Women In Frankenstein

Women In Frankenstein

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein employs all of the literary standards of the gothic horror novel. Nightmares, murder, monsters, and madness are just some of the devices that rear their ugly heads within the narrative. But there is an added element which makes the doubly horrifying to any unsuspecting feminist who might decide to pick up this classic, and that is the strict division of gender roles that are assigned to the novel’s characters.
The domestic circle that the Frankenstein family represents might be more shocking to some feminists than Victor’s own hideous progeny itself. This is truly a novel of oppressive gender extremes. Sexuality is repressed and ambiguous. The women are cheerfully subordinate; the men blindly egotistical. A good feminist interpretation of this novel should be a required supplement to any first reading of the text because gender/sexual tension can be found at the heart of every major issue in this novel.
Veeder put it most succinctly by stating that “the male protagonist attempts to usurp woman’s place and produce offspring parthenogenetically” (Veeder 43). All six critics made reference to this objective in one form or another. It seemed as though the only disagreement among them was whether or not the act was consciously malicious in Victor’s mind. Again, Veeder best represent the critics who answer “yes” to this question when he states that sexual conflict highlights the entire scope of the novel: “Man and woman disagree in the very first sentence of Frankenstein: ‘With your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in the preceding navigators’” (Veeder 40).
Other critics, of course, disagree with the theory that Victor’s intent was purposefully destructive. Three of the critiques that I reviewed incorporated a portion of psychoanalytic interpretation of Victor. Unsurprisingly enough gender roles were still at the heart of their arguments: One attributed Victor’s actions to narcissism (Wolfson), one to an unbalanced male ego (Dickerson), and another to hysteria brought on by repressed ‘unmanly’ emotions (Lowe): “If Victor’s understanding of himself as a gendered being is determined on the basis of emotional control, then overpowering, hysterical symptoms revel the frailty of his gendered construction. A man without rational self control is what? A lunatic? A woman?” (Hobbs162). It seems that no matter what the true motivations behind Victor’s actions were, gender identity remains an inescapably crucial factor (even more so relevant when the sex of the monster he created is considered).
The terms of gender identity are even more pronounced when the novel’s female characters are examined.

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I will let Wolfson speak for the rest: “All the interesting, complex characters in the book are male, and their deepest attachments are to other males” (Wolfson 50). All of the critics claimed, to varying degrees, that the women in Frankenstein unwittingly fall victim to an oppressive patriarchy before inevitably falling victim to death at the hands of the creature: “ladies so apparently devoid of impurity, flaw, and will, that they hardly seem important or visible” (Dickerson 82). The women in Shelley’s novel are mindlessly subservient functions of the domestic circle; they have no ambitions or desires outside of pleasing the men in their lives. Furthermore, even with the opportunity that the narrative frame presents in offering three different men the chance to portray the women in their lives with any shred of significance, they “either mute female discourse or control or shape the female stories of innocence and unity so unlike the stories of experience, isolation and separation that characterize Walton’s, Victor’s, and the monster’s own histories” (Dickerson 86).
This male manipulation of language was especially scrutinized by several critics in regards to the trial of Justine, who, even though she spoke with just as much passion and conviction as any male speaker of the language, failed to project herself with the same eloquence and airtight logic that that would be expected of males with Victor’s or Walton’s oratory abilities. This is what ultimately sealed her fate. Her demise, then, came at the expense of a blind patriarchy that chose to value the male institution of logic over character.
Justine’s trial, surprisingly, was discussed by the feminist reviewers as much if not more than Elizabeth: the most Romantic of the novel’s Romantically ideal women. Literally a trophy and a piece of property, Elizabeth is described by Victor himself as a “prize” and a “possession” at intervals throughout the course of the book. She is a faithful nurturer of Victor, and the impression is given that he is always on her mind even when she is quite absent in his own. It seems as though each of the critics had a different take on Elizabeth in her death and her relationship to Victor, but they all agreed that she was representative of Mary Shelley’s symbol of the Romantic Woman.
This is why I particularly enjoyed Mary Lowe-Evans’ take on the death of Elizabeth, because it seems to me that a book written with such obviously “fixed” gender roles and sexual tension, especially a book penned by a female author, would have to have some blatant purpose to making victims out of these women in both their lives and their deaths. Mary Lowe-Evans suggests that “Mary Shelley seems to symbolically destroy a standard of feminine behavior and physical perfection … that neither she nor any human woman could actually achieve” (Lowe-Evans 60). All of the women making up the domestic circle in the Frankenstein household die. They are victims to the patriarchal system while they are alive, and, because of the physical circumstances in which living under this system places them in the novel, they are victims of the patriarchal system when they die.
I like to think that after reviewing these criticisms that Shelley was doing something positive with the image of the Romantic woman in Frankenstein: she was killing it. And I think it is a trend that has continued in the horror genre for generations after the publication. Even in horror films today, most often the victims that are killed off embody stereotypes, and they are usually killed off because the ignorance of their stereotype precludes them from seeing the danger so close to them. Whether it is the pot-head who gets stoned and walks toward the killer rather than away from him in a slasher flick or Mary Reilly (who does not die, but whose “station” in society causes her to fail to see the danger sleeping down the stairs), stereotypes in horror are often conscious to the author and functional to the story.
To this end, I am left scratching my head at why not even one critique that I reviewed chose to scrutinize the character of Clervall. Victors best friend exuded a lot of potential for gender based questions in his many sexually ambiguous (in the terms of both gender and sexuality) characteristics. It seems in a world of such rigid gender stereotypes Clervall sticks out like a sore thumb, and yet no one went into very much depth on his behalf.
In closing, I would like to reiterate the importance of supplementing any reading of Frankenstein with a mind for feminist inquiry as Shelley incorporates gender issues both intricately enough to heighten the tension of the story and subtly enough to let them go unnoticed if the reader is not paying attention. It seems that the women and the men have been drawn to extreme proportions of dominance and submissiveness, respectively. At the heart of the story, however, I get the impression that Shelley is hinting that if Victor would have put half of the ambition that he put into science into reforming the domestic circle of his family unit, a happy medium could be found in the middle. But then again, happy mediums don’t exactly lay the groundwork for very interesting horror stories,
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