Monday, November 16, 2009

Frankenstein and the Depiction of Women

The three women characters in Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein experience horrific events including brutal murder and degradation of their female roles. The women in Frankenstein represent the treatment of women in the early 1800’s. Shelley’s incorporation of suffering and death of her female characters portrays that in the 1800’s it was acceptable. The women in the novel are treated as property and have minimal rights in comparison to the male characters. The feminist critic would find that in Frankenstein the women characters are treated like second class citizens. The three brutal murders of the innocent women are gothic elements which illustrates that women are inferior in the novel. The destruction and creation of women in the gothic novel Frankenstein depicts the unimportance of women in the novel’s society.
The women in Frankenstein are forced to be submissive, a trait that illustrates their submission towards men. Victor treats Elizabeth as a possession instead of a human being and believes that any compliment she gets derives from his doing. Elizabeth acts docile around Victor and accepts that she is a second class citizen. “All praises bestowed on her, I received as made to a possession of my own” (Shelley 44). The novel takes place in a patriarchal society where man is the powerful figure and woman is obedient to his every wish. Women accept that they are second class citizens because that is the culture they are raised to follow. Women in Frankenstein are forced to act mannerly because that is how men classified an attractive woman. Women are forces to act passive because men deprive them of their individual rights. “ Like Elizabeth’s destruction, the monsterette’s creation and destruction dramatize how women do not function in their own right but rather as signs and conduits for men’s relations with other men” (Smith 323). Elizabeth is the fiancée of Victor Frankenstein who frequently pushes back their wedding constantly. Victor pushes back the wedding so he can find time to complete his creation of man. Elizabeth and other female characters in the novel express their passivity by acting chaste around men to be seen as proper. “The saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a shrine-decorated lamp in our peaceful home. Her sympathy was ours; her smile, her soft voice, the sweet glance of her celestial eyes…” (Shelley 45). Elizabeth is an attractive woman because she presents herself as a beatific young woman who abides to her role as a servant to man. Elizabeth’s docile and holy presence is an example of how women in Shelley’s novel are supposed to act around men. Elizabeth shows her docile nature because she was once an orphan like Justine, a servant to the Frankenstein family.
Elizabeth’s mother Caroline acts saintly like her daughter Elizabeth. Caroline sacrifices her life when she aids Elizabeth to recover from a severe case of Scarlet Fever. Caroline remains gentle and proper free from anger or blame on her deathbed. Caroline “Died calmly; and her countenance expressed affection even in death” (Shelley 50). Women in the novel are portrayed as docile while the men are depicted as angry and wild. Victor Frankenstein is extremely hot-blooded and ill- tempered. “My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement” (Shelley 45). The men characters expect woman characters to be gentle to counteract their violent nature. However, the woman characters in Frankenstein lose their voices and rights when counteracting man’s vehemence.
The passive dispositions of women characters in Frankenstein are symbolic to how women are deemed as unimportant figures in the novel’s society and how they are controlled by the male characters. The definition of a symbol is an object or a word that represents another object. The main character, Elizabeth, possesses a calmer disposition than her brother who is more intense and violent. Elizabeth’s docile nature represents how she becomes a play-thing to young Victor. “I looked upon Elizabeth as mine- mine to protect, love, and cherish” (Shelley 44). Elizabeth is described as a possession rather than an individual. Many women like Elizabeth are treated as though they are not capable of making their own decisions and need a man to guide them. Elizabeth symbolizes how women in the 1800’s are treated like things rather than human beings and how they are easily manipulated like toys. Elizabeth’s gentle repressive nature represents how women are oppressed in Frankenstein’s society.
Another character, Justine, is an innocent young Catholic woman who remains silent although convicted of murder. Justine, despite her innocence, is sentenced to death by a jury of men. She is accused because she falls ill and exhibits abnormal behavior. She never puts up a violent struggle to fight for her life but willingly takes the death penalty for a crime she had nothing to do with. Justine’s silence symbolizes how she is dictated to act quietly and humble since she is a women. Feminist critic Ross Murfin notes that “So many women characters in Frankenstein embrace the domestic life that the novel might seem to advocate the doctrine of separate spheres…” (303).Although people may agree that Shelley promoted the unequal gender role of females, the author of this paper argues that Shelley emphasized the oppression and brutality of women in order to have her voice heard.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, two female characters are brutally murdered by the ignorance of Victor and his monstrous creation. Justine receives the death penalty despite that she is innocent and did not commit the crime. The decision made by man dictates the brutal fate ahead for Justine. They accuse her of being guilty and she dies silently. The deaths of the innocent women make the novel Frankenstein a compelling piece of Gothic fiction. According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms, Cuddon states that “Most gothic novels are tales of mystery and horror, intended to chill the spine and curdle the blood” (Gothic novel). The horrific deaths represent the gothic elements pertaining to women to represent their lowly treatment by men in society. Victor, the main character becomes responsible for the deaths of Elizabeth, Justine, and William. The horrific monster kills the innocent women and he becomes the eerie gothic element in Shelley’s novel. The novel is chilling and haunting because of the deaths of the innocent caused by a grotesque morbid monster. The monster kills Elizabeth because she is a possession of worth to Victor. Women characters in Frankenstein are possessions by the males to serve their sexual passions. “Elizabeth dies not because she is Elizabeth but because she is Victor’s object of desire” (Smith 322). Elizabeth is killed not because she has individual significance, but because she is a belonging of Victor that satisfies his needs and desires. She is killed because Victor denies the fulfillment of the monster’s request for the female monster. The female monster is destroyed by Victor because she is insignificant and second in comparison to Victor, a male. “…Elizabeth and the monsterette are simply counters in the struggle between Victor and the monster” (Smith 323). The struggles between the monster and Victor are solely what dictate the fate of the lives of innocent female characters Elizabeth and the female monster.
