Mary Shelley has constructed her gothic novel, Frankenstein, to include an array of passive female leads. This would not be unheard of in 1818, however Shelley was the daughter of an important feminist, and she herself possessed many of these same values and perspectives. With that in mind it can easily been understood that Shelley has constructed her novel to purposely be almost devoid of strong female leads in order criticise the social stereotypes of her time and the women who conformed to these, while the men in their lives dominated them.
Shelley directly contrasts her passive characters to that of Safie, who is a relative success story compared with the fate of the other female characters. Safie embodies the life that women can have if they challenge their inferior role in society and this can be shown through analyses and comparisons of and between her and characters such as Justine, Caroline, Elizabeth and the female creature.
Safie is used to highlight the passivity of the other female characters. She contradicts the stereotype that women should adopt a mother-like role as a carer and guardian. She challenges the domesticated, family orientated and victimised imagery of women who are dependant on men to support their lifestyle. Safie’s contradictory personality is shown through certain quotes in the novel, such as when it is stated that, “When alone, Safie resolved in her own mind the plan of conduct that it would be her to pursue….” The use of the phrase ‘resolved…in her own mind’ indicates a level of individual thought that the other females do not posses due to the restraints placed on them by society and the men who exert control over them.
A strong contrast can be made between the characterisation of Safie in comparison to other female characters in the novel. This was done with purposeful intent to convey that women can be equal if they challenge their social stereotypes. Of course Safie still displays feminine qualities, which can be seen in Frankenstein when she nurses her ill attendant with “devoted attention” – a compassionate trait that conforms to the expectations of women. Despite this, Safie still remains the only surviving female protagonist of Frankenstein, thus being the embodiment of what women are able to accomplish if only they were to be brave enough to break free of their restraints and strive for change.
Justine Moritz is an example of a submissive female character that conforms to society’s expectations that women should be weak, beautiful and unrecognised as an important part of society. Justine is the target of pity from both the audience and other characters in the text from the very start because she was rescued from a broken family with an abusive mother and dying siblings. Justine is then wrongly accused of the murder of William Frankenstein; however, despite her innocence she confesses to the crime because it is what is expected of her. Justine represents the stereotype of how women are expected to be well endowed in appearance and she is often described by other characters as “very clever and gentle and extremely pretty” and Elizabeth spoke of Justine’s “softness and winning mildness”.
These traits are all representations of Justine’s conformity to society’s expectations. Throughout her trial, Justine makes little effort to protest her innocence and accepts false guilt for the crime, “God knows how entirely I am innocent. But I do not pretend that my protestations should acquit me…”. This is also supported when she states, “I must be condemned, although I would pledge my salvation on my innocence”. Justine confesses because of her weakness under the judgemental glare of society, and is executed as a result. Through Justine’s experiences, Mary Shelley is highlighting the negative consequences of giving in to the pressures of society.
Shelley is showing that if Justine was to have remained strong and protested her unjust trial, which was a direct result of her gender, then she may have been able to save herself and place the seed of doubt within the judgemental stereotypes of society, to rise above the oppression placed upon her by men. This contrasts with the assertive nature of Safie, who does not allow herself to be oppressed by the men in her life, mainly her father, and instead chooses to create a fate of her own choosing.
Even less significant, but still present is the female monster, so passive it does not even achieve life, thus supporting that women have little, if any, outstanding role in Frankenstein. The creation of the female monster is absorbed by Victor in fear of being unable to control her actions. This signifies that women are oppressed in the fear that the will be uncontrollable. This is supported when Victor states, “she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate…” signifying his fear of being unable to control her. The importance and expectations of feminine beauty are also impressed upon readers through the female monster.
Shelley is conveying the importance that appearance plays in determining our roles and status in society and showing that if a woman should lack this quality then they will face the harsh reality of how truly cruel society can be in its rejection of the ugly. This is also supported when Victor is thinking about his female creation and says, “the creature…already…loathed his deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form”.
This expectation for women is also shown when Victor says he is “concerned with the outward substance of things”. Shelley is therefore criticising the submissive nature of those women in society who both do and do not possess the flattering looks expected of them for not challenging this. Safie, although beautiful, does not allow her appearance to determine the path her life will take and refuses conform and let her father control her.