Tuesday, 7 May 2013

A2 English Literature: Frankenstein - Women and Sexuality

The role(s) of women in Frankenstein is interesting; some appear absent, others appear typically passive and some appear stronger than we expect.

In Gothic literature, women are usually explore in one of two ways - you've got the typically meek and passive women and the femme fatale-esque characters. What's particularly interesting about Frankenstein is that it arguably presents the eponymous character as a 'mother'...

The Creation - Is Victor a Mother?

When talking about women in the novel, it's interesting to note the possible subverting of gender roles in terms of Victor 'becoming' a mother.

Some argue that the creation is presented as a scientific experiment, however there is evidence to suggest that Shelley presented the creation as more of a symbolic 'birth'. The evidence for the birth interpretation isn't exactly subtle; Victor refers to his work as his "midnight labours", he mentions "confinement" (which in Shelley's time was a word often used to refer to a room where women would give birth - AO4), and he uses the word "conceive" ambiguously. Furthermore, the "watery eyes" and "yellow skin" appears to relate to the state and condition of a newborn child with jaundice. Victor is violating natural order by becoming a 'mother' unnaturally.

Also, Victor's role as a 'mother' directly contrasts the role his mother had - she is presented as a doting maternal figure who is just killed off when her function as a plot device is done. Victor says that:

"I was ... the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven"

Now this obviously links to Victor's role as the parent to the creature. The creature is - literally - the "innocent and helpless creature" and is bestowed upon Victor - but by Heaven? Not quite. Perhaps that's what separates the two - Victor is heaven-sent, he's conceived naturally, but the creature is born out of experimentation and ambition.

So in terms of how women/mothers are presented, you can still find a way to get a main character in there. It's very Gothic in nature to make your male protagonist a sort-of-mother, what with exceeding boundaries and highlighting extremes of behaviour.


Elizabeth Lavenza is first introduced to us in chapter one, and it's fair to say that she's set up as a typical passive woman in terms of Gothic archetypes.

However, there is evidence to suggest that there is perhaps something a little extraordinary about Elizabeth, and some critics argue that Victor's fascination with her as a child leads to his creation - perhaps it's his way of recapturing such beauty.

There's lots to talk about in terms of language for Elizabeth. There's a lot of religious imagery used to describe her:

"a being heaven-sent"

"bearing a celestial stamp in all her features"

"pictured cherub"

This is interesting because later on in the novel the creature speaks to Victor as though he is some sort of vengeful God, what with the whole "I ought to be thy Adam..." business. It highlights Victor's character quite nicely; he talks about certain things with a lot of passion - science, Elizabeth and the creature to name three. In fact, the passion with which he speaks regarding Elizabeth has various connections to the creature...

He actually refers to Elizabeth as a "creature" at one point, and says that she is:

"of a distinct species"

As though she is beyond humanity altogether, just like the creature. Victor also uses the word "ardour" throughout the novel when speaking of both the creature and Elizabeth. He also refers to her as an "apparition" in chapter one, a word that has links to Wuthering Heights and Macbeth and has connotations of something supernatural - again drawing a link between her and the creature. The creature is defined by Victor in terms of his appearance, which is exactly how he defines Elizabeth.

There's also a lot of strange repressed stuff going on with Victor, and most of this links to Elizabeth. In chapter one he goes all out and refers to Elizabeth as:

"My more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only"

There was a question on the exam not too long ago about whether Victor has repressed sexual feelings particularly towards his mother. There is of course the bizarre dream he has where he is holding Elizabeth in his arms, goes to kiss her and she turns into his dead mother. Just like with the creature, the boundaries of life and death are being challenged. 

Some argue that the creature is a manifestation of Victor's id, and represents the sexual desires Victor is too repressed to indulge in. This may explain why Victor seems more and more averse to his upcoming wedding, and why the creature arguably consecrates the marriage by raping Elizabeth before killing her. The rape is not explicit, though, so I wouldn't mention it in the exam as fact because it depends on how you read the text. A few critics certainly go down this route, and suggest that the creature does what Victor cannot - or will not - sexually. In the recent National Theatre production, they certainly went down that route. Having to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in character as the creature raping somebody isn't pleasant. 

