Being a woman in the 1800’s…
This book is intricately tied to the culture of Mary Shelley’s world. Mary was brought up with unconventional parents. Specifically, her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelely, is considered one of the first feminists. But Mary Shelley wrote and lived in the 1800’s and this time period expected women to be passive and dependent upon men. Women were unable to own or inherit property. They were completely dependent upon a husband, brother or uncle.
Mary’s mother was an instigator for change when she wrote A Vindication for the Rights of Women in 1792. In her work she states that women should have the same standing in society as men because they are essential to society and are human beings. She also argues for the education of women as then they are better able to educate their children. She wrote A Vindication for the Rights of Women in response to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord's 1791 report to the French National Assembly. Talleyrand’s report and pamphlet stated that women should only receive a domestic education.
Many writers have suggested that Mary Shelley’s novel contains hints of feminism and its emerging consciousness in the nineteenth century. Victor Frankenstein is flawed even amid his noble intentions. As the novel progresses, we begin to realize that Frankenstein is responsible not only for the creation of the monster, but ultimately guilty of taking on the divine roll of God and then abandoning his creation.
The female characters in this novel are further examples of the feminist undercurrent. Elizabeth, Justine and Caroline are all consistently dominated by the men of this novel. Shelly describes both Caroline and Elizabeth in idealistic terms and as objects rather than people: “The Saintly soul of Elizabeth shown like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home. Her sympathy was ours; her smile, her soft voice, the sweet glance of her celestial eyes, were ever there to bless and animate us. She was the living spirit of love to soften and attract…”
Justine is left to suffer for Frankenstein’s mistake and helplessly forfeits her life. And when the creature attacks Elizabeth, Shelley describes the event, “She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair.” As a reader we are left with the connotation of rape.
As you continue to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, look for early feminist undertones. Think about why Shelley, who was unconventional herself, would portray the women in this novel as dependent on men who continue to fail them.