Playing with fire : Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the rewriting of the Prometheus myth

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

According to Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mortals, either in the form of culture, or by using it to bring to life the clay people he had made. Margaret Homans distinguishes between what she calls literal and figurative creativity (1980:223). The woman who is a mother, creating literally and naturally with her body, and who writes, creating figurative offspring, cultural texts, makes use of the Promethean fire in both of its possible senses. Only the literal, however, is seen by patriarchal culture as her rightful realm. Myth dictates that only men received from Prometheus the fire of figurative creativity, of language. The "woman writer," then, as a kind of contradiction in terms, is forced to suffer the conflict imposed by her choice to create, within the dictates of culture, with both forms of "fire." In the face of this conflict, Alicia Ostriker suggests that the project of women writers should be to rewrite the mythology of patriarchy and, in doing so, take from men their sole possession of the fire of culture, an ownership which empowers them in the same way as it did Zeus, the tyrannical father-god. In her words, women writers should become "thieves of language, female Prometheuses" (1986:211). Women who re-write the Prometheus myth may then be seen as both figuratively revising the theft by re-telling its story, and as literally re-enacting the myth itself by rebelling against the limitations of androcentrism. The "female Prometheus" re-creates the myth, bringing together the definitions of herself as woman and writer in what I argue is a disruptive and positive form of hybridism. Chapter One examines the mythic complex which surrounds the figure of Prometheus, concentrating on the versions by Hesjod, Aeschylus and Ovid, and considers the implications of its appropriation and revision by women writers. Chapters Two and Three analyse the way in which two nineteenth century women, Mary Shelley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, rewrote the myth. Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, presents two Promethean figures - the scientist and the monster - and so embodies the ambivalence of its author. Barrett Browning translated Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound twice, and then wrote Aurora Leigh, a hybrid novel-poem in which the central character is female, a writer and Promethean. I argue that both succeeded, in different ways, in liberating language from the limitations of the patriarchal symbolic, so carrying out a theft of linguistic "fire," the act recognised by Shaftesbury as a ''Breach of Omnipotence."

Bibliography: pages xiv-xx.