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M & W: Gender Roles in the Story of Frankenstein

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During the 1800’s, when Mary Shelley first began to write, she struggled to show her husband Percy that she was in charge of herself and her artistry. Shelley describes Percy as constantly being anxious about her having to prove herself and find fame (Knudson 11). Percy believed that he was a better writer than his wife and therefore thought that he could control her and her writing. Mary fought as long as she could but eventually, she “surrendered herself to the ideal of the proper lady, devoted to her family at the cost of own identity and aspirations, when she claimed that literary reputation, which she had once desired, was now ‘infinitely indifferent’ to her since family had become her main concern” (Knudson 11). Having fought the vicious battle for her own rights, Shelley put her emotions and heartache into her novel Frankenstein, showing the dangers of gender roles in society at the time. Shelley’s character Frankenstein holds many feminine features that blur the definition of gender. She also creates a “monster” that has some of the same characteristics as women, and shows the oppression that women had to go through by making her female characters in her novel seemingly invisible. Through the subtle traits of her characters, Shelley wrote a novel showing the threat of a world of unequal livings.

Victor Frankenstein, Shelley’s main character in her novel, never appears to be a normal child growing up. His interests in science and nature have always caused his mind to stray away from the current on goings in his life, and he finds great enjoyment in abnormal things. As he matures, Frankenstein does not change much, besides finally fully immersing himself in science, looking to find a way to bring a creature back to life. For countless years, he goes through a stage of near madness as he thinks of nothing but this creation, and finally, once it has come to life, he realizes his mistake. The hazy lines of gender begin with Frankenstein’s creation first coming alive. By resembling a life-giving mother, Victor appears to completely blur the cultural definition of gender starting with his creation (Hobbs 3). After his creature comes alive, Frankenstein begins to show characteristics similar to that of hysteria, which during this time period, was a condition applied mostly to women. Doctors during the nineteenth century would occasionally diagnose men with this disorder as a result of heavy drinking, pride, disappointment, terror, or anxiety over business: strictly outside, uncontrollable forces (Hobbs 4). Colleen Hobbs writes that out of all of these characteristics for male hysteria, Frankenstein’s hysteria is closer to the symptoms that correlate to women. Women hysteria tends to involve the restraint or misdirection of passion, which closely resembles Frankenstein. With characteristics resembling women, Shelley is creating a complete disorder in her novel. By being classified emotionally as a woman, Frankenstein is placed in a condition that holds little to no power. This leads to the destruction of the novel as he is a male, and tries to show dominance and power; both things that he lacks due to his femininity. Shelley is trying to show the dangers of the mistreated woman by putting a man in her place. This is shown by Hobbs who writes: “in depicting Victor’s response to the complications raised by his monster, Shelley attributes a classically female malady to a male character, producing gender stereotypes that are revealed as inadequate, dangerous constructions” (4). After the creation of Frankenstein’s “monster,” Frankenstein becomes weak and needs Clerval to take care of him for several months. He has appeared to have gone mad, for he is unable to look at anything relating to science and Clerval must stay by his side at all times. By depending on a male to care for him, Frankenstein is proving that he has no power or independence at all, and shows more feminine characteristics for this time period.

Shelley uses this tactic of female hysteria to show the amount of emotional restraint that is forced upon a woman. Hysteria arises from the inability to go after what women are most passionate about and even Shelley herself had to deal with the restraints put on her by her husband Percy. Shelley manages to complicate the questions behind emotional control and shows how problematic it is in her novel. The madness that is associated with Frankenstein is madness due to repression and the misdirection of passion, which is self-destructive for Frankenstein, therefore showing the hazardous nature of oppressed women (Hobbs 4). If it leads to this much destruction for Frankenstein, how is it any less worse for women?

