Roles of Women in the Nineteenth Century

Abstract

This paper examines some theories of feminist views on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It analyzes the depictions of women in the story in relation to men. Moreover, it takes into account Mary Shelley’s life to understand the roles of women in the nineteenth century.

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The analysis draws upon Anne Mellor’s On Feminist Utopia, Ellen Moers’s Female Gothic, and Johanna M. Smith’s ‘Cooped Up’ with ‘Sad Trash’: Domesticity and the Sciences in Frankenstein. It also contains the introduction of Mary Shelley in the second published edition. While analyzing, the coincidence between the novel and Mary Shelley’s life is taken into consideration.

Main

As some feminist movements, such as the Me Too movement, are going strong, there have been more and more feminist literary works. However, it is not the case two centuries ago when women were suppressed and treated worse than their male counterparts. Yes, it is true that while rich women might have had better lives than poor men. However, rich women were less respected than rich men, as poor men were more respected than poor women. One of the rare works is Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which voices the need for gender equality in the society.

Her daughter, Mary Shelley, although was not publicly known for being a feminist, her book Frankenstein was considered a feminist work by some scholars. The fact that women in Britain in the nineteenth century lived in their domestic sphere, and dependent on men is demonstrated in not only the novel Frankenstein itself but also in Mary Shelley’s life.

To understand Frankenstein as a novel, I think it would be necessary to understand Mary Shelley as a person and how she came across the ideas for Frankenstein. Mary Shelley, or Mary Godwin, was the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who were well-known for their writings. Since she was young, she was different from other girls in her time in that she received an education. She then had a romantic relationship with a married Percy Bysshe Shelley and became his mistress. In her teenaged time, Mary Godwin was impregnated with Percy Shelley’s daughter, who later died from premature birth. After the death of Shelley’s first wife, Godwin and Shelley got married. The couple later had three more children, two of whom also died. Her husband passed away in a boat sink, leaving her a widow. Several decades later, she was killed from illness.

During her time, she was never as well-known as her parents or her husband, yet her most famous work, which was Frankenstein, also known as The Modern Prometheus, was a phenomenon in British literature as it left a huge and lasting impact until today.
Mary Shelley came across the ideas for Frankenstein by chance. In the summer of 1816, she and Percy Shelley came to Switzerland and became neighbors and friends with John Polidori and Lord Byron, who during that time was extremely famous for his works (Shelley 166).

The group read a German book of ghost stories called History of the Inconstant Lover, which left an impression on Mary Shelley as she had never read such kinds of stories but they made her feel like she had read them for a long time (167). Lord Byron suggested each person write a ghost story. Shelley wanted to write a story that would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror and would make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart (167). She listened to Lord Byron and her husband’s conversation about the nature and principle of life as well as Erasmus Darwin’s experiments.

Erasmus Darwin was the grandson of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution. She was inspired by the ideas of the re-animation of a corpse and the manufacturing of component parts of a creature (168). One night, she dreamed about a scientist fearfully running away from his creature. When she woke up from the nightmare, she was still horrified and haunted by the idea of a creature scaring its creator. This was when she decided to write the story (168). At first, she only wanted to write it as a short story; however, her husband encouraged her to develop the idea at a greater length (169).

The novel had two major editions during Shelley’s time, one was in 1818 and the other was in 1831. There were some minor changes in the second one. It is also noticeable that when she first published Frankenstein, she published it anonymously. She only came out as the author of the story in the second edition.

Frankenstein is a story told from three narrators: Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the Creature. Walton, a traveller and a scientist, finds Frankenstein fainting in the North Pole and rescues him. After recovery, Frankenstein tells Walton his story as well as the miseries he has gone through. Frankenstein was born in a noble family which he is the eldest of the three sons. When he was a child, his parents adopted two orphans, Elizabeth and Justine.

Elizabeth was then appointed to be Victor’s future wife while Justine was assigned as a servant. After the death of his mother, due to his grief over her death as well as his obsession with chemistry and electricity, Victor creates a creature from different body parts of dead people in hope of resurrecting dead people and taking controls of life. However, he is scared of the Creature and abandons it when he first sees it. While wandering around the village, the Creature is estranged by the villagers although it makes attempts to be friends with them. It later kills Williams, Victor’s youngest brother. Justine, who has become Williams’ nanny, is accused of the murder and executed.

