Feminist Criticism Essay On Frankenstein

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Feminist Criticism and Its Interest in Frankenstein
2.1. Feminism and Feminist Criticism
2.2. Frankenstein in Feminist Literary Criticism

3. Mary Shelley – A Feminist?

4. Anne K. Mellor’s Feminist Approach to Frankenstein

5. Mellor’s arguments in other feminist critic approaches

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“I have been reading Frankenstein as a woman’s text concerned with women’s issues” (Smith 1992, 284)

The Gothic Novel Frankenstein[1] by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley[2] (1797-1851) is the most famous of her literary works for it has been reissued, redefined and criticised regularly since its first publication in 1818.

Johanna Smith mirrors with her statement what many critics say about Frankenstein: They define Frankenstein not only as a Gothic Novel, but as a Feminist Novel as well. Some of the feminist literary critics say that “feminist interest in Frankenstein would throw light on the novel’s darkest passages” (Fischer et al 1993, 3), others claim it is an invocation on women’s rights in general. However, all of them agree on the fact that the novel underlines the repression of women in private and public and that it criticizes the patriarchal role and dominating position of men.

In this term paper I am aiming at pointing out the arguments of feminist literary critics that define Frankenstein as a feminist novel. In order to support the thesis of Frankenstein being a feminist novel, I first want to give a definition of Feminist Literary Criticism and its branches.

Another interesting question, which needs to be answered before taking a look at feminist aspects in the novel, is the following. Did Mary Shelley intend to put a feminist message in her novel? It is important for the further analysis to know whether we are handling with a feminist or not. Did she really support the feminist movement with her own attitude or was she rather pushed into that kind of role by the critics? I intend to answer this question in the second part of the paper together with an examination of the development of Frankenstein in feminist discussion.

After having defined Mary Shelley as a feminist (or not) and having summarized what the movement was about, I want to go into detail analyzing Shelley’s Frankenstein in feminist terms.

In my analysis I will firstly put emphasis on Anne K. Mellor’s approach to Frankenstein. She not only gave with “Mary Shelley; Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (1988), the only full-length critical treatment of Shelley’s works in the 1980s” (Fisch et al 1993,8), but she also summarizes a lot of the arguments many feminist critics have mentioned in terms of interpreting Frankenstein. Mellor therefore provides a good basis for further examination.

Finally, in order to support and enlarge Mellor’s theory I want to introduce approaches by other critics treating the issue of feminism in Shelley’s work. These critics not only detail, object, and analyze Mellor’s statements, but they also add their own ideas. Thereby, it shall become clear if we can really label Frankenstein a Feminist Gothic Novel.

2. Feminist Criticism and its Interest in Frankenstein

Before going into detail on analyzing Frankenstein and its feminist features we need to understand what the feminist claims and problems were about and why feminist critics got interested in Mary Shelley’s work at all. In the following chapter I want to offer an overview of the women’s movement development and its relationship to the Gothic novel.

2.1 Feminism and Feminist Criticism

The feminist movement arose in the context of the politically oriented women movement and the industrial society in the late 19th and early 20th century. Critics belonging to the first wave of feminism are influenced by several seminal texts on women’s rights. The mother of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote one of the earliest manifestations: A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). She therefore can be called the forerunner of the Nineteenth-century movement (cf. Krolokke 2006, 6). Other works by Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own, 1992) and Gilbert and Gubar (The Madwoman in the Attic, 1979) play an important role in providing basic literary material (cf. Nünning, 191).

While the second wave of feminism (1960s to 1970s) addresses a wide range of issues, such as inequalities, sexuality or the workplace, third wave feminism (from mid-1990s onwards) concerns itself with the new aspect of women’s oppression such as violence or overall pornofication (cf. Krolokke 2006, 1f.).

Feminist literary criticism, which arose in the 1960s, covers a broad field of methods and opinions. The critics are concerned with the question how women are analyzed in terms of their treatment in literature (i.e. as characters) and as writers of such (cf. Nünning 2008, 190).

Feminist criticism can mainly be divided into three different stages, phases or strands.

In this paper I will focus on the categorization of French, American and British feminism, because they all analyze similar problems, though from different perspectives.

American feminist critics focus on the feminist writing. They claim women writers have their own experiences and therefore their own style. In their analysis they do not focus on the language but on the literary text itself. In the early phase (till mid-1970s) they examine how women characters are portrayed in texts by male writers who mainly use patriarchal norms (cf. Smith 1992, 262). This phase is also called feminine critique (cf. Nünning 2008, 190).

While these critics focus on male writers, another group forms itself in the 1970s. The ‘ gynocriticism group’ (re)studies works of famous women authors and their female literary tradition, i.e. frequently reappearing patterns of themes and images (cf. Smith 1992, 263).

