In this essay, Wayne Tan explores critical issues of gender identity set within a parable of humanity’s confrontation and breaching of the limits of nature. Conventionally regarded as a conformist text to patriarchal themes, Tan offers new insights into Frankenstein’s construction of gendered roles. Here, 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. In “The Female Gender and Its Significance”, Tan elucidates women’s elevation to parity with men’s social roles, successfully setting the stage for the New Woman to break out of her socially-imposed limiting confines.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, issues of gender identity are explored through the creation of an unnatural monster set in an otherwise idyllic society. With its central characters that exemplify the idealized gender roles of the time, the creation of Frankenstein’s monster poses critical questions dealing with the social make-up of nineteenth-century British society. Particularly, the unusual nature of the monster’s birth as well as his subsequent experiences serve as counterpoint to foreground the significance of female gender roles in British society, and ultimately suggest that far from being merely companions to men, women instead play a central role in contributing to the stability of the prevailing social order.
From the outset, the presentation of the male gender in Frankenstein is marked by strong similarities with traditional male archetypes. Male characters display a detachment from domestic matters and in its place, possess an obsessive single-mindedness in the pursuit of their goals. As a “calm and philosophical” man who “delighted in investigating the facts relative to the actual world” (66), Victor Frankenstein epitomizes masculine attributes with his logical and composed nature, as well as a strong scientific bent well-suited for the male-centric field of natural philosophy. Indeed, Frankenstein’s “days and nights in vaults and charnel houses” where he “lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (78) attest to a focused, driven nature which borders on fanaticism. Throughout Frankenstein’s research, he also displays a careless neglect of his domestic and social obligations, and his confession of how he “knew [his] silence disquieted them” (81) underscores a certain selfishness through his constant indifference to those closest to him. Frankenstein’s monster similarly parallels his master’s obsessive nature through his own insular fixation on acquiring a mate and subsequently, on revenge. The lines, “I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart” (156), clearly denote the monster’s prodigious determination and the depth of his devotion to this aim, which he lives up to with the subsequent consecration of his life to the lifelong torment of Frankenstein. The monster as “a slave to these impulses” (218) thus counterparts Frankenstein’s zealous devotion to his work in the sense that both male characters’ impulses and passions inexorably spiral out of their control. In this way, the presentation of the central male characters in Frankenstein typifies the male sex as exceedingly self-absorbed and single-minded, or in other words, as the embodiment of Victorian traits in their unreserved neglect of the domestic sphere.
By contrast, the female gender in Frankenstein is portrayed in a more sympathetic light and corresponds closely to Victorian ideals of women as familial care-givers. Elizabeth Lavenza is described as “docile and good tempered” (66), yet “gay and playful” (66); these seemingly paradoxical qualities underscore Elizabeth’s role as that of the model Victorian woman whose sole duty concerns tending to her husband and family. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth’s selfless nature is also evinced through how she “continually [endeavors] to contribute to the happiness of others, entirely forgetful of herself” (73) – the use of “entirely” here underscores the female gender’s complete relegation to the background of the Victorian social milieu. In addition, the phrase “gentle and affectionate disposition” further identifies Elizabeth with maternal qualities and entrenches her role as the primary care-giver for the family. This sense of altruistic benevolence is shared by Safie De Lacey; save for “some jewels and a small sum of money” (141) which provide for her escape, she renounces great luxury to reunite with her lover, Felix De Lacey. During the journey, Safie even nurses her attendant “with the utmost affection” (141); this reversal of the lord-servant relationship stresses Safie’s motherly compassion, which transcends both rank and station. The repetition of “affection” further calls attention to the common thread of a warm and tender disposition which is ubiquitous among the female characters in Frankenstein. In both description and action, Frankenstein’s female characters thus uniformly exhibit self-sacrificing, maternal traits that conform closely to the role of the Angel in the House, whose life is characterized by complete dedication to the needs of her household.
