Is ‘Frankenstein’ sexist?
It’s interesting to note that the narrative in its entirely is viewed through a male lens, with the female characters being reported through Frankenstein and then Walton. This could explain why many of the female characters within the book (*ahem* Elizabeth) are presented as paragons of virtue and purity, uncomplicated and sweet. But these angelic characteristics don’t ever prevent the female characters from becoming victims of violence. For readers wrapped up in modern views on feminism, this could suggest that the women within Frankenstein are weak and unable to protect themselves. But Shelley believed that her characters as Christian women were able to “aspire to powers of intellect and independence of spirit” in comparison to non-European women, potentially implying that her female characters merely conform to Victorian norms and are possibly even progressive for the time, as they demonstrate strength in self-sacrifice and in the ability to care for others.
Within the novel and according to Victorian society, the most important role for a woman is to fulfil is the role of a mother. Frankenstein, a man who has created a being through unnatural means, essentially renders women obsolete by disrupting the natural and almost religious phenomenon of childbirth. In this way, Shelley may be commenting on the male desire for power over females, as Frankenstein strips away a unique characteristic of women. None of the women in the novel become mothers after the creation of the monster. Elizabeth, for example, is never given this opportunity as she is murdered on her wedding night by Victor’s very creation. This unnatural destruction is also reflected in the dream Victor had directly after the completion of the monster, in which he sees the death of Elizabeth and imagines he holds “the corpse of [his] dead mother”.
Women also embody the role of the victim within the novel. Female characters are consistently reduced to tools of revenge and the casualties of male violence. The unjust execution of Justine shows that is women who bear the brunt of male weakness, receiving the consequences for men’s mistakes. The murder of Elizabeth on her wedding night is also gratuitous; she serves only as a means through which the monster can exact his vengeance on Frankenstein. Even the violent destruction of the guiltless female creature seems almost like an honour killing. In this way, women are pawns in the greater war between Victor and his creation, or as collateral damage. Not a single female character within Victor’s narrative survives the novel; they’re just expendable, useful insofar as they affect the male characters.
Despite this, I think Shelley could be warning of the dangers of toxic masculinity against the vulnerability of women, particularly in a time in which women had fewer legal protections. We know that women within in the novel have a need to be protected by men. Alphonse, Frankenstein’s father, “strove to shelter [his wife], as a fair exotic is sheltered by the gardener, from every rough wind’. Caroline has to be insulated from every possible harm; with the comparison to an exotic plant, she’s fetishized as an object to be cherished and guarded from all damage. While Alphonse possesses good intentions, to a modern audience this could appear demeaning. The idea of women as commodities which need protection is also reflected after the adoption of Elizabeth, when Victor views her as “a pretty present” and “a possession of mine own”. These feelings towards Elizabeth, although ostensibly childish and innocuous, are reflective of unhealthy control and a kind of domination conditioned in some men from childhood.
The gardener simile depicts Alphonse nurturing and supporting his wife with all the strength he has. On the other hand, women are also presented as perfect caregivers and supporters. Caroline Beaufort, too, displays strength when she financially supports her sick father and “[attends] him with the greatest tenderness”. As Elizabeth also encourages Victor and attempts to lessen his illness, Shelley could be suggesting that men also need women to care for them or protect them in some way, a mutual need for each other’s strengths. Victor and the creature’s desire for companionship also demonstrates the necessity of women, contradicting the idea that these characters are expendable, because their importance causes stronger loss for the male characters. Shelley’s female characters’ self-sacrifice and goodness could also imply that women are a more perfect version of men; after all, it is man’s temptations and weaknesses that lead to the tragedies within the novel, while the female characters almost lack human weaknesses.
To a modern reader, it’s argued that a strong female character needs to have defects (or be just as flawed as male characters), so the role of women within ‘Frankenstein’ is largely characterised by passiveness and unrealistic perfection. Elizabeth, for example, is glorified as “a creature who seemed to shed radiance from her looks”. The word “creature” makes her seem unearthly (and perhaps objectifies her, just as the monster is dehumanised). The imagery of light and “radiance” falling around her seems to conjure up her angelic characteristics. Thus, she appears unconvincingly perfect, much like the other female characters in the novel.
TLDR; some modern readers brand Shelley’s portrayal of women as passive and weak. While I agree that they’re generally passive (and this allows them to be victimised, as none of them can avert their own deaths), the female characters also demonstrate traditionally more feminine traits, like self-sacrifice and tenderness. To call this weak would be associating stereotypical male dominance with strength, and I think that Shelley instead depicts the negative consequences of male weakness through Frankenstein. In this way, the female characters act as foils to his weakness, and while they’re idealistically portrayed and perhaps overly perfect, it is Frankenstein’s attempt to negate one of the most important roles of women that indirectly leads to their deaths.