In contrast to the American feminists, British feminists try to “distinguish themselves from what they see as an American overemphasis on texts linking women across boundaries and decades and an underemphasis on popular art and culture” (ibid., 264). Therefore, basically, British feminists try to focus on historical tradition and political activities in which the differentiation of male and female is buried in order to achieve social change for women.

French Feminism on the opposite sees the gender difference manifested in language. They not only put the literary text and its content into consideration, but they focus on elements of speech. There is a fundamental difference in male and female writing; thinking is male, emotions are female is what they suggest. What French feminists conclude, is that language is mainly male and therefore destroys the voices of women. They thought of it as having a ‘phallocentric structure’: “it privileges the phallus and, more generally, masculinity by associating them with things and values more appreciated by the (masculine-dominated) culture” (Smith 1992, 260). In order to transgress these boundaries of masculine language women writers use unconventional punctuation and stylistic novelty - this feminine language was called l’écriture feminine (cf. Nünning 2008, 192).

Although there are some differences in the understanding of feminist criticism in Anglo-American and French approaches, they tend to have fused together during the last decades.

2.2 Frankenstein in Feminist Literary Criticism

From its publication on, Frankenstein was analyzed not only in Romantic or Gothic terms. However, in the beginning a feminist involvement on Shelley’ side was excluded, mainly because of her very own statements, e.g. “I have never written to vindicate the rights of women, I have ever befriended women when oppressed.”[3] (Shelley in Jones 1947, 206; quoted in Markus 1994, 49). Nevertheless, critics raised the question why Mary Shelley had published her outstanding work anonymously and why she allowed her husband to revise her first version of the novel. Those were aspects, feminists saw as indications for Shelley’s underrated position as a woman writer. Therefore, early assumptions were made that Frankenstein was written by a woman, who had to struggle the female repression of her times. With ‘her monster’ she gave new interest in the treatment of the female writer and she also reinforced “the tradition of the Gothic Novel as a peculiarly female domain” (Mellor 1988, 55).

But also the content of the novel showed feminist traits. Feminist critics found in Frankenstein “a powerful strain of patriarchal ideology and an ambivalent attitude towards women’s creativity” (Smith 1992, 259).

Before feminist literary criticism arose in the 1960s the novel’s fame had not declined. It never got out of print and film versions were published constantly, but it was not so much in the focus of feminists yet. However, when Science Fiction became valued in academic circles in the 1960s and 1970s and interest in the woman writer had begun to revive because of the new development, every feminist critic talked about Mary Shelley and her works again (cf. Lowe-Evans 1998, 10).

Continuingly, not only in the 1980s, feminists used Frankenstein “to criticize masculinist tendencies in literary theory” (Fisch et al 1993, 3f.); still today the novel is well liked to show how women’s repression in theory and practice is presented. As will be seen, all three branches of feminist literary criticism approaches can be found in Frankenstein.

3. Mary Shelley – A Feminist?

Because of the multitude of feminist topics that can be found in Frankenstein it can be assumed that Mary Shelley was strongly influenced by themes of the women movement and that she wanted to disclose some of the issues with her novel.


[1] The following edition is being quoted in this paper: Shelley, Mary. 1818. “Frankenstein”. In: n.e. 1994. Four Gothic Novels. The Castle of Otranto; Vathek; The Monk; Frankenstein (Paperback). Oxford: OUP. In the ongoing text I am going to quote the book as Shelley, <page number>.

[2] Many refer to Mary Shelley as either Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (her mother’s name, followed by her husband’s name), Mary Godwin Shelley (including her father’s name) or simply Mary Shelley. In the ongoing text I will refer to her as Mary Shelley.

[3] Mary Shelley hints at her mother’s important feminist work “A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).

In this essay, Wayne Tan explores critical issues of gender identity set within a parable of humanity’s confrontation and breaching of the limits of nature. Conventionally regarded as a conformist text to patriarchal themes, Tan offers new insights into Frankenstein’s construction of gendered roles. Here, Shelley rears contemporary gender doctrine on its head – far from the caregiving and child-rearing roles of women thus limiting them to the sidelines of society, it is precisely their indispensability that situates them center-stage. In “The Female Gender and Its Significance”, Tan elucidates women’s elevation to parity with men’s social roles, successfully setting the stage for the New Woman to break out of her socially-imposed limiting confines.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, issues of gender identity are explored through the creation of an unnatural monster set in an otherwise idyllic society. With its central characters that exemplify the idealized gender roles of the time, the creation of Frankenstein’s monster poses critical questions dealing with the social make-up of nineteenth-century British society. Particularly, the unusual nature of the monster’s birth as well as his subsequent experiences serve as counterpoint to foreground the significance of female gender roles in British society, and ultimately suggest that far from being merely companions to men, women instead play a central role in contributing to the stability of the prevailing social order.

