Studying the roles which the women play in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can prove to be a difficult and frustrating task. Indeed, the unsuspecting reader would likely be surprised to discover the rigid passivity and uninspired nature which nearly all of the female characters in the novel display. After reading the novel, I found myself wondering how this could have been, and if Shelley could have had any particular motives for crafting the characters as she did.
One thing that is important to remember when analyzing the role of females in the novel is the manner by which the narrative is framed. Although Shelley is behind the typewriter punching out the words, within her novel the recollection of events relative to Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and his monster are always told through the point of view of a male narrator.
One important role which the women of the novel play is through their representation of virtue and innocence to the male characters. They are the objects of the male’s affection and their gentle, forgiving nature is a far cry from the adventurous, impulse-driven passions of the male characters in the novel. The monster recognizes the blissful ignorance and immature innocence of human nature through the character of Agatha. The monster often emphasizes her kindness and generosity, making reference to “the gentle words of Agatha,” (Shelley, 133) or “Agatha, the ever-gentle Agatha” (129). For the monster, the women of the novel show him the sensitivity of human nature and also are the window through which he is educated. When the peasant family who he observes allows an Arabian woman, Safie, to stay with them, Frankenstein is able to learn speech, history, and even brags that he “improved more rapidly than the Arabian, who understood very little, and conversed in broken accents, whilst I comprehended and could imitate almost every word that was spoken” (Shelley, 130). This particular quotation is interesting, as the female is not able to keep pace with the learning capabilities of the monster, whose “humanity” is a subject of debate. However, upon learning more about Safie’s character, one realizes that, while a very minor character in the grand scheme of the novel, she possesses unique characteristics which differ from the other women in the novel. She rejects the traditional Muslim culture in Turkey, even in the face of demands from her father. She instead flees to the West, accepting a lower standard of material living in exchange for more personal freedom in the Christian-dominated Europe, marrying a European man. Safie displays spontaneity and ambition, and actively seeks to improve her position by learning another language.
On the other hand, when Alphonse Frankenstein asks his son if his imminent marriage to Elizabeth is the source of his troubles, Victor responds strongly, reassuring his father of his unwavering devotion to his fiancée: “I never say any woman who excited, as Elizabeth does, my warmest admiration and affection. My future hopes and prospects are entirely bound up in the expectation of our union” (Shelley, 171). Victor dares not to construct a female beast like his original creation whilst married to Elizabeth, and intends to complete this project before the marriage, so as to be rid of his obligations to the monster once and for all. Elizabeth, meanwhile, fits the bill of the passive female character, waiting patiently for years for Victor to return to her, so she can fulfill all of the domestic duties of a 19th century wife. For Victor, Elizabeth is one of the last remaining links to a society which he is slipping away from.
Other female characters such as Justine are just as passive as Elizabeth. Justine, while clearly aware of her innocence in William’s murder, merely accepts a mortal death, awaiting salvation from God, who knows she is not guilty. She merely becomes an object of hindrance and psychological torture to Victor, who holds back evidence which may have acquitted her from her fate.
Nearing the end of the novel, when Victor is constructing a female companion for his monster, Shelley’s novel displays more anti-feminist sentiments through the viewpoint of a male narrator. Victor ponders with abhorrence the possibility of the two beasts reproducing, resulting in “a race of devils… [being] propagated upon the earth” (Shelley, 189). He then tears his creation to shreds before the monster’s eyes, destroying the monster’s hope of enjoying companionship.
When recalling all of the female characters in the novel, the reader discovers how strikingly similar most of the women of Frankenstein really are. They are devoid of just about any sort of psychological independence, and seem to depend on the men in their life for council, information, protection, or survival. All of the main female characters close to Victor are killed as a result of his creation. Safie, the Arabian woman, is one of the only examples in the novel where a woman finds inspiration or freedom which would distract her from misery, and acts according to her own personal will. However, her actions serve no greater purpose within the context of the novel. Even though she is unique in her ambitions, she seems to only exist as a character so that the monster may learn through her and Felix.
In accordance with this, I have found that the significance of the other female characters within the novel is important insofar as they help to develop the storyline between Victor, the monster, and Walton (all of Walton’s letters are addressed to his sister; therefore she is the inspiration for the entire narrative). However, they seem to serve a greater purpose within the context of the novel: as Victor loses the women most important to him, his obsession with revenge and ridding himself of the monster’s burdens grows, and the monster uses the women in Victor’s life to add to the tragedy of his situation. This still does not answer why Shelley decided to make the female characters in this way, but one could argue that their position in the novel emphasize the specific function which they served to men during Shelley’s time, as they serve a greater purpose to the plot and character development of Victor, the monster, and Walton than they do as profound characters in their own right.