How One Woman’s Corpse Altered The Gender Hierarchy In Frankenstein

Photo by Sofia Sears

An essay by Peter Stern

Women are just as capable as men. Why is this statement controversial? Today, in 2015, women still only earn 78 cents to every dollar a man makes, promoting the view that women are far less superior. Such themes can be examined in Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Mary Shelley was an English novelist who lived in the 19th century. She wrote Frankenstein as part of a writing contest between close friends, and was taken very seriously as a writer during her time. In fact, her being can be viewed as a breakthrough in women’s rights, as she was one of the first successful female writers. Take that, J.K. Rowling! After Shelley’s death, however, she was chiefly remembered as the wife of Percy Shelley; a woman who just happened to write Frankenstein, one of the most famous pieces of Romantic literature ever. Frankenstein tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young man who seeks glory in the creation of life. Victor is surrounded by a large family, who love and support him throughout his ordeals, especially his fiancé, Elizabeth. Interestingly, most of the female characters serve only as a channel of action for the male characters. This may have more to do with Shelley’s feelings towards her own sex, as she wrote several documents crediting her success to her uninvolved husband. In Frankenstein, Shelley portrays female characters as submissive and nurturing, and the female monster as dangerous because of her possible independence. The significance of this is a commentary on the portrayal of women during Shelley’s time.

Elizabeth, Shelley shows us, represents beauty in Frankenstein. Victor, in the seldom times he refers to her, describes Elizabeth solely based on her beautiful appearance or passive personality. When introducing Elizabeth in the novel, Victor’s description lacks depth: “Her hair was the brightest living gold […] 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” (Shelley 36). This description may be because of Victor’s perception, as a man, of Elizabeth. The entire novel, as well, takes place in a dialogue between Victor and Captain Walton, two men. The imagery provided in this passage portrays Elizabeth like an empty chasm, waiting to be filled by a man’s impact. While her hair, or physical features, is bright and gold, Elizabeth’s inner being is plain and impressionable. Victor also describes Elizabeth’s features as celestial. In other words, Elizabeth is similar to the breathtaking, yet vast, void which surrounds us all. While beautiful on the outside, Elizabeth lives her life revolving around men and their ideas of what she should be. Later in the text, she writes several letters to Victor on several different occasions, checking up on him and alerting him of her loneliness while he is away. In these messages, Elizabeth provides no reports of her experiences, yearning only for information on Victor’s feelings and accounts. What Shelley might be alluding to, in her creation of Elizabeth’s character, is how normal it was for women in her time to live their lives around men. Women in Frankenstein are universally passive, drifting only into the story to demand action from the men around them. Sadly, Shelley shows us how women are not immune to the blatant sexism thrown at them. Ingrained in Caroline Frankenstein is the belief that beauty triumphs, as we see she chooses to adopt Elizabeth based primarily on her looks. Just like Caroline, Elizabeth is practically owned by a man, and lives her life around him. In her sorry excuse for a character, Elizabeth shows us all what it truly means to live in the shadows.

