As the Romantic Age and the androcentric Age of Enlightenment progressed, gender role discourse and definitions of masculinity and femininity began shifting and firming. While in previous history, female biology was largely an undiscovered science based on theory and conjecture, advancements in technology allowed the study of obstetrics and gynecology to emerge. This research legitimized the traditional views of female lifespan changes (puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, menopause) as by their existence and physicality unequal to men, also have an unequal effect on a woman’s mind and body.
Social response to this emergence was to reinforce the "dual sphere system" offering biology as the physical fact of nature supporting Biblical scripture to define the social gender binary. In this cultural structure, women embody the “private sphere,” which encompasses the domestic aspects of life such as the home, marriage, and raising of children. Men were expected to fill the “public sphere,” which was comprised of government, science, clergy, etc. These roles were largely agreed upon by both sexes as ideal and just, and rarely ever transversed. Modern psychology recognizes an adaptation of this structure by applying it to within the individual, affirming that gender includes a blend of both male and female identifiers. Shelley uses the social framework of her time to explore possible outcomes of these psychological imbalances within her book.
With her main protagonist, Mary Shelley delves into the fallout of a man who exists exclusively in the public sphere, rejecting the domestic sphere and his need for femininity. His character begins at home, in tranquility and surrounded by family. With each step he takes away from his home, outside of domesticity and human nature, his life becomes increasingly unbalanced. He self-isolates and slips in and out of narcissim, self-loathing and depression and his desire for a domestic life decreases. When he loses his final tie to family life, Elizabeth who dies immediately when her maternal potential reaches fulfillment upon their marriage, there is no more opportunity for atonement and he resolves himself to exile.
Victor’s creation of the monster can be interpreted as an expression of his sexuality and sexual identity. Although he states within the text that he is in love with Elizabeth, Victor uses science to subvert his heterosexual identity. With his creation, he makes himself both father and mother, eliminating the need of a woman’s love for companionship, sex, and body for reproduction. His sexuality expressed instead is a “misogynous male chastity.” (Benziman 381-2)
The Monster is the inversion of Victor's identity, the product that came from of his own misplaced effort to eradicate his femininity, and another example of Victor’s rejection of it. Unlike Victor, he is always seeking love, continually seeking redemption for his wretchedness and abandonment, believing it exclusively lies within the solace of the companionship of a female spouse and family. The Monster is also denied entry into the domestic sphere, but not from lack of want. In fact it is his deepest longing. After observing the DeLaceys and seeing their model of domestic bliss, he is naive in assuming that Victor, his abandoned father/mother and incapable of caring nurture, can create a wife for him that will be as devoted as Safie or Agatha.
The Creation of the Monster
Female sexuality in Victorian times relied heavily on a woman’s maternal potential. Paradoxically, sex itself was considered a defilement; women were also expected to be highly virtuous, or asexual. In order to fit into both of these roles, a woman had to be imagined as a bodiless, nonsexual being, easily interpreted as immature and in need of protection.
Victor begins his rejection and misappropriation of femininity upon the death of his mother and his departure for Ingolstadt. Upon the death of Caroline, after a brief respite of grief, he resolves, “My mother was dead, but we had still duties which we ought to perform;... and think ourselves fortunate, whilst one remains whom the spoiler has not seized (Shelley 28)." We see he is eager to mature into the masculine public with this statement and following paragraphs indicating a dismissal of his grief, impatiently passing it to Elizabeth, who “endeavoured to renew the spirit of cheerfulness (Shelley 27)." Upon his arrival, we see the emergence of his feminality with his encounter with Professor Waldman, where Victor is welcomed and delighted to be accepted in the submissive role of disciple, although his passionate research is disregarded as outdated and foolish.
