Frankenstein and Femininity

I’m not the first to observe the irony that Mary Shelley, daughter of important early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote a novel in which all the female characters are passive conduits for male action. A survey: invisible Margaret, Robert Walton’s sister, whom the reader inhabits to receive the story through Robert’s letters; Caroline Beaufort, Victor’s angelic mother, whose “firmest hopes for future happiness” were in the prospect of Victor’s marriage to Elizabeth (24)[1]–fair, pure, eternally patient and understanding Elizabeth, who later must die by the monster on her wedding night. Then there is Justine Moritz, also lovely and sweet, also used as a weapon of revenge on Victor by the monster; there are Agatha and Safie, whose stories are nestled in and de-centered by the stories of the men in their lives, and whose virtues and learning only further the monster’s education; and, finally, there is the aborted female monster, a demoniacal Eve, conceived of as a companion whose presence will transform the monster and solve all his problems.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Frankenstein on this basis, just as it would to minimize it. Instead, I read Shelley’s lack of fully-fleshed female characters with their own inner lives and motivators as a conscious and deliberate authorial choice that serves to demonstrate and warn against the consequences of dangerously arrogant and typically masculine scientific hubris. Shelley isn’t casting her women characters in tired roles so much as she is using them as symbols of traditional ideals of femininity: beauty, innocence, virtue. These traits are the perfect foil to the horror, violence, and tragedy spurred by Victor’s reckless ambition.

Correspondingly, Victor is a stand-in for the champions of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution–men with whom Shelley was certainly familiar and perhaps acquainted. That’s not to say that Frankenstein is an indictment of men. After all, the monster’s true nature is benevolent and sensitive, the other male characters are innocent, and even Victor starts out as a decent and promising person. Rather, Victor and his macabre experiments–and their devastating consequences–represent the dark side of unchecked technological and scientific progress.

The story’s structure also frames this argument, as Robert Walton recounts his own reckless explorations to his “dear Margaret” without much care for her well being–or for anything beyond his own ego-serving dreams of triumph and discovery. “Why not still proceed over the untamed yet obedient element? What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?” (7), he writes to her. (We’ll find out, Robert!)

Desperate for companionship and understanding, the monster demands a mate–a freak-show mirror image of the sort that Victor finds in Elizabeth. But when Victor realizes that the reality of his female creation might not align with the monster’s vision of her, and in fact may be “ten thousand times more malignant than her mate” (120), Victor is stricken and abandons the project. He muses, “…[S]he, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation” (121). This is the critical piece: upon realization that the female might be her own agent, the possibility of her existence is extinguished.

It is easy to point to the novel’s structure–a Russian nesting doll of stories, all told by men–and say that women are denied perspective. But it’s too simplistic to argue that Frankenstein is a story in which women are flattened and silenced and victimized, contained within men’s accounts of their own experiences. To make that assumption is to ignore the threat and power of the female monster, who disrupts a surface reading of Shelley’s female characters.  And, while I’d normally be reticent to argue that an author’s gender excuses her from fault, Shelley’s background and intellect make it difficult to accept that same surface reading. After all, the real creator isn’t Victor, it’s Shelley–and Frankenstein is her monster.

This piece was originally written for Prof. Tinkcom’s course “Sci Fi Cinema in a Global Context.”



[1] Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover Thrift, 1994.