For centuries women have been relegated to the fringes of a male dominated society that still finds it difficult to accept them as equals. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a Gothic novel set in the 19th century at a time when misogyny was at its height in British society. Women literally had little or no say in pertinent issues during this epoch. Using a feminist lens, most Historians are critical as to whether the novel in its entirety had any feminist undertones as women only play marginal characters. It is, however, this same technique of plot development that in turn ensures that women play a central role in presenting their plight and specifically their treatment in a rather “cultured” society. Additionally, the passive role that women play in the novel is ironically what later qualifies it as a feminist novel (Whitson 32). The few women characters present give a window into deep feminist connotations and rhetoric that would reverberate within the Women’s Suffrage Movement a century later (Crawford). For the purpose of the essay, the main discussion will center on the treatment of female characters, perceptions of women, how the author handled the theme of motherhood and how well Shelley incorporates her response to all feminist issues in the novel.
From the novel’s onset, a sympathetic light is used to portray women who at the time were expected to subscribe to widely held Victorian ideals that required them to be, first and foremost, familial caregivers. Women were considered property that was owned by their husband or male caretakers and were therefore not seen as independent beings. Submission to a man’s will was a societal norm during this period (Bloom 115). In the novel, Elizabeth Lavenza’s description contains attributes such as “docile and good tempered”, a paradoxical quality whose sole purpose was to describe a woman’s role in taking care of her husband and family ( Shelley 66). Furthermore, the novel describes how Elizabeth “continually endeavors to contribute to the happiness of others, entirely forgetful of herself” ( Shelley 73). In using “entirely” to elucidate Elizabeth’s dedication, Shelley underscores how women are but shadows left behind in the prestigious Victorian social milieu. A common attribute of women in the novel is their altruistic benevolence. It comes to light when Safie De Lacey nurses Felix de Lacey, her lover, “with utmost affection” (Shelley 141). In the descriptions provided above of women’s demeanor in the novel, it is clear that were well aware and were ready to adhere to stipulations that required them to be servants to their husbands and households. There are many parallels between the society presented in the novel and that which we live in today. Some societies, such as those in the conservative Islamic Middle-East, still view women as their husband’s property. In Saudi Arabia, young women are not allowed in public without a male guardian and are also prohibited from driving vehicles. Such oppression should be a thing of the past, considering we are now living in the 21st century.
The general perception held by members of society in the novel is that women are weak and are therefore expected to depend upon men to sustain themselves. As it so happens, women found themselves in a vulnerable situation in 19th century British society due to lack of sufficient opportunities for social progression that saw them heavily dependent on men for financial support in order to survive. A systematic and structured norm of oppression perpetuated against women meant that life for them always started at a disadvantaged end. Those lucky enough to be gain property and estates by means of inheritance soon lost it through marriage as they had to cede its control to their husbands. In Mary Shelley’s novel, female characters are viewed by society as delicate beings that cannot survive alone and thus require to be aided by men constantly. A man is to be in their lives strategically to protect, cherish and most importantly to provide for them and their needs. In the novel, it is interesting to note that all female characters are dependent upon men. Take, for example, Caroline. She finds herself between a rock and a hard place when her father passes away. She is suddenly unable to survive on her own and this circumstance forces her to marry Alphonse. In the novel, Shelley describes Alphonse as her savior; came like a protecting spirit to the poor girl.” (Shelley 18). The author expertly uses this simile in comparison to him being a hero coming to the aid of a frail and yet desperate woman. Presently, there are societies which still subscribe to this archaic notion that women are to be solely dependent on men and should not enjoy any autonomy in deciding their own fate. There is, however, a glimmer of hope as educating women has meant that they are increasingly becoming independent and free to live life according to their own definition.
At first glance, Victor Frankenstein would appear as a misogynist to many. Even at his mildest, he still seems indifferent towards the female gender. In some scholarly circles, Victor is vilified as an anti-feminist character, but this would beg the question as to why, if true, Mary Shelley would knowingly and intentionally center her book on such a character. In reality, Victor is not an anti-feminist or even a misogynist. He is well aware of motherhood and its dangers and even argues that creating his creature was meant to spare Elizabeth the horror of experiencing motherly death. As fate would have it, Victor inadvertently carried this fate as it was aware that he misunderstood what motherhood really stood for and falls or what he tried to avoid. In his subconscious, he had developed a heightened fear of matricide (Schor 49). His actions were done purely in his quest for female preservation. As a theme, motherhood litters the novel’s literary landscape, with women expected to embrace it by taking up the role of a caregiver to their spawn. They are vital in nurturing both their children and loved ones. Safey De Lacey depicts this when she nurses her lover and embraces a reversed lord-servant relationship by giving him motherly affection that superseded both station and rank (Shelley 141). Women are expected to take up the role of caregiver in society and can presently act in collaboration with their male counterparts to lessen this heavy burden.
In conclusion, Mary Shelley was successful in skillfully bringing out her feminist rhetoric in a book that featured very few female characters. She provides the reader with a window into the 19th century Victorian British that had seemingly normalized the oppression of women by presenting the predicament of her characters. She presents female characters as strong-willed individuals who love whole heartedly and are ready to use their maternal instincts to protect their household and those they hold close to heart.