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About this sample
Words: 1601 |
9 min read
Published: Aug 31, 2023
Words: 1601|Pages: 4|9 min read
The Victorian era heavily idealised those who possessed pious and strict mannerisms. Reputation and appeal was heavily linked with a woman’s sexual status -a woman behaving in such a manner that is far from Victorian ideals of purity and innocence was stated to be a ‘fallen woman’, one who has fallen out of grace. Therefore, one can see that the creation of the ‘fallen woman’ archetype was largely conceived by society’s fears of female sexuality and its potential dangers to both women and society. Despite this, an increase of movement towards more independence and freedom for women in the nineteenth century sparked the creation of a new archetype within literature: ‘the new woman’. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a new woman is described as “a woman especially of the late 19th century actively resisting traditional controls and seeking to fill a complete role in the world.” In Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, both archetypes are present in their self-respective female characters. Between both texts, one can see slight similarities and differences in the interpretation of female characters and their roles, as well as the authors’ backgrounds, perspectives, and message behind their works. Interestingly enough, although one can coin the same terms to define characters within both texts, each novel portrays a different interpretation of the ‘fallen woman’.
First, Shelley portrays the women in Frankenstein as shallow and superficially created in comparison to the male characters, such as Victor and the creature -of which are dynamic and fascinating in depth. Ironically written by a female author, female characters are heavily passive and never really present, spending most of their time as objective entities that serve as some sort of motivation or prize for the male characters who possess all the agency. Shelley regulates female characters into domestic spaces and irrelevance that is common within patriarchal models of society. All of the female characters within Frankenstein portray the same role: good women who are creatures to be doted and loved. However, amongst all, Elizabeth’s character is the most interesting and the closest to achieving power and agency. She is mostly recognised for her beauty and good virtue; Victor reflects “Everyone loved Elizabeth. The passionate and almost reverential attachment with which all regarded her became, while I shared it, my pride and delight.” (Shelley 21) and Caroline, Victor’s mother acknowledges her as “a pretty present for my Victor.” (Shelley 21) The language used to describe Elizabeth describes her as if she is an object. Making her a gift robs her of humanity, then making Victor view her as his own property, properly instigated by his reaction to his mother’s own words: “with childish seriousness, took her words literally and looked upon Elizabeth as mine.” (Shelley 21) This ownership relationship between a man and a woman is a representation of patriarchal attitudes towards females, relegating women as pets instead of direct equals or even colleagues. Instead, she is only used, at first, as a reminder for their wedding, and second, as atonement for Victor’s crimes against nature. Elizabeth’s downfall, although not directly aligning with the early Victorian definition, can be found within her inability to gain agency outside of life dedicated to marriage, especially seen in her attempt to save Justine by an unfair fate. Elizabeth, with her constant helplessness represents the ‘passive woman’, defined by many as another variation of the ‘fallen woman’ as she is defined mainly by marriage. If she had not married Victor, Elizabeth’s death would not have happened. Male superiority surrounds and rules Elizabeth’s life, as she could not have had escaped the fate that has been given to her from when she was young. This situation would have been very common for women within the 19th century.