The creation scene demonstrates the ultimate culmination of his attempt to neutralize his sexuality and eliminate his need of women by assuming the roles of both mother and father. “A new species would bless me as its creator and source... No father could claim the gratitude of a child so completely as I should deserve their’s (Shelley 34).” His moment of discovery is described in itself as process of pregnancy and childbirth. His research and experiments take 3 seasons, approximately the amount of time it takes for a pregnancy. During this time, he describes his behavior as broody and abnormally focused. “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue,” he says, “I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; (Shelley 33)” With the assistance of science, he is able to bypass nature and attain his goal of masculine childbirth. However, his narcissism ultimately fails him in his rejection of the Monster he had previously believed to have been created in love.
The Deaths of Henry Clerval and Elizabeth LavenzaVictor finally acquiesces to marriage after the death of Henry Clerval, who is his steadfast tie to the public sphere after his failure in academia. Victor experiences the loss as both an emasculation and the death of his true life partner. In response he finally turns his focus to Elizabeth and domesticity in an attempt to regain what he views as a diminished form of masculinity.
The monster murders Henry in response to Victor’s destruction of the female monster, signalling there was a corollary between the two. Henry was his constant companion throughout the book, and through his preference for his company over Elizabeth’s displayed at the least a homosocial discrimination, if not fringing on homosexual misogyny.
At the event of his death, Victor’s reaction is much stronger than to Elizabeth’s. He claims this is because of his indirect culpability for having created the Monster and is a comprehensive episode of all the murders. Conspicuously, Henry’s death is the only one to make him fall so ill, slipping into a fever bed for two months. Upon awakening, he falls into a long period of depression, isolation, and drug use. Comparing his narrations of the moments upon discovering their bodies shows how he clearly mourned Henry more deeply than Elizabeth:
“Have my murderous machinations deprived you also, my dearest Henry, of life?” “The human frame could no longer support the agonizing suffering that I endured, and I was carried out of the room in strong convulsions (Shelley 138).”
“She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed...”; “Alas! life is obstinate and clings where it is most hated. For a moment only did I lose recollection; I fainted (154).”
During Elizabeth’s scene, the writing focus shifts back and forth from the imagery of her body to his emotional reaction. He does not address her directly as he does Henry, and refers to her only as “the body of Elizabeth, my love, my wife, so lately living.” Despite their lifelong relationship, as with the death of Caroline, he narcissistically only sees her in her present state of death as the culmination of his emasculation. His immediate response is to spend the rest of his life in exile and shame, seeking revenge.
Victor’s attempt at eliminating his femininity results in a creature that is an anomaly of both gender role identifiers. He will be neither accepted nor allowed into either sphere. Victor and the Monster each claim opposite gender identities- Victor as male, the Monster as female. Neither of them allow the other to achieve those identities, and so the story ends with both of them in exile, equalizing them in their inhumanity in that they are both left with nothing but revenge and nemesis to motivate them.
In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley shows the exigent problems within the paradigm of the division of gender roles in the Romantic Period. She warns of the social dangers of an imbalanced, heavily binarized system. As men and women are segregated they are also reliant on each other. Such is the case in Victor Frankenstein. Being separated from the domestic sphere in Ingolstadt, he is unable to nurture himself or contain his manic experiments until he has gone too far. This also disables him from being able to parent his creation, despite his previous love and admiration for him before he had been alive. Individuals are incapable of fulfilling their own educational and emotional needs. Because men are consumed with their pursuits and external knowledge, they are not taught to nurture, and because women are bound to the home, they can not provide or contribute their knowledge to society.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Susan J. Wolfson. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.
Benziman, Galia. "Challenging The Biological: The Fantasy Of Male Birth As A Nineteenth-Century Narrative Of Ethical Failure." Women's Studies 35 (2006): 375-95. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.
Suggested Further Reading
Mellor, Anne. ""Usurping the Female; Chapter 6 of Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988), Pp. 115-26"" Mellor, "Usurping the Female" Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/Articles/mellor6.html>.
"Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman." Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Web. 15 Feb. 2015. <http://www.bartleby.com/144/>.