The Fear of Femaleness: How “Frankenstein” Acts as a Feminist Platform
When the term “feminist text” comes to mind in regard to literature, we typically think of a novel with a strong female lead. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a predominately male oriented novel, strays from this stereotype and instead includes an abundance of subordinate female characters that shape the novel into the feminist text that it is. These characters range from the soft spoken love interest of Victor, Elizabeth, to the strong-willed Safie, to the near creation of the Monster’s female companion. Through male narration, Shelley depicts how these women are thought of and treated by the male characters, even deliberately putting them in situations that subtly frame her own opinion pertaining to feminist ideologies. Frankenstein brings to light the various problems that were, and still are, prominent in the world of women by deliberately portraying them as something weak, disposable, and subservient to men.
The most prominent female character, and first to be introduced, in Frankenstein is Elizabeth, the love interest and soon to be wife of Victor. Although Elizabeth is the most present female character in the novel her importance is nevertheless put behind a majority of the male characters, including Henry Clerval, by Victor. While it is apparent that Victor views Elizabeth with nothing but fondness, it is indisputable that he clearly views her as the submissive sex. Though it is done without any blatant offense toward Elizabeth, Victor subtly degrades her by undermining her entire existence to something that belongs to him, Elizabeth even being predetermined as Victor’s “future wife” (Shelley 20) by his mother when the two are merely children. Gilbert and Gubar elaborate Victor’s “ownership” of Elizabeth through comparison of Frankenstein to Milton’s Paradise Lost, stating “When cherubic Elizabeth joins the family, she seems as ‘heaven-sent’ as Milton’s Eve, as much Victor’s ‘possession’ as Adam’s rib is Adam’s” (Gilbert and Gubar 334). Victor continues to illustrate his perception of Elizabeth, speaking of her as if she is a child and comparing her to animals using comments such as “She was docile and good tempered, yet gay and playful as a summer’s insect” and describing their interactions with comments like “I loved to tend on her, as I should on a favourite animal…” (Shelley 20). Shelley further accentuates the dehumanization Elizabeth by using her as a prop in the Monster’s foul play when seeking revenge against Victor. Elizabeth’s part in the Monster’s vengeance acts as a metaphor to reveal the extent to which she was seen merely as a “possession”, continuously portrayed as an item in the life of the men she is acquainted with. In a feminist context, Elizabeth’s primary role within the novel is to expose the way in which women are viewed and treated by men and society as a whole: submissive, docile, and present for the sole purpose of men’s pleasure and convenience.
Elizabeth’s presence is further utilized by Shelley as a means of revealing her opinion regarding marriage and companionship. Elizabeth’s untimely death on her wedding day ultimately reflects Shelley’s negative attitude toward marriage and relationships that are similar to that of Victor and Elizabeth. The murder of Elizabeth, still in her wedding gown, acts as an extended metaphor for the way Shelley views matrimony: a literal death-wish. However, Shelley does briefly depict the “ideal” companionship between man and woman through the introduction of Safie and Felix. Safie and Felix are not actually legally bound whatsoever, but show deep emotion and loyalty nonetheless, even sparking the desire for a companion in the monster. Shelley not only idealizes Safie as a model companion, but as the epitome of what she considers to be an ideal woman. Safie is depicted as being self-governing, determined, and brave- none of these traits brought on by the validation of men, including her partner. Safie, whose “generous nature” was “outraged by this command”, defies her father’s demands to remain in Turkey and instead travels to Germany by herself to reunite with the DeLacey family and Felix (Shelley 87). Safie completely disregards the customs of her culture in order to prioritize her own desires, not the wants of others, this of which was completely unheard of in young women at the time. However, although Safie is the perfect depiction of this “ideal” female character, her presence in the novel lasts nothing more than a few pages, never to be mentioned again. Safie dissipates into non-existence and becomes nothing more than a fairytale-like story, indicating that, although a woman such as Safie is ideal, women like her are nothing more than a figment of imagination.
Perhaps the strongest figure that is representative of Shelley’s social feminist commentary is the female monster that Victor had agreed to create as a companion for the Monster. Upon beginning the second experiment, Victor begins to doubt his decision, jumping to conclusions regarding the not-yet-existent creature such as:
She who, in all probability, was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation by being deserted by one of his own species. (118)
It is not the monster herself that Victor is fearful of, but the fact that if she were to be created she would have a sense of self, rationale, and human-like needs. As stated by Williams “he’s afraid that she might have her own way of thinking. Female autonomy, in Victor’s eyes, becomes a terrible threat” (Williams). This ideology is further elaborated by Anne K. Mellor through her observation that Victor is afraid solely not just of a free-thinking female, but one “that cannot be controlled by his male creature” (Mellor 360), that is, he fears the prospect of a woman who is disobedient to men. Another taunting fear that Victor faces in creating the female creature is the possibility that she would wish to procreate, resulting in “a race of devils [that] would be propagated upon the earth” even if this be by force with actual human beings (Shelley 119). This notion of a headstrong, sexually liberated female contorts Victor’s obvious perception of women as docile and submissive, scaring him into destroying the female monster, thus allowing him to regain control over females and dismantle the possibility of creating something that is not within the realm of an “ideal” woman. Victor’s termination of the female creature is not just representative of the fear of female autonomy, but of the patriarchal desire to validate men’s superiority over women. All in all, by deliberately including subordinate female characters and highlighting their inferiority to men, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein brings to light this patriarchal desire and the effects this need for power has, shaping the novel into the feminist text that it is.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Eve.” Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism. By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 328–44. Print.
Mellor, Anne K. “Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein.” Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism. By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 355–68. Print.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and J. Paul Hunter. Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.
Williams, Deborah Lindsay. “Monstrosity and Feminism in Frankenstein.”Electra Street. Wordpress, Nov. 2014. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.