The Creature then asks Victor for a female partner; otherwise, it will kill Victor’s loved ones. Victor, in fear of creating another monster, refuses. On Victor’s wedding night, the Creature kills Victor’s friend Henry, Victor’s father Alphonse, and Victor’s bride Elizabeth and disappears. Victor tries to chase after the Creature, became exhausted and later found by Walton.

Since the novel was first published, there have been interpretations with different theories. Some popular theories are those of a feminist perspective. Feminist critics analyze literary texts, examine how female characters are portrayed and uncover the patriarchal doctrine. They also attempt to analyze the texts in terms of the authors’ lives. In doing so, they illustrate the male-dominant tradition that is engraved in both societal and literary systems. A feminist theory, according to Anne K. Mellor, is inherently utopian, that is a theory that is grounded on the assumption of gender equality, a social equality between the sexes which has never existed in the historical past, and seeks to analyze and eliminate discrimination on the basis of gender (243).

Some feminist interpretations link the story to Mary Shelley’s life as well as to the society she lived in. According to Ellen Moers, although Frankenstein has no heroine and no main female victim as other Gothic novels have, it is still able to portray the life of its author better than other novels (79). Mary Shelley’s experiences were so unusually traumatizing that they were transferred into her work. Three of her four children died, one of whom remained nameless. Birth and death were as hideously intermixed in the life of Mary Shelley as in Frankenstein’s workshop of filthy creation (84). Moers sees that Mary Shelley transformed the standard Romantic matter of incest, infanticide, and patricide into a phantasmagoria of the nursery (87).

Different from other Romantic works, Frankenstein has the elements of motherhood, of infants, and of life creations. They are things that are associated with female. Moreover, Johanna M. Smith also points out that Mary Shelley was torn between the public sphere and private sphere (345). As a woman writer, she had to refrain herself from going public due to her responsibility to care for her family (315). Her writer identity was suppressed by her woman identity. In the nineteenth century, it was still very unusual for a woman to have an education. Feminists suggested that women’s natural abilities were obstructed by the bad education women received at that time (316).

It was believed that everything a woman wrote was characterized as femininely expressed and categorized as women writings. Therefore, had Mary Shelley not published Frankenstein anonymously, her novel would be characterized as a feminine expression rather than a masculine understanding (316). We all know this might still be the case if Mary Shelley lived in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries although women started to get proper educations in these two centuries. Feminists get criticized for condemning male privileges and was characterized as biased. By publishing Frankenstein anonymously, she was able to avoid destructive criticisms that might come up during her time. Furthermore, Smith points out that the fact that Mary Shelley was willing to have her husband heavily edit and revise the novel shows the tensions of performing gender (317). It is analogous to the women in the novel who are oppressed by men and live their lives in accordance with men’s lives. It also illustrates the fact of the nineteenth century that women are influenced by men and have to get men’s approval in order to get recognized.

Some feminist critics undermine the role of women by viewing the society in Frankenstein as a dystopia. The insignificant role of women and tragedies in Frankenstein are analyzed as cause and consequence. As Mellor argues, a society filled with vengeful and brutal humans and monsters is a result of man trying to control life through science, to impose a male-favored sexual division of labor and to separate love and work (245). Victor Frankenstein tries to create a life without the involvement of a woman, which is against the nature of life. He views Elizabeth not as an object of affection but as someone taking care of his family. He also refuses the creature’s request for a female partner as he thinks that the female creature would cause troubles like the male creature. In the end, both Frankenstein and his creature turn into beings full of hatred. In the current world, there are men who try to belittle women and view women as an option, not as a must-have. They would try to limit the involvement of women and instead use women to fulfill their purposes. Women are seen as catalysts and weapons for the competitiveness between men.