With its hyper-idealized portrayals of the female gender, Shelley goes further to explicate the significant influence of such maternal figures. Frankenstein himself professes that “no creature could have more tender parents than [he did]” (65), which suggests a childhood replete with parental care and attention; in contrast, his monster’s first experiences are characterized by his being “poor, helpless and miserable”, which conveys a marked poverty of maternal nourishment and nurture. Tellingly, though the monster gains consciousness while physically mature, the lines “feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept” (121) highlight the monster’s delayed recognition of his own powerlessness and a deferred grief which echoes an infant’s wailing and vulnerability upon emerging from the womb. Crucially, the perceived significance of a female nurturing presence is alluded to in the monster’s cry of how “no Eve soothed [his] sorrows, or shared [his] thoughts; [he] was alone” (145), which emphasizes not just the prolonged isolation of the monster from birth, but also specifically how “Eve”, or a necessarily female companion, will provide the affection which he desires. Because of the congruence of feminine gender roles with care-giving and affection, the monster’s declaration of how he is “malicious because [he is] miserable” (pg.156) and his bitter cry of “Shall each man… find a wife for his bosom… and I be alone” further undergird his actions as reactive responses indicative of an underlying desperation at the dearth of female tenderness and maternal figures in his life. The monster’s specific requests of female companionship for “the interchange of those sympathies” (156) when thus contextualized therefore stresses the patent importance of the female gender in its domestic roles of mother and nurturer. By contrast, there is a plethora of female characters that pervade Frankenstein’s supportive environment – though Frankenstein himself suffers great tragedy throughout the novel, Elizabeth constantly attempts to “chase away the fiend that lurked in [his] heart” (114), which encapsulates the prevalence of female companionship and its ameliorative effects on his life. 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.
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. As alluded to earlier, one central question which features in the novel is whether it is the unnatural circumstances of the monster’s creation or his ensuing abandonment by Frankenstein which factors more for his monstrosity; however, if nature is understood to be an ideal state conducing to the optimal, in Frankenstein the importance of feminine care in ensuring societal stability thus underscores a false dichotomy between nature and nurture because of the contingence of social stability on contemporary female gender-roles. The creation of Frankenstein’s monster upends nature entirely through its circumvention of natural birth; indeed, Frankenstein’s pursuit of nature to “her hiding places” (81) emphasizes his unravelling of natural laws which were concealed for a reason. On an organic level, the artificial nature of the monster’s creation renders moot the biological imperative of the female gender; this theme is actualized through the monster’s systematic elimination of feminized characters in the novel, including biological males such as Henry Clerval whose spending of an entire winter “consumed in [Frankenstein’s] sick room” nonetheless recalls the maternal selflessness. During Frankenstein’s dream on the night of the creature’s creation, his vision of Elizabeth’s metamorphosis into “the corpse of [his] dead mother” (84) similarly constitutes a vivid metaphor for how the monster’s unnatural birth at once heralds both the physical and metaphysical deaths of the fairer sex. 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. Where once Elizabeth’s “gentle voice would soothe [Frankenstein] when transported by passion” (194), the scarcity of such feminine characters at the end of his life directly signifies the absence of mediating influences to temper his inhuman fury. Alongside the dearth of female nurturing and affection in the monster’s psyche, this thematic paucity of female influences culminates in a barren wasteland, with two masculine figures consumed in an endless game of cat-and-mouse, devoid of feminine influence and consequently simply the “prey of feelings unsatisfied, yet unquenched” (220). The juxtaposition and framing of this icy apocalyptic vision within Walton’s frequent correspondence with his sister further underscores the disparity between this speculative male-centric dystopia and the stable nineteenth-century society, with all its prevailing gender roles, to which Walton belongs. Hence, insofar as the monster’s creation may have sounded the death knell for the female sex on some level, Frankenstein’s ending illustrates the devastating inadequacy of this hypothetical new normal. 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. However, through imbuing its characters with conventionally gender-specific traits, Frankenstein illustrates that the female gender roles of nineteenth-century British society are not simply accessory to that of men; insofar as women are instrumental to the nurturing of children and loved ones, Shelley does not simply foreground their maternal significance but elevates its importance to parity with men’s social roles. Almost certainly, Frankenstein will not pass for a “feminist” text by today’s standards; yet, in presenting “the truth of the elementary principles of human nature” (49), Shelley goes so far as to surface the patchwork intricacies of female gender roles which had not yet been embedded in the public consciousness of the era. 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. Through this recuperation of the female gender and its social significance, Shelley strongly echoes the thought of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who famously advocated for widespread women’s education in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, on largely similar grounds. 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. The creation of Frankenstein’s monster and its inability to nullify female gender roles attests to the latter’s kaleidoscopic significance in both the domestic and social spheres – and ultimately pave the way for the New Woman to break out of these very limiting confines.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Broadview Press, 2012. Print.
WAYNE TAN graduated from UCLA and currently studies at the University of Oxford. He recently wrote essays on Thomas Hardy and Henry James back-to-back just to make the two arch-rivals turn in their graves.
Photo credit: Joanne Loo