Discovering a classic : Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
[Short answers from my gender representation class.]
Are the gender roles somehow different in the movie from the novel? How does Elizabeth in the movie compare to Elizabeth of the novel? What about other female characters?
The relative absence of female characters in Frankenstein already suggests a lot in terms of gender roles. It was Mary Shelley’s choice to have mainly male characters, as she lived in a period of growing female intellectualism. We will compare how both cultural productions use male and female characters, and examine the symbolism that lies in these roles.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and James Whale’s film adaptation (1931), men constitute archetypes: they are explorers, scientists, judges, burgomaster, professors and execute functions of social importance. They represent order, power, knowledge while also embodying the masses during the manhunt in the film, where they gathered in packs, shouted and were raring to eliminate the anomalous criminal. Torches in hands, these men give an idea of thoughtless destruction and puts in perspective that the ones holding power and responsibility are also the ones that may be threatening and abusively unfair, which is also illustrated in the book by the trial of Justine Moritz as the judiciary system fails to prove her innocence. Rightly, despite the lack of evidences and her gentle character –she is named “Justine”-, her trial embodies the deletion of women and emphasises a sense of passiveness towards a society with hostile institutions. She even lies about her involvement.
Instead, women serve the family and the well-being of its members: “your marriage with Elizabeth as the foundation of the happiness of the family”, says Herr Frankenstein. In Frankenstein by James Whale, remains only the character of Elizabeth and, instead of being related to Victor, she is Henry’s fiancée while Victor is attracted to her. This triangular configuration is a first element illustrating her role in the movie: she is here to be loved and to love. Between two male figures, Elizabeth is not a heroine and encompasses stereotypical traits of women such as being care-giving, sensitive and supportive. The scene where she kneels by the side of her fiancé, who sits patrilineally on a chair, underlines her role: being the future wife of a man with ambitions. Also, a man who locks his future wife in a room: what a sign of disregard! This physically excludes women from any decision processes or important matters. Also, the fact that the little girl is killed and that the housemaids appear insignificant and quite childish highlights the absence of women in the film, where, in short, they leave room to men whose ambitions are perverted by their consequences. Mrs Margaret Saville epitomises this conception of women who are voiceless, as the entire story is addressed to her but the epistolary format forces her to only listen and provide — invisible — support through diegetic relief from her brother Watson.
Besides, the intimate and homosocial relationship between Victor and Henry Clerval is more important for Victor’s fate and decisions as Henry brings moral support and shows loyalty. Victor constantly postpones his marriage with Elizabeth, who was raised as a sister, thus foreshadowing the replacement of women in the act of creation.
In both the book and the film, the absence of female figures in proximity of the main character creates a social upheaval — the birth of a monster — a product of society symbolising the unbalanced distribution of power between women and men. Indeed, what is more unnatural and transgressive than giving birth without a mother? This illustrates even more the violation in creation and negligence towards the importance of women in society. This aspect is minimised in the film as Elizabeth is not killed by the monster: she will be able to support Henry’s family, victorious over the monster. Social order is restored. In comparison, Shelley’s Elizabeth served as a revenge and Victor’s family is annihilated. The highest price was paid and Victor devotes his life to a pursuit that will eventually kill him. The book’s ending invites the reader to question the importance of women whereas a first lecture of the film underlies a continuation of gender roles, implicitly depicting a society where women are considered incapable of bringing order. The surmise of Frankenstein, through the numerous and ironic examples of female conditions, is exactly the contrary: the inclusion of women would avoid such disturbances by valuing leading roles in society.
How is the discourse on humanity altered in the 1931 film compared to Mary Shelley’s novel by the introduction of Fritz (the assistant) and the fact that the monster has a “criminal” brain?
While Frankenstein is a horror story, the symbolism of the film and the book goes beyond the sensationalism of monsters and confronts the audience’s prejudices. Whale’s film opens with a new character, Fritz, who is Henry’s assistant and whose appearance does not leave indifferent: he is hunchbacked and “less” of a human — let’s say — as would societal norms on physical appearances dictate in 1931, whereas today correctness would say that he is “handicapped”. The visual choice of introducing Fritz emphasises the relation between humanity and appearances.
In fact, the creature of Frankenstein is enormous and his physical abnormality is highlighted in the film during his first appearance: he first turns his back to the camera which then zooms in on his face as he turns around, revealing his coarse face. Clearly, the film strives to depict a repulsive monster, a creation that failed to be human as he does not look nor speak like a human. Through such deprivations, the film makes opaque the creature’s intellect which forces the audience to adopt the same position as the other characters, where difference and the unknown create fear and deserve rejection.
Unlike the film, Mary Shelley’s creature is not devoid of speech and through his story shows his ability to be sensitive and to reason. His feelings seem very familiar and his vengeful motives are — although reprehensible — valid and understandable in the creator’s point of view. In a way, Shelley’s Frankenstein is the coming-of-age story of a being produced by a society that is bound to hate and reject him. The reader follows the creature’s journey into consciousness, emotions, reason, and identifies with him in the most humane manner: through empathy and shared feelings. Shelley’s book shows a very humane character while the film only gives hints through quick attentions on the creature’s terrorised gaze and look of deception, who is indeed deceived and perverted by society’s violence.
The addition of Fritz’s character indicates that Henry is accustomed to abnormality, to “monsters”, thieves and even to villainy, as Fritz shows himself to be cruel and sees the creature as a beast. Indeed, Fritz scares him with fire further depicting the creature as an animal more than a human. Similarly in the book where the sight of the creature is sufficient to provoke fear, disgust and hatred, Fritz’ spontaneous violence states that the creature does not belong to his kind because of normative values on what a human should or should not be.
Fritz is the ugly side of Henry Frankenstein. Henry’s authoritative attitude is shifted to the character of Fritz, feeding a scheme of violence and rejection. This scene shows great irony as Fritz is himself physically deformed and probably hideous to the audience of 1931 — and 2017? This irony contributes to the critique of the normativity surrounding the definition of humanity. A critique, because exterior features such as the physical appearance seem poorly significant nor relevant in the light of what men can do: the creation of a sentient being without considering its well-being, its desire to have a sense of belonging, that is, with no consideration on the social implications of his creation. The fear towards the creature ostracises him to the point of producing a living threat, lusting for revenge and destruction in the ordered societies of Shelley’s time. Also, the ironical common confusion between Victor Frankenstein and the creature nowadays suggests that this lack of morality is as fearful as the creature itself.
In truth, the creature ultimately reflects how wrong Frankenstein’s society may be. Humanity’s normative character is well-introduced through the “normal” and the “criminal brain” using institutionalised science during the classroom scene. This would legitimate the deterministic supposition that it is the creature’s fate to become murderous, thus justifying his fire-driven sentence. However, the arbitrary association of “abnormal” and “criminal” reflects this normativity values since a criminal brain is in no way abnormal: it would imply an ill-condition of psychopathy which is not necessarily the case in criminality, like in revenge. Also, the brain was acquired in an act of criminality and belonged to a former member of Frankenstein’s own society: this reinforces the idea that the creature becomes violent not because of the brain that was given to him, but because the very conditions of his creation are impregnated with violence and misdeed.
I thought I could post them on here if anyone interested by Frankenstein would stumble upon it and comment !