When analyzing a piece of fiction with a feminist mind, it is vital to also comprehend the patriarchal society and culture that the female characters must live through. Maybe what makes feminist movement in literature so interesting is the political issues they vocalize. To be a part of the feminist movement in literature is fascinating because the literary canon is primarily made up of male writers and thinkers. Within Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the issues of gender identity are prominent throughout the dark tale and explored through the gruesome creation of the monster.
Frankenstein’s central characters exhibit the main idealized gender roles of that time period. The abnormality of the monster’s creation in the novel as well as his experiences are shown to be the counterpoint of the importance of the female roles in society other than their companionship to men. The male characters in this novel are described as the traditional male archetypes of the British society in that time period. They exhibit a certain detachment from their own private lives and they have obsessive qualities so that they can achieve their goals. Victor Frankenstein is described as a calm and philosophical man who delights “in investigating the causes”(Shelley, 22) of the actual world. He seems to truly epitomize the masculine traits of that era with his intelligent and calm nature.
Victor’s rejection of his creation has been is often viewed as an illusion of the child’s sense of abandonment and betrayal by his dead mother. He blames Elizabeth for spreading the disease that killed his mother, and at the same time, blames his younger brother and Justine for “stealing” his mother’s love from him. Victor’s creation of the monster is often said to be his attempt at undoing the death of his beloved mother.. Another key scene in the text for feminist critics is the creation and then destruction of the female creature’s body (the “mate” that Victor had promised the creature in return for their exile from humanity). In “Frankenstein, Feminism, and Literary Theory” Diane Hoeveler brings up the fact that Victor constructs the body and then, when he finally comprehends the gruesome reality of sexuality, desire, and reproduction, rips the body apart, suggests that the female body is way more threatening for Victor than the male creature (Hoeveler, 52). The idea of Victor mutilating the female monster he creates is also explained in the essay “Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the spectacle of masculinity” when Bette London writes:
“Moreover, Frankenstein’s account of creating monstrosity sustains the visible paradox that supports masculine identity; for it is only when Frankenstein speculates on female monstrosity (“she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate”) that he considers the threatening presence of the monster’s male sexuality (“a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth ). (London, 256)”
In contrast to the overwhelming male characters, the female characters in Frankenstein are shown as sympathetic and delicate. They also correspond very well with the traditional victorian portrayals of women as caregivers. Elizabeth Lavenza is shown as “a creature who seemed to shed radiance from her looks and whose form and motions were lighter than the chamois of the hills” (Shelley, 20). This quote shows her as having a gentle and “radiant” overall disposition. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth’s selfless nature is also exhibited through how she continuously contributes to the happiness of others without thinking of herself. Elizabeth’s selfless and affectionate characteristics also further exemplify her maternal qualities and embrace her role as the primary caretaker for the family. These traits are shared by Safie De Lacey in chapter 14 when she manages to escape to achieve her own independence. She saves her jewels and money that provide for her escape and turns away great luxury to be with her lover, Felix De Lacey. During the journey, Safie takes care of her attendant with a considerable amount of affection further showing that Safie’s motherly compassion goes beyond both rank and station. The repetition of the word “affection” calls attention to the common theme of a sympathetic and warm disposition which is omnipresent among the female characters in Frankenstein. In representation and action, Frankenstein’s female characters all exemplify the selfless, motherly traits that conform closely to the role of the caretaker, whose life is characterized by complete dedication to the needs of her household.
While Frankenstein illuminates it’s female characters as warm motherly figures in a family setting, the novel also considers the female gender roles and expectations as the foundation of society. Femininity in Frankenstein is shown as crucial to the stability of societal order, and in Victor’s case, mental stability. The lack of femininity at the end of Frankenstein’s life directly alludes to the lack of mediation of female thought to moderate his inhuman temper. The absence of the harmonious female in Creature’s life as well contributes to the long continuous game of cat-and-mouse between him and Victor because there is no female companion in their life to rationalize their way of settling their differences. Not having a feminine figure in both of their lives is truly a vital part to the story because the vacancy of feminine influences is the “prey of feelings unsatisfied, yet unquenched” (Shelley, 197).
At its’ center, the theme of Frankenstein is simply the exploration and consequences of humanity breaching the limitations that nature has placed on us since the beginning of time. But, through embedding its characters with specific and unchanging gender roles and traits, Frankenstein demonstrates that female characters in the 19th century are not to be seen as accessories to men. Shelley brings forth the purpose of her female characters and the idea that women are integral to the foundation of society because of their maternal traits. She makes the maternal roles of women in her own novel complex and vital to the stability of her male characters and their social stability. Many people believe that Shelley reiterates the thoughts of her own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft was a powerful advocate for women’s education and her work in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman still resonates within human rights and feminism even today. Wollstonecraft Reportedly wrote the book over in the short span of six weeks. Wollstonecraft’s mood in her novel exhibits her anger (with humor) at the gender roles that the majority of women in the 19th century were forced into. Wollstonecraft and Shelley’s correlating ideas are shown when Wollstonecraft writes, “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”
Although Frankenstein can sometimes be interpreted as the opposite of a “feminist” text, Shelley brought the complexity of a female’s gender roles to people’s consciousness in that particular era when it had not yet been brought to light. Shelley understood the true roles and identities of women and she subtly illustrated them and made them more prominent through Frankenstein. Shelley wrote women to be more than just mothers to their own families; she wrote them to be mothers to society in the 19th century.
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