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lucy Westenra gives another definition to the ‘fallen woman’. Once described as purely innocent and pure by her mutuals, her tenderness becomes her weakness as it allows the dominating Dracula to feed on her. Once Lucy becomes a vampire, her previous beauty, of which was highly praised is now sexualised, regarded as a stain by the men, seemingly overwhelming. Her role changes as she loses control over her life and actions, her thoughts and actions becoming reliant on male characters, not unlike Elizabeth. She becomes the fallen woman, oozing of sexual desire when described as having “a languorous, voluptuous grace” (Stoker 181) and in her speech “Come to me Arthur. Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you. Come, and we can rest together. Come, my husband, come!” (Stoker 181) Dr Seward announces that she has become ‘unclean’ and when she is wanted by no man, she becomes disposable as she has nothing to offer outside of her vanity. He says “[Lucy’s] sweetness was turned into adamantine, heartless cruelty and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.” (Stoker 180) The word ‘voluptuous’ is used several times when describing Lucy’s kindred state, interestingly, in the 19th century, to be described as such would have been in reference to Victorian prostitutes. In Cunningham’s The New Woman and the Victorian Novel, he states that “In the 19th century, the fallen woman was a stain on society and had to be punished, either by the intolerable pangs of conscience or death -- preferably both.” (Cunningham 21). To reiterate, both Lucy and Elizabeth assume the role of the ‘fallen woman’ but from different sub-versions. Elizabeth’s version being the ‘passive woman’, being wholly defined by marriage and being too domesticated --this being the version our modern perspective would view was more slanderous; and Lucy’s being the early Victorian definition of the ‘fallen woman’, one who rejected traditional morals and etiquette to enter scenes unrestrained by marriage. However, both women highlight some sort of emphasis on beauty, hardships a woman of the 19th century (or even now) might have faced. Although beauty is important, it should not be the most prioritised amongst other things. It is notable that Lucy and Elizabeth, who are largely defined by their beauty ultimately die, while Mina, who focuses on morality and intellect survives.
Despite society’s fears behind the creation of the ‘fallen woman’, came new ideas and movements that supported the independence of women and the break society’s traditional motherly roles. These ideas would then formulate into a new archetype that rivals the ‘fallen woman’: ‘the new woman’. Shelley’s mother herself, Mary Wollstonecraft was largely responsible for these revolts, authoring texts such as The Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. Although a controversy, her words had inspired many others in confidence about their roles in life, not unlike how Mina Harker in Dracula had inspired many through her non-traditional role. Both women had believed in education and independence, making Mina Harker the perfect exemplar of the nineteenth century ‘new woman’. Unlike Shelley’s characterisation of her female characters, Mina Harker is given a bigger and active role, acting as the intellectual of the group, directly involving in Dracula’s hunt. She is given more depth as she is not wholly defined by mostly superficial things such as beauty or marriage. She is described as “One of God’s women” (Stoker 161) by Van Helsing and again, saying that she possesses “a man’s brain -that a man should have were he gifted- and a woman’s heart. [...]God fashioned her for a purpose [...]He made that so good combination.” (Stoker 201) Helsing’s compliments shows a change of perspectives towards women in comparison to those in Frankenstein: women are not objects, but instead people with intellect and equal capability as men.
Additionally, Mina Harker’s role also breaks slight rules within the Gothic tradition; gothic novels are known to focus on creating contrast between the hero and the ever-important damsel-in-distress. Mina’s role can be described as one of the hero’s, while Lucy plays the vulnerable female character. Although all three women -Lucy, Elizabeth, and Mina- do fall within the clutches of the domineering monsters -Dracula and the Creature, respectively- only Mina manages to escape with her life. This could suggest the authors’ hidden message on the importance of beauty and intelligence, the latter being the key to survival. Especially in Shelley’s case, survival in a man dominated world needs intelligence and intellect. Although Stoker was not an active supporter within demonstrations or through other texts, he does celebrate the positivity of women breaking traditional roles within Dracula, emphasised in Van Helsing’s fascination over Mina. Another message one can take from Shelley from her female characters’ characterisation is the dangers of losing one’s self to another person through marriage or bonds. Although Shelley was not opposed to marriage, as she was married herself, it is clear that she strongly believed in her mother’s ideals about independence and identity, even when becoming ‘one’ with someone else. Elizabeth’s death could be represented by her lack of individual character, her most distinct being a gift from a mother to a child, until her death in which she is regarded as some sort of karmic spite against a fault entirely made by someone else.
Frankenstein, described by Moers in her essay Literary Women: The Great Writers, is a novel “without a heroine, without even an important female victim.” (Moers 90) Shelley writes her female characters as passive characters built purely for support and the background. However her choice to do so is with purpose and deliberate.
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