It's also interesting to note that Elizabeth gets her own 'voice' in this epistolary novel through the use of letters - which you may want to consider if an exam asks about the importance of texts in Gothic literature (I don't know why they would, but you never know). While Victor goes off trotting around Europe, he receives the odd letter from his beloved. Yet when she isn't in sight, Victor doesn't seem to be too fussed about her. In fact, she seems to embody the archetype of passive Gothic women in her letters, because she essentially waits and waits and waits for Victor. 

Furthermore, there's a letter from Elizabeth in chapter twenty-two where she's pretty much sussed that Victor is running away from the idea of marriage, and asks him "Do you not love another?" She is still meek and passive in the letter, putting no pressure whatsoever on Victor to hurry the hell up and marry her. Victor's response is more or less a patronising pat on the head: "chase away your idle fears..."

"I would rather have banished myself forever from my native country ... than have consented to this miserable marriage."

In the penultimate chapter, Elizabeth is killed by the creature. She is still referred to as a passive female archetype, being called "timid and fearful", and as mentioned above Victor talks of embracing her "with ardour" - a word that is used more than once in the creation of the creature.


Justine is, once again, presented as a weak and arguably sacrificial character. Framed by the creature for William's death, Shelley uses words such as "mournfully", "pang", "weakness", "resigned" and "submit" when describing Justine, which seems to fit in very well with the 'trembling victim' archetype of women in Gothic literature. There is more to say about Justine, but realistically you'd only mention her in passing in an exam when there are other, more important female characters to consider.


Safie is presented as more of an active character - so at least not all the women in the novel are timid/fearful/writing whiny letters. She is an outsider, allegedly of Arabian origin, who ran away from her family and culture to be with Felix de Lacey. 

Safie's role is arguably similar to the creature's, if we view (as many do) the de Lacey household as a microcosm of society for the creature to observe and learn from. Both Safie and the creature are outsiders. Yet Safie, unlike the creature, is accepted. Why? It's never considered (because we don't even know that Shelley intended for the de Lacey household to be microcosmic), but it could be argued that Safie is accepted because she is beautiful:

"her eyes were dark, but gentle"

"her complexion wonderfully fair, each cheek tinged with a lovely pink."

This can be used to enforce the interpretation that Shelley is commenting on how society pays too much attention to how people look. Victor rejects the creature based on how he looks, as do Felix and Agatha. Safie is an outsider like the creature, but it is possibly her beauty that allows her to be accepted.


Agatha de Lacey is Felix's sister, and is another fleeting example of a passive and dependent character.

The Creature's Companion

The creature's companion is never brought to life in the novel, but this is what perhaps makes her so important. Victor is caught in a dilemma: does he create a companion for the creature and risk them creating "a race of devils" or does he risk his nearest and dearest being killed by the creature?

Victor is about to animate the companion when, while he is "trembling with passion", he destroys it. Some argue that this is indicative of Victor's fear of women and repressed sexuality - the thought of marrying the meek and mild Elizabeth is torturous enough, so it makes sense for Victor to fear a strong female in the form the creature's companion.

Critical Views on Women

In Three Gothic Novels, critic Mario Pratz argues that the rise in Gothic literature in the 18th century was due to the period's 'feminine character'.

Youngquist argues that Victor is Shelley's alter ego - someone free from defilement of sexual procreation and the taint of morality. He also argues that both Elizabeth and Justine die as sacrificial victims. Most memorably, though, he refers to the women in the novel as:

"an insipid lot"

Which is exactly the kind of quote you can imagine seeing in exams. 'It has been argued that the women in Frankenstein are "an insipid lot". To what extent do you agree?' - or something like that. There's loads you can go into - and if you do mention Victor and his warped maternal role, just make sure you link it back to the question and discuss how, perhaps, the women are not necessarily insipid because Shelley takes the typical female role and twists it in Victor's case.

Veeder refers to Victor and Walton as loners (bless) who seek male companionship, and relegate the females in their lives (aka Margaret and Elizabeth) as correspondents rather than companions. He also argues that both Victor and Walton are extreme characters with bold ambition and heroic desires, suggesting that the women stand for balance and judgement to try and bring these characters back to the normal world.

That's all for now on this particular topic. I've tried to make certain topics quite concise because honestly you could go on about them for days! I hope this helps. :)

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