Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman arguing for the fair and equal treatment of women. Therefore, it is difficult to understand how the daughter of one of the leading feminists during the Romantic era could create a novel that is devoid of any strong females, or really any female roles at all.
In Frankenstein, all of the narrators are men and the audience rarely hears the women’s side of the events. It is easy to point to Mary Shelley’s novel as a perfect example of sexism during her times and the relegation of all females to supporting roles, and to say that this is a negative move towards equity; however, Mary Shelley creates the tragedy of Frankenstein to demonstrate the horrors that may occur if women’s perspectives are ignored. The sidelining of all female characters directly corresponds to Victor’s routine poor choices; therefore, Shelley is making a truly feminist point: women are the real backbone of society.
In the eighteenth century English society, females were second class citizens compared to their male counterparts. They were seen as possessions, protected by men, and only useful in order to carry out their duties of daughter, sister, mother, and wife. It was unheard of for them to complain or even act as if their lives were not perfect. A married woman had no separate legal identity; her existence was ‘covered’ under that of her husband. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was originally unsuccessful until news came out about her relationship as the wife of Percy Shelley.
Shelley only became successful as Percy Shelley’s wife, not as Mary- a perfect example of the degradation and relegation of women in Mary’s society. From the opening of the novel, the portrayal of Victor in Frankenstein is overflowing with traditional male archetypes and roles. Victor demonstrates detachment from domestic life; rather, he possess an obsession in the pursuit and attainment of their goals. Victor Frankenstein encapsulates the masculine archetype with his systematic and self controlled disposition. Frankenstein’s “days and nights in vaults and charnel houses” where he “lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (78) bespeak to a focused, driven nature which borders on an obsession with fame and fortune. Throughout Frankenstein’s research and adventure, he also displays a careless neglect of his domestic, social obligations, routine delaying his marriage to Elizabeth, and abandonment of his family.
Victor’s behaviors underscore a selfishness evident through his indifference to his friends, loved ones, and others in his path to success and international acclaim. In such a way, male characters in Frankenstein portray the male sex as exceedingly self-absorbed and single-minded, or in other words, as the embodiment of Victorian traits, contributing to the great tragedy of Frankenstein and his Creature. The women in Frankenstein, on the other hand, are described as portraying self-contradictory qualities. Elizabeth is described as “docile and good-tempered”, yet “gay and playful”(66). Elizabeth’s role in Frankenstein is of the model Victorian woman whose sole joy in life is tending to her husband and family. In addition, the phrase “gentle and affectionate disposition” is routinely used to identify Elizabeth with her role as the primary caregiver for the family and, specifically, Victor. The repetition of “affection” to describe not only Elizabeth but almost all of the female characters further calls attention to the thread of a warm and tender disposition which is common among the female characters in Frankenstein.
In both description and action, Mary Shelley’s female characters routinely play a motherly and domestic role for the men-allowing the men to go off on adventures and discoveries while waiting patiently, just as a good Victorian woman should, for their inevitable return. The explanation for the lack of leading females in the novel can be further explored by the fact that Victor tries to take females out of the equation altogether by creating his own person, without the need for reproduction in the natural sense. Victor attempts to become god and disrupt the natural order of the world. Consequently, it is no surprise that Victor’s creation is unbalanced and ostracised from society immediately. Victor attempts to become God by ridding the world of who he believes is the weaker sex;he tries to make women obsolete.
If the Creature had been created with a more balanced and less selfish origin, it is very probable the many of the his actions would be avoided. Frankenstein’s creature is well aware of the madness that results from parental neglect, since he murders Elizabeth in order to hurt his creator as deeply as possible. Frankenstein’s folly of attempting to erase women from necessity results in the death of his wife. Even when her life is threatened, however, Frankenstein still holds the game of wits between himself and his monster above protecting Elizabeth. Instead of staying with her and guarding her on his wedding night, he patrols the premises: “She left me, and I continued some time walking up and down the passages of the house and inspecting every corner that might afford a retreat to my adversary…when suddenly I heard a shrill and dreadful scream” (173).
In addition, all of Victor’s bad decisions are a result of his ignorance and stubbornness towards females. Victor needs to make himself the protagonist and main star of all experiences. He takes others’ stories and changes the focus to him, ending up causing great tragedies to everyone close to him.
Thus, if women were allowed to take a larger role in Victor’s society, this novel would have quite possibly taken a better turn than it did. At its core, Frankenstein illustrates that the female gender roles of nineteenth-century British society are not simply accessory to men. Shelley does not simply foreground women’s maternal significance but elevates its importance to parity with men’s social roles. Although Frankenstein will not pass for a “feminist” text by today’s standards; in presenting the flaws of misogyny within her current culture, Shelley goes so far as to emphasize the importance of females in a successful world. More crucially, Shelley turns the contemporary gender doctrine on its head – she relegates each character to their culturally assigned jobs, and stations women with only the caregiving and child-rearing roles and sidelines of society. Shelley portrays the indispensability of women in modern cultures.
Although their role may seem insignificant due to their lack of any leading roles, Caroline Frankenstein, Justine Moritz, Elizabeth Lavenza, Safie, Mrs. Saville, and even the female monster are truly the main focus of Shelley’s gothic work of art. Thus, Shelley strongly echoes the thought of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who famously advocated for widespread women’s education in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, on largely similar grounds. It is integral to equal representation in popular media that women continue to contribute to the largely male dominated work sector of fictional writing.
Women’s historical roles in fiction may be small and insignificant; however, that can be solved through the inclusion of women’s voices in both literature and other culturally impactful