Mary Shelley’s 1818 edition of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus is a story that one might suggests has a simple “gothic horror” plot centering around a creator (Victor) and a creation (the monster). However, there is an argument developing that regards Elizabeth Lavenza Frankenstein as a major character in the novel. Shelley forwarded the work of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and used specific ideas from her text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) to develop the character of Elizabeth. Unfortunately, Elizabeth is often overlooked, like most women of the time period, if the reader does not understand Shelley’s forwarding of her mother’s work for women’s rights. Themes from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, most notably appearance and education are seen prevalently in the development of Elizabeth’s character and give her a complexity that she is stripped of when she is viewed as a minor character. I believe I have given justice to both texts under scrutiny in my essay (Frankenstein and Vindication). The quotes and paraphrases from both works have been employed thoroughly in order to clearly present the evidence of Shelley’s forwarding and the strong influence Wollstonecraft had on the development of Elizabeth. I would have liked to include Victor’s monster in this essay and contrasted his education to Elizabeth’s, however space and time did not permit. It may be an addition to this essay that I use for my final project.
I pledge my word of honor that I have abided by the Washington College Honor Code while completing this assignment.
______Rachel A. West____________
Mary Shelley’s 1818 edition of Frankenstein is perhaps the truest copy to her original manuscript. Shelley’s forwarding of several prominent authors and prolific written pieces did not merely serve to enhance her work, but formed the frame on which she built her time-tested story. Her novel, like Victor Frankenstein’s creation, was the result of carefully stitching chosen pieces together to create the final product. One of the key pieces of work forwarded in her novel is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, penned in 1792 by her mother Mary Wollstonecraft. Without a comprehensive knowledge of Wollstonecraft’s pioneering legacy for women’s rights and this specific text, a reader of Frankenstein might only understand the “simple monster story” plot in Frankenstein and direct their focus on Victor and his monster. Tragically, the reader may very well overlook the central role Elizabeth Lavenza Frankenstein plays in the novel and therefore will miss one of the biggest complications of Shelley’s story. Frankenstein, the “simple monster story”, can upon a closer reading be found to have several threads of the women’s suffrage movement weaved through the text. Elizabeth could prevail as a suffragette, as a model for women’s rights, if she was not still suffering from lack of recognition almost 200 years after being given her literary debut.
In order to understand Elizabeth, a reader must first understand Mary Wollstonecraft. One of Britain’s earliest feminists, she left an indelible mark on the early scene of suffrage and many scholars credit her as a founding mother of the women’s rights movement. Wollstonecraft was an accomplished author who wrote numerous letters, novels, and published an anthology titled The Female Reader, but her most prominent feminist critique, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was published only five years before her death in 1797. In her critiques, she sought to redefine the traditional roles of women in society. The major themes – not only in Vindication, but of her life – centered on education, marriage, slavery, gender roles, appearances, affection, and religion. Shelley, her mother’s namesake, was not fortunate enough to have her mother in her life. Wollstonecraft passed days after giving birth to Shelley, but it is clear that her work influenced Shelley throughout her life. In Shelley’s 1818 edition of Frankenstein, Wollstonecraft’s beliefs about women’s education, appearance, and marriage are embodied in Elizabeth’s character. The themes in Vindication of the Rights of Woman are the foundation that allow Elizabeth to be viewed as an influential central character, who should not only be credited as a major character, but who is also crucial to the novel’s development.
Elizabeth enters the novel early into Victor’s account of his life. She is adopted at a young age by Victor’s parents and becomes an integral part of their familial structure. The reader’s first introduction to Elizabeth is especially noteworthy as it is followed quickly by a lengthy description of her character:
“She was docile and good tempered, yet gay and playful as a summer insect. Although she was lively and animated, her feelings were strong and deep, and her disposition uncommonly affectionate. No one could better enjoy liberty, yet no one could submit with more grace than she did to constraint and caprice. Her imagination was luxuriant, yet her capability of application was great. Her person was the image of her mind; her hazel eyes, although as lively as a bird’s, possessed an attractive softness. Her figure was light and airy; and, though capable of enduring great fatigue, she appeared the most fragile creature in the world. While I admired her understanding and fancy, I loved to tend on her, as I should on a favourite animal; and I never saw so much grace both of person and mind united to so little pretension.” (Shelley 66)
From the first introduction of Elizabeth, a reader could easily observe how Victor begins to first describe her character and then only in two brief lines does he mention her physical appearance. This stylistic choice was heavily influenced by Wollstonecraft. In chapter five of Vindication, which is appropriately titled “Animadversions on Some of the Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