Feminism & Women in Frankenstein

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  • 0:02 Mary Shelley
  • 2:02 Male Maternity
  • 3:08 Frankenstein's Bride
  • 4:27 Elizabeth Lavenza
  • 6:11 Lesson Summary
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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.

Women play complex and often contradictory roles in Mary Shelley's iconic 1818 novel, ''Frankenstein.'' In this video, we'll explore some of Shelley's ideas about feminism and the role of women, as portrayed in the novel.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was just 20 when she published Frankenstein in 1818. She was the daughter of the political radical William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first and most important feminist advocates. In fact, Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792, provides one of the first and most significant articulations in modern literature of women's rights. Though Mary Wollstonecraft would die shortly after her daughter's birth, her influence weighed heavily on Mary Shelley throughout her life.

Mary Shelley was brought up to be precocious, brilliant, and subversive. Her father exposed her to her mother's writings and feminist ideals at an early age. Shelley's radical and feminist viewpoints shaped her work and life. She was an advocate of 'free love' and at 17 began a romantic relationship with her future husband, the then-married Percy Bysshe Shelley. The couple were widely ostracized and condemned for the affair.

In Mary Shelley's later writing, she advocated principles of cooperation and empathy and suggested that these values allowed women to play a far more valuable role in the family and in society than do men. But her representation of women in her most iconic work, Frankenstein, is more complex and contradictory.

On the one hand, Shelley presents a fierce argument for the value of maternity and the importance of women in the family and society. On the other hand, women in Shelley's novel are often depicted in traditional roles, serving foremost as the instrument of men's desires, whether for love or revenge. So, who are the women in Frankenstein? Independent free thinkers, like the author, or victims of traditional patriarchy?

Male Maternity

One of the most obvious examples of feminism in Frankenstein is the creation of the monster itself. When Victor Frankenstein dares to subvert the laws of nature, using science alone to harness the powers of life, he essentially violates the laws of maternity. He omits the mother entirely. And, in doing so, what is supposed to be natural and beautiful becomes unnatural and grotesque. The child of male maternity is too frightful for even the father to love.

In this regard, Shelley seemingly echoes Mary Wollstonecraft's warnings against a blind devotion to science and the Enlightenment Era progressivism of 18th-century Europe that was primarily led by males. This progressivism values objectivity over emotion, impartiality over relationships, and the workplace and laboratory over the hearth and the home. In other words, it prioritizes the male over the female. It gives a man like Victor Frankenstein the audacity to think his science can eliminate the need for the woman entirely.

Frankenstein's Bride

While the circumstances of the creature's birth certainly seem to make a feminist point about the importance of the mother, the creature's famous request to Victor is a bit more doubtful. From the moment of his birth, the creature has been rejected, first by his own creator; then by the terrified townspeople, who drive him into the forest; and finally by the DeLaceys, the peasant family in whose house he had hidden and whom he had grown to love.

The creature is profoundly lonely: he has a tremendous capacity to love, and all he wants is to be accepted, in spite of his appearance. But endless rejection has made him bitter and angry. So he offers Victor one last chance before that anger turns to revenge: Victor must make the creature a mate. The creature vows that if Victor does this, he will take her away to the jungles of South America and they will never bother humanity again.

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