthur’s Round Table also demonstrated legendary bravery in battle. Lastly, the holy sepulchre refers to Jesus Christ’s burial site, of which the crusaders attempted to recover from the Turks. All three of these historical references in some way or another exalt bravery and courage over cowardice and excessive pride. Their inclusion here may be seen as an ironic foreshadowing of Frankenstein’s fate.
"Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Frankenstein’s desire to bring “light into our dark world” reveals him to be like the Greek Titan Prometheus, who first gave fire to humanity and betrayed the will of the gods. For this, Prometheus was punished. We’ll soon see the consequences of Frankenstein’s actions. Furthermore, words like “break” and “torrent” reveal how Frankenstein’s violent impulses and lofty dreams are typical of romantic heroes. Since he has a heightened comprehension of the world, he must exist outside society, isolated in his pursuit.
"I was like the Arabian who had been buried with the dead, and found a passage to life, aided only by one glimmering, and seemingly ineffectual, light...." See in text (Chapter IV)
This allusion refers to a story from the anthology of Arabian tales A Thousand and One Nights. In one particular tale, Sinbad escapes from his wife’s tomb, in which he had been interred by villains. This allusion to an Arabian tale, rather than a European one, serves as an important cross-cultural reference. Finding this “passage to life” serves as motivation for Frankenstein and, therefore, the plot of the novel. Romantics were often fascinated by Arabian stories and culture because they considered it exotic. That Shelley grounds the pivotal moments in this novel with allusions to Arabian tales supports the themes of romanticism throughout the tale.
"it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived...." See in text (Chapter V)
Frankenstein alludes to the Italian Renaissance-era poet Dante Alighieri. In his three-book epic, the Divine Comedy, Dante writes of a journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Frankenstein is specifically alluding to Inferno, the first book of the epic, in which Dante describes the cast of demonic figures populating hell — including all manner of monster, beast and devil.
"“Like one who, on a lonely road, Doth walk in fear and dread, And, having once turned round, walks on, And turns no more his head; Because he knows a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread.”..." See in text (Chapter V)
Shelley is referring to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s [“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”] (https://www.owleyes.org/text/rime-ancient-mariner) to depict Victor’s situation and feelings. Figuratively, Victor walks on a “lonely road” in the story, since he is the only one who knows about his own wrongful act; he is alone in fearing and dreading the consequences of his actions. At the same time, it is too late for Victor to turn back or to fix the messy situation because his creation, “a frightful fiend” is hunting him down.
"Ariosto gives concerning the beauty of Angelica..." See in text (Chapter VI)
This is an allusion to the poem “Orlando Furioso” by Ludovico Ariosto. In it, a beautiful woman Angelica attracts anyone who sees her because her beauty is so stunning and pure.
"I gnashed my teeth,..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
This phrasing is likely an allusion to the biblical gospels, in which sinners react to their final judgments by painfully grinding their teeth. Though Victor has not yet been fully punished for his arrogance, one part of his sentence has already been handed down: the death of the innocent Justine.
"Pandæmonium..." See in text (Chapter XI)
It is interesting that the creature chooses to compare his homey hut to Satan’s Pandemonium. This might suggest that the creature thinks of himself as a type of wicked creature, such as a devil. The creature sees his first days as similar to burning on a lake of fire—a punishment fit for the devil who rebelled against God. However, at this point in the story the creature has not done anything befitting of this extreme punishment. Rather, his creator abandoned him to a world that believes his is terrifying and hideous. This allusion to Milton demonstrates the creature’s self-hatred and Frankenstein’s cruelty to his creation.
"it presented to me then as exquisite and divine a retreat as Pandæmonium appeared to the dæmons of hell after their sufferings in the lake of fire..." See in text (Chapter XI)
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Books I & II detail the fall of Satan and his followers after they lose the war against god in heaven. They are cast onto a burning lake of fire where they experience torturing pain and suffering. Satan and some of his chief lieutenants drag themselves out of the lake and build a great palace called Pandemonium. Within Pandemonium, the devils plot their revenge against heaven.
