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Shelley began writing ‘Frankenstein’ in the company of what has been called ‘her male coterie’, including her lover Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori. It has been suggested that the influence of this group, and particularly that of Shelley and Byron, affected her portrayal of male characters in the novel. As Ann Campbell writes:
‘[The] characters and plot of Frankenstein reflect . . . Shelley’s conflicted feelings about the masculine circle which surrounded her.’
Certainly the male characters in ‘Frankenstein’ are more developed that those of the females. Elizabeth Fay has suggested that the female characters are ‘idealised figures’ in much of Shelley’s work, particularly in the descriptions of Caroline and Elizabeth, the two mother figures in the novel.
Caroline is, on surface value, a perfect parent, together with her husband, which renders Victor’s irresponsibility in abandoning the creature more unforgivable.
She ‘possessed a mind of uncommon mould’ which was also ‘soft and benevolent’; she is compared to a ‘fair exotic’ flower which is sheltered by Alphonse; she drew ‘inexhaustible stores of affection from a very mine of love to bestow’ on Victor, and her ‘tender caresses’ are some of his ‘first recollections’. She is the idealised mother, a figure that Shelley viewed wistfully, as her own mother died when she was ten days old to be replaced by a disinterested stepmother. Caroline’s parenting provides the care that Frankenstein might well have lacked, had he been left to his father alone – his father dismisses Agrippa’s work without explanation, thereby setting Victor on his course towards ‘destruction’. This is the first introduction of a theme that continues throughout the book, that of the necessity for female figures in parenting and in society. Without a mother figure and left only with Frankenstein who subsumes both parental roles, the creature’s life is blighted by his imperfection and lack of companionship. However, Caroline is also the trigger to Alfonse’s chivalry, thus presenting him in an improved light and allowing his character to develop at the expense of her own weakness. This is a feminist comment from Shelley, whose mother Mary Wollenstonecraft was a notorious feminist and an important influence.
Justine, too, is an ‘idealised figure’, described during the trial as having a countenance which, ‘always engaging, was rendered, by the solemnity of her feelings, exquisitely beautiful.’ She is the archetypal innocent, being beautiful, weak and entirely accepting of her fate to the point of martyrdom.
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The character of Safie is used by Shelley as a direct attack on sexism. Safie is a stronger character than the other women in the novel, as she defies her father in escaping to join Felix. Shelley comments upon the state of ‘bondage’ inflicted on females in Islamic society at the time, which Safie objects to, encouraged to ‘aspire to the higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit’ by her mother. Shelley, in applauding this determination and self-respect on the part of women, is condemning a society which oppresses females and upholds males as superior.
However, Safie is not merely used for this; she is also presented as a contrast to the creature, who is similarly separated from the De Laceys by a language barrier, but who can never be accepted by them because he lacks her ‘angelic beauty’. She is an example of man’s intolerance towards ugliness, as her beauty transcends the barrier of language whereas the creature’s benevolence cannot.
Elizabeth is the most ‘idealised figure’ of all the women in the novel, afforded the following romantic description:
‘The saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home . . . her smile, her soft voice, the sweet glance of her celestial eyes, were ever there to bless and animate us. She was the living spirit of love to soften and attract.’
She is here made to transcend ordinary mortality to become ‘celestial’ and ‘saintly’. This makes her death more appalling and triggers Victor’s active fury, whereas the suffering of the innocent Justine did not. The base murder of ‘the living spirit of love’ can be said to be the creature’s revenge against humankind, as the killing of something so natural and integral to humanity kills happiness with it. But whilst Elizabeth is assigned this pivotal role in the novel, she is in herself two-dimensional as a character, having no friends outside of the family and no interests save ‘trifling occupations’ within the household. She is content to wait for Victor, despite his long absences and frequent and serious depressions. She is the idealised woman at the time of the novel’s setting, being submissive, supportive and beautiful.
However, the character of Elizabeth can also serve a further purpose. It has been argued by several critics that Elizabeth is the creature’s opposite, that she and he together make up Victor. She is his good half and the creature his bad. Both characters are orphans and heavily dependent on Victor. Elizabeth is beautiful, good and female, whereas the creature is ugly, evil and male. The blending of the two create Victor, who has robbed himself of gender by assuming both parental roles. (It has been suggested by one critic that Victor has feminine characteristics, being ‘sensitive, passionate about literature . . . and becom[ing] enamoured with [other men’s] voice[s] and feelings’.)
This theory can be supported, in that Victor attributes to Elizabeth the ability to ‘subdue [him] to a semblance of her own gentleness’. By contrast, the creature unfailingly enrages Victor, causing him to lose self-control and become violent.
