Mary Shelley’s presentation of women in ‘Frankenstein’ is one of the novel’s great paradoxes, in that they are held in almost reverential regard, yet still remain crudely objectified and viewed as possessions. This idea is first made clearly evident in Victor’s first description of his “cousin” Elizabeth, “a child fairer than pictured cherub”, giving Victor’s “more than sister” an almost celestial air. However, one could argue that this deification of women is a mere pretence- what Victor actually respects is beauty and the bearer of this beauty, little more than a glittering prize. Only the physical beauty of Elizabeth is described in Chapter One, with no mention of any other attribute, while on the other hand, the idea of possessing women is alluded to on several occasions: Victor’s mother describes her adopted daughter as “a pretty present for my Victor” and her “promised gift” with Victor often employing the simple yet oddly eerie possessive “mine”, suggesting that although Victor adores his “pretty present”, he considers himself dominant over Elizabeth, hence his perceived duty of responsibility to her. Chapter One closes wing reg foreboding phrase “til death she was to be mine only”, which shall only gain significance as the novel progresses.
Victor’s view of women in ‘Frankenstein’ possesses several clear examples of misogyny, most glaringly in that he describes every women who is even moderately close to him with suspicious similarities. From Caroline Beaufort to Justine Moritz, each women shares the common theme of self-sacrifice; Caroline tends to her father in sickness, then sacrifices herself for Elizabeth, Justine tends to Caroline in sickness, then sacrifices herself for the Frankenstein family, and Elizabeth cares for both her mother and Victor in sickness, and then, perhaps unknowingly- though possibly not to Victor- sacrifices herself for him. Victor views all of these women as noble, selfless, domestic goddesses, embodying the Victorian ideal of femininity of ‘The Angel in the House’, which is supported by the deified portrayal of women and their selfless values typical of the Bible. However, despite all of these highly revered ideals, Victor is never seen to lift a finger to help them in any case. Had he, for example, made Elizabeth’s speech in defence of the innocent Justine, the “simple and powerful appeal” might have made an impact on the- also clearly sexist- judges and in turn spared on of the indirect victims of his experiment. With regard to Mellor’s feminist interpretation of the novel, ‘The Female in Frankenstein’, Victor’s inherent doubts over marriage, and more importantly, the consummation of his marriage with Elizabeth is shown to explain his apparent failure to realise that it is of course his fiancee who the monster references when he makes the threat “I will be with you on your wedding night”. But these issues, as well as his suppressed fear of female sexuality should not impede upon his relationship with Justine. It can just as easily be but simple misogyny as much as cowardice that prevents Victor’s defence of a person who could “dissipate” his “ill humour…with just one glance”.
Another interesting aspect of the portrayal of women, or more precisely, females can be gleaned from analysis of the Creature’s perspective. Frankenstein’s creation can be often be seen as a physical manifestation of Victor’s own repressed sadistic pleasure at not only destruction, but an even more augmented misogyny. The monster eschews the sense of duty that his creator feels to deify yet objectify females, removing all of the supposed decorum that accompanied Victor’s misogyny. The Creature simply desires the presence, the existence of a female to live with him. Just as Elizabeth’s letters to Victor allude to a more sisterly than a romantic love, describing her apparent betrothed husband as her “playmate”, so do the monster’s feelings towards the female seem devoid of any romantic language or even passion- until the female is destroyed, just as Victor only embraces Elizabeth “with ardour” after her own destruction. This corroborates with David Colling’s psychoanalytical dissection of Victor in ‘The Monster and the Maternal Thing’, furthering the parallels between Victor and his creation. If the Creature truly does represent Victor’s ‘dark side’, an arguable reason for Victor’s destruction of the female is that his conscience could not comprehend the realisation and proceeding manifestation of his own darkest misogynistic desires in the form of the female monster, who Victor considers to be little more than a vessel from which the race of monsters could be expanded.
In contrast, the portrayal of women within the De Lacey family is far less sexist. Agatha is frequently described in the process of doing various jobs around the house” “bearing the pail of milk” and is recounted by the Creature as being constantly employed “in various laborious occupations”. This appears a fairer atmosphere than the, oddly enough, equally idyllic depictions of Geneva, where the upper class women to whose habits Frankenstein is so accustomed seem constrained by a comparatively patriarchal society. And while Felix bravely rides selflessly to the aid of Safie, and painstakingly teaches her to read and write, showing how deeply he cares for her, Frankenstein, though it is perfectly within his power, does not make any attempt to spare Justine from the hangman’s noose during her trial. In a way, it is as if society in the Frankenstein and De Lacey households has undergone a role reversal; it could be argued that Felix devotes himself as selflessly to Safie as, for example, Caroline Beaufort attends to her dying father.
Finally it is important to consider Shelley’s own experience of the role of women in her contemporary society. Her mother, Mary Woolestonecroft was a revolutionary feminist, and her 1792 publication of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ was a milestone in terms of progression of women’s rights, and there is evidence to suggest that her daughter inherited at least a few of these sympathies. However, these sympathies are juxtaposed from her desire to be part of a simple, nuclear domestic family, ultimately an unattainable fantasy, as marriage to the controversial figure of Percy Shelley could never have guaranteed this dream of domestic bliss. So many female characters seem to be based on ‘The Angel in the House’ that one wonders, as the author did, if this alien idea of “domestic contentment” can ever really be realised. On the surface, for example, the Frankensteins appear to have done so, yet upon close inspection the questionable age gap between Victor’s parents and the quasi-incestuous element of Victor’s sexuality could demonstrate Shelley’s resignation to the fact that no marriage, however much it may appear so, is ever truly perfect.
The presentation of women in ‘Frankenstein’ is an incredibly complex one. The deep contrast between the Frankenstein and De Lacey households is the most conspicuous, yet the initially similar attitudes of both Victor and the Creature belie several crucial idiosyncrasies which set them apart, and these idiosyncrasies are ultimately why the female was destroyed. The depiction of women, particularly in Frankenstein’s family, could well be an indication that in striving for, in this case, familial perfection and contentment, narrow-mindedness can prevent otherwise glaring imperfections to come to light, and this is Shelley’s most important reason why her own pursuit of domestic bliss is futile: ‘Frankenstein’ ironically demonstrates that, at least in Shelley’s eyes, domestic bliss simply does not exist, and because of human nature, cannot function.
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