Elizabeth, the Monster and Patriarchy Essay
Elizabeth, the Monster and Patriarchy
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, some blatant parallels are made between Dr. Frankenstein’s adopted sister, Elizabeth, and the monster he created. Both of these innocent creatures, together represent all of mankind in their similarities and differences, Elizabeth being the picture of womanhood and goodness, the monster representing manhood and evil. Both Elizabeth and the monster belong to and structure their lives in terms of Dr. Frankenstein, leading to overall destruction and, ultimately demonstrating the dangerous properties of patriarchy, which Dr. Frankenstein embodies.
Dr. Frankenstein begins his narrative, most logically, in telling the story of his childhood.
Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s mother was a loving, benevolent woman, moved by the plight of the impoverished and forever doing all in her power to give charity to those in need. It was thus that she came across a poor Italian family with a flock of dirty children, one of them stood out, she was blond and fair and especially angelic. Victor’s mother decided that it was her duty to raise this blond girl as her own, or, rather, as Victor’s own. This girl was Elizabeth who is, in a way, given to Victor as a gift, and thus begins his unnatural relationship with power and creation;
“On the evening previous to [Elizabeth] being brought to my home, my mother had said
playfully, ‘I have a pretty present for my Victor-tomorrow he shall have it.’ And when,
on the morrow, she presented Elizabeth to me as her promised gift, I, with childish
seriousness, interpreted her words literally and looked upon Elizabeth as mine-mine to
protect, love, and cherish.” (56)
On her deathbed, Victor’s mother expresses her desire for the ultimate union of Victor and Elizabeth. The fate of Elizabeth is thus utterly dependent upon Victor’s, and Victor’s relationship with his fellow humans is forever grossly twisted due to his near ownership of Elizabeth. The arrangement of their odd marriage is never questioned by either one of them, and neither are ever able to repair their relationships with other people/beings, their experiences being so inhuman.
In his college years, Victor develops a desire, and acquires the necessary knowledge, to actually create life. After just a couple of extremely productive years at the University, Dr. Frankenstein discoveries an amazing thing, he states in his narration; “After days and nights of incredible labor and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” (51) But it was not enough for Dr. Frankenstein merely to know how to give life, he had to do it himself. His goal was far from modest, he planned to create not a frog or a fruit fly, but a man.
Dr. Frankenstein was excited by the power of his act, he likened himself to god, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source: many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” (52) Victor’s egotism and corollary want for power frame him in the classic definition of the Patriarch. He believes that whatever he creates will love and cherish his being for the mere fact of his being its creator, his word is the final word and the right word
The being that Dr. Frankenstein creates is the monster of the novel, this monster is at once an independent being, and a possession. It is the beautiful being that Dr. Frankenstein longed would look up to its supreme creator with servile gratitude. Dr. Frankenstein did not fully understand how horrific was his deed, until it had been done, regarding his first glimpse at the now living creature, Frankenstein remarked, “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?”
In the monster’s first moment of consciousness, he stretched out his arm towards his creator, a sign of ultimate compassion and the gratitude for which Dr. Frankenstein had longed. Dr. Frankenstein responds by turning his back and running. Dr. Frankenstein embodies the irresponsible leader, the unfeeling man, the Patriarch with grand intentions but no means of the necessary compassion.
During the time in which Dr. Frankenstein is away from home, studying in the University, he receives a multitude of letters from the longing Elizabeth, and replies to none. Elizabeth remains at home in Switzerland, fulfilling her womanly duties to the Frankenstein family, her only hope for future happiness lies in her marriage with Victor, for she is nothing without him. The power that Dr. Frankenstein holds over Elizabeth has striking similarities to the dynamic of power he described as desiring over his creations. The pattern of neglect that Frankenstein demonstrates first with Elizabeth, then with the monster does not seem to phase their unconditional, and unreasonable, love for him.
Dr. Frankenstein does not think of Elizabeth as an equal, for she is a woman, and he does not think of the monster as even a man, for he created him. Within a Patriarchy, the government feels justified in its neglectful actions for it feels itself better than the women and low lifes over which it rules. Just as a population allows their government to proceed with its cruel deeds without question, so do Elizabeth and the monster initially turn a blind eye to the evil acts of Dr. Frankenstein.
