Thursday, January 16, 2014

Frankenstein and Women: Divine Descriptions Reinforce Gender Inequality

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein addresses themes of divinity in the context of Victor Frankenstein as a creator of life, but a subtler aspect of this topic extends the idea of a Victor as a protector in his relationship with other characters, particularly women. There is a difference in the way Shelley portrays the male and female characters in the story, depicting the women as passive and helpless and the men as active and independent. This standard is exemplified in the relationship of Elizabeth and Victor where the contrast is mirrored in their descriptions as an angel and a protector respectively to reinforce their passive and active categorizations. In addition to being described as having these divine attributes, their interactions also show the significance of Victor's preeminence over Elizabeth.
Though many of the women in the novel are portrayed as passive and helpless, Elizabeth is often likened to an angel. The first description of her appearance as a child is lavish with divine representation. Victor describes her as having “a crown of distinction on her head” and “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 25). This, our first encounter with Elizabeth as a reader, already details her as having a divine appearance and demeanor, and specifically an angel when she is said to be “a child fairer than a picture cherub” (Shelley 25). Such high praise of her character continues as she grows. As a girl, her soul is termed “saintly” and her eyes “celestial” (Shelley 29). Elizabeth’s angel-like appearance gives the reader the sense that she is a delicate, kind-hearted soul with her morals in the right place.
However, these continuous descriptions of her possessing qualities of an angel reinforce her passive and often frail convictions. When Victor is sick and away at school, she writes to him apologetic that she regrets that she is unable to visit (Shelley 61), yet the reader is given no reason why she couldn’t have visited other than her inability to act on her own will. This emphasizes her as a passive character, who has little control of her circumstances. Very little is described of Elizabeth’s will amounting to any action on her own. She always needs someone, usually Victor, to support her. If in the plot Victor invited Elizabeth to see him after her anxiety had been made known, there likely would not have been doubt because he would have validated her requested course of action. When Elizabeth expresses that she wants to visit the convicted Justine, she says “Victor, shall accompany me: I cannot go alone” to which Victor narrates he could not refuse (Shelley 89). Although Elizabeth says it as a statement, Victors response portrays it as a request for permission that he then grants to her. Beyond the fact that she cannot go alone (for an inexplicit reason), Victor still addresses the matter like he’s doing her a favor as if she is the fragile that she is described as. This dominance as contrasted with Elizabeth’s kind, yet submissive nature is what makes Elizabeth a passive character and Victor an active one, especially in the context of their relationship.
The complementary character to Elizabeth’s passivity is exhibited strongly and actively in Victor. Paralleling Elizabeth’s angel-like qualities, Victor assumes the role of a protector in many ways, which he explicitly points out. Victor takes on a lot of responsibility for Elizabeth, which is evident in his first thoughts after being handed the baby: “I, with childish seriousness… looked upon Elizabeth as mine -- mine to protect, love, and cherish… till death she was to be mine only” (Shelley 26-27). This assumed responsibility of the job of a protector to Elizabeth implies on possession; Victor goes on to explicitly say, “I received as made to a possession of my own” (Shelley 26-27). This clearly establishes him as the dominant force in their relationship, not necessarily maliciously, but the superiority is glaringly present. Even as they grow older together, Victor's narration continues as if he views her as a subordinate, less active individual from his pedestal of all-knowingness. He goes so far as to minimize her level of curiosity as compared to his when he remarks, “Elizabeth was of a calmer and more concentrated disposition; but with all my ardour. I was capable of a more intense application, and was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge” (Shelley 27). Victor directly asserts here that he takes a more active part in his desire for knowledge than she does, proclaiming that he is dominant in his capacity for study. This is significant in the context of him as an authority, as his superior knowledge qualifies him to be the responsible individual in their relationship.
The significance of Victor and Elizabeth’s relationship is reinforced by the description of Elizabeth as an angel both in appearance and demeanor. The type of divinity she is described as having removes her from a place of authority. Predominantly, Elizabeth is portrayed as a passive, helpless character with a strong, male counterpart. The passive way that Elizabeth acts in her need for approval supports Victor’s superiority, and that may be a product of a way that Victor has always looked at her: a possession of his that needs protection. These instances emphasize the difference in power in the relationship, clearly categorizing Elizabeth as the passive party and Victor as the active party. This type of relationship does reinforce the reader’s perception of Victor as a protector with responsibilities and consequences to his actions, especially having such a pure, fragile soul in his care.

Works Cited:
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.


Dennis Madden said...

You certainly provided ample evidence for Elizabeth’s passivity. The use of examples portraying Victor’s grandiose nature provides stark contrast that supports your point. I liked your observation that Elizabeth has difficulties ‘acting’ on her own (she has a whole lot of emotion but not a lot of action). I do believe that there are a few statements that cloud the strength of your argument such as: “Though many of the women in the novel are portrayed as passive and helpless, Elizabeth is often likened to an angel”. Here it almost seems as if you are making an argument that Elizabeth is not passive. If you wanted to flesh out this essay for a revision, I think you could improve your argument by more explicitly taking a stance on how/why being beautiful and looking like an angel would suggest passivity. I enjoyed reading your paper and I think it is a good backbone were you to revise it in the future.

Adam said...

Your argument is generally strong and focused through the first several paragraphs. I'd like you to consider economics and power, though. Presumably Elizabeth can't visit Victor because she has obligations at home (to care for the children). I also think that the fact that Caroline nursed the dying Elizabeth back to health at the cost of her own life is potentially important to your argument - we could say that she is physically weak (literally in need of nursing) and/or rendered passive by guilt (for Caroline's death).

While I agree with your general characterization of Victor as protector in the early stages of the novel (what is a protector vs. an owner?) you ignore his absence after his mother's death, and her role in caring for the family in his absence. This is a curious and very important omission! Even more crucially, you ignore Elizabeth's vigorous activity when it comes to defending Justine. If there is a single problem to be attended to when claiming that Elizabeth is passive, it's this.

In short: your focus on Victor's self-image and physical description of Elizabeth is excellent, but you totally ignore any problems the novel raises for you after Victor departs for the university. These are major omissions.

Dennis's second to last sentence is great, and focused on a problem I hadn't really noticed.