Throughout Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, we are presented with various views of women, and their role in society and family. Here, I will explore the similarities of and differences between the female characters in the novel.
The first female encountered in the novel, Caroline Beaufort, becomes a model around which many of Shelley's other females are based. Frankenstein's father first encountered her while she was tending to her dying father "with the greatest tenderness," and thus it is apparent that on first encounters she is an exceptional woman. Even after her father's death, there is no sign of weakness in her character, as "her courage rose to support her in adversity"; her "soft and benevolent mind" ultimately allows her to marry Frankenstein's father. At this point we encounter the first near-universal characteristic of women in the novel - they are loved by all around them, right from first impressions. Their goodness is self-evident to anyone. Frankenstein's father has "reverence for her virtues", and this use of language gives a religious quality to the esteem in which she is held. This is another facet the reader will see oft-repeated later on.
Even in the ultimate trial, her own death, Beaufort shows no sign of character flaws or common human weakness - no selfish demands, no self pity. Frankenstein claims "the fortitude and benignity of this best of women did not desert her." As the end finally draws near, she "resigns [herself] cheerfully to death".
However, before her death, it is Beaufort that introduces the second female character of the book. For Beaufort, it was "a necessity, a passion, for her to act ... the guardian angel" and it was just while carrying out this divine duty that she encounters Elizabeth. From first description, she is "a being heaven-sent, and bearing a celestial stamp." In this quote, there are several counts of divine imagery such that one cannot help but feel that this woman, or rather girl, is at least as remarkable as Beaufort herself. The divine imagery is continued when Beaufort describes her as a "blessing" on their family. There is another aspect to this miraculous child; we are left in no doubt as to her beauty when she is described as "fairer than pictured cherub", but her beauty appears to transcend that of ordinary women. As Frankenstein puts it, "None could behold her without looking on her as a being heaven-sent" - her beauty, like her goodliness, is apparent to anyone. Like the "palaces of nature" of Lausanne, Elizabeth's beauty is that of the sublime. At the time of Frankenstein's publishing, an important distinction was drawn between subjective observation of beauty and the sublime, usually reserved for natural phenomena like those of Lausanne. Therefore it is quite incredible and even a little presumptious of Frankenstein to attribute her with such a characteristic. However, it is hinted at again; throughout the novel, beauty attracts beauty, and so Elizabeth's fascination with "the sublime shapes of the mountains" suggests that her own beauty is likewise sublime.
Portraying women in such a positive light was not typical of writing of the time, driven as it was by a strongly patriarchal tradition. That Shelley chose originally to be published anonymously is evidence enough that women writers were a rare breed and were usually frowned upon. However, the passive nature of the female characters adheres more closely to what would typically be expected of them, as both Elizabeth and Frankenstein's mother are portrayed as wonderful but nevertheless altogether dependent on the men for provision. It is possible that Shelley felt that too many radical positions in the book might alienate the very audience she was attempting to influence, although it seems early editions of the book still did just that. As the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstencraft and herself pursueing a career considered unfit for a woman, it seems unlikely that Shelley accepted such traditional...
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