Justine, a maid in the Frankenstein household, represents justice in the novel, or more, the lack of it. Disregarding her name, she is always viewed as pitiful by Victor. In a letter to Victor, Elizabeth mentions Justine and Victor’s feelings towards her. “Justine, you may remember, was a great favourite of yours […] she looked so frank-hearted and happy […] Justine was the most grateful little creature in the world: I do not mean that she made any professions; I never heard one pass her lips, but you could see by her eyes that she almost adored her protectress” (67). In this quote, Justine is described as “frank-hearted,” “happy,” “grateful,” and “adoring.” These adjectives let the reader in on the reason behind Justine’s success with men: her supportive yet sometimes self-deprecating personality. Even without these descriptive adjectives, the passage has a sorrowful tone to it. Although not expressed in this quote, the only epithet used for Justine in the novel is “poor.” She perfectly fits the mold of a woman during that time. As viewed by Victor, Justine is passive and submissive to the men around her; she has no true identity. This could very well be the reason her execution was viewed as so unfortunate, and why both Elizabeth and Victor were so confident she couldn’t have murdered William. As Justine is killed, justice for women is symbolically killed too. When Justine was alive, she lived as a small servant controlled by men. However, Justine’s position in life comes to a plateau, as women had no opportunities other than raising children and taking care of the household. After she is falsely convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of William, Justine obediently sits in her jail cell waiting for the inevitable. She has the following to say to Elizabeth, during a visit to the prison. “I leave a sad and bitter world […] Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of heaven!” (89). This is Justine’s coming to consciousness moment. Following Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Justine spends her entire life in the figurative cave, not truly aware of her position in life or her potential. When faced with her own death, however, Justine begins to leave the cave. She recognizes the disparity of her life and the discrimination placed against her in Geneva, the town in which the Frankenstein family lives. Nevertheless, Justine’s nature requires her to be controlled, and Justine finds herself only halfway out. After her death, Shelley may be trying to allude to the fact that women no longer had any justice; not that they had much to begin with. Justine was a simple servant who quietly obeyed the role set out for her, and accepted the consequences of being female during her time. Whether this was in fear of expulsion from her society, or just because of her soft demeanor, we will never know. Such are the repercussions of oppression.

While never alive, the female monster has a strong presence in Frankenstein, as she challenges the mold of a woman during that time. In Volume II, the monster demands Victor to create a wife for him because he feels that the only way he will be loved is by a partner in the same situation. In return, the monster promises to live in exile with his bride and never return to society. However, Victor destroys the female monster, as he deems her too dangerous to be created. “She might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for it own sake, in murder and wretchedness. […] He had sworn to quit the neighborhood of man […] but she had not; and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation” (170). Victor’s decision to destroy the female monster further projects his sexist views. He primarily fears her independence, in making her own decisions and refusing to satisfy the male monster for whom she has been created. Victor also realizes that unlike Elizabeth and other women in his community, the female monster will be out of his control. These realizations lead him to destroy the woman, as this is the only way to ensure her complete passivity. Even the monster is prejudiced, and sets certain expectations for his wife, even before her creation. “My companion will be of the same nature as myself, and will be content with the same fare” (149). His tone is very affirmative, showing the reader that from his short time alive, he has already witnessed and been sucked into the gender hierarchy.

In Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, female characters are portrayed as submissive and nurturing. The female monster, on the other hand, is seen by Victor as dangerous because of her possible independence. Characters like Elizabeth are examples of the ideal woman during that time, as she has certain characteristics such as submission and beauty. Caroline Frankenstein, as well, is not immune to the sexism surrounding her, as she chooses to adopt Elizabeth based primarily on her appearance. Justine represents the justice for women in the novel, or more the lack of it seeing as she is wrongfully sentenced to death for Victor’s brother’s murder. Leading up to her execution, Justine has a moment of consciousness in which she recognizes the cave that Geneva lies within. Justine’s nature, however, ultimately restricts her from growing fully independent and Justine never completely escapes. The female monster proves to be a strong presence in Frankenstein, as she is a symbol of independence and liberty for women. This is further exemplified when Victor ultimately decides not to bring her to life, in fear that she might form her own opinions and beliefs. As seen in Frankenstein, as well as present day, men fear powerful women. After decades of men oppressing women to keep control, the belief that only one gender can be in power has spread. While we have no real way of knowing her intentions, Shelley has created a spark that will hopefully lead to some well-needed discussions. Sexism plagues our daily lives, and while this has become the norm, there is no reason it has to stay.

2 thoughts on “How One Woman’s Corpse Altered The Gender Hierarchy In Frankenstein

  1. > Women are just as capable as men. Why is this statement controversial?

    Because of professional athletics? …. because of biology?… because of childbirth?

    > Today, in 2015, women still only earn 78 cents to every dollar a man makes, promoting the view that women are far less superior.

