“Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist, and William Godwin, a progressive and an anarchist who raised her with values which advocated social justice and reform. One might thus expect Shelley’s writing to be alive with strong female personalities and feminist ideas.”
Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist, and William Godwin, a progressive and an anarchist who raised her with values which advocated social justice and reform. One might thus expect Shelley’s writing to be alive with strong female personalities and feminist ideas. In Frankenstein, however, both the presence of women and their depth of character are limited. Throughout the novel, women play a decidedly secondary role, even to the extent that its very premise is about bypassing the most important biological function of the female.
All of the main characters in Frankenstein are male, and all female characters occupy surprisingly passive roles; even Elizabeth Lavenza, one of the people dearest to Victor Frankenstein, is not spared this treatment. Fostered by a poor, Italian family as a toddler, Elizabeth is adopted and introduced as a “pretty present” for Frankenstein, who “interpret[s] [these] words literally and look[s] upon Elizabeth as [his] — [his] to protect, love, and cherish… till death she [is] to be [his] only” (37). It seems that Elizabeth comes close to accepting this relationship herself, growing up to care more about Frankenstein’s well-being and happiness than her own; she writes to him, “But it is your happiness I desire as well as my own when I declare to you that our marriage would render me eternally miserable unless it were the dictate of your own free choice… if you obey me in this one request, remain satisfied that nothing on earth will have the power to interrupt my tranquillity” (192). She is willing to sacrifice marrying the person she loves if it will make him in any way unhappy. Although selfless, Elizabeth’s prioritization of Frankenstein over herself is extreme, as is Frankenstein’s own self-absorption. Upon returning from England, haunted by the death of Clerval and the monster’s threat, he finds that Elizabeth is “thinner, and [has] lost much of that heavenly vivacity that had before charmed” (194). However, he expresses no concern, maintaining that her “compassion [makes] her a more fit companion for one blasted and miserable as [he is]” (194). This lack of consideration for his soon-to-be-wife, and indeed his satisfaction that she has also suffered, is telling of their relationship, one between a dominant man and a submissive woman. Before their marriage, Frankenstein decides that he will finally tell Elizabeth about the monster, but only once they are husband and wife:
I have one secret, Elizabeth, a dreadful one; when revealed to you, it will chill your frame with horror, and then, far from being surprised at my misery, you will only wonder that I survive what I have endured. I will confide this tale of misery and terror to you the day after our marriage shall take place, for, my sweet cousin, there must be perfect confidence between us. But until then, I conjure you, do not mention or allude to it. This I most earnestly entreat, and I know you will comply. (193-194)
Not only does he demand that she marry him without knowing this monstrous secret, one which may alter her impression of him, but he even orders her not to mention the subject until their union is finalized, with no doubt that she will obey him. That he assumes her blind devotion and that she fulfills this assumption are indicative of her passive role. Frankenstein also tells her exactly how she will react once she learns the truth, namely with compassion for him rather than reflection upon her own danger. (Based on her prior behavior, this reaction seems plausible.) Furthermore, when the creature tells Frankenstein that he “shall be with [him] on [his] wedding-night” (173), Elizabeth is so subordinate in Frankenstein’s mind that he does not consider the possibility of Elizabeth’s being the target of the threat. After they marry, deluded on account of this egotism, he orders her to return to her room, never thinking that she might be important enough to be the object of the threat. She obeys without question, even though this is her wedding night, a time that husband and wife typically spend together. Even as Frankenstein’s wife, Elizabeth fails to stand up to him or for herself, and she thus does not evolve over the course of the novel.
Like Elizabeth, Justine Moritz is a poor little girl, “saved” by the Frankensteins. Mistreated by her mother, Justine is brought into the household by Caroline Frankenstein, where she finds a better quality of life than the average servant, as Elizabeth proudly states. In this way, her fate has been determined by others, similarly to Elizabeth’s. This is also reminiscent of Caroline’s introduction to the Frankensteins; after her father’s death, Alphonse Frankenstein “[comes] like a protecting spirit to the poor girl, who commit[s] herself to his care” (34). This manifestation of passivity equates to a lack of control in one’s own life. Later, when Justine is accused of murdering William, she once again leaves it up to others to decide her fate: “I commit my cause to the justice of my judges, yet I see no room for hope. I beg permission to have a few witnesses examined concerning my character, and if their testimony shall not overweigh my supposed guilt, I must be condemned” (85). She places her life in the hands of the friends who testify on her behalf and the judges who will vote, offering only a weak defense of her innocence. Once she is found guilty, the pastor “threaten[s] and menace[s] [her], until [she] almost [begins] to think that [she is] the monster that he [says she is]” (88). She is swayed by the pastor to do the unthinkable, to confess to a sin of which she is not guilty. On account of her passivity, Justine is influenced to commit the shameful sin of lying.
