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.