Mary Shelley’s portrayal of Victor Frankenstein and his thoughts and actions towards the female characters of the novel demonstrates the stark division between the status of men and women. This is peculiar because of Shelley’s background as the daughter of two progressive individuals that would lead one to believe that Frankenstein would have a strong female lead. However, the women in the novel were deemed subservient and secondary. Although Shelley’s portrayal of women fits this larger 18th-century stereotype, she uses this portrayal to comment on her era’s norms as demonstrated through their relationships towards the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein.
This paper will highlight how Shelley’s characterization of the females in her novel help to progress Victor Frankenstein’s thoughts and decisions to ultimately shed light on gender inequality during this era. Shelley’s upbringing in a fairly liberal household coupled with 18th-century gender norms clarifies many of the representations of women she writes about in her novel.
Her father, William Godwin, championed idealistic liberalism through his advanced writings on atheism, anarchism, and personal freedom. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a passionate advocate of education and social equality for women, writing the trailblazing work of feminism, A Vindication of the Rights of Women .
However, this was contrasted by the reality of society. Traditionally, “chastity, compliance, delicacy, and modesty” were the qualities ascribed to women during this time, who were shielded from society until they were married and settled down. Even so, women were still not considered equal to men in most respects.
Shelley characterizes the females in her novel in this way as passive, disposable, and serving a utilitarian function. However, this disparity between men and women is more nuanced than many believe, shedding light on gender inequality during this time period. Shelley embodies this ethereal woman of her era through Elizabeth Lavena, Victor’s sister by adoption and later his wife. Elizabeth is described as a stunningly beautiful and pure girl who the Frankensteins eventually adopt. Victor describes Elizabeth as “docile and good-tempered, yet gay and playful as a summer insect” (Shelley 29) and “lively and animated.” She was an individual who seemed to “shed radiance for looks,” showered with love by the Frankenstein family. Victor grows somewhat affectionate towards his bride-to-be, with Shelley writing Elizabeth as being “the most fragile creature in the world” to Victor (Shelley, 30).
This traditional female gender role is further embodied when Elizabeth takes over the maternal duties of the Frankenstein family in the wake of Victor’s mother’s death. However, Shelley subliminally makes Victor view Elizabeth as the submission sex by subtly degrading her by writing “I Victor looked upon Elizabeth as mine–mine to protect, love and cherish till death she was to be mine only” (Shelley 30). Shelley objectifies Elizabeth which exemplifies the societal norm that women should be submissive to men. By doing so, she is able to comment on her era’s norms. Through Justine Moritz, Shelley highlights the lack of rights and abilities women have during her era. Although she appears briefly, she plays a pivotal role in the development of Victor Frankenstein’s character. Justine, a servant to the Frankenstein family, is framed for the murder of William, Victor’s brother. Despire all of the evidence presented, Elizabeth and Victor do not believe that this woman is guilty. Elizabeth believes in the goodness of Justine, portrayed by the fond way she describes Justine as “very clever and gentle and extremely pretty” letters to Victor (Shelley 71).
Justine carries herself calmly at the trial, answering the charges, and getting a stunning defense from Elizabeth. Although Justine and Elizabeth both plead innocence, Justine is ultimately convicted of the crime. Justine embodies the archetypal perfect woman of innocence, kindness, beauty and nurturing. However, she was not able to defend herself properly in court because of her gender and social status. Moreover, Elizabeth was not able to protect Justine because of her gender. The only person who would be able to save Justine from her fate was Victor. However, for his own reasons, he chooses not to speak out in her defense. Shelley uses this trial of Justine to call to the attention of women during this era. Shelley’s portrayal of Victor Frankenstein and his plight in constructing a female creature testifies the gap between men and women. At the beginning of the novel, Victor did not have any qualms about creating a male monster. However, when asked to create a female monster, he hesitates due to the fear that the female version “might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of a man; she might quit him, and be again alone,” (Shelley 202).
This solidifies the concept that women during this era were to be submissive to men. Furthermore, Victor discusses the potential chaos that may unfold if this female creature were to mate with the male creature. He fears that the female creature will bear children and is concerned about the long-term consequences for society of creating a mate for the male creature. Shelley creates this predicament in relation to these hypothetical scenarios to highlight the lack of agency women had. Shelley’s characterization of women in her novel Frankenstein enables her to indirectly comment on her era’s gender inequality through how each woman influences Victor Frankenstein’s thoughts and emotions. By illustrating each woman as the archetype of women during the 18th century, Shelley is able to bring to light the oppression that many women face. She does this in such a way that allows the reader to feel empathetic towards these women.