The Monster: The Modernization of the Modern Prometheus


Stephen Crane’s novella, The Monster borrows liberally from ideas that are developed in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley’s book is subtitled The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was the Titan that helped Zeus create man out of clay as well as the one who brought fire to man against the will of Zeus. To oversimplify the story of Frankenstein, it is a story of the creation of a man from nonliving component parts very similar to Prometheus’s clay, but cranes reference to Prometheus has more to do with the malleability of the clay in which man was created. Not only is Henry’s faced changed like a lump of clay but his face is changed by fire, the other contribution of Prometheus.

Prometheus was punished by Zeus for giving the fire to man. While man was able to use this fire to cook their food and keep warm they could also hurt themselves with it or use the fire to create metal weapons. And with the new weapons they could kill each other more efficiently. Therefore, fire was considered a modernizing influence on mankind that not only made life easier but also created more dangers to go along with the way that it helped to simplify life.

In cranes novella, electricity is given the place of the dangerous tool of modernization. Electricity allowed for lighting up of darkened spaces, but one of the byproducts of electric lights and electric wiring to a lesser degree is heat. Wiring people’s houses for electricity created a much greater likelihood of fire. But more directly the harnessing of electricity for human use allowed for the creation of new ways to kill each other like the electric chair. So Crane’s reference to Frankenstein is also a roundabout critique of electricity specifically and modernization in general. While Crane’s novella is organized around the modernizing of a small town, the story maintains naturalism’s view of nature as uncaring and dangerous.

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