Elizabeth Lavenza is the adopted cousin of Victor Frankenstein. This is true for the 1818 version of the novel, in which Elizabeth (four years younger than Victor) is the daughter of Alphonse Frankenstein's sister, but in the 1831 version of the novel, Elizabeth is instead rescued by Victor's mother Caroline from a peasant cottage in Italy. Caroline dreams of Victor and Elizabeth one day marrying. Fond of her from the start, Victor describes Elizabeth as "docile and good tempered, yet gay and playful as a summer insect," as well as "lively and animated," but with an uncommonly affectionate disposition and feelings that are strong and deep. She seems to him to be perhaps be "the most fragile creature in the world" (Shelley, 20).
When Caroline dies of scarlet fever, contracted from Elizabeth, Elizabeth is immediately placed in the maternal role of the Frankenstein family. Victor goes off to school in Ingolstadt soon after, and Elizabeth writes him regularly while he is away. She updates him on Justine, who is falsely accused of killing William.
Once Victor finally returns to Geneva from school, his father, Alphonse, convinces him to marry Elizabeth. He puts off the wedding as he begins working on a female counterpart to the monster, per the monster's request for a partner. After Victor later destroys his half-completed project, the monster becomes angry and threatens to be with Victor on his wedding night. Victor takes this as a threat directed at himself, but the monster is in fact planning to kill Elizabeth. The couple finally marries after Victor is released from imprisonment under the false accusation of murdering Clerval. On their wedding night the monster kills Elizabeth, and Victor finds her lifeless in the next room.
Role of Women
Elizabeth's feminine role in Frankenstein is clearly presented from the beginning of the novel. Caroline describes her as "the most beautiful child she had ever seen," with an affectionate and gentle disposition (Shelley, 19). Elizabeth is characterized as an angelic, beautiful woman from a young age. On her death bed, Caroline tells the girl, "Elizabeth, my love, you must supply my place to your younger cousins" (Shelley, 26), immediately putting pressure on Elizabeth to fill this role at a young age of around 13. She becomes the sole woman of the family, taking on the former duties of Caroline. She in a sense, becomes the mother, sister and lover of Victor. Through her fulfilling her duties in the Frankenstein home, she takes on the maternal role and showcases the stereotypical role of women to be housewives and homemakers, basically "holding down the fort" while Victor goes out to explore and learn.
Some critics find Elizabeth to be passive in nature, presenting the role of women as secondary to men. She is found to be most passive specifically in her relationship with Victor. While there is a preconceived notion that Elizabeth and Victor are to marry, Victor continually pushes off the marriage in several instances throughout the novel before actually committing to her. While away at school, Victor's father insists, saying, "You, perhaps, regard her as a sister, without any wish that she might become your wife," (Shelley, 116). Victor's replies to reassure his father, saying, "My future hopes and prospects are entirely bound up in the expectation of our union," (Shelley, 117). Though Victor continues saying he loves Elizabeth in this way, he essentially puts her off for the asserted completion of the female counterpart to the monster. Later in the novel, he also unintentionally must put off the marriage when he becomes ill and is imprisoned, falsely accused of Clerval's murder. During these long periods of time, Elizabeth patiently awaits her soon-to-be husband, and never pushes for the marriage, though she loves him dearly. In a letter to him she says, "But it is your happiness I declare as well as my own, when I declare to you, that our marriage would render me eternally miserable, unless it were the dictate of your own free choice," (Shelley, 147).
Elizabeth, while she might be viewed as a passive female figure, actively sacrifices much of her life for the Frankenstein family throughout the novel. The clearest example of this is her taking on the mother role of the household at the young age of 13. She balances the household during the grieving process of Caroline's death even though she herself is grieving her mother (Knudsen, 54). Even when Victor leaves for school, he describes Elizabeth as doing everything for the family, though she is also upset at his leaving. "She consoled me, amused her uncle, instructed her brothers...she was continually endeavoring to contribute to the happiness of others, entirely forgetful of herself" (Shelley, 27).
Elizabeth continues to update Victor about Justine, but she herself is in shambles, grieving another loss of the family. Alphonse describes her by saying, "She weeps continually and accuses herself unjustly as the cause of his death..." (Shelley, 50). Though the monster committed the murder and Justine is innocent, Elizabeth internally takes the blame, wishing no struggles for her family. Even as she continues to write to Victor and question their relationship, she is concerned with bothering him during his travels. "Do not let this letter disturb you; do not answer it to-morrow, or the next day, or even until you come, if it will give you pain" (Shelley, 148). Elizabeth clearly continues to always look out for her loved ones, always taking the blame and the pain in situations, in an attempt to keep her family members happy.
