Mary Shelley, Women & Frankenstein

A Feminist Reading of the Novel

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Gender Roles or the Concept of Separate Spheres

3. Between the Public and the Private Sphere
3.1. The Life of Mary Shelley
3.2. The Representation of Women in Frankenstein 6
3.3. Frankenstein - A Critique of the 19th Century Patriarchal Society

4. Conclusion

5. List of Works Cited

1. Introduction

Frankenstein does not immediately announce itself to be about sexual relations and does not offer discussions specifically addressed to issues of gender. Indeed, it seems that questions of sexual difference are far from a primary concern of and in the novel” (Botting 100). Despite this quote, this term paper will argue that the opposite is the case. So far, many feminist critics have focused on Frankenstein and so will do this paper.

The novel, written in 1818 by Mary Shelly, can be classified as Female Gothic. Ellen Moers coined this new term and defined it as “the work that women writers have done in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth century, we have called the Gothic” (Moers 77).1 What is important to mention is the fact that Frankenstein is considered to be a Female Gothic, but there is no heroine or any other important female figure (cf. Moers 79). However the author is female which needs further examination.

The purpose of this paper is to determine the importance and the role of women in the novel and of its author as well as to analyse the ideology of separate spheres in Mary Shelley’s life and the novel itself. Superficially, the women in Frankenstein meet all expectations of women, wives or daughters at that time. Mary Shelley pictures the status of women in the 19th century and the prevailing social order in her novel. Furthermore she applies the concept of separate spheres to fulfil the expectations of society. But on closer examination, Shelley in fact challenges the inferior status of women and the gender division of labour, not only through the submissive behaviour of women in the novel and hence criticising the “stereotype of femininity” (Marsh 174), but as well through her own life, because she does not perfectly fit into the traditional female image of that time.

For a better understanding of the main part of this term paper, firstly, the predominant doctrine of separate spheres will be introduced and sufficiently explained. Likewise a short overview of the situation of women from the 19th century will be given in this chapter. Further on it will then be demonstrated how Mary Shelley coped with the fact of being a female writer in a male dominated society and how she managed her life. Afterwards it will be looked at all women, appearing in the novel Frankenstein, and how Shelley presents them. In addition it will be analysed in what way Shelley displays critique of the gender division and the patriarchal society. Finally, the results of the analysis of the novel will be summarised.

2. Gender Roles or the Concept of Separate Spheres

Nowadays, a modern woman could probably not imagine living as a woman in 19th century England. Today it is taken for granted that every woman can get an education as well as a career. Today it is also taken for granted that every woman can choose whether to marry and to have children or to go to work. In the 19th century, women had mostly no possibility to choose.2 According to Leonore Davidoff, most women suffered from a lifetime of personal subordination, first being under control of their fathers and later on of their husbands (cf. Davidoff 21). At that time, the concept of the “Angel of the House” was predominant and the home was considered to be a “female-build haven of domestic peace and order” (Gleadle 83) until some Enlightenment ideas emerged. Women were “dead in law” (Allen Vandehaar 132) and their status could be seen as a kind of legal slavery. The husband was the master, who had absolute rights over his wife, her children and her property and likewise the woman was financially, intellectually and emotionally dependent upon him (cf. Gleadle 51). The wife had to be humble and obedient to her husband. “The ideal woman was presumed to be pure, delicate, pious, and maternal; the expectation was that she would marry, reproduce, raise her children, create a comfortable home, and find fulfilment through her family” (McMillen 12).

However, men and women lived completely different lives. These assumptions created the concept of separate spheres. While women belonged to the private or domestic sphere, men belonged to the public sphere. “Men’s place was in the ‘world’ and women’s was in the kitchen, nursery, and drawing room, the two spheres being eternally and unalterably opposed” (Allen Vandehaar 135). When a woman tried to enter the public spheres and engaged herself in paid work she “ceases to be a lady” (Davidoff and Hall 315).

