Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Passive Female Roles
| In the novel Frankenstein, the female characters are but only a few and are broadly characterized as innocent, passive and having no authority. This particular portayal of a rerruring motif, representative of gothic fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries by writers such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Bronte. In this paper I will discuss that such portrayal of women is a plot device to intensify the drama and intensify the horror in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
In the Frankenstein novel, there are only a few notable female characters who drive the plot along, namely the trio: Margaret Saville, Walton’s sister; Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s adopted cousin and love interest, and Justine Moritz, Frankenstein’s family housekeeper.
Of all these women, Margaret remains a most intriguing character in the novel. She is the most passive character in a literal sense. Walton, the narrator of Victor Frankenstein’s story, is the one who interacts with the character Margaret by writing her letters recounting the tales of his Artic exploration and the encounter with Victor and his monster. However, Mary Shelley never provided any proof of replying letters. It is highly speculative that this character may not even exist in the world of Frankenstain’s characters, which intensifies the dark setting and horrific events in the novel even more. The idea of having a spooky, ghost-like character on top of an already gripping story is a creative story writing tactic from Shelley to entertain the female audience of Gothic novels during this era.
The second female character, Elizabeth, is the epitome of innocence, virtue and self-sacrificing of all characters in the novel. When Victor first met her when they were little, he describe her as being beaitifully different from her flock despite being in poverty. He praised her as “a being heaven-sent, and bearing a celestial stamp in all her features” (Ch. 1).
As an adult, Elizabeth is still an embodiment of noble characters. According to Victor’s own description, Elizabeth “was of a calmer and more concentrated disposition” and “busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets; and in the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded our Swiss home” (Ch. 2). However, Elizabeth is of very passive nature, that even her marriage is arranged by Victor’s mother Caroline in her deathbed - "my firmest hopes of future happiness were placed on the prospect of your union” (Ch. 3). Elizabeth, who has been a very loyal and obedient lover, has to wait until Victor recovers from illness after secluding himself in the wilderness in Ireland to organize their marriage. Shelley further escalates Elizabeth’s helplessness by falling victim to Victor’s monster during their honeymoon (Ch. 23). A pure, angelic figure lays dead from the monstrosity of man’s doings marks the end of all things good and innocent, and serves as a turning point of Victor’s struggle with his creation.
The third passive female character, and possibly the one with the most tragic death in the novel, is Justine Moritz. She is accused of murdering William, Victor’s brother. Everyone in the Frankenstein family vouches for her innocence and prays for her acquittal (Ch. 7). However, the judges still find Justine guilty and sentence her with capital punishment (Ch. 8). Justine’s death marks the end of innocence as Victor has to face the consequences of his deeds, as Shelley had wrote in the last sencence in Chapter 8: “Thus spoke my prophetic soul, as, torn by remorse, horror, and despair, I beheld those I loved spend vain sorrow upon the graves of William and Justine, the first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts”. The story now turns to a graver and more suspenseful atmosphere, as the readers realize the monster is closing in on Victor. On a technical note, gothic novels often add suspense to the story by setting up mystery and suspense with inexplicable deaths and supernatural circumstances. Thus, Elizabeth and Justine’s deaths serve to darken the mood of the story and heighten Victor’s despair and hopelessness.
All in all, the passive and self-sacrificing characters are key to intensifying the drama in Frankenstein. Margaret’s mysterious existence and the deaths of the pure and innocent Elizabeth and Justine are the motif found in many Gothic novels of this era. It could be argued that the whole point of having virtuous, self-sacrificing female characters is Mary Shelley’s attack on the state of women in 18th century Europe, and women accepted their predetermined roles in societies controlled by men.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. Modern Library, 1999.
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