    This claim has been debunked continuously since the 90’s. It is – at best – a gross oversimplification of the hugely complex issues surrounding work, gender and pay.

    For a start, what counts is not how much you earn, but whose pockets your earning ultimately end up in! Slaves earned more than their owners…. but obviously most of those earnings ended up in the pockets of the slave owners. Yet according to ‘wage gap logic’ those slaves were more privileged than their owners!

    As a general rule more of men’s earnings ends up in the pockets of women, than women’s earnings ends up in the pockets of men. Most men financially support a woman to some extent contributing AT LEAST 50% of household income (and usually quite a bit more). Also men are taxed more by the state and this money goes more to women than it does to men.

    Women’s higher rates of ‘free money’ coupled with reduced expectations for women to financially support men means women can AFFORD to take on jobs which pay less money, but offer more non financial perks instead. If more women felt a social pressure to financially support the men in their lives, then more women would end up becoming doctors, rather than nurses … or university professors rather than primary school teachers and so on.

    And because women are generally more financially taken care of they can AFORD to ask for less pay when taking on ‘extra’ work which is supplemental to the household income. Thus women have always been able to undercut men’s wages. This was especially true in the past when all men were expected to provide for the whole family on his wages alone. What happened was that new technology made housework a lot easier AND factories a lot safer and more comfortable too (electric lighting, automated production lines, indoor toilets etc) ….. and so women started to get jobs in those factories ….. but they did not really need the money as much as men, so they could easily undercut men and accept lower wages. This gave HER family extra income on top of her husband’s wage… but put some other woman’s poor husband out of a job!

    It is still quite rare to find a woman today who is financially supporting her man (contributing significantly more than 50% to the household). But it is getting more common. A recent study in the UK showed more women are becoming the primary financial supporter of the household….. and this is just making them stressed out and miserable! They do not enjoy being ‘head of the household’ at all because it is actually a BURDEN and not really a PRIVILEGE after all. Who’d have thought?

    The ‘wage gap’ basically just means women usually choose jobs which pay LESS actual money, but pay MORE in non financial ways such as convenience, a pleasant working environment, flexibility, less hours, more holidays, more job transferability, a shorter commute, a less dangerous or high risk environment, more job security etc. Money is only one measure of pay.

    If anything the so called ‘wage gap’ or ‘glass ceiling’ is an example of female privilege, not oppression. Nobody ever complains about the ‘glass basement’. Not only do men tend to occupy the most high stress high earning jobs….. but they also tend to occupy the lowest paying or most dirty, dangerous, high risk jobs too (garbage collection, oil rig work, fishing, construction etc). Do you know of any feminist policies to get more women into these ‘male dominated’ careers?

    > In Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, female characters are portrayed as submissive and nurturing.

    Being submissive or passive (downplaying one’s own agency, or denying it altogether) compels the other person to take on a dominant role, perhaps even against their desire. It compels the other to assume the very agency you are denying yourself. A submissive, demure, passive girlfriend is essentially forcing her boyfriend to take care of her, look after her, make all the decisions and assume all responsibility for himself AND for her. The submissive or passive person is essentially offloading their agency onto the other person, so the other person now must act, think, and generally take responsibility for the BOTH of them.

    Thus being submissive is (or certainly can be) a form of manipulation or control, and even a form of dominance over the other party. You cannot really be submissive towards towards a person in Nigeria or New Zealand if you never inform them of your submissiveness. Therefore submission, or submissive behaviour, is very much a *transaction* between two people… which means it is NOT a passive thing. It is an intentional, wilful act. Being submissive is essentially a way of demanding the care, concern or at the very least the attention of others around you. By downplaying (or outright denying) your own agency you are essentially inhabiting their minds, and imposing yourself onto their list of concerns.

    At the very least the submissive/ dominant relationship is a tango.

    Defining submissive behaviour as entirely passive behaviour (as something imposed onto the person from outside) is ITSELF an example of submissive behaviour! 😉

    > As seen in Frankenstein, as well as present day, men fear powerful women.

