Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Feminism and Frankenstein: The Subversive Power of Killing the “Angel in the House”

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley establishes clear gender roles based on the ideology of the “separate spheres” doctrine which held that “the man’s public sphere of commerce and activity was kept distinct from the woman’s private sphere of home and passivity” (Smith 313), and she uses these roles to develop her characters as extreme caricatures of gender identities. For example, both Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton exhibit characteristically masculine, public sphere qualities, and the narrow-minded exercise of these qualities creates chaos and conflict in the novel. Conversely, Elizabeth Lavenza exhibits typically feminine, private sphere qualities, and suffers the consequences of the actions of her overreaching masculine ‘cousin.’ Indeed, the only female character who escapes her situation is Safie, the Arabian, a woman who consciously rejects the role laid out for her and who embodies a combination of masculine and feminine traits.

Although the consequences of Victor’s passionate pursuit of knowledge and power are clear, Shelley does not challenge the nature of man or his place in society. Rather, her characters reveal the consequences inherent in not developing one’s identity fully. In “The Madwoman in the Attic,” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that throughout literary history women have been portrayed either as monsters or as an ‘angel in the house’ who “has no story of her own but gives ‘advice and consolation’ to others” (815). Elizabeth Lavenza exemplifies this role and dies because of it. Gilbert and Gubar assert that “women must kill the aesthetic ideal through which they themselves have been “killed” into art” (820), and one such way of killing this unattainable, unproductive ideal is demonstrated in Shelley’s novel through the overt destruction of all that is feminine. When Victor completely rejects his role in the feminine sphere, his life begins to crumble, just as Elizabeth’s life falls apart for lack of possessing any masculine qualities whatsoever. As seen in Victor’s creation of his monster and the consequent passive deaths of Elizabeth and every other domestic character, Shelley’s novel reveals that the sharp distinction between male and female spheres results in underdeveloped individuals who become extreme caricatures of their genders, and who suffer greatly for it. Hence, although she explicitly presents highly stereotyped gender representations such as those which Gilbert and Gubar find problematic, by destroying every aspect of femininity in such an exaggerated way and by leaving the masculine ‘ideal’ to suffer and die, she ultimately subverts the existing gender code.


Victor’s description of his childhood exemplifies the division between public and private spheres, and shows that “the novel, as the genre most obviously in the service of social and material reality, necessarily recreates patriarchal culture and ideology” (Hodges 155). However, Shelley recreates this image of her culture not to support it, but rather to draw attention to its deficiencies. Shelley introduces Victor’s parents, Alphonse and Caroline, and explains that Alphonse “strove to shelter [Caroline], as a fair exotic is sheltered by the gardener, [and] to excite pleasurable emotion in her soft and benevolent mind” (42). From the outset, women are shown to have “soft,” vulnerable minds, thus justifying their relegation to the private, domestic sphere, and by depicting Caroline as such, Shelley paves the way for the upbringing of Elizabeth as a weak and defenseless creature. Elizabeth is introduced to Victor as his “pretty present” (44), and he “looked upon [her] as mine—mine to protect, love and cherish. All praises bestowed upon her, I received as made to a possession of my own” (44). Victor’s perception of Elizabeth fits accordingly with the gender roles of the time given that women were expected to be beautiful objects on pedestals whose sole responsibility was to encourage love and beauty in the home. This role for women is the primary source of the incomplete personal development to which Shelley objects, and also gives life to Gilbert and Gubar’s argument against the stereotyping of women and their relegation to the domestic sphere in literature and in life. Although Gilbert and Gubar argue against this representation of femininity as being indicative of women’s silence and lack of significance in literature, Shelley introduces the character of Elizabeth in such a way that there is no ignoring the blatant gendering and objectification of her, and thus her subversive power.

In addition to Elizabeth’s being brought up as a beautiful toy, Victor’s upbringing also results in incomplete personal development and serves to further satirize the oppressive nature of the stereotypical domestic realm. Because Elizabeth plays the role of the sensitive domestic, Victor takes on the role of the passionate, curious adventurer. Neither character has the opportunity or the inclination to develop other qualities, so they both become caricatures of their gender. Victor comments that Elizabeth “found ample scope for admiration and delight” (44)—although she never actually says this—simply by looking upon the beautiful landscape, and “while [his] companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearance of things, [he] delighted in investigating their causes” (44). Just like Honoria in Coventry Patmore’s “Angel in the House” who “picks violets, loses her gloves, feeds her birds, [and] waters her rose plot” (Gilbert and Gubar 816), Elizabeth’s life consists of being beautiful, simple, loving, and gracious. She has no curiosity or self-motivation, and her poor education “emphasizes the limitations on [her] sphere of knowledge at the same time that it further condemns society’s relegation of women to the status of puppets” (Bennett 4). Conversely, Victor’s intense interest in the hidden truths behind things becomes exaggerated, and according to Kate Ellis, “Here we see the crucial difference in the respective educations of the two figures: Victor translates his interest in science into a career aspiration, while Elizabeth translates her interest into a substitute for experience, a way of filling a void created by her lack of contact with the outside world” (Monsters).