Women were hence kept away from education. Only men had access to higher education. Women should focus on their household duties; education would only distract them from being a good housewife and mother (cf. Allen Vandehaar 133). Caroline Cornwallis once bemoaned: “It is provoking to have one’s heart in a Greek Lexicon while the rest of the body is super-intending the making of a pudding or roasting a fowl” (Cornwallis 20). A woman’s life only consisted of the “restriction to the domestic sphere and their personal dependence on men in everyday life” (Klaiber 306). According to Kathryn Geadle the concept of separate spheres can be seen as an “imprisoning discourse which sealed

women’s banishment from productive lives, condemning them to a restrictive role within the home” (Geadle 84).3

But nevertheless “the ideology of ‘separate spheres’ was a prescriptive dialogue which did not necessarily reflect the reality of nineteenth-century women’s lives, such rhetoric was none the less constructed as a central starting-point in evaluating women’s experience” (Gleadle 2).4 Furthermore, a woman’s situation varied widely and depended upon regional and economic aspects. At the beginning of the 19th century, women were still considered inferior to men and bound to the private spheres, but some women started to challenge this traditional female image as well as the social contradictions and hence tried to improve their current situation.

3. Between the Public and the Private Sphere

As a woman, Mary Shelley was supposed to be a good housewife and mother - and not writing novels and thereby enter into the world of men or the public sphere. Contrary to her the women in Frankenstein do not enter the male world but mostly stay in their domain.

3.1. The Life of Mary Shelley

One of the women who challenged the prevailing social order was Mary Wollstonecraft, who is nowadays considered the first feminist. Her most important and a revolutionary work is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which focuses on the “emancipation and education of the female sex” (Ehrhard 3f). Her daughter Mary Godwin Shelley became an enthusiastic writer as well and was definitely influenced by her mother. Mary Shelley was born on 30th of August 1797 as daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, an author and philosopher (cf. Marsh 183). As a daughter of two intellects, she was very well educated. “By the standards of eighteenth-century England, Mary, like her famous mother, possessed and exhibited exceptional intelligence” (Florescu 38). Her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley was equally fascinated by her exceptional qualities as “sharp, intellect, intuition, generosity, strength of determination” (Hindle xviii). Mary became attached to her father, after her mother had died while giving birth to her, and he expected something great and good of her. So Shelley never wanted to be a housewife only. She always had something greater in mind (cf. Hindle xvi). She read a lot and through her father she met many intellects and could listen to their conversations. With one of her father’s friends, Percy Shelly, Mary fell in love. Although Percy was married, they started to have an affair. After Percy’s wife committed suicide, he and Mary got married and had four children, of which three unfortunately died. After the death of Percy, Mary devoted herself to the upbringing of their only surviving child and the writing (cf. Hindle xviff).

Although being an author and writing novels was a “masculine tradition” Mary started writing quite early (cf. Corbett 74). Shelley admitted in the introduction of the 1831 version of Frankenstein, that one question was frequently asked: “How I, then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” (Shelley 5). Veeder answers this question really well: “Mary Shelley with her much-heralded ‘masculine-mind’, is capable of the mastery of recondite languages and the sustaining of scholarly labor which woman was considered incapable of” (Veeder 159). Through William Godwin, Mary had contact with some of the most influential intellects of the 19th century. Furthermore she listened devoutly but silently to the conversations between Lord Byron and Percy Shelley (cf. Shelley 8). She therefore had an exceptional knowledge which made her a fantastic author. Moers however writes that “her extreme youth, as well as her sex, have contributed to the generally held opinion that she was not so much an author in her own right as a transparent medium through which passed the ideas of those around her” (Moers 82). Moers actually shares the same opinion as most men did in the 19th century, namely, that Shelley, as a woman, is incapable of writing such great novels as Frankenstein and that only through men around her it was possible constructing this work.

