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English 401-Advanced Composition

Women in Frankenstein
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Women In Frankenstein

 

            Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, believed that women should be treated as equals and said as much in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; therefore, it is hard to imagine how Mary Shelley, daughter of one of the leading feminists during the Romantic era, managed to write such a horrific novel that is devoid of any strong female leads.  The theme of Frankenstein could actually stem from the fact that, even though men are the main characters, it is full of mistakes they make; therefore, Shelley is making a truly feminist point by stating that women are the real backbone of society. 

At first it appears Shelley is demoralizing women by using men as her primary focus.  The women seem to matter very little because the narrator, Robert Walton is male; as is the main character of Victor Frankenstein.  The novel also includes Victor’s father, Alphonse Frankenstein; his brothers, William and Ernest; his best friend, Henry Clerval; the crew of Walton’s ship, and the monster that Victor creates, all of which are male.  Throughout the novel, everything that is spoken by a female is related by one of the male characters. 

During the time Shelley was writing Frankenstein, females were considered to be lower class citizens in relation to their male counterparts.  They were seen as possessions for men, protected by men, and only useful in order to carry out their duties of daughter, sister, mother, and wife.  It was unheard of for them to complain or even act as if their lives were not perfect.  Shelley did a wonderful job of portraying women of this era, but what is so ironic is that although their role may seem insignificant due to their lack of any leading roles, they are truly the main focus of Shelley’s gothic work of art, and she used the work of her mother and other feminists’ to exemplify her ideas.  Shelley used Caroline Frankenstein, Justine Moritz, Elizabeth Lavenza, Safie, Mrs. Saville, and even the female monster that Victor begins to create, as the backbone of what is considered one of the first science fiction genre novels of its time.

            Caroline Frankenstein is portrayed as the perfect daughter, wife, and mother.  This is evident in that she is the daughter of Beaufort, Alphonse Frankenstein’s best friend.  Caroline works to support her father who has fallen ill and nurses him until his death.  This displays the qualities of nurturer, gentle and selfless, as she puts the needs of her father before her own. 

After her father dies, Alphonse rescues her from the middle of nowhere where she has been left to fend for herself, almost making her out to be a damsel in distress, weak, and unable to care for herself.  He sends her to live with family to take care of her until she is old enough for him to marry.  It is obvious that she is given no role in her life except that of daughter to Beaufort, followed by wife to Alphonse, and then as Victor’s loving mother.  She was known to be kindhearted and caring toward her children as she found Elizabeth in an orphanage, and took her home to adopt her into the Frankenstein family. 

The role of caregiver and motherly self-sacrifice is evident when Elizabeth becomes ill.  While Caroline takes care of Elizabeth, she contracts scarlet fever and subsequently dies.  Caroline was a beautiful, modest, and feminine character who was portrayed as being too frail as to carry the story on her own, but it is Victor who describes and talks about his mothers attributes, not allowing her the chance to show her true strength.

Elizabeth Lavenza was the orphaned child who was rescued from a family in Italy and adopted by the Frankenstein family.  She is described as “…fairer than pictured cherub” (p. 34); the ideal sister, cousin and future wife to Victor.  Upon her adoption by the Frankenstein’s, Caroline states to Victor that, "I have a pretty present for my Victor -- tomorrow he shall have it" (p. 35). Instead of looking on Elizabeth as a sibling or playmate, Victor said that he believed she was “mine to protect, love, and cherish”, (p. 35) almost like a possession.  Her physical features were more detailed as it was explained that, “Her brow was clear and ample, her blue eyes cloudless and her lips and the moulding of her face so expressive of sensibility and sweetness that none could behold her without looking on her as of a distinct species, a being heaven-sent, and bearing a celestial stamp in all her features” (p. 34). This is a befitting tribute to the sight of her, but not who she really was.                      

Elizabeth is probably the most passive of all the female characters found in this novel.  She was told, as Caroline was dying, that "my firmest hopes of future happiness were placed on the prospect of your union (to Victor). This expectation will now be the consolation of your father. Elizabeth, my love, you must supply my place to my younger children. Alas! I regret that I am taken from you; and, happy and beloved as I have been, is it not hard to quit you all? But these are not thoughts befitting me; I will endeavour to resign myself cheerfully to death, and will indulge a hope of meeting you in another world” (p. 42). Elizabeth was given no choice as to who she could love or marry.  Her only noble act was when she stood up for Justine’s innocence after being accused of killing Victor’s brother, but even Elizabeth could not stop her execution.  Elizabeth was also very passive, was the only person who could bring joy to Victor by marrying him and being his lifelong companion, but died because of her relationship to Victor. 