Beyond the individual characters, Frankenstein is at its core a story about neglecting women and not allowing them to fulfill their role in creating life. By producing the creature without the use of the female body, Frankenstein defies the natural order of the world and consequently becomes “insensible to the charms of nature… Winter, spring, and summer [pass] away during [his] labours; but [he does] not watch the blossom or the expanding leaves… so deeply [is he] engrossed in [his] occupation” (56-57). He disregards women, thus disregarding the natural way of creating life, and essentially disregarding nature, an act as sinful as it gets for Romantics. If not already clear, this is made abundantly so when the creature is first born: “His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but [Frankenstein] did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain [him], but [he] escaped and rushed downstairs” (59). This behavior — smiling and reaching out (non-maliciously) — mirrors the way a baby acts towards his or her mother, the first person to receive and care for him or her. Frankenstein is unable to fill this role himself, and his mistake is fatal. The creature begins life without a family and must navigate adolescence on his own. He describes his first days of life to Frankenstein: “A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was indeed a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses” (105). Again, this behavior illustrates the early days of a newborn’s life. The creature continues to grow from this state of infancy but at a rapidly accelerated pace. He soon learns about sleep, hunger, and thirst, as well as the danger of fire, after he places his hand inside the flame for warmth. He must learn all of this through trial and error, while human babies have parents, specifically mothers, to help them through the process. He even learns about love not from a mother but from the De Laceys, by observing Agatha’s father smiling at her “with such kindness and affection that [he] [feels] sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature… a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as [he] [has] never before experienced” (111). These are feelings that one typically first experiences with a mother, but the creature is never exposed to them prior to this moment. With no family of his own, the creature calls the De Laceys his “protectors” and considers them to be “superior beings, who would be the arbiters of [his] future destiny” (117), much in the same way that children idolize their parents and expect them to shape their future. His desperate search for a family proves how beneficial it is for life to begin in the presence of parents. The creature hears “how all the life and cares of the mother [are] wrapped up in the precious charge” and realizes that “no mother [has] blessed [him] with smiles and caresses,” leaving him to wonder “what [is he]?” (123-124). Without a mother or other relation, he has no idea who, or what, he is; mothers are thus integral to one’s identity. In time, the creature discovers Frankenstein’s identity and cries to him, “you were my father, my creator; and to whom could I apply with more fitness than to him who had given me life?” (141). He feels utterly rejected and alone, and blames his creator. But this is only the explicit abandonment; the more significant abandonment is the creature’s lack of a mother, or Frankenstein’s decision to give the monster life but withhold a mother from him. It is ultimately this sense of abandonment and the consequent rage that lead the monster to evil and cause him to seek revenge on humanity through murder. Frankenstein is thus a novel about the dangers of men bypassing women.
Even the creature is a male character and is thus susceptible to this chauvinism. In demanding that Frankenstein create a female monster like him, he proves himself willing to subject another to his fate. He says, “I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself… we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another. Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless, and free from the misery I now feel… neither you nor any other human being shall ever see us again” (148). He has predetermined her fate: they will move to South America, live off of nuts and fruit, sleep on dried leaves, and both will be content but never happy. Much like Frankenstein with regard to Elizabeth, the creature does not stop to think that a female monster might not agree to live out his fantasy, let alone tolerate being around him. Frankenstein, however, does consider this possibility, and worries that she may be “ten thousand times more malignant than her mate and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness” (170). What finally drives him to refuse the creature’s request is the fear that they would want children and that “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror” (170-171). Frankenstein destroys the female creature with his own hands, “trembling with passion” (171). This image of him ripping a woman apart speaks volumes. He is terrified to create a female monster capable of birthing children, and it is thus the reproductive power of women that scares him and that serves as the basis of the novel.
At first glance, the lack of women, specifically strong, complex women, in Frankenstein is obvious. However, upon further examination of the book’s plot and message, it is revealed that the main storyline of the novel can be distilled into men bypassing women and attempting to take the female reproductive responsibility into their own hands. The ultimate results of this betrayal of nature — the deaths of William, Justine, Alphonse, Clerval, Elizabeth, Frankenstein, and the monster — are catastrophic. Perhaps it is in this subtle way that Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin’s influences are present in Shelley’s masterpiece.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Penguin Classics, 2005.