The destruction of the one female monster demonstrates how she is thoughtlessly killed because she had the ability of power. The male monster desires a female monster for her company and Victor creates her. Victor realizes that “… In all probability [she] was to become a thinking and reasoning animal who might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation” (Shelley 144). The female monster was feverishly destroyed because Victor’s feared her individual power and thoughts. She has the ability to become the opposite of how women are forced to act in society and become a rebellious and powerful individual. The female monster is destroyed because she has no rights as a female and is treated not as a life but as an object. Victor the dominant male figure plays the role of God by destroying her. That “…Victor excludes the ugly monster indicates again how strictly men control the domestic sphere” (Smith 323). Victor ignores the monster and destroys his future mate, events that signify that the male characters in Frankenstein are important and female characters have no rights or say in society. Elizabeth is murdered by the monster as the monster’s revenge against Victor. Women are merely the possessions of man that are the objects of revenge. The monster kills Elizabeth because he knows that is Victor’s most precious possession, and he destroys her out of jealousy.
It is symbolic that the women in the Frankenstein novel are deprived of their instinctive female role to procreate when Victor created the monster. To be born from the tainted blood of an oppressed woman is not where man wants to come from. Instead, man uses science to create new life without the presence of a woman. Women are so degraded in society that they are created in the novel through a scientific process devoid of the female incubator. “In sum, Frankenstein’s descent is a grotesque art of lovemaking, the son stealing the womb that bore him in order to implant his seed” (Sherwin 885). Victor partakes in the grotesque act of joining animal and human body parts to create the male and female monster without the need of a female body. This separation of body parts represents an act of power that can be compared to Victor’s sexuality. Victor realizes that life is capable of being made by the most powerful members of society, and that women are completely useless to their society since now their only talent has been removed by science.
The female character is destroyed by Victor because she represents power and rebellious thought. Victor conjures up that the female monster could become more grotesque and vehement than the monster which fulfilled his reason for why he destroyed her body. “…She might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness” (Shelley 144).The monster is destroyed because Victor is afraid to create a female monster because she can create inside her own body more monsters to populate the earth with. “…And a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make every existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror” (Shelley 144). The female monster is feared by Victor since she has the ability to increase the amount of daemons in the world and heighten the amount of terror on earth. The result of destroying a female monster that has been artificially created depicts how women can easily be created and destroyed in the novel. The women in this society are shackled by the power of man who have their stolen every right, power, and ability.
Consider the roles of women through various time periods and notice how many of them had to face similar plights as the women in Frankenstein face. Many women like those in Shelley’s novel suffer from inequality and oppression. Many women are treated like property and are deprived of rights that men have. The women are murdered and one is created in Shelley’s novel which represents how quickly women can be replaced. Even in present day women still face the challenges of competing against men. In the early 1800’s, women are clearly presented in the novel as classless individuals who are forced to comply as submissive beings living under the wing of man, the dominant leader in Frankenstein society.

Works Cited
“Gothic novel.” A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Ed. J.A. Cuddon. 4th ed. N.p.: Blackwell Publishers LTD, 1998. Print.
Murfin, Ross C. “Feminist Criticism and Frankenstein.” Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Ed. Johanna M Smith. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2000. 296-305. Print.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. Johanna M Smith. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/. Martins, 2000. Print.
Sherwin, Paul. “Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe.” PMLA 96.5 (1981): 883-903. JSTOR. Web. 16 Oct. 2009. .
Smith, Johanna. “’Cooped up’ with ‘Sad Trash.’” Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Ed. Johanna M Smith. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2000. 313-331. Print.
Murfin, Ross C. “Feminist Criticism and Frankenstein.” ” Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Ed. Johanna M Smith. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2000. 296-305. Print.
Smith, Johanna M. ed. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Ed.. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2000. Print.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Hi there! Thanks for the article! Just so you know, your profile says you received "cumma sum laude" and it's actually "summa cum laude" - with (cum) the highest (summa) praise (laude). Sorry if this is a weird comment, but it'd be a shame to get that honor and then bungle it on your resume or something.