    The idea that men should somehow NOT fear powerful women implies powerful women are somehow less powerful than powerful men (ie inferior to men). This is a perfect demonstration of how portraying oneself (or one’s gender) as inherently demure/ passive/ submissive/ sweet/ innocent gives one a tactical advantage. Men are trained from birth (mostly by their mothers, aunts, female teachers, nannies, nurses etc) to NOT fear women – to not acknowledge women’s potential to do them harm. To not view women as their equals. This makes men easy prey for women, and makes it a lot easier for women to get away with murder (metaphorically AND literally).

    Nobody ever says women should not fear powerful men. We are told to fear ALL men, ALL the time. Men today are portrayed like how blacks were portrayed in the days of lynching…. as savages, as uncivilised folk who must repress their genetic tendencies in order to fit in with ‘civilised’ (white/ female) society…. as monsters lurking on every street corner with rape in their eyes…….

    Today’s ‘rape culture’ narrative is just a repeat of the days of lynching, or of Nazi Germany for that matter (men are also being portrayed as the modern jew – scheming to control the world of business behind closed doors – for their exclusive benefit and at the expense of women).

    I am not saying men or women should *automatically* fear powerful members of the opposite sex (humans are mostly good people after all)…. but men and women have equal right to recognise the *potential* threat powerful people of the opposite sex represent.

    As a result of this idea that powerful women (or women in general) cannot possibly pose a threat to men, many men grow up viewing women as lovely, sweet, innocent, fluffy bunny rabbits who can do no harm. And a significant proportion of those men will end up marrying ‘sweet’ women who end up abusing them and forcing them to stay in an abusive marriage (under threat of taking them to the cleaners if they don’t put up with it)…… or just taking to the cleaners anyway. At this point men are 11 times more likely to commit suicide. Many end up homeless. Some end up in jail under false assault or rape charges. Women’s collective facade of sweetness, demureness and passivity makes it much, MUCH easier to level a false rape or assault charge against a man and be believed… the downside is being taken less seriously in the boardroom. It’s a trade off….

    > After decades of men oppressing women to keep control, the belief that only one gender can be in power has spread.

    This is another example of submissive/ dominant behaviour. The idea that women might have PLACED or PUSHED men to BE in positions of control is never considered…. even though it would obviously be to women’s benefit to do so – given that for all of history life was brutal and harsh and being in charge of anything outside of the home was dangerous, demanding, and usually back breaking work.

    Placing all agency (and thus responsibility) for women’s lives throughout history into the hands of men is an act of female submission/ male dominance……. but it is also and act of female dominance and male submission. That’s because this way of viewing history allows women to play the good guys and forces men to assume the role of the villains. When women can convince men to define themselves as all-powerful, invulnerable, villainous, oppressive monsters it is easy for those women to then get men to agree that everything is men’s fault!

    Once men agree that everything is their fault these women can then demand a bunch of special treatment and free stuff from men (he for she) and the men will feel so guilty and so powerful and privileged they will say “Sure! … let me do all the work and take care of you … here, take the shirt off my back……. hey, let’s arrest these men on the train for manspreading if it offends you as the delicate flower that you are……….. and let’s not worry about the fact that men actually have far less legal rights than women in society”.

    Like I said, being submissive forces the other person to be dominant and assume responsibility for your care and wellbeing (he for she).


    1. You know what. That’s really rude. You have no idea how long this author worked on this piece. While this a place where all opinions are welcome, this is also a safe place. This response to a a beautiful essay is inhumane. No self respecting critique of literature would leave such a lackluster mess of an analysis but rather one with strong evidence and a point of view riddled with less hatred than the one of yours. Good day.

      p.s. that’s not how you spell afford in your quote “and because women are generally more financially taken care of, they can AFORD to ask for less pay…” —– so consider yourself ignorant.

      Liked by 1 person

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