Published anonymously in 1818, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus can be considered Mary Shelley’s magnum opus. Considered by many as the first ever work of science fiction, the novel is interwoven with elements of Gothic horror as well as Romanticism. Frankenstein can be seen as a response to the era of Enlightenment that witnessed a rapid development in science and technology. While Frankenstein has had a significant influence on both the literary and cultural spheres, it is also necessary to note how the female is rendered voiceless in the novel, as they become the inferior ‘other’. This paper attempts to look at how the feminine is marginalised and deprived of agency in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Written in epistolary form of narration, Frankenstein is set in the early nineteenth century. It tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a skilled young scientist who brings to life his own creation. However, Victor is horrified by the outcome and rejects the ‘monster’ he brought to life. Abandoned by his creator and mankind as a whole, the creature sets out on a path of wrath and revenge. The novel then takes the readers through the fatal consequences which follow as a result of the unconventional scientific experiment that was Victor’s attempt at ‘playing God’. Frankenstein hence, seems to carry a sense of foreboding with regard to the fatal consequences that come with developing and resorting to “godlike science” which is devoid of any sort of ethics or morals (Shelley 99).
Written by one of the greatest literary figures of her time, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often given the label of a ‘woman’s book’. However, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar begs to differ as they perceive the novel as a portrayal of “woman’s helpless alienation in a male society” (246). It can be observed that none of the primary characters in Frankenstein are female. The few female characters in the novel are all flat characters and do not contribute much to the story in terms of plot development. To a great extent, the actions in the story are carried out by the male characters whom the entire novel revolves around. On the contrary, as Vandeplas points out, “the female voices within the novel are for the most part silent” (1). This can mainly be seen through the character of Elizabeth Lavenza in Frankenstein, who is Victor’s cousin and future wife. As
Aristotle says, “the female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities; we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness” (qtd. in Beauvoir 25)
Elizabeth in particular, is one of the characters in the novel who has a very restricted voice. On almost every occasion, we observe that she is spoken about by others rather than her speaking for herself. For this reason, Elizabeth’s “position within the narrative can be viewed as representative of the female Other” (Vandeplas 1). It is Victor’s male narration that informs us of her thoughts, feelings and opinions. The readers get to know Elizabeth from Victor’s filtered portrayal of her, and never from her own perspective. One can also observe the objectification that her character is put through as a product of patriarchal expectations. Speaking of Elizabeth, Victor says she is “docile and good tempered [yet like] a summer insect [and] no one could submit with more grace than she did [ – such a] fragile creature” (Shelley 20). Through the course of the novel, we are given the male perspective on what are the requirements expected of an ‘ideal woman’. Elizabeth in Frankenstein, becomes the embodiment of the female Other, stripped of any form of agency. As the novel progresses, the readers come to realise that almost all the women in the novel end up dying. They become victims to the faults committed by men and their selfish pursuits. The servant Justine meets an unjust death as she is hanged for a crime she never committed. This happens as a part of the chain sequence of fatalities that followed Victor’s making of the creature. Although he claims to love her, Victor deserts Elizabeth for years and treats her like a possession. Her death can be described as one of negligence on the part of Victor who leaves her alone on their wedding night, in spite of the creature’s warning. From another aspect, at certain instances in the novel, nature itself is referred to as female. Shelley seems to hint at Victor’s drive to violate it when he says how with “unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding places” (Shelley 40). In a sense, it can be said that Victor, through his creation of life outside of the womb, attempts to circumvent the ‘feminine’ itself. James P. Davis propounds that the second female monster is destroyed by Victor because he is “repulsed by [her] potential reproductive independence” (307). This act of destruction of the female monster can be seen as representative of the male urge to bring an end to woman’s upper hand in procreation, in order to satisfy his need for dominance and dissolve any fear of being the ‘lesser sex’.
The silence of the female as seen in the novel is again reflected in the fact that the 1818 preface to Frankenstein was not written by the author herself, but rather by her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. As an epistolary novel, the story is narrated by means of a number of letters. Throughout these series of letters, we observe that whenever the addressee is female, she remains silent.
Mrs. Margaret Saville is silent in the entire course of the novel and never responds to her brother, Robert Walton’s letters. This sheds light on the marginalisation of the feminine in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However it is also necessary to note that although the female is without agency in the novel, her presence in the narrative remains central in a specific sense. It can be observed that in a way, the feminine is what the men and their actions are judged by in the book. Robert Walton’s letters to Mrs. Margaret Saville reveals his desperate need for his sister to approve all his self-minded pursuits. So in a particular sense, the gaze of the female remains an overarching entity in the book.
Initially, Frankenstein may not overtly come across as a novel that is ‘feminist’ in a contemporary sense, or one that is concerned with female empowerment and liberty. However, the portrayal of women in the novel can be seen as Mary Shelley’s intelligent critique of gender roles, binarism and segregation that existed in 19th century Britain. Vandeplas points out that “the women depicted in Frankenstein are not only narrated by a man, but also represent male-defined women – who are products of patriarchy, which serves as legitimation for this segregation” (2). In an important instance we see Elizabeth at the murder trial, speaking out as she defends Justine’s innocence. Elizabeth clearly exhibits more courage than Victor as she chooses to break taboo and voice out her opinion against male dominant society. This can be seen as an attempt by the author to give Elizabeth’s character a depth beyond patriarchal perception, setting her apart from ‘man’. The genre of Gothic fiction in 19th century Britain had a largely female audience, and hence it can be seen how the novel ultimately gives itself up to the feminine. As a female author, Shelley attempts to depict “the consequences of a social construction of gender which values men over women; where the man inhabits the public sphere and the woman is relegated to the private or domestic sphere” (Mellor 115).
About the author …
This blog is written by Joshua Mace.
Joshua is a student of literature at University of Durham, United Kingdom. Josh describes himself as a footballer by passion and author by determination.
Supporting Southampton FC is his compulsion!