The Passivity of Women in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Mary Shelley’s upbringing was unique for her era in the fact that she was raised feminist. She grew in a time where most of society would perceive her as the pseudo-property of her father or spouse. Naturally, Shelley would not wish to willingly perpetuate this opinion, nor sit idly by without bringing some attention to the passive position that women were forced into. It is highly likely that this political opinion on the lack of female standing in society is shown in the exaggerated passivity of the female characters in her novel. It could also be said that through these passive female characters, Shelley displays the characteristics women were expected to have.
A former student correctly stated that, “Justine Moritz is the most passive women in the novel.” Truly, a person who is unable to muster up any action to defend their own life would most likely not be able to active at all. Once it was clear that no man would be capable of proving her innocence, Justine just gave up. “I did confess, but I confessed a lie. I confessed, that I might obtain absolution.” (Shelley 90). This makes it seem as if she confesses because that would be easier than trying to find out the truth. Despite believing she is a good person, she makes the minimal effort to prove it. In her passivity, it could be said that Justine represents the assumption that a woman be quiet and humble, never bringing undo attention to herself, and to live with the grace of God. “I do not fear to die… God raises my weakness… I am resigned to the fate awaiting me. Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of Heaven!” (Shelley 91).
Elizabeth’s passivity allows her to fulfill the role of mother and sister, a source of endless support and caretaking, but not supposed to do much else. She goes along with whatever desire or demand that is put to her: she becomes a member of a family she does not know because they asked for her; she agrees to marry a man who is like her brother because she was told to; Victor tells her to calm down after Justine’s execution and she never again appears to be upset. Much like with mothers and sisters, Elizabeth is often referred to in a possessive light. People are always claiming their mother’s for their own everything time they say, “MY mother.” Although the entitled possession Victor expressed toward Elizabeth is perhaps more literal. “…I, with childish seriousness, interpreted her words literally, and looked upon Elizabeth as mine…” (Shelley 26). Elizabeth being the passive individual she is, never combats this view that she is a mother and an object. She spends days taking care of others, and waiting for Victor to tell her how to feel. “Elizabeth seemed happy; my tranquil demeanor contributed greatly to calm her mind.” (Shelley 221). Naturally, she would seem happy, for she had no reason to believe that she could be unhappy on her own.
It could be argued that Safie is the only non-passive female in the novel, but I would argue for her passivity. It is true that she leaves her father’s tyranny in order to obtain religious freedom. However, she merely exchanges being the possession of her father, to that of her husband. Once her father, she had the power to go anywhere, be with anyone, do anything, but instead she follows behind the man she perceives as a protector. It is never actually said in the book that Safie loves Felix, only that he loves her. “…when he saw the lovely Safie… the youth could not help owning to his mind that the captive possessed a treasure which would fully reward his toil and hazard.” (Shelley 135). This shows his love for her was based solely on her beauty that he aimed to possess, which is another attribute passive women as supposed to have. It could almost be said that Safie competes with Justine for most passive woman. While Safie did take some control over her life, unlike Justine, she had the opportunity and means to take complete control over her life. Instead, she chose to put her life into another man’s hands. She chose to play the beautiful wife, rather than a beautiful self-possessed person.
Mary Shelley used her female characters as a way of revealing the plight of women in her time. She exaggerated their passivity in order to reflect the ridiculous expectation society puts on women. They are meant to be mothers (Elizabeth), beautiful and charming (Safie), and quiet and humble (Justine). It makes sense that Frankenstein is a horror novel. Shelley must have thought that the box society forced women into was pretty horrible.