Nevertheless, Mary Shelley always tried to make a good impression and to meet the expectations of the society. For example, “she could not bring herself to read at the British Museum Library in London because it was ‘not respectable’ for a woman to do so” (Florescu 38). Therefore Frankenstein was first published anonymously in 1818, as it was not proper for a woman to write a novel of this nature (cf. Florescu 38). Another reason for publishing the novel anonymously could have been the bad reputation of female authors and Shelley’s fear of failure. Female works were regarded as poor and a woman writer as “unladylike” (Botting 108). Apart from this, Shelley, as every other 19th century middle-class women, was given and “accepted responsibilities for maintaining domestic order as agents of moral and affective ties” (Corbett 79). She was a loving mother and wife. While Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein on her own, she allowed Percy Shelley to revise it. Zachary Leader points out that therefore recent feminists condemn the picture of Mary Shelley as a powerful intellect in her own right (cf. Leader 169). But, she asked her husband to do so and he did not force her. Mary wrote Frankenstein, it is her work, her creation. While Percy Shelley was only helping her, she did the intellectual work herself.

Indeed, Mary Shelley is not a typical woman of the 19th century, but in addition to her career as an author, she tried to be a perfect wife and mother. She tried to combine the public and the private sphere and thereby showed that women are not inferior but can rather handle both, a career and a family.

3.2. The Representation of Women in Frankenstein

Mary Shelley, inspired by her feminist mother, “portrays the consequences of a social construction of gender which values men over women. Victor Frankenstein’s nineteenthcentury Genevan society is founded on rigid division of sex-roles” (Mellor 115). While every man in the novel is attending the public sphere, Alphonse Frankenstein as a public servant, Victor Frankenstein as a scientist, Clerval and his father as merchants and Walton as an explorer, the women are mostly found at home. Moreover, “all the interesting, complex characters in the book are male […] the females, on the other hand, are beautiful, gentle, selfless, boring nurturers and victims who never experience inner conflict or true desire” (Johnson 151). Most women remain in their domestic domain, being objects of adoration. Furthermore, no woman in Frankenstein speaks directly: “everything we hear from and about them is filtered through the three masculine narrators” (Smith 270).

The first woman who is introduced to the reader is Margaret Saville, Robert Walton’s sister. While Robert is on his way to the North Pole, Margaret stays at home and receives letters from her beloved brother (cf. Shelley 15-32). Robert and Margaret can be seen as exemplary. Whereas he travels the world and is a part of the public sphere, Margaret, as typical for those times, remains in the private spheres and stays at home. Her task is it to “support his spirits” (Shelly 22) and to be kind and gentle (cf. Shelley 18). Although Margaret appears as a passive character in the novel, she had a huge impact on Robert: “My best years spent under your gentle and feminine fosterage, has so refined the groundwork of my character” (Shelley 20). However Margaret can also be seen as an important character for the novel, only due to her existence Robert has a reason to tell the story of Victor Frankenstein. Chakravorty Spivak describes Margaret quite well: “She is the occasion, though not the protagonist, of the novel. She is the feminine subject rather than the female individualist”


1 But what is actually meant by “the Gothic”? Ellen Moers defines it as follows: “In Gothic writing fantasy predominates over reality, the strange over the commonplace, and the supernatural over the natural, with one definite auctorial intent: to scare. Not, that is, to reach down into the depths of the soul and to purge it with pity and terror (as we say tragedy does), but to get to the body itself, its glands, muscles, epidermis, and circulatory system, quickly arousing and quickly allaying the physiological reactions to fear” (Moers 77).

2 In this chapter, it will mainly be focused on the middle- and upper-class women because almost every woman in Frankenstein belongs to the middle- or upper-class.

3 For a more detailed critique see Vickery, Amanda. “Golden Ages to Separate Spheres: A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History”. The Historical Journal 36.2 (1993): 383-414.

4 Gleadle goes on and states that “paternal and hierarchical relationships within the working-class family were […] breaking down” (Gleadle 38) whereas Judy Lown goes even one step further by remarking that “in particular, concern over the numbers of young female factory workers, led to a proliferation of images of confident, well-paid factory girls, stepping free of patriarchal dominance” (Gleadle 38; cf. Lown 43ff).

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Mary Shelley, Women & Frankenstein
A Feminist Reading of the Novel
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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mary, shelley, women, frankenstein, feminist, reading, novel
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Laura Weyand (Author), 2012, Mary Shelley, Women & Frankenstein, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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