Essay on The Role of Female Characters in "Frankenstein"
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Can you imagine Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, the great work of literature, without, for example, such female characters as Mrs. Margaret Saville, Elizabeth Lavenza, and Justine Moritz? In this case the novel will have no meaning. All the women help to develop the plot, and without them Frankenstein will lose its spirit. Although these heroines have a lot in common in their characters: they are all strong-willed, kind, careful, and selfless, at the same time, each of them is unique, and each plays her own role in the novel. Mrs. Margaret Saville is the woman to whom the narrator tells the story. Elizabeth Lavenza is the beloved of Victor Frankenstein. Justine Moritz is the heroine who is accused by mistake of murdering…show more content…
She is a thread which connects him with civilization, and life. "The sickening failings of her heart-felt expectations [in the case if he will die] are, in prospect, more terrible to [her brother] than [his] own death" (1027). She is an invisible, but necessary heroine for the plot's development. The correspondence between Robert Walton and his sister, which is one of the artistic means of expressiveness, awakens the reader's interest in the narration. So, the image of Mrs. Margaret Saville is as important as the image of the narrator.
Elizabeth Lavenza is another important character of the novel. We know the story of her life from the beginning to the end, and can notice that she changes during the narration. In the beginning, the only daughter of the deceased sister of Victor Frankenstein's father, "she [is] docile and good tempered, yet gay and playful as a summer insect" (923). She is yet a child, she does not realize the complexity of life, and does not know what suffering is. The character of Elizabeth becomes apparent when the mother of Frankenstein has died. Then "she [is] continually endeavoring to contribute to the happiness of others, entirely forgetful of herself" (927). When Frankenstein returns to Geneva after the death of Henry Clerval, he sees a new change in Elizabeth. "She [is] thinner, and [has lost] much of that heavenly vivacity that [has]
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Upon the completion of Mary Shelley’s famous creature novel Frankenstein, it is rather hard to argue about the role of the female characters in the story. Truthfully, they did not play any major role in the development of the plot. All the major characters are male; therefore, it can be easily dismissed that the novel is highly dominated with masculine behaviors and actions.
However, the fact that Mary Shelley, the daughter of the famous feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, used the female characters with consistent tasks of domesticity which primarily supported the male characters can be argued as a symbol of their significant role in the progress and development of the male characters.
Their roles in the story solidify the reality of patriarchal authority in early history of women. By means of illustrating the domestic roles of women in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley is able to define and demonstrate the situation of women which is also present in her mother’s famous work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Women’s Place in Frankenstein
First, we enumerate the female characters of the story to be able to distinguish each character’s role in the development of the story. Clearly, the novel revolves around the story of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who created a monster by means of different body parts and organs. The first female character to be introduced is Victor’s mother Caroline Beaufort who later becomes Caroline Frankenstein.
Caroline Beaufort is the daughter of Alphonse Frankenstein’s best friend, Beaufort. When Beaufort died, Caroline becomes wife to Alphonse. Victor’s narration of her characteristics in Chapter One already suggests a woman’s common role of supporting her man. Victor describes that “She procured plain work; she plaited straw and by various means contrived to earn a pittance scarcely sufficient to support life” (Shelley 28).
In this regard, a woman is represented as someone who must be strong enough to support a life. Clearly, the life which is being referred to is the life of Caroline’s father. He is the first man to have exerted the concept of patriarchy in the story because as a man, Caroline feels obliged that she must tend and devote her time to providing care for her father.
This argument can, of course, be countered by claiming that Caroline may just be a very loving daughter who is willing to devote her time tending to her father’s needs.
However, the fact that upon her father’s death she surrenders herself to become the wife of Alphonse is an indication that as a mourning woman, she is emotionally weak and in need of someone masculine to protect her. The narratives did not mention that Alphonse and Caroline were in love, it is merely stated that they married afterwards.
Another female character in the story who plays a major role in the life of Victor is his childhood friend, Elizabeth Lavenza. She is an orphan whom Caroline and Alphonse adopted because of her childish sweetness and beauty. The role of Elizabeth is further strengthened as that of a woman whose responsibility is to accompany a man and fulfill his pleasures. “the result was that Elizabeth Lavenza became the inmate of my parents’ house—my more than sister—the beautiful and adored companion of all my occupations and my pleasures” (Shelley 235 ).
The concept of Elizabeth’s role as a constant companion of men is also present in the monster’s demand that Victor creates a female counterpart for him because he is lonely. “I am alone and miserable, man will not associate with me, but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me” (Shelley 140).
The creature merely wants to have a companion to share his life with—to have friends and a family where he could belong. One can argue that the monster’s demand for another creature is due to his solitary existence as a horrifying being however, the fact that he uses the word “herself” to refer to the creature he wishes to share his world with gives an impression of a sexual desire that only a woman counterpart can fulfill.
The creature did not ask for a father or brother; though, he did not specify a woman, the use of the pronoun “herself” already says it all. Another aspect that one must take a closer look is Victor’s self-proclaimed possession of her. He considers Elizabeth as a possession that his mother has granted him.
The day before Elizabeth arrived in their household, Caroline tells Victor that the next day he shall receive his present. “she presented Elizabeth to me as her promised gift, I, with childish seriousness, interpreted her words literally and looked upon Elizabeth as mine—mine to protect, love, and cherish.
All praises bestowed on her I received as made to a possession of my own” (Shelley 235). Even on Caroline’s death, she passes on domesticity to Elizabeth as she leaves her the responsibility of taking care of her younger children. “Elizabeth, my love, you must supply my place to my younger children” (Shelley 38). This premise clearly demonstrates the role of women as merely caretakers of household chores and children.
According to the book Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, “The men in Frankenstein’s world all work outside the home, as public servants (Alphonse Frankenstein), as scientists (Victor), as merchants (Clerval and his father), or as explorers (Walton)” (Mellor 116). This fact is in contrast to the nature of the women’s works in the story.
The women are limited to the housework. Elizabeth is not even allowed to come with Victor’s travels because as a woman, she does not have the same opportunities such as him. Mellor claims that, “Mary Shelley, doubtless inspired by her mother’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, specifically portrays the consequences of a social construction of gender which values men over women” (115). The novel constructs the reality of women’s situation as slaves of domesticity by means of placing them behind the presence of the men.
The presence of female characters in the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein plays a significant role in portraying the limited opportunities and rights that women have back in the Victorian era. Shelley’s characterization of the women demonstrates and represents the weakness of the male characters such as Victor Frankenstein and the creature that he has created.
The role of women in this story is clear: they are highly deprived of their rights as human beings. Shelley’s presentation of Caroline Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza as women who are submissive and uncomplaining signifies the women’s inability to liberate themselves from the dominance of men.
Mellor, Anne Kostelanetz. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. Taylor & Francis, 1988.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, the 1818 text.
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Ed. James Rieger. USA: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Author: Russell Ransom
Women’s Place in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
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