Frankenstein’s Women: The Conflicting Roles of Women in Shelley’s Work

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The bicentennial of Frankenstein started early. This is one of those stories everyone knows even without having read the original: Man makes monster; monster runs amok; monster kills man.

Essay on The Role of Female Characters in "Frankenstein"

That feels like a missed opportunity. Frankenstein is still frequently the first point of reference for media reports of such cutting-edge developments, just as it was when human IVF became a viable technique in the early s.

Mary Shelley: The woman responsible for Frankenstein - Literature - Showcase

That it was written not by an established and experienced author but by a teenager at a very difficult period in her life feels almost miraculous. But Mary Shelley takes some pains to show that the real problem is not what Victor Frankenstein made, but how he reacted to it. What would have happened if Victor had instead lived up to his responsibilities by choosing to nurture his creature?

The long shadow of Frankenstein | Science | AAAS

One might answer that the result would have been a pretty dull and short novel. Imagine the story of Victor struggling to have the creature accepted by a society that shunned it as vile and unnatural. We would then be reading a book about social prejudice and our preconceptions of nature—indeed, about the kind of prospect one can easily imagine for a human born by cloning today if such as thing were scientifically possible and ethically permissible.

Evil in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

The moral and philosophical landscape it might have explored would be no less rich. That Victor did not do this—that he spurned his creation the moment he had made it, merely because he judged it ugly—means that, to my mind, the conclusion we should reach is the one that the speculative-fiction author Elizabeth Bear articulates in the new volume. Mary Shelley, however, gives her readers mixed messages. What she shows us is a man behaving badly, but what she seems to tell us is that he is tragic and sympathetic. This could be seen as a rather exquisite piece of authorial artifice, an early example of the unreliable narrator.

Certainly it bears out the complaint of the British biologist J. Haldane in There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. Instead, the creature does not share the same luxuries. Though of course his cruelty cannot easily be reduced to a singular cause, the paucity of female presence nonetheless occludes all redemptive potential for the monster and in this way, cleaves a dichotomy between the narrative trajectories of him and his creator.

Within the polarized gender dynamics that operate in the diegetic world of Frankenstein, the idea of nurture itself necessarily assumes a feminine dimension — from this perspective, his creature hence serves as a foil that suggests how the consequences of a poverty of female influence and maternal nurture are inadvertently the figurative molding and shaping of monsters.


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While Frankenstein elucidates the marked importance of women as guiding, maternal figures in the family, the novel also explores the centrality of female gender roles as bulwarks of the social order. Yet, this seeming superfluity of the female sex is suggested to be ill-founded, for Frankenstein details the implicit consequences of such an alternate reality. The novel suggests that even without the biological imperative of the female sex, their social gender-roles as maternal nurturers are enshrined into the natural societal equilibrium, or nature itself, and in this way, on equal footing with the gendered roles of men.

At its core, Frankenstein is a parable which explores the manifest possibilities and consequences when humanity confronts and breaches the limits of nature. More crucially, Shelley rears contemporary gender doctrine on its head — far from the caregiving and child-rearing roles of women thus limiting them to the sidelines of society, it is precisely their indispensability that situates them center-stage.

While markedly essentialist, Shelley nonetheless critiques the ostensibly marginal contributions of women to the social order and paints an incisive reflection of the conditions of human nature and society more progressive than espoused at the time of its publication.

Gender Roles Of Female Characters

Shelley, Mary. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

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