Elizabeth was also denied the education and means of travel that she wished she could have while she stayed home (Tómasson, 21). When Victor decided to return to France for a two-year tour, he described Elizabeth's feelings by saying, "Elizabeth approved of the reasons of my departure, and only regretted that she had not the same opportunities of enlarging her experience, and cultivating her understanding" (Shelley 119).
She is presented as a sacrifice in the most monumental way though, when she is killed as revenge by the monster. In the monster's anger of not receiving a female partner, he takes revenge on Victor by fulfilling his threat of "I will be with you on your wedding night" (Shelley, 131). While Victor initially thought this threat was aimed at his own death, the monster has planned all along to take away his bride because Victor denies him a partner of his own.
Impact In/For Frankenstein
While Elizabeth Lavenza might not initially seem to be a highly influential character in Frankenstein, the characteristics she holds and the themes she represents greatly impact the reading of the novel. The novel and its adaptations have seen much criticism from scholars as being a feminist piece of literature. This primarily seems to derive from the fact that Victor's goal is to maximize his own power by creating a being, without the use of a female. He wishes to create a male creature, and later attempts at a female creature, but from his own power, rather than from the natural process of reproduction between a man and woman. The role Elizabeth has adds to this view of the novel, in that she is characterized by a stereotypical passive, motherly demeanor. Since Caroline dies toward the very beginning of the book, and much of the information given about Justine centers around her being imprisoned for the false accusation of William's murder, Elizabeth is the primary female figure in Frankenstein.
Elizabeth is given the role of taking care of children and performing the basic duties of the home without choice when her adoptive mother dies. She develops a passive attitude in that she always looks out for Victor and the rest of the family, on top of her own grieving and balancing of the home. She tries to conceal her discontent and stay strong for those around her. She also showcases passivity while waiting to marry Victor, who takes his time pursuing his own desires before committing to her in marriage. These characteristics of Elizabeth heighten the opposing characteristics of Victor in the novel. Elizabeth stays at home, while Victor is studying at a university, beginning his project of creating the monster. While she is at home grieving and trying to keep the family (including Victor) happy, he is going mad as he realizes he cannot control the monster he has created. Elizabeth as a character is the counterpart to Victor not only as a lover, but as an opposite member of the novel in which she balances his characteristics. Victor would not appear as adventurous, intelligent, determined or crazy, if the novel did not present Elizabeth as a character to compare him to.
While Elizabeth sacrifices herself throughout the novel, her living her life in this way ultimately leads to her being the ultimate sacrifice when she is killed by the monster. Elizabeth is subject to her death without taking part in the creating of the monsters in anyway. She is ultimately killed in the monster's act of revenge against Victor for not creating a female monster to be his partner. The two themes of her role as a women and her character as a sacrifice go hand-in-hand in that the role she takes on as the passive motherly figure leads her to sacrifice for Victor throughout the novel. Though she doesn't choose the role she is placed in, she does choose to care deeply for Victor and her other family members, looking out for their own good rather than her own. She is killed without even knowing of the warning that the monster had given Victor (which he thought to be for himself). Therefore, Elizabeth's death acts as the ultimate consequence of Victor's mistakes. While the deaths of his family members throughout the novel are consequences along the way, the very death that Victor thought he himself was destined for, is captured by the unexpected, passive character.
References and Suggestions for Further Reading
Curran, Stuart. "Elizabeth Lavenza Frankenstein." Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus. University of Pennsylvania, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2015. <http://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/frankenstein/Chars/eliz>.
Knudsen, Louise. Reading Between the Lines: An Analysis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus, Using Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto as an Example of Male Discourse about Women. Thesis. 2012. N.p.: n.p., n.d. AAU - HVOR VIDEN MØDER VERDEN, 2010. Web. 15 Feb. 2015. <http://projekter.aau.dk/projekter/files/65640208/frankenstein_thesis.pdf>.
Mae Clarke Frankenstein (1931). Digital image. The Spooky Isles. N.p., 19 June 2013. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. <http://www.spookyisles.com/2013/06/frankensteins-fillies-a-whole-bunch-of-elizabeths/>.
"My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - Links." My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - Links. N.p., 2011. Web. 15 Feb. 2015. <http://www.maryshelley.nl/frankenstein/branagh.html>.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Susan J. Wolfson. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print. <http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/128/frankenstein-or-the-modern-prometheus/>.
Tómasson, Theodór A. The Education of a Monster. Thesis. University of Iceland, 2010. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Skemman. Haskoli Islands. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. <http://skemman.is/stream/get/1946/6121/17509/1/The_Education_of_a_Monster_-_B.A._Essay_-_Theodor_Aldar_Tomasson.pdf>.