Lord Byron, arguably one of the greatest writers of the Romantic period, gave literature himself. Not his actual work, but rather his personality, his actual self. Not to say that his work is invalid, and in fact some of it continues to inform on that literary construct known as the Byronic hero. He was likable, but aloof, proud and strong, but moody and cynical. He was clever man and well read, but also jaded and world weary. He was introspective and a little more than self-destructive. He was something the Victorians would delight in: a plethora of dualities.
In an interesting contrast, the story that taught the most what a Byronic hero might have been was Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The story of a man so arrogant he created something new, yet so ancient that it defied the laws of nature; a man who was immediately repulsed by the staggering meaning of his long work that then has to deal with what he wrought upon the world. Victor Frankenstein found life where before there had been none. He was a pioneer and very aware of it. He was the first man to do what no other man before had managed: become a god.
Victor is a proud man, but not when he is introduced to the reader. He is broken, world weary and needing to tell his tale after a long pursuit of his creation across the Northern tundra. As he relates his entire story to the explorer, Captain Robert Walker, he begins with his ideal childhood. After some time he comes to his young adulthood, as he finds himself in the exciting world of academia at The University of Ingolstadt. Here we find Victor at his most arrogant as he passes judgement on fellow students and professors alike. He seems to be well liked in general, but it is obvious which other people he sees as beneath his intellectual level. He finds himself entranced by ancient science, science that has been completely refuted by his modern practices, but still he sees something of merit there. He suggests if he had been warned before reading them of their useless nature, he might never have poured himself into them. He finds a professor that rekindles that interest and the grand experiment begins, resulting in a Promethean sin.
As novel as the Byronic hero is in the Romantic age, it too is still an ancient archetype. In Greek myth the arrogant, yet sullen hero is almost abundant. One need only look as far as Mary Shelly’s extended title for her novel, The Modern Prometheus, and see one of the first. Prometheus was a Titan, the race that spawned the more well known gods of Greek myth, such as Zeus or Poseidon. Prometheus is most well known for having bestowed the knowledge of fire to humanity. This angered the gods, as they had forbade doing so, and Zeus sentenced the Titan to an eternity of being chained to a rock while an eagle came each day to eat his ceaselessly regrowing liver. Shelly is focusing on the suffering of Prometheus with Dr. Frankenstein’s life. He begins well off, with the world at his finger tips, and ends up in an unending hell of his own making. Victor is like Prometheus in that he brings the light of life, on the surface, but it is often forgotten that Prometheus did what he did out of love for his own creation. In Greek myth Prometheus made man from clay, he was the originator of the race. Like Prometheus Frankenstein brought life to a new race, a fact not lost on the troubled physician, nor to his creator author, Shelly.