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, especially considering that Shelley herself is considered to be one of the most popular and influential early feminist writers of the 19th century. Yet, the male characters of the novel provide the framework for the narrative, are almost constantly the focus of that narrative, and their sex is nearly exclusive in their possession of individuality, intellectual capability, and independence within Shelley’s novel. On the other hand, provided one exception, the women in the novel seem not only to serve deliberate functions which further progress the narrative, but also are devoid of much of the creativity, zeal, and ambition displayed by their male counterparts.
Vanessa Dickerson, in her article “The Ghost of a Self: Female Identity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” seconds this sentiment, noting that the women of Frankenstein are “present but absent, morally animate angels, but physically and politically inanimate mortals,” (80) and “so apparently devoid of impurity, flaw, and will, that they hardly seem important or visible” (82). It is true that the significance of the roles played by Shelley’s women in the novel generally lies beneath the main plot of the story, which focuses almost exclusively upon Walton, Victor, and the monster. The framing and context of the narrative itself is an example of the utility provided by Frankenstein’s females to serve a greater function within the grand scheme of the novel. Robert Walton’s character provides the starting point for the entire narrative through his written letters to his sister, Margaret Saville. While Walton embarks on a perilous journey through the high seas, pursuing “[his] ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited,” (Shelley, 2) his sister remains bound up in England receiving Walton’s letters throughout the book, never making an appearance or uttering words of her own, thus signifying her passivity. Ironically, while Margaret only exists in the novel through Walton, she is also the recipient and inspiration for the entire narrative as it is presented. Without Margaret to write to, Walton has cannot relay the story of Victor and the monster to the reader.
Elizabeth, Victor’s fiancée, and Justine Moritz also exhibit the same sort of passivity and utilitarian purpose as Margaret, as each of them suffer death as a result of Victor’s neglect for the monster. Their deaths serve to drive Victor further into insanity, and their lives provide the tools by which the monster torments his creator. They, like Margaret are also lacking distinct voices or personality traits, and are usually portrayed by the males in the novel as angelic, virtuous, morally innocent characters. Elizabeth, originally given as a “pretty present for…Victor,” is constantly described by such characteristics as her “saintly soul…sympathy, soft voice, the sweet glance [of] her celestial eyes, [which] were ever then to bless and animate us.” Victor himself explains how he “looked upon Elizabeth as [his]… All praises bestowed on her, [he] received as made to a possession of [his] own” (Shelley, 26-29). Elizabeth’s voice and actions in the novel offer little towards building her character, as she spends most of her time waiting patiently (for years) for Victor’s return, where their wedding will allow her to fulfill the domestic duties of a 19th century housewife. For Victor, Elizabeth is one of the last remaining links to a society which he is slipping away from, an example of the purity and innocence which dwindles from his world as the monster exacts his revenge. Justine, like Elizabeth, also displays the same sort of passive, saintly character traits, as she selflessly gives up on maintaining her innocence in the face of accusations of murder. She chooses death over life, “[punctuating] the condition and fate of Caroline and Elizabeth who nurture and love unto death” (Dickerson, 85). Justine merely becomes an added hindrance and instrument of psychological torture to Victor, who holds back evidence which may have acquitted her from her fate. Justine’s quasi-martyrdom further displays the spiritual role that the women of Frankenstein play, as their angelic personalities as a result of Victor’s technological innovation.
All of the women in Shelley’s novel are the objects of the males’ affection and their gentle, forgiving nature provides a sharp contrast from the adventurous, impulse-driven passions exhibited of the male characters in the novel. The monster is able to recognize 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. However, Agatha provides little to the story other than to provide the monster with this newfound discovery of the beauty and angelic demeanor which Frankenstein’s women possess.
When the peasant family whom the monster observes allows an Arabian woman, Safie, to stay with them, however, these generic characterizations of the novel’s females do not apply so effortlessly. Safie is a completely unique character in the novel because she is a woman who wishes to gain independence and intellectual freedom: “[Safie’s mother] instructed her daughter in the tenants of her religion, and taught her to aspire to the higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet” (Shelley, 136). One could argue, as Dickerson does, that Safie’s introduction midway through the novel marks an important turning point. Safie ultimately saves the DeLacey family from their extreme misfortune and poverty, as she grants Felix a companion, while simultaneously easing the burden of the family’s impoverished and exiled condition with money which she brings to the household. Still, it is worth noting that Safie’s character does display some striking similarities to the other females in the novel, notably through the spiritual aura which she possesses in accordance with the other female characters: “her presence diffused gladness through the cottage, dispelling their sorrow as the sun dissipates the morning mists” (Shelley, 128-129). Another peculiarity present in Safie’s character can be exhibited through the monster, who 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. Also, while Safie embodies much of the independent and character traits present in Frankenstein’s men, it is important to realize that she, like Margaret, Elizabeth, Justine and Agatha, provides specific utility towards progressing the main plotline involving Victor and the monster. Upon acquiring language through Safie, the monster begins to make his own decisions of independence. He begins to seek revenge against Victor, and demands that he makes him a mate. Thus, though completely unique among the women in her display of spontaneity and ambition, actively seeking to improve her position by fleeing her homeland, Safie still fulfills the common female traits of utilitarianism and divinity for the males of the novel.
Nearing the end of the book, 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. This is very significant because Victor’s fear of woman’s ability to reproduce effectively leads to Elizabeth’s death. Victor is faced with the very difficult decision of repeating his creation, or sacrificing the safety of those dearest to him, and his choice to scrap the female monster ultimately guarantees Elizabeth’s doom, a gruesome death which befalls nearly all of the novel’s females.
When recalling all of the female characters in the novel, the reader discovers how strikingly similar almost 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. 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. She is also described in a somewhat objectifying manner in the text, much like Elizabeth, Victor’s “pretty present.” When Felix attempts to rescue Safie’s father, he notices the girl, and “[cannot] help owing to his own mind that the captive possessed a treasure which would fully reward his toil and hazard” (Shelley, 135).
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. These women have great worth within Victor and Walton’s hearts and minds, and provide Frankenstein the utility he needs to find vengeance. Indeed, 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. Yet, with the exception of Safie, Shelley’s female characters in Frankenstein steadfastly portray the quintessential passive female; moving “decidedly into the shadow realm…a realm wherein the potential or real power of women is not characteristically sustained, recognized, or effective in a world of monster-men” (Dickerson, 90).
Dickerson, Vanessa D. “The Ghost of a Self: Female Identity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Journal of Popular Culture 27.3 (1993): 79-91. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.