            The final female that provides any sustenance to the novel would be Justine Moritz, who was taken in by the Frankenstein family and served as their loving and faithful servant.  Justine goes from being “…clever and gentle and extremely pretty” (p. 64) to a monster in the eyes of society when she is falsely accused and executed for the murder of William Frankenstein.  She, like Elizabeth, could have been saved by Victor but instead states that, “Ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster he said I was.” (p. 83). Although she confessed to a crime that she did not commit because she was pressured by a man, she accepted her fate saying, "I do not fear to die, that pang is past. I leave a sad and bitter world; and if you remember me, and think of me as of one unjustly condemned, I am resigned to the fate awaiting me.  Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of Heaven!" (p. 83, 84). This is another example of the passive women of this era.

            The only other females in this novel, who have no true purpose, would include Safie and Mrs. Saville.  Safie is a foreign woman who the monster observes with the DeLacy family.  He learns to speak from listening to her and when he is discovered by them, they run him off.  Mrs. Saville, Robert Walton’s sister, is the recipient of the letters describing all that Victor has told him about his life and the creation of the monster. 

The explanation for the lack of leading females in the novel can be further explored by the fact that Victor tries to take females out of the equation altogether by creating his own person, without the need for reproduction in the natural sense.  He is playing God, which gives many biblical allusions because God created woman from man and intended for future children to come from this union.

…But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.  23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman, for she was taken out of man." 24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

           This causes a moral dilemma of natural reproduction versus man produced, and makes you feel like Victor wanted to play God by ridding the world of the weaker sex, trying to make women obsolete.  After giving life to the monster, Victor is appalled and wished he had never done so.  The monster only wanted a mate to give him company and to share his life and pain with, but he was resigned to ask, “Was I then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?” (p. 115).  He knew that he was different and destined to live and die alone, yet all he asked was that Victor, “…must create a female for me with whom I can live…” (p. 138). 

Victor initially agreed to create a mate, but grew terrified that “…she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness” (p. 158).  He then destroys the female creature, breaking his promise to the monster.  The monster exclaimed, “Shall each man find a wife for his bosom, and each beast have his mate, and I be alone?” (p. 160). This set forth a further string of revenge against Victor’s friends and family, that started with William Frankenstein and ended when the monster claimed “…I shall be with you on your wedding-night” (p. 161).  The monster knows that he will spend the rest of his days alone, but wants to make sure that Victor suffers as much as he will, extracting his ultimate revenge by killing Elizabeth on her and Victor’s honeymoon. 

Neither Victor, nor his creation, ever spoke of wanting a mate for comfort and companionship, but instead Victor told his father, concerning Elizabeth that she, “…excited…my warmest admiration and affection” (p. 144). This is also reminiscent as Elizabeth sat at home and waited for Victor to come back from his excursions.

            Although women during this time period were considered pure, innocent, kind but powerless, submissive, passive, believed to be unable to function on their own in public, and are silent throughout the novel; not speaking directly, but having everything they say told through a man such as Victor to Walton, Walton to his sister through his letters, and the monster to Walton; it is proven through this novel to be untrue. 

Woman is the ultimate companion for Victor and the monster, and represents comfort and acceptance, which neither has experienced and never will.  Victor went back on his promise to create a female mate for the monster, so the monster extracts his revenge by taking away all of the females who are linked to Victor. 

Shelley gave the initial feeling that she endorsed the fact that women are inferior to men, but upon further reading, research, and contemplation, it is obvious she used Caroline, Justine, Elizabeth, and her other female to uphold her mother’s beliefs and teachings that men and women are equal and should be treated as such. Supposedly the history of feminism did not begin to incur until the nineteenth century, although it is evident that Mary Shelley took the cue from her mother’s earlier writings as far back as the eighteenth century, believing that equality must exist in order for the world to continue to evolve.  It has taken hundreds of years, but women have made great strides in gaining this equality, thanks to the literary writing of women like Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley. 

Bibliography:

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. (New York: Signet Classic, 1978).

Danrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, The Romantics and their Contemporaries. 3rd Ed. 2A. (New York: Longman Publishers for Pearson Education, 2006.      

Holy Bible. New International Version. Genesis 2:20-24. http://www.biblegateway.com