The female characters of Frankenstein – Margaret Saville, Caroline Beaufort, the peasant woman (whom Victor’s parents meet in Milan), Elizabeth Lavenza, and Justine Moritz – only outwardly appear to take on simple, passive roles. In actuality each female role is complex, in some aspects they are passive, but in many aspects Shelley portrays woman as the center of strength and power.
Throughout the novel female characters are omnipresent in the domestic sphere – they are sisters, mothers, wives, and caretakers. While this may be viewed as an alignment of female characters with their stereotypical nineteenth-century roles, I see Shelley restraining women to these roles to circumvent blame from falling upon them. The conflicts and themes that emerge in this novel are those of monstrous evil, murder, and destruction; all of which result from the dangerous pursuit of knowledge and the attainment of unnatural powers of creation. In this novel and in the society in which it was published, women rarely traversed into the intellectual, scientific, or political spheres. Female absence in these areas of society suggest that women are not to blame for the malevolence that accompanies technological advancements. I read this novel as a cautionary tale, warning against the consequences of technological development. Shelley wrote and published Frankenstein during the height of the Industrial Revolution; in her lifetime she saw primitive inventions such as the steamboat, the sewing machine, the cotton gin, and the automatic factory machine cause social and political uproar. Thousands of Americans were killed in machine-related and steamboat accidents; factory workers and laborers rose up in violent protest against the machines they thought would replace them. While the Industrial Revolution is proclaimed to be one of the greatest innovative time periods in American and world history, Shelley reminds readers that there is always a consequence of growth and advancement. Shelley blames these consequences on the male characters of the novel and on the patriarchal society of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
If the female characters are viewed as passive, then they are only passive to the destruction of human society, but they are active in improving society through their roles as caregivers and domestic laborers. Each female character is well-liked and each appears to be the strength of their households. Margaret Saville, despite the anonymity and facelessness of her character, is a source of strength and confidence to her brother, Captain Walton, who writes to her throughout his journey. Caroline Beaufort’s character never seems to be passive. She is introduced as a caregiver to her father; her father was dependent upon rather her than the other way around. Victor describes Caroline as possessing “a mind of an uncommon mold; and her courage rose to support her in her adversity” (Shelley 22). Following her father’s death Caroline “procured plain work; she plaited straw; and by various means contrived to earn a pittance scarcely sufficient to support life” (22). Elizabeth Lavenza, who succeeds Caroline as the maternal figure in the Frankenstein family, embodies strength and resilience. Victor tells Captain Walton, “She indeed veiled her grief, and strove to act the comforter to us all” (37). Elizabeth is praised for and serves the household through her “saintly soul” which “shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home. She was the living sprit of love to soften and attract” (29).
The monster’s eventual persona is only rooted in observing human interactions. When Frankenstein’s monster tells his story to his creator, he recalls his observations of the poor farming family –Felix, Agatha, Safie, and the elderly blind man. It is through the female characters that he learns of love and human interaction. Thus far in the novel the reason for the monster’s vengeance is not concretely clear, although it seems to stem from loneliness and rejection. The monster vows to “deliver [humans] from an evil which it only remains for you to make so great that not only you and your family, but thousands of others shall be swallowed up in the whirlwinds of its rage” (108). Female companionship and female presence has a civilizing effect on patriarchy and the technological advancements it produces. An even better example of this is the presence of nature. Nature is given feminine characteristics in the novel similar to our referring to nature as “Mother Nature”. The importance of nature is introduced early in the novel when Victor describes Henry Clerval’s fascination with describing it. “He had partially unveiled the face of Nature, but her immortal lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery” (31-32). As the novel progresses, Victor and the other male characters turn to nature for recovery and peace. Nature, and the collective female characters, are the antagonists to the wrought and destruction of society that results from knowledge, advancement, and progression.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover, 2009. Print.