Mary Shelley published “Frankenstein” in 1818. There is something related to this book that we do not pay attention: the complete title of it. The title is “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus”. In what meaning the author used the word “modern”?
Prometheus was the greek myth that created the human being from clay and stole the divine fire from the gods (varying with the version:Hyperion, or Apolo, or Zeus) to give it to mankind, to make them intelligent. In some versions Prometheus is punished by Zeus because of this. In some other versions he is punished because he mocked Zeus when offering a sacrifice. Anyway, the myth of Prometheus is an emblematic symbol of audacity and at the same time of punishement.
Mary Shelley was influenced by her father William Godwin, a philosopher and writer, who was influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution. The house of Godwin was visited by writers, thinkers, scholars, scientists (the word “scientist” would be created only in 1834 by Whewell), in an environment that was perceived by Mary.
Science was starting to grow in society at the same time that people like Percy Shelley (husband of Mary), were enthusiastic by the possibilities to dominate nature by Science. Others, like Mary’s father, did not have that same confidence.
In the beginning of the XIXth century, chemistry and mainly electricity seemed to be powerfull tools of Science.
Mary Shelley lived a kind of ambiguity between the ideas of her father and her husband, but she put some caractheristics of Percy in the personage of the failing scientist Frankenstein. This point can indicate that she was also not too confident in an optimistic view about the power of science over the nature.
Looking to the book by a larger context, when Shelley uses the word “modern” she do not express an “optimistic” or “positive” sense, but a kind of defeat, or a lost humanity, because everything went wrong after Frankenstein created “the Creature”. It is interesting that, outside the book, the unnominated Creature got the name of its creator and the creator became just a caricature of the “mad scientist”.
The “ancient” Prometheus was forgiven by Zeus, after his penance on the Caucasus mountain, but maybe it was not the same with the “modern” Prometheus of Shelley. He did not follow the Aristotle idea that “the whole is more than the sum of the parts”, idea that it is possible to apply to "human being" in the place of the word "whole". The Creature was a sum of parts of men’s bodys, but it did not make a human being as a whole.
Symbolically, Mary Shelley’s use of “modern” can express a perception of what was going on in the world, seeing the menace of science, and maybe the menace of industrial revolution to society.
Maybe the Pendulum of History of 200 years can remember and warn us that “modern” and its derivatives doesn’t have necessarily the meaning of “the better for all” or “the better for us”.
And it can also show us that the “conscience of modern” as an ambiguous or dangerous thing is not new. Today several artworks express also this feeling about the power of Science.
Maybe, as "modern", "postmodern" is also ambiguous...