From the outset, the presentation of the male gender in Frankenstein is marked by strong similarities with traditional male archetypes. Male characters display a detachment from domestic matters and in its place, possess an obsessive single-mindedness in the pursuit of their goals. As a “calm and philosophical” man who “delighted in investigating the facts relative to the actual world” (66), Victor Frankenstein epitomizes masculine attributes with his logical and composed nature, as well as a strong scientific bent well-suited for the male-centric field of natural philosophy. Indeed, Frankenstein’s “days and nights in vaults and charnel houses” where he “lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (78) attest to a focused, driven nature which borders on fanaticism. Throughout Frankenstein’s research, he also displays a careless neglect of his domestic and social obligations, and his confession of how he “knew [his] silence disquieted them” (81) underscores a certain selfishness through his constant indifference to those closest to him. Frankenstein’s monster similarly parallels his master’s obsessive nature through his own insular fixation on acquiring a mate and subsequently, on revenge. The lines, “I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart” (156), clearly denote the monster’s prodigious determination and the depth of his devotion to this aim, which he lives up to with the subsequent consecration of his life to the lifelong torment of Frankenstein. The monster as “a slave to these impulses” (218) thus counterparts Frankenstein’s zealous devotion to his work in the sense that both male characters’ impulses and passions inexorably spiral out of their control.  In this way, the presentation of the central male characters in Frankenstein typifies the male sex as exceedingly self-absorbed and single-minded, or in other words, as the embodiment of Victorian traits in their unreserved neglect of the domestic sphere.

By contrast, the female gender in Frankenstein is portrayed in a more sympathetic light and corresponds closely to Victorian ideals of women as familial care-givers. Elizabeth Lavenza is described as “docile and good tempered” (66), yet “gay and playful” (66); these seemingly paradoxical qualities underscore Elizabeth’s role as that of the model Victorian woman whose sole duty concerns tending to her husband and family. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth’s selfless nature is also evinced through how she “continually [endeavors] to contribute to the happiness of others, entirely forgetful of herself” (73) – the use of “entirely” here underscores the female gender’s complete relegation to the background of the Victorian social milieu. In addition, the phrase “gentle and affectionate disposition” further identifies Elizabeth with maternal qualities and entrenches her role as the primary care-giver for the family. This sense of altruistic benevolence is shared by Safie De Lacey; save for “some jewels and a small sum of money” (141) which provide for her escape, she renounces great luxury to reunite with her lover, Felix De Lacey. During the journey, Safie even nurses her attendant “with the utmost affection” (141); this reversal of the lord-servant relationship stresses Safie’s motherly compassion, which transcends both rank and station. The repetition of “affection” further calls attention to the common thread of a warm and tender disposition which is ubiquitous among the female characters in Frankenstein. In both description and action, Frankenstein’s female characters thus uniformly exhibit self-sacrificing, maternal traits that conform closely to the role of the Angel in the House, whose life is characterized by complete dedication to the needs of her household.

With its hyper-idealized portrayals of the female gender, Shelley goes further to explicate the significant influence of such maternal figures. Frankenstein himself professes that “no creature could have more tender parents than [he did]” (65), which suggests a childhood replete with parental care and attention; in contrast, his monster’s first experiences are characterized by his being “poor, helpless and miserable”, which conveys a marked poverty of maternal nourishment and nurture.  Tellingly, though the monster gains consciousness while physically mature, the lines “feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept” (121) highlight the monster’s delayed recognition of his own powerlessness and a deferred grief which echoes an infant’s wailing and vulnerability upon emerging from the womb. Crucially, the perceived significance of a female nurturing presence is alluded to in the monster’s cry of how “no Eve soothed [his] sorrows, or shared [his] thoughts; [he] was alone” (145), which emphasizes not just the prolonged isolation of the monster from birth, but also specifically how “Eve”, or a necessarily female companion, will provide the affection which he desires. Because of the congruence of feminine gender roles with care-giving and affection, the monster’s declaration of how he is “malicious because [he is] miserable” (pg.156) and his bitter cry of “Shall each man… find a wife for his bosom… and I be alone” further undergird his actions as reactive responses indicative of an underlying desperation at the dearth of female tenderness and maternal figures in his life. The monster’s specific requests of female companionship for “the interchange of those sympathies” (156) when thus contextualized therefore stresses the patent importance of the female gender in its domestic roles of mother and nurturer. By contrast, there is a plethora of female characters that pervade Frankenstein’s supportive environment – though Frankenstein himself suffers great tragedy throughout the novel, Elizabeth constantly attempts to “chase away the fiend that lurked in [his] heart” (114), which encapsulates the prevalence of female companionship and its ameliorative effects on his life. Instead, the creature does not share the same luxuries. Though of course his cruelty cannot easily be reduced to a singular cause, the paucity of female presence nonetheless occludes all redemptive potential for the monster and in this way, cleaves a dichotomy between the narrative trajectories of him and his creator. Within the polarized gender dynamics that operate in the diegetic world of Frankenstein, the idea of nurture itself necessarily assumes a feminine dimension – from this perspective, his creature hence serves as a foil that suggests how the consequences of a poverty of female influence and maternal nurture are inadvertently the figurative molding and shaping of monsters.

