Feminist Literary Critics in Mary Shelley’s Novel “Frankenstein”

February 15, 2021 by Essay Writer

A very common criticism among feminist literary critics is that Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, is an anti feminist text, in how all female characters in the novel exist solely to further the plot for the make characters. However, this reading ignores the underlying message of the novel, that the “naturalized” behaviours men and women learn under the patriarchy ultimately lead to a life of misery and destruction. It is through this reading of Frankenstein that we can see that Mary Shelley was not rejecting her mother’s feminist beliefs, but instead concealed them within a fictional novel, so as to bring them into the poplar culture of the time and make them accessible to all. The characters who engage in the “naturalized” behaviours of men and women enforced by the patriarchy lead themselves and their loved ones to a life of misery and death. Though the novel does not show the dramatic overthrowing of the patriarchy, it demonstrates how everyone’s participation within patriarchal norms leads to suffering, and how even slight rejections of the patriarchy lead to great happiness for some characters.

The novel takes place in the patriarchal society of eighteenth century Switzerland. The relevance of this lies in the separate gendered labours they must perform, which are entrenched in societal norms. This division of labour means men fill the intellectual and public spheres, like Victor Frankenstein’s becoming a scientist, and his father Alphonse’s being a government official. Women, on the other hand, fill the domestic sphere. Women have little agency, and are expected to silently look after their families, as Elizabeth and Justine do. The story being rooted in the patriarchy is what causes all the problems in the story, and the eventual destruction of the Frankenstein family.

Literature typically depicts men as thriving under the patriarchy, however in Shelley’s novel the men end up either miserable and alone, as is the case with Robert Walton, or dead, like the men of the Frankenstein family. These deaths of the Frankenstein family are all caused by Victor’s monster. Victor’s creation of the monster relates directly to his grief over the loss of his mother, Caroline Frankenstein. Victor states: “It is so long before the mind can persuade itself that she, whom we saw everyday … can be departed forever…” (72). Though he explicitly states that emotionally recovering from the loss of a loved one takes a great amount of time, he then contradicts himself, stating, “Grief is rather an indulgence than a necessity” (72), and that he must leave to attend university. He has been taught, since his childhood upbringing under the patriarchy, to value concrete “facts relative to the actual world” (66), like science, whereas the abstract and “aërial creations of the poets” (66), like feelings and emotions, was for the women in his life. Rather than learning to do his own emotional processing and labour, he is taught under the patriarchy to suppress his feelings, because they are unnecessary. This is what leads to his obsession with creating life, so that he may one day “renew life where death had apparently devoted the body of corruption” (81), and bring his mother back to life. This is an impossible task, and his lust for the glory of overcoming death results in the suffering and deaths of all his loved ones. This is one example of the ways in which patriarchal expectations of people in the eighteenth-century resulted in the misery and deaths of the characters in the novel Frankenstein.

The suffering Victor’s loved ones experienced is another example of the suffering experienced by people as a result of gendered patriarchal roles.The deaths of the women in the Frankenstein family directly relate to the roles they were socialized to perform under the patriarchy. From a young age the women of the novel are all taught that their primary purpose is to listen to them men in their lives, and care for their family to the point of complete self sacrifice, while their male counterparts go off exploring the world. This need to care for people is ingrained in the characters, and ultimately leads to each of their sufferings, as seen with the Frankenstein family’s servant, Justine. Justine, in her domestic, caregiving work as a servant to the Frankenstein’s, is trying to find William after he went missing one night. In her attempt to find the missing boy, she is framed for his murder. Though she is innocent of this crime, she confessed to the murder she was accused of. Her reasoning behind this self sacrifice is, “‘In an evil hour I subscribed to a lie, and now only I am truly miserable’” (102). She confessed to the murder of William, so that the rest of the world could feel satisfied that William’s death was brought to justice. In her eyes, as a woman and a servant to the Frankenstein family, the Frankensteins’ need for closure regarding the death of William outweighs her need to be recognized as innocent. She goes quietly, and with little complaint, as is expected of women under the patriarchy.

While most characters in the novel follow the gendered rules of the patriarchy without question, there is one character in the novel who goes against the patriarchal expectations put upon them, and experiences happiness as a result. This character is Safie, an Arabian who falls in love with Felix De Lacey, a french aristocrat who falls from grace after helping her father escape from a French prison.

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