It is this drastic division that results in Victor’s abandoning of the private sphere in favor of the masculine, public sphere, and because there is no balance in his character, he takes his masculine pursuits to the extreme. Victor not only leaves his home in Geneva, but, more specifically, leaves the virtues and balance of the domestic sphere in pursuit of knowledge and glory through “the creation of a human being” (58). He asserts that “a new species would bless [him] as its creator and source” (58), and because he lacks the necessary domestic, feminine qualities of introspection and humility, he neglects to consider the moral and emotional consequences of this endeavor. Furthmore, his desire to create an artificial being rather than participating in the mutual creation and nurturing of an authentic one is indicative of the greater societal malady of men being disconnected from the role of nurturer. Not only have men come to expect the women to be the caretakers and creators, but they are supposed to so in subordination to men. Hence, As Devon Hodges explains, “Frankenstein’s desire for domination and his expectation of submission” are directly in line with the traditional posturing men take with women: “Frankenstein stands erect over [the creature’s] prone body, a position that has been called the classical spectacle of male power and female powerlessness in a patriarchal society” (159). This is not to say that Frankenstein consciously desires sovereignty over women or that he wants to be a mother, but rather that his role thus far has been as an overseer, a possessor, and thus, it is no surprise that he would adopt that role in relation to his creation. He extends his masculine dominance from merely dominating women to desiring dominance over an entire species, a species he will create without being dependent on a woman or the domestic sphere. It is this complete rejection of the domestic sphere which Shelley uses to highlight both the ineffectuality of being an “Angel in the House” as well as how living in a society of “Angel-women” creates men who do not appreciate the role of nurturer or creator.

Victor’s obsessive behaviors toward creating his monster directly parallel the thoughts and intentions of Robert Walton, revealing the pervasiveness of the male/female, public/private split and its consequences. Walton demonstrates his own appreciation for and eventual rejection of the private, domestic sphere in a letter to his sister Margaret: “A youth passed in solitude, my best years spent under your gentle and feminine fosterage, has so refined the groundwork of my character, that I cannot overcome an intense distaste to the usual brutality exercised aboard ship” (32). Although Walton sees himself as having integrated the “refined” domestic qualities of his sister’s tutelage as seen in his repugnance for lesser, harsher men, he does not fully apply these qualities to his life outside of the domestic sphere. Rather, he embraces other aspects of the masculine sphere in his narrow-minded pursuit of success. When Walton asks, “Why not still proceed over the untamed yet obedient element? What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?” (Shelley 34), he explicitly articulates his intentions while simultaneously rephrasing Victor’s intentions as well. Walton sees the ocean as “untamed” yet “obedient,” just as Victor sees inanimate pieces of flesh and bone as malleable to his will. Neither man considers the risk or consequences of his actions, and both of them unconsciously reject the femininity of their upbringings in order to pursue their goals.

By highlighting the contrast between the feminine role of Elizabeth and the masculine roles of Victor and Robert, Shelley lays the groundwork for the consequences of one-sided, imbalanced personal development, and thus writes in line with the suggestions of Gilbert and Gubar. Robert’s ship becomes “nearly surrounded by ice” and was “compassed round by a very thick fog” (34), and his crew eventually challenges him in favor of aborting the mission. These consequences by no means match those experienced by Victor, who creates a monster and allows said monster to destroy every part of his precious, yet rejected domestic world. Because Victor isolates himself from the domestic sphere and because he, unlike Robert, is actually successful in his quest, he “sets in motion a chain of events that will destroy those parts of a potentially whole human psyche that he has already partly lost” (Ellis, Monsters). Not only does Victor’s monster push him further away from his family and domestic affairs, the monster fully destroys Victor’s private sphere by framing Justine, thus causing her death, and by killing William, Henry, and Elizabeth. The dramatic destruction of all things domestic provides two significant insights into the development of men and women: men must find a way to integrate feminine, domestic qualities in order to rein in their often destructive ambitions, and women must integrate masculine, active qualities in order to survive without the protection of men. Gilbert and Gubar explain that the angel-woman, “in the severity of her selflessness, as well as the extremity of her alienation from ordinary fleshly life” (817), often becomes an ‘Angel of Death’ as a result of her tendency toward caring for the dying as well as through her adherence to the “aesthetic cult of ladylike fragility and delicate beauty” (817). This is exactly what happens to Elizabeth well before she actually dies, so when the actions of her male counterpart result in her violent murder, her character has already proven to be so weak and half-dead that her murder is anti-climactic. Hence, the killing of the “angel in the house” merely highlights the fact that the angel was already nearly dead, and thus Shelley subverts the very roles she appears at first glance to be upholding.

