Usurping the Role of Females

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In constituting nature as female -- "I pursued nature to her hiding places" (49) -- Victor Frankenstein participates in a gendered construction of the universe whose negative ramifications are everywhere apparent in the novel. The uninhibited scientific penetration and technological exploitation of female nature is only one dimension of a patriarchal encoding of the female as passive and possessable, the willing receptacle of male desire. The destruction of the female implicit in Frankenstein's usurpation of the natural mode of human reproduction symbolically erupts in his nightmare following the animation of his creature, in which his bride-to-be is transformed in his arms into the corpse of his dead mother -- "a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel" (53). By stealing the female's control over reproduction, Frankenstein has eliminated the female's primary biological function and source of cultural power. Indeed, for the simple purpose of human survival, Frankenstein has eliminated the necessity to have females at all. One of the deepest horrors of this novel is Frankenstein's implicit goal of creating a society for men only: his creature is male; he refuses to create a female; there is no reason that the race of immortal beings he hoped to propagate should not be exclusively male.1 Mary Shelley, doubtless inspired by her mother's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, specifically portrays the consequences of a social construction of gender which values men over women. Victor Frankenstein's nineteenth-century Genevan society is founded on a rigid division of sex-roles: the man inhabits the public sphere, the woman is relegated to the private or domestic sphere.2 The men in Frankenstein's world all work outside the home, as public servants {116} (Alphonse Frankenstein), as scientists (Victor), as merchants (Clerval and his father), or as explorers (Walton). The women are confined to the home. Elizabeth, for instance, is not permitted to travel with Victor and "regretted that she had not the same opportunities of enlarging her experience and cultivating her understanding" (151). Inside the home, women are either kept as a kind of pet (Victor "loved to tend" on Elizabeth "as I should on a favorite animal" [30]) or they work as housewives, child-care providers, and nurses (Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein, Elizabeth Lavenza, Margaret Saville), or servants (Justine Moritz).

As a consequence of this sexual division of labor, masculine work is segregated from the domestic realm. Hence intellectual activity is divorced from emotional activity. Victor Frankenstein cannot do scientific research and think lovingly of Elizabeth and his family at the same time. His obsession with his experiment has caused him "to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time" (50). It is this separation of masculine work from the domestic affections that causes Frankenstein's downfall. Because Frankenstein cannot work and love at the same time, he fails to feel empathy for the creature he is constructing, callously making him eight feet tall simply because "the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed" (49). He then fails to love or feel any parental responsibility for the freak he has created. And he remains so self-absorbed that he cannot imagine his monster might threaten someone other than himself when he swears to be with Victor "on his wedding-night" [3.3.4].

This separation of the sphere of public (masculine) power from the sphere of private (feminine) affection also causes the destruction of many of the women in the novel, as Kate Ellis has observed.3 Caroline Beaufort dies unnecessarily because she cannot restrain herself from attending her favorite Elizabeth before she has fully recovered from smallpox. She thus incarnates a patriarchal ideal of female devotion and self-sacrifice (this suggestion is strengthened in the...
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