Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein is a remarkable fiction which venerates and celebrates the role of women and womanhood in general to an optimum level. The female characters have been crafted in such a manner that the spirit of the novel rests entirely on their shoulders. The novel depicts three women characters who are both unique by themselves as well as share certain personality traits such as selflessness, courage, compassion and uncompromising. Mary Shelley is basically a feminist and therefore she has characterized the female characters on par with the male characters in the novel. This essay explores the imperative role played by the women characters in the novel which lays a strong foundation for the novel as a whole.
Frankenstein is much different when compared to the other novels of the same period with respect to the portrayal of women characters. Usually the role of female characters towards the plot is marginal and their presence or absence does not create any apparent change to the plot. But in case of Frankenstein the role of women is extremely essential and any alteration in the characteristic traits of the female characters may alter the entire plot of the novel. The plot of the novel is spin around three female characters which include Mrs. Margaret Saville, to whom the narrator tells the story, Elizabeth Lavenza, the lover of Victor Frankenstein and Justine Moritz who is accused of slaying William. A strong undercurrent has been established between the male and female characters and Mary Shelley has illustrated that women are fiercely independent throughout the novel.
The narrator, Robert Walton writes to Mrs. Margaret Saville and the story unfolds through epistolary narration. There is no direct reference to her life, personality traits and outlook towards life. Even her reply letters are not revealed to the readers but her omniscient presence is felt throughout the novel. From Walton’s reaction one shall perceive that she has been a moral support to her brother during the times of adversities. She plays a crucial role in the development of the plot of the novel and is considered as important as the narrator himself. She is self-educated similar to her brother and dons the role of a mature and sensible sister, editing the manuscripts sent by her brother. Though Mrs. Margaret Saville has no direct role to play in the novel, she proves to be a link that connects the life with civilization.
Elizabeth Lavenza who is described as “docile and good tempered, yet gay and playful as a summer insect” (48), is an important character in the fiction. She undergoes a tremendous transformation as the novel progresses. Initially she is filled with child-like innocence until the death of Frankenstein’s mother which brings about a complete metamorphosis in her. Frankenstein notices a visible difference in her appearance and conduct and the change in Lavenza’s conduct is correlated to the changes in the state of mind of Frankenstein. She cannot be considered just as a supplement to the male character in the fiction because on several occasions she is more committed, responsible and courageous than Frankenstein himself. Sometimes she appears to have been placed in a better position than Victor Frankenstein because she cares of the people around her unlike Frankenstein. He states, “Elizabeth alone had the power to draw me from these fits; her gentle voice would soothe me when transported by passion and inspire me with human feelings when sunk in torpor. She wept with me and for me” (170). The death of Elizabeth Lavenza brings about a significant change in the course of the plot and this reflects the importance of Lavenza. Further it is her death that forces Frankenstein to encounter the fiend who otherwise was running away from it.
Justin Moritz is an important female character who leaves a strong impression though appearing for a short period of time. Frankenstein describes her thus: “Justine also was a girl of merit and possessed qualities which promised to render her life happy… The appearance of Justine was calm. … Yet she appeared confident in innocence and did not tremble. … She was tranquil, yet her tranquility was evidently constrained” (66). Initially she is abused by her mother and takes asylum in Caroline’s kind company. Later she is blamed for the death of her brothers and sister and also little William. She is often compared with the fiend, the creation of Frankenstein as both remain unhappy till the end. She is completely neglected and rejected by the society and in spite of her continuous plea for mercy, she is not spared. Even her pretty appearance did not lend a supporting hand to save herself. It is often discussed the appearance of a person may be white but if his soul is spoiled, then it is extremely difficult to retrieve it back to the original state. Therefore her attractive image is often contrasted with the grotesque image of the fiend.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley being a staunch feminist has depicted the roles of women in such a manner that they no longer sidelined by the images of male characters. They are completely independent and play a crucial role in the progress of the plot. Further they are selfless, more courageous than men and rise to the occasion in the wake of crisis. They establish a close link with the male characters in the novel and Frankenstein will lose its true spirit if the women in the novel are portrayed under a different light. Mrs. Margaret Saville, Elizabeth Lavenza and Justin Moritz are the three remarkable women who exhibit incredible valor and supreme sacrifice for the well-being of the people around them. Little do they care about their self and the novel will lose its shape and strength without these astounding women folk.
On the whole Frankenstein has stood the test of time purely for the roles essayed by the female characters. They have played a central role in the novel through their selfless sacrifice and courage and thereby go to the extent of eclipsing the male characters in the novel especially during the times when the novels were predominantly influenced by the male characters.
Shelley, Mary, Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831. Print.