"I tried, therefore, to dress my food in the same manner, placing it on the live embers...." See in text (Chapter XI)
Notice how the creature quickly learns how to use tools and sustain himself with the fire. This interaction with the fire symbolizes the birth of his intelligence. It also alludes to the story of Prometheus in which humanity’s civilization and knowledge was able to grow after the titan god gave them forbidden fire.
"I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars..." See in text (Chapter XI)
In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a titan god who created humanity. To help his creations build civilization and grow, Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity against Zeus’s will. As punishment, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock and sent an eagle to pluck out his liver every day. The creature’s encounter with fire symbolizes his growing humanity and emerging intelligence.
"Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me...." See in text (Chapter XV)
In his reading of Paradise Lost, the creature considers which fallen figure he most nearly resembles. He does not associate with Adam, for Adam was made beautiful and was given a home. The creature then feels a closer association to Lucifer, who is, like him, gripped by envy and bitterness. In many ways, however, Victor Frankenstein is more akin to Lucifer than his creature. While Frankenstein has committed the satanic sin of pride by imitating the divine act of creation, his creature has done no such act. While Victor and the creature would both consider themselves to be wholly different from each other, the question of how each resembles Lucifer provides one way for considering how they are also alike.
"Sorrows of Werter..." See in text (Chapter XV)
The Sorrows of Werter, usually translated from the German as The Sorrows of Young Werther, is a 1774 novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The novel, which details the romantic yearnings of a young man, was a widely popular work in its time. The writers of the romantic era were particularly moved by the novel, whose influences can be seen in Frankenstein. Like Shelley’s novel, Werther employs an epistolary style and centers on an emotionally turbulent young man.
"Plutarch's Lives..." See in text (Chapter XV)
Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, often referred to as Plutarch’s Lives, is a non-fiction work written by the Roman historian Plutarch in the early 2nd century CE. The Lives is a series of biographies of important figures from the classical world, including Romulus, Caesar, and Alexander the Great. While Paradise Lost introduced the creature to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Plutarch’s Lives introduced him to the Greco-Roman tradition.
"Paradise Lost..." See in text (Chapter XV)
Paradise Lost is an epic poem written by the English poet John Milton in 1667. The central theme of Paradise Lost is the archetypal fall from grace, a mythic pattern which plays out in Frankenstein. In Paradise Lost, Lucifer experiences a fall when God casts him out of heaven for his pride. Lucifer then tempts Adam and Eve into a fall from grace when he appears in Eden. Nearly every important character in Frankenstein undergoes a unique fall.
"like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me..." See in text (Chapter XVI)
This is an allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost. In the first book, Satan realizes that heaven and hell are within him with his famous lines: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” This line suggests that heaven is not objectively perfect and hell is not objectively horrible; the state of the place depends on one’s perception. The creature cannot find peace or beauty in nature because his rage colors his perspective. Like Satan, the creature’s anger and envy turn this paradise into hell.
"I will watch with the wiliness of a snake, that I may sting with its venom...." See in text (Chapter XX)
The creature’s identification with Satan becomes more concrete when he likens himself to a “snake, that I may sting with its venom.” The snake, form Satan takes as tempter in the Garden of Eden, is the symbolic of humanity’s fall. The creature hopes to take vengeance on humanity in a similar manner.
"I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects. From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how am I sunk!..." See in text (Chapter XXIV)
In this passage, Frankenstein likens himself to the ancient Greek mythological figure of Icarus. Given a pair of wings by his father, Dædalus, Icarus flies off over the sea. Enraptured by the godlike gift of flight, Icarus flies so close to the sun that the wings catch fire and melt, sending him crashing into the sea to drown. Each element of Icarus’s flight—the lofty flight, the burning, the sinking fall—are reflected in the language of this passage. Both Icarus and Frankenstein are humans guilty of hubris, the sin of excessive pride.