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Elizabeth Lavenza in Frankenstein: Character Traits & Quotes

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

Though a secondary character in Mary Shelley's 1818 novel 'Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus,' Elizabeth Lavenza plays a vital role. As Victor Frankenstein's doomed fiancee, Elizabeth both exemplifies and interrogates late 18th century models of angelic femininity.

Frankenstein's Elizabeth Lavenza

The daughter of the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, author of the iconic 1818 novel, Frankenstein, embraced many of her mother's feminist ideals. Feminine tendencies toward cooperation and relationship, Shelley's later writings suggest, provide a potent antidote to the more masculine traits of competition and dominance. Given Shelley's personal and familial connections to feminism, her portrayal of Victor Frankenstein's fiancée, Elizabeth Lavenza, in the novel may come as a surprise.

Elizabeth seems to model all of the traditional characteristics of a woman of her era: she is beautiful, sweet, and nurturing. She seems to exist only by and through her relationships to others, especially through her relationship with her future husband. But is there more to Elizabeth than meets the eye? Is she just another pretty ornament and selfless caretaker? Or is she something more? Passages from Shelley's text may provide some insight.

Many Faces of Elizabeth Lavenza

The orphaned daughter of an Italian aristocrat who had fallen into poverty, Elizabeth was adopted at the age of four into the Frankenstein family. Her lifelong connection to Victor seems to have been assumed from the beginning. But what is that connection, truly? And who is the real Elizabeth Lavenza? Let's look at a quote from the novel:

'I have a pretty present for my Victor - tomorrow he shall have it.' And when, on the morrow, she presented Elizabeth to me as her promised gift, I, with childish seriousness, interpreted her words literally and looked upon Elizabeth as mine - mine to protect, love, and cherish.'

Victor is promised his 'present' by his mother on the night before Elizabeth joins the Frankenstein family, but the possessiveness that Victor demonstrates from the beginning is common and expected. Women in late 18th century Europe had few legal rights. They could not vote or own property, had few rights in marriage and even fewer in divorce, and were extremely limited in regard to education and employment. They were, for all intents and purposes, the possessions of the men in their lives.

The premise of the femme couvert, or 'covered woman, guided most gender relationships at this time. The patriarch, or male head of the household, was to provide for, protect, and 'cover' the women in his life, especially his wives and daughters.

Elizabeth seems to fit this mold perfectly. She comes into Victor's household poor and vulnerable, in need of healing and protection. She enables the Frankenstein family to demonstrate their moral virtue, not to mention their economic superiority in taking in the now-destitute daughter of an aristocrat.

Elizabeth becomes for Victor the means to demonstrate his own status as future patriarch. He learns through his relationship with Elizabeth how to take care of his own femme couvert.

'The saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home. Her sympathy was ours; her smile, her soft voice, the sweet glance of her celestial eyes were ever there to bless and animate us. She was the living spirit of love to soften and attract.'

In the 18th and 19th centuries the separate spheres theory held that each gender has a unique and God-given domain. The man's sphere was the public sphere of work, politics, and money-making. The woman's sphere was the private sphere of the home, of caring for her husband and children. Elizabeth here is already fulfilling such a role. Though as yet unmarried and childless, she is nevertheless the moral center of the Frankenstein home and of Victor's life. Her loving influence, selflessness, and nurturing spirit form the spiritual heart of the Frankenstein family. She is as angelic as the gender norms, or gender roles and requirements, of her era demand.

'She busied herself with following the aeriel creations of the poets. . . While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearances of things, I delighted in investigating their causes.'

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