While Frankenstein elucidates the marked importance of women as guiding, maternal figures in the family, the novel also explores the centrality of female gender roles as bulwarks of the social order. As alluded to earlier, one central question which features in the novel is whether it is the unnatural circumstances of the monster’s creation or his ensuing abandonment by Frankenstein which factors more for his monstrosity; however, if nature is understood to be an ideal state conducing to the optimal, in Frankenstein the importance of feminine care in ensuring societal stability thus underscores a false dichotomy between nature and nurture because of the contingence of social stability on contemporary female gender-roles. The creation of Frankenstein’s monster upends nature entirely through its circumvention of natural birth; indeed, Frankenstein’s pursuit of nature to “her hiding places” (81) emphasizes his unravelling of natural laws which were concealed for a reason. On an organic level, the artificial nature of the monster’s creation renders moot the biological imperative of the female gender; this theme is actualized through the monster’s systematic elimination of feminized characters in the novel, including biological males such as Henry Clerval whose spending of an entire winter “consumed in [Frankenstein’s] sick room” nonetheless recalls the maternal selflessness. During Frankenstein’s dream on the night of the creature’s creation, his vision of Elizabeth’s metamorphosis into “the corpse of [his] dead mother” (84) similarly constitutes a vivid metaphor for how the monster’s unnatural birth at once heralds both the physical and metaphysical deaths of the fairer sex. Yet, this seeming superfluity of the female sex is suggested to be ill-founded, for Frankenstein details the implicit consequences of such an alternate reality. Where once Elizabeth’s “gentle voice would soothe [Frankenstein] when transported by passion” (194), the scarcity of such feminine characters at the end of his life directly signifies the absence of mediating influences to temper his inhuman fury. Alongside the dearth of female nurturing and affection in the monster’s psyche, this thematic paucity of female influences culminates in a barren wasteland, with two masculine figures consumed in an endless game of cat-and-mouse, devoid of feminine influence and consequently simply the “prey of feelings unsatisfied, yet unquenched” (220). The juxtaposition and framing of this icy apocalyptic vision within Walton’s frequent correspondence with his sister further underscores the disparity between this speculative male-centric dystopia and the stable nineteenth-century society, with all its prevailing gender roles, to which Walton belongs. Hence, insofar as the monster’s creation may have sounded the death knell for the female sex on some level, Frankenstein’s ending illustrates the devastating inadequacy of this hypothetical new normal. The novel suggests that even without the biological imperative of the female sex, their social gender-roles as maternal nurturers are enshrined into the natural societal equilibrium, or nature itself, and in this way, on equal footing with the gendered roles of men.

At its core, Frankenstein is a parable which explores the manifest possibilities and consequences when humanity confronts and breaches the limits of nature. However, through imbuing its characters with conventionally gender-specific traits, Frankenstein illustrates that the female gender roles of nineteenth-century British society are not simply accessory to that of men; insofar as women are instrumental to the nurturing of children and loved ones, Shelley does not simply foreground their maternal significance but elevates its importance to parity with men’s social roles. Almost certainly, Frankenstein will not pass for a “feminist” text by today’s standards; yet, in presenting “the truth of the elementary principles of human nature” (49), Shelley goes so far as to surface the patchwork intricacies of female gender roles which had not yet been embedded in the public consciousness of the era. More crucially, Shelley rears contemporary gender doctrine on its head – far from the caregiving and child-rearing roles of women thus limiting them to the sidelines of society, it is precisely their indispensability that situates them center-stage. Through this recuperation of the female gender and its social significance, Shelley strongly echoes the thought of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who famously advocated for widespread women’s education in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, on largely similar grounds. While markedly essentialist, Shelley nonetheless critiques the ostensibly marginal contributions of women to the social order and paints an incisive reflection of the conditions of human nature and society more progressive than espoused at the time of its publication. The creation of Frankenstein’s monster and its inability to nullify female gender roles attests to the latter’s kaleidoscopic significance in both the domestic and social spheres – and ultimately pave the way for the New Woman to break out of these very limiting confines.

Works Cited

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Broadview Press, 2012. Print.

WAYNE TAN graduated from UCLA and currently studies at the University of Oxford. He recently wrote essays on Thomas Hardy and Henry James back-to-back just to make the two arch-rivals turn in their graves.

Photo credit: Joanne Loo

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