Whilst the feminine roles are flat and manipulated to affect the character and actions of the male roles, the latter are considerably more defined. As Elizabeth Fay writes, Shelley shows the ‘realistic weaknesses and frailties’ of men in the novel. Walton is presented as sexist and selfish, mocking his sister’s fears for his safety in his opening sentence: ‘You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.’ Margaret is an unsatisfactory audience, as he desires a companion ‘whose eyes would reply to [his]’. This companion must necessarily be male, for how could a female possibly communicate adequately with him? However, despite this wish for male companionship, Walton possesses certain feminine characteristics, such as his distaste for violence: ‘ . . . my best years [having been] spent under your gentle and feminine fosterage, has so refined the groundwork of my character that I cannot overcome an intense distaste to the usual brutality exercised on board ship’. He writes adoringly of ‘the stranger’s’ ‘conciliating and gentle’ manners, ‘unparalleled eloquence’, nobility and ‘cultivated’ mind.
Walton’s ambition to discover ‘uncharted territories’ is arrogant, as he desires to acquire ‘dominion . . . over the elemental foes of our race’. He craves idolatry and power. Shelley introduces this here so that Walton’s later failure towards the close of the novel is celebrated by the reader, who has understood that Victor’s arrogance has caused devastation, whereas Walton has paid little heed and is bitter in his failure.
Shelley is commenting on the stupidity of male hubris, which she ‘sensed in the scientific ambitions of Romantics such as her husband,’ as the critic James W. Maerten has suggested. Maerten writes also of Anthony Easthope, who has drawn:
‘a circular fortress as a model of the . . . masculine ego. Ego . . . is entrapped in its own defences, unable to escape the barriers it has raised against a universe [which is] an enemy . . . The most praised . . . in our civilisation are those who can contain and control the most monstrous powers: biological pathogens, nuclear fission, toxic waste, vast armies. Such Promethean desires are ultimately the illusions of Icarus.’
Victor’s ego causes him to desire ‘a new species’ which would ‘bless [him] as its creator and source’. He cannot control the monster that he creates, thereby losing his essential masculinity. His attempt to defy Nature and steal God’s power for himself is as fatal as Icarus’ stupidity in trying to do what man cannot.
This male arrogance is introduced by Alphonse, who assumes the care of Caroline and renders her submissive in gratitude. The blatancy of the strong male and weak female roles here has been condemned by some, who suggest that the imposition of a male role on Victor is a form of filicide. This is responsible for his insecurity which in turn leads to his ‘overreaching ego inflation’. A critic has argued that:
‘Victor Frankenstein is compulsively self-destructive, driven by forces he cannot recognise to create a son by his own efforts and without the troublesome involvement of a woman . . . [upon which] he is horrified . . . and rejects the creature totally, thereby turning the son into the very monster whose existence he has always denied in himself.’
It is possible to corroborate this view to some extent, as Victor’s feminine qualities conflict with his identity as a man. Shelley was concerned with the issue of gender, as in her novel ‘The Last Man’ she created an essentially genderless character, Lionel Verney, and discussed how he only acknowledged his gender when he viewed himself in a mirror. His reflection told him that he was an English gentleman, but without this empirical perception he had no such identity. Elizabeth Fay writes of him that he is a ‘feminised ideal’, ‘combining masculine and feminine traits in such a way as to confute traditional notions of gender’.
Robert W. Anderson writes that:
‘Frankenstein’s creature embodies gender transgression on two levels . . . the first being [his] status as being a surgically constructed male, the second being Victor’s non-gender transgression in co-opting the female trait of reproduction, transforming his laboratory into a virtual womb.’
The creature has no real gender, despite being created physically as a male. He is denied male dominance over females by Victor, who has made him too ugly to be accepted into human society and then destroys the female mate that he had partially made for him. The creature, like Victor, has feminine characteristics, being profoundly affected by literature and nature, and being sensitive to emotion. He is made male only so that there can be no sexual overtones in the relationship between himself and Victor, and the battle between them can be physical and violent as well as rhetorical.
The absence of femininity in the making of the creature is its integral flaw. Despite all of Victor’s efforts to make the creature perfect, it will ultimately be ugly, because it is unnatural for a male alone to reproduce. Beauty cannot result of only masculinity. Shelley is condemning a single father in this. The death of her mother left her to the care of her father, whom she adored. He often neglected her, leaving her feeling unwanted. The lack of grief on the part of her husband as their babies died augmented this conviction in men’s inability to care for children alone. This reinforces her message throughout the novel of the necessity for women in society. Shelley was forced to ask her husband to claim to be the author of the novel, as women were not accepted as writers at the time. Men alone in science and education are fallible, as she suggested in making Frankenstein’s experiment so disastrous. Therefore the oppression of women at the time was irrational and arrogant. Frankenstein represents flawed masculinity, as an example of a society without women. Shelley manipulated masculine and feminine gender identities in her novel to try and persuade her audience that men alone cannot create, whether it be children or art.