Shelley does, however, provide one example of the successful combination of masculine and feminine, public and private qualities, and does so without any subversion or satire. This is presented in the character of Safie, the Arabian. Although Safie appears to be a minor, peripheral character, the juxtaposition of her traits with those of Elizabeth provides a powerful image of what is lacking in society as a result of the separate-spheres doctrine. Safie’s mother “taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and [to have] an independence of spirit” (Shelley 112), and because of this, she refused to be “immured within the walls of a haram, allowed only to occupy herself with infantile amusements” (Shelley 112). Although free from external forms of oppression, Elizabeth’s education and daily activities are indeed no more than mere “infantile amusements,” and yet she does nothing to change her situation. Safie, on the other hand, “not only refuses to wait for the possibility that her lover will miraculously find her, but actively seeks Felix out, traveling through Europe with only an attendant for protection” (Ellis, Monsters). She is the only female character who transgresses the emotional, intellectual, and physical expectations of the private sphere given that no other female character chooses to leave the domestic sphere, especially to travel such long distances. Ellis explains that had Elizabeth been encouraged as Safie was, “she might have followed Victor to Ingolstadt and perhaps even have insisted that he provide the Monster a companion for his wanderings” (Monsters). In other words, if men and women contribute to each other’s development and embrace both masculinized and feminized attributes, they are more likely to be complete and healthy. Shelley encourages this balance of gendered traits in a way that does not present Safie as a monstrous woman. Gilbert and Gubar argue that “assertiveness, aggressiveness—all characteristics of a male life of ‘significant action’—are ‘monstrous’ in women precisely because ‘unfeminine’ and therefore unsuited to a gentle life of ‘contemplative purity’” (819), and yet Safie manages to merge the two. Her independent and assertive nature motivated her to leave her cruel father, and yet her feminine, caring, and nurturing nature motivated her to join the De Lacey family.


In all, Shelley addresses many aspects of the natures of men and women, and challenges many of society’s greatest conventions. Victor’s actions raise questions about the morality of science, and the monster reveals society’s inability to accept difference, but the most pervasive issue throughout the text, and really the source for all the other social comments, is Shelley’s portrayal of the roles of men and women. According to Ellis, “If the family is to be a viable institution for the transmission of domestic affection from one generation to the next, it must […] become hardy enough to survive in the world outside the home” (Monsters). Had Victor embraced the feminine, domestic attributes of sensitivity, humility, love, and compassion, he may not have followed through on the creation of a human being, or if he did follow through, he may have been more accepting of it. Additionally, if Elizabeth had learned more masculine, active qualities such as assertiveness, curiosity, and strength, she may have confronted Victor’s evasiveness and gained insight into the monster she was up against. She may have been able to protect herself rather than merely waiting for her moment to scream, and to die. Through her exaggerated use of the public/private split, Shelley develops Victor as “society’s agent, and the roles of women and of men in [his] world, by extension, are ultimately societal constructs that are destructive to all” (Bennett 6). Shelley conveys this message indirectly and unobtrusively by letting the extreme dichotomies speak for themselves and by establishing them as subversive foils of each other.

Works Cited

Bennett, Betty T. “'Not this Time, Victor!': Mary Shelley’s Reversioning of Elizabeth, from Frankenstein to Faulkner.” Mary Shelley in Her Times. Ed. Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000.

Ellis, Kate. “Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family.” The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel. Ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher. U of California P, 1979. Literature Resource Center. 26 April 2009
<
http://galenet.galegroup.com.libproxy.csun.edu:2048/servlet>.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An
Anthology
. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 812-
825.

Hodges, Devon. “Frankenstein and the Feminine Subversion in the Novel.” Tulsa Studies in
Women's Literature
, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Autumn, 1983), U of Tulsa P, pp. 155-164. JSTOR. 26 April 2009 <
http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.csun.edu:2048/stable/463717>.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein (1831). Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford, 2000.

Smith, Johanna M. “‘Cooped Up’ with ‘Sad Trash’: Domesticity and the Sciences in Frankenstein.” Mary Shelley Frankenstein. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford, 2000.

37 comments:

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