Another common theme in women’s oppression during the nineteenth century was lack of education. Frankenstein’s creation is the closest character to have this trait. Frankenstein’s creation is viewed as misunderstood and left behind and Shelley manages to make him more than just body parts sewn together. Apart from him being a murdering and revengeful “monster”, Shelley also succeeds in likening this creature to women during this time period. David Collings writes in his article “The Monster and the Maternal Thing: Mary Shelley’s Critique of Ideology” that the monster is actually a representation of women during the 1800’s as he is uneducated and unheard. Frankenstein’s creation constantly watches the De Lacey family and is even around when their family friend Safie comes to live with them. Safie, being from a different country, is then taught to speak French by the family and the creature learns along with her. Colling’s writes: “It is no surprise that the monster learns along with Safie, as if he, too, is both foreign and a woman” (289). Colling’s continues to explain that Frankenstein’s creature is placed into a role that women usually play, which involves eavesdropping onto conversations (289). The creature spends the first year of his life watching and listening to these people, like women have seemingly done in the past. The comparison of the monster to women shows the degradation of women at this time. The creature is feared but is intrinsically good and is unable to hold power as nobody is willing to accept him for who he truly is. He is also denied a formal education and an acceptance into society. Colling’s writes: “If Safie represents woman as she is accepted into language and family, the monster embodies woman as she is excluded from the world of images and words” (290). While women during this time were taught the language of their community, they were not taught much else. It was frowned upon for women during this time to attend school, for their primary focus was on their family. The monster is taught French, like the woman Safie, but he is not accepted into the world of words and conversations, like all women during this time.

Shelley compares the monster to women during this time to show how oppressive “man” kind truly is. Percy did not believe that she should write as she did and with the inability to communicate, she was forced to listen to her husband and respect his wishes; wishes that only appeared to restrain her. Shelley is a woman during the nineteenth century who was told how to live, and with this, she shows a monster, like herself, who was unable to communicate with others.

An important characteristic regarding women in Frankenstein is also the presence of “invisible women.” Upon the first reading, the novel is held with many strong male characters that appear to overshadow any female character. The female characters do not appear to play any important role in the novel and they also do not have many lines of communication to the audience or any of the other characters. Shelley starts the novel off with letters from Walton to his sister Margaret. The reader is only able to see one side of these letters and therefore the character of his sister is seemingly disposable but when looking again at this fact, without Margaret, there would be no reason for Walton to tell his story. Shelly seems to write in a way showing that women are necessary, but not entirely significant.

Like Margaret, Shelley’s other female characters also appear to be disposable as the story is read almost without female characters at all. Female characters like Agatha, Safie, Elizabeth, and Justine, appear to only function as tools for men and nothing more. Women appear to be completely invisible and hold no other importance. Each of these women are also extremely passive and submissive, all having the same characteristics of the stereotypical woman during the nineteenth century.

Justine is a powerful example to the stereotypic and passivity of women during this time. Framed for a murder that she did not commit, Justine becomes the epitome of passivity because she admits her guilt, although she is completely innocent. She believes that it would be better to die knowing that she was innocent herself, instead of fighting to live (Shelley 73). Because of this, Justine becomes a docile victim of her life’s circumstances. Shelley cleverly uses the name “Justine” to show how skewed the man’s world is. This innocent girl, whose name is derived from “just” or “justice” gets neither of those things because she is living in a man’s world where, despite the false accusation, is sentenced to death.

Justine is also viewed as a mother symbol and by having her life in the hands of Frankenstein, as he is the only one that can prove her innocence, Shelley is showing that Frankenstein kills the creator, he then being the only one in the entire novel to create something new. This makes his feminine characteristics even more apparent as he appears to be the only one capable of procreation, regardless of being male, making for a world of complete domination of women, although Frankenstein himself is closely tied to these traits of women. These traits which clash with his actions of being a man eventually lead to the downfall in the novel as Frankenstein cannot live a life on the edge of male and female.

Elizabeth appears, like Justine, to be docile and passive, constantly calming down Frankenstein and caring for his father. She is the most important female character in Shelley’s novel, and appears to be Shelley’s greatest critique on the oppression of women during this time period. Although at many points in the novel Frankenstein appears to be indifferent towards Elizabeth, there are a few moments when he claims to view her as his own possession. From upon first meeting Elizabeth he states: “Elizabeth is mine—mine to protect, love and cherish. All praises bestowed to her, I received as made to a possession of my own” (Shelley 23). This can relate back to Victor’s feminine characteristics. In reality, he does not have this power over Elizabeth because he appears to have traits defining him to be more of a woman. Frankenstein only believes that he has this power which provides an imbalance in him.

