Feminism within Mary Shelley's Frankenstein 1818
Although this is out of my usual blog topics, I recently finished reading Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein, and it's been sitting in my head for so long that I wanted to share some of my reflections on its themes surrounding feminism. Interestingly, while both the Frankenstein most of us are familiar with today (large, green skinned zombie with body parts sewn together) as well as the plot of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel (which follows scientist Victor Frankenstein and his creation of a living being known as “the monster”) center a male character or a relationship between two male characters, the actual novel is also seen as a feminist urtext for its messages on birth and maternity.
As we all know, 1818 was not the best time for women, to put it lightly- so it definitely was no small feat for Mary Shelley to write this novel disguised as a sci-fi novel that really seems to have a deeper message regarding the importance of women to society.
So I took it upon myself to find the parts of the novel that to me seemed to convey Mary Shelley's convoluted but ever-present messages on feminism.
Firstly, the frame-within-frame structure of Frankenstein ultimately ends with Margaret Saville Walton, who is to receive Walton’s letters, his manuscript detailing Frankenstein’s story, and within that, the creature’s story as told orally to Frankenstein. As all of the women in the story are left in the dark about the ongoing events within the novel, such as Frankenstein’s creation of the creature, and the creature’s experiences, it can be assumed that Margaret Saville Walton will be the first woman to actually hear it. For example, Elizabeth and Justine are both unaware of the doings of the creature, while Victor “did not for a minute doubt…the daemon murdered [his] brother” (Shelley 73). However, he is unwilling to defend Justine and tell either of them the truth, as he believes that his story would be “looked upon…as the ravings of insanity” (Shelley 66). Furthermore, he resolves to tell Elizabeth about his creation of the creature on their wedding night (Shelley 183), but ultimately is never able to because she is murdered by the creature before he can.
This change in audience creates the effect of an omnipresent, above-the-page female eye that encourages readers to don a woman’s perspective, and read this didactic tale through a feminist lens. This is reflected in the concentric circle diagram as well, with the encapsulated stories mimicking a womb-like structure that encapsulates and preserves the mens’ stories. Frankenstein’s story is transcribed by Walton into a manuscript, suggesting that the nature of this story is no longer private, and with the entrance of a female reader it becomes eternal. This mimics womens’ ability to bring life and to nurture their children, as Margaret Saville Walton seems to be indirectly “birthing” this story that will teach and benefit others forever.
Secondly, Shelley utilizes mens’ separation from feminine presence to suggest that without women, they become vulnerable to their own passions and desires.
Men’s need for feminine presence in their lives is showcased in Walton and Victor’s neglect for maintaining their relationships, despite themselves ironically seeking companionship or an end to their loneliness. For example, as he toils away on creating the creature, Victor isolates himself entirely, separating himself from the world and his family: “And the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me also to forget those friends who were so many miles absent.” (Shelley 43). However, he ironically fantasizes about becoming a father figure to a new species. He states, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source…No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve their’s.” (Shelley 42). By revealing Victor’s desire for a familial, father-son relationship with his creature, Shelley suggests that men require companionship, specifically the companionship of women. It is even suggested that Victor’s creation of this creature might stem from a loss of a sort of “female companion” - his mother.
Similarly, Walton is isolated in the arctic on his own journey towards glory by being the first person to reach the north pole. This journey not only represents going beyond the bounds of nature by entering into a barren area without any signs of natural life, but also physically separates Walton from the feminine presences in his life, such as his sister. And similar to Victor, Walton ironically has the same desire for companionship as he embarks on his journey that is achieving the exact opposite effect of isolating him. He writes that he deeply wishes for a friend, but “shall certainly find no friend on the wide ocean, nor even here in Archangel, among merchants and seamen.” (Shelley 12). However, he goes on to describe his crew in detail, including the master who is of “so amiable a nature” that he gave away his marriage prize money to his mistress (Shelley 12). Although Walton claims to be unable to find friends, his descriptions of the mate suggest that it is fully within his power to befriend those around him. Thus, Shelley hints that Walton’s inability to find friends is due to the lack of nature and absence of women around him. He even considers what the absent Margaret Saville Walton might say after he tells the story of his mate: “What a noble fellow!”, but automatically responds to her by saying “he has scarcely an idea beyond the rope and the shroud.” (Shelley 13). This imaginary conversation between Walton and his sister suggests that if she actually was there with him, she might attempt to convince him that the mate was deserving of his friendship, and bring an end to his self-inflicted isolation. However, as she is not actually there, she is unable to respond to his claim that the mate is incompetent as a companion.
Even when it comes to the meaning of the work as a whole, or the overarching message behind this novel, it seems to me that Frankenstein ultimately conveys that without the presence and active involvement of women within society, men are led astray by their own passions and desires for glory and dominance over others. For example, nature is perceived by Victor as a feminine presence which heals him from his misery following the murders of William and Justine: “these sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation that I was capable of receiving.” (Shelley 87). In this way, nature parallels the women in the novel, who often serve as a panacea for the pains of men, playing the role of the caretaker or nurse. Thus, Shelley consecrates the feminine presence as a necessity to men, restoring in them sense when they would otherwise be unable to process their own emotions. However, beyond just their presence, Shelley also argues that women must have the breadth to actively involve themselves within society, and engage in the intellectual activity supposedly reserved to men. This is illustrated through the fate of the passive women within the novel, as Caroline passes away in the act of “attending upon” or nursing Elizabeth back to health (Shelley 31), and Elizabeth in turn dies despite her premonition of danger, due to Victor “entreating her to retire” by herself to their bedroom (Shelley 188). The unfortunate fates of the passive women within Frankenstein, as they die due to forces outside of their control, suggest that women cannot successfully prevent the consequences of mens’ ill-informed actions if they are not given the opportunity to involve themselves with mens’ intellectual pursuits. For example, Elizabeth expresses her wish to go on the tour of Europe with Clerval and Frankenstein, and “regrets that she had not the same opportunities of enlarging her experience, and cultivating her understanding” (Shelley 148). Without the ability to properly educate themselves and gain credibility within society beyond a domestic sphere, women, according to Shelley, have no choice but to be passive, leading to the domination of men’s unstable passions and selfish desires.
If any of you have also read Shelley's 1818 Frankenstein, please let me know and feel free to reach out regarding your thoughts on its hidden feminist messages!! Also...let me know if you enjoyed this post, and would like more posts regarding what I'm reading, literary analysis/interpretation etc. on here! And as always, I write this