Women in the novel, specifically Elizabeth and the monsterette, are just means for the tension between Victor and the monster (Smith 323). The female characters devote their lives to service the needs of others’ illness and afflictions, but never of sufficient significance to be protected fully (Wright 108). Catherine and Elizabeth sacrifices their whole lives to devote into taking care of the whole Frankenstein family. The cycle of the female submissive role is maintained in the Frankenstein family. Caroline, when young, works and takes care of her father. After getting married to Alphonse, she continues taking care of her family. Even when she is dying, she only wants to Elizabeth to continue her role as a caregiver.

Elizabeth subsequently became the replacement for Caroline. Justine takes the execution for a crime that is committed by a male being. Women do not play significant roles in the society, which can be seen through the lack of impacts from female characters as well as their negative fates. Women, both now and then, have been viewed as subordinate to men and their sole responsibility is to serve men.
Johanna M. Smith links the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres with the roles of the female characters in the story (313). She shows that the domestic relationships in the novel characterize the negotiations between public and private spheres, between masculine understanding and feminine expression, and between domestic ideology and domestic practice (317).

While feminine passivity and masculine activity were portrayed as opposition between separate gendered spheres in the novel published in 1818, they were portrayed as complementary difference in the novel published in 1831 (318). The creature, directly and indirectly, only kills the people who are most closely associated with the conventional femininity (321). William is associated with femininity because he lives under Elizabeth’s and Justine’s care. Justine personifies gendered domestic subordination since she loyally serves Caroline and Elizabeth. Henry is an example of a combination of both masculine and feminine traits since he took care of Victor when he was sick. Elizabeth takes on all feminine roles in the Frankenstein family.

Alphonse, Victor’s father, embodies feminine patriarch. The feminization of Alphonse is depicted through his active roles of being father in the female domestic sphere (317). Alphonse characterizes feminine patriarch, as opposed to paternal tyranny. The gendered sphere is such a common concept in the nineteenth society that it continues to penetrate in today’s world. Although there have been some households that do not or try to not follow the concept of gendered sphere, the notion of women staying at home and doing housework is still dominant in mainstream cultures.

In the process of evaluating the novel in terms of feminist perspectives, some authors analyze the book as a genre of science fiction. Many scholars have argued that Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel. Brian Aldiss was the first writer to argue that Frankenstein is the first work of science fiction. Mellor claimed that science fiction was created by a woman’s attempt to evaluate scientific and technological advancements within a male-driven society (244). However, there are still scholars who disagree and refuse to acknowledge that Mary Shelley invented science fiction.

There are many people who do not know about Mary Shelley and her relationship to science fiction That Mary Shelley was not credited for her contribution to science fiction, a genre that dominates the literature scene, shows how difficult for women writers or women in any field are acknowledged for their accomplishments. That women are not acknowledged for their achievements and have their achievements taken away by men are not uncommon in today society. In the twentieth century, a similar scenario was also seen in Rosalind Franklin and her discovery of the DNA, an opening door to and a critical part of the modern world of biology. Her images of DNA structures were accessed without her knowledge or consent by two male scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick. In the end, Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize but Franklin was not.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein depicts the domestic role of women in the nineteenth century and how science can be used to take away women’s gifted ability in reproduction and to deny women’s existence in the society. Mary Shelley’s life also reflects sexist aspects of the society in the nineteenth century, some of which can still be seen today. Patriarchal ideology is intrinsic to most societies. Even though there are movements against patriarchy and for gender equality, the society is still male-favored in some aspects.

Works Cited

  • Mellor, Anne. On Feminist Utopias. Women’s Studies. Volume 99. Issue 4. 1982. pp. 241-262.
  • Moers, Ellen. Female Gothic: The Monster’s Mother. Frankenstein: The 1818 Text Contexts Criticism. Edited by J. Paul Hunter. Second Edition W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2012.
  • Shelley, Mary. Introduction to Frankenstein. Frankenstein: The 1818 Text Contexts Criticism. Edited by J. Paul Hunter. Second Edition. W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2012.
  • Smith, Johanna M. ?Copped Up’ with ?Sad Trash’: Domesticity and the Sciences of Frankenstein. Frankenstein : Complete,
  • Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical
  • Perspectives. Edited by Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, Boston, 1992.
  • Wright, Angela. The Female Gothic. The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein. Edited by Andrew Smith. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016.
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