Elizabeth is also a character that symbolizes the “death” of oneself upon marriage during this time period. If a women married at this time, she was completely giving herself up to her husband. All of her property and assets went under her husband’s name and like Shelley, she was expected to let go of her aspirations and care for the family. The creature warned Frankenstein that he would be with Frankenstein and Elizabeth on the night of their wedding, and Frankenstein took this as the creature was going to kill him; “In that hour I should die, and at once satisfy and extinguish his malice. They prospect did not move me to fear.” (Shelley 153). Shelley then proceeded to write that Elizabeth was actually the victim the night of their wedding, showing the symbol of death upon marriage at this time. Upon saying her vows, by the end of the night, she was killed.

Like Justine, Elizabeth then becomes the victim of her circumstantial life, which is centered on a male, and is killed. Without Frankenstein, both women might have potentially lived, like Safie and Agatha, who fled from his creature. Running from Frankenstein’s creature shows that women may only be safe if they seclude themselves away from the dominating power of men or in Frankenstein’s case, the imbalance of power. It appears that Shelley is asking an important question about the dangers of men. Without men, are women safer?

Another instance in which Shelley showed women as overpowered by men is when Frankenstein’s creature asked Frankenstein to make a mate for him. He starts by stating: “I demand a creature of another sex” and claims that he wants this female creature to then be miserable alongside of him (Shelley 131). If he is as miserable as he claims himself to be, why would he want to pull another being into the picture with him? Like many woman during this time, this female creature would not have the choice but to follow the male and live an unhappy life; the creature and Frankenstein determine her destiny. When Frankenstein destroys the creature later on in the novel, the creature speaks to him with displeasure saying “Shall each man find a wife for his bosom and each beast have his mate, and I be alone?” (152). In his fit of agitation, the creature is claiming that women are only used as male companions and nothing more. The destruction of the female creature also shows the symbol of destruction of the female reproductive power. It appears as if men in this book hold all of the power, including something only women can do: reproduce. The entire novel shows Victor attempting to take over the role of reproduction when he first brings his creation to life. In this, Shelley is showing that without women, men create monstrous things. Michel writes: “Frankenstein is a story about a man giving birth to a creature that destroy his life,” and showing the destruction of male reproduction, Shelley provides a dangerous worldview of men (355).

Clearly, Shelley made her characters the epitome of disposal: by the end of the novel, all of the women that were associated with Frankenstein were dead. Showing the disposal and submissive roles that these women play in Frankenstein, Shelley dramatizes the real-life roles that women during the nineteenth century were a part of.

Shelley struggled with living a submissive life under her husband Percy, and through this emotional time, wrote a novel with her exact stance on female oppression. Making Frankenstein the real villain in her novel, she is shows that women oppression will evidently lead to death; death of oneself, death of ones aspirations, death of one’s spirit. Even today, men are still seen as being superior to women, although there has been nearly 300 years of fighting for equal rights. Shelley knew that the inequality of men and women needed to be shown in order for a change to occur, and did this in a subtle manner. Without authors like Mary Shelley, women might not have as many rights as they do today, and could still be living in a world completely ruled by men.

Works Cited

Collings, David. “The Monster and the Maternal Thing.” 2000. Frankenstein. By Mary Shelley. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St.Martins, 2000. 280-96. Print

. Hobbs, Colleen. “Reading the symptoms: an exploration of repression and hysteria in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein.’.” Studies in the Novel 25.2 (1993): 152+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 15 Dec. 2015

Knudsen, Louise Othello. “Reading Between the Lines: An Analysis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Thesis. Germany, 2012. Http://projekter.aau.dk/. 31 July 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2015. <http://projekter.aau.dk/projekter/files/65640208/frankenstein_thesis.pdf>.

Michel, Frann. “Lesbian Panic and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Frankenstein. By Mary Shelley. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St.Martins, 2000. 349-68. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Sterling, 2007. Print.

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