Elizabeth and the monster are not only similar in their actions relative to Dr. Frankenstein, but both seem to occupy quite the opposite end of the spectrum of humanity. Elizabeth is submissive and self-sacrificing. She is blond and fair-skinned and described as “angelic”. Elizabeth encompasses womanhood and goodness at once. The monster, on the other hand, ends up dedicating his life to the destruction of Dr. Frankenstein’s livelihood. The monster is ugly, the mere sight of him puts people into shock. The monster is a self described “fallen angel” and he even likens himself to Adam, the first man. Thus the monster encompasses evil and manhood at once. Elizabeth and the monster together represent all of man, the oppressed, the poor, the ugly and the helpless victims of a system built to benefit a select few. While Dr. Frankenstein represents the ruling class, Elizabeth and the monster together represent the under-privileged ruled class.
War is a classically male act. War is the tool and the game of the Patriarchy and the innocent civilians are its pawns. When Dr. Frankenstein oversteps the limits of human power, he takes control over things for which man should not be responsible, he states “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through.” In commencing a war, the Patriarch puts himself in charge of the lives and deaths of many men, an extremely unnatural act. When Dr. Frankenstein meddles with the natural limits of life and death, he is creating the chaos of war in his own life. The death and destruction which results from Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, the death of his younger brother William, Justine and Elizabeth, are merely examples of the multitude of unnecessary deaths caused by the Patriarchal wars.
Just as many wars could have been prevented through simple negotiations, had it not been for the arrogance of one man with too much power, so too could have the destruction in Frankenstein have been prevented had Dr. Frankenstein merely conceded with the monster’s simple request, with which he ended his own narrative; “My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create.”(137). Had Dr. Frankenstein for once done something for someone other than himself, in this case, create a female companion for the monster, many lives could have been saved.
Shelley was clearly making the statement that the absence of womanly compassion in government is what leads to unnecessary destruction in war. In creating a man, Dr. Frankenstein takes on, unnaturally, a woman’s role, it is thus that he can neglect Elizabeth, deeming her unnecessary. This is the biggest mistake at all. Just as Elizabeth, or any woman, was left out of the creation of this man, so has woman been neglected from the makings of governments and societal structures in Patriarchies everywhere. Elizabeth and the monster represent a balance that Dr. Frankenstein lacks, because he rejects everything feminine and human, he must bear the consequences.
At the time this book was written, many technological advances were being made, discoveries in science were flourishing and scientists themselves were gaining the highest forms of respect. Unfortunately, due to the style of government and power structures at the time, these incredible advances benefited everyone but women and the poor. Infant mortality was still very high and other health issues related to women were being utterly ignored by the scientific community, which seemed to have no place for femininity. Shelley displays this discrepancy in the novel first with the many deaths of mothers, Elizabeth’s mother, Dr. Frankenstein’s mother, Clerval’s mother and Justine’s mother all died relatively early on in the novel. While Dr. Frankenstein could create life, no one could seem to save a mother in childbirth or make food for a starving family. To emphasize the lack of female influence in science, Dr. Frankenstein completes the most womanly act there is, creation of life, without a woman.
Dr. Frankenstein’s unnatural power over Elizabeth and the monster eventually lead to the destruction of them all. It is not long before the roles are reversed between the Doctor and the monster. While the monster is initially enslaved to the doctor, by the end of the novel the doctor believes himself to be the slave of the monster. It is Dr. Frankenstein’s arrogant, patriarchal ego that gets his true love killed, his power destroys his life. Dr. Frankenstein’s divergence from all that is feminine and human led to chaos for all. Because Dr. Frankenstein dedicates his life to vengeance against the monster for the murder of Elizabeth, he becomes the slave of both the monster and Elizabeth: the tables turned. In the last moments of Dr. Frankenstein’s life, he cries
“Scoffing devil! Again do I vow vengeance; again do I devote thee, miserable fiend, to torture and death. Never will I give up my search until he or I perish; and then with what ecstasy shall I join my Elizabeth and my departed friends, who even now prepare me for the reward of my tedious toil and terrible pilgrimage.” (195)
Just as conditions must sometimes reach their lowest point before the people break into revolution, and their rulers never renounce their sins in life, so did the worst type of destruction have to occur before Dr. Frankenstein realized what his role must be.
Mary Shelley lived in a time when a woman novelist was believed to be putting her name on her husband’s work, the advancement of technology ran beyond human interests and only the rich received some sort of security against sudden death and rampant disease. Shelley saw the chaos and destruction that resulted from unequal representation in a power-hungry, Patriarchal government. Elizabeth and the monster embody the missing aspects of this un-representative ruling class; compassion and humanity, it is the absence of these things that Shelley displays the horrific result of in her novel. Frankenstein is more than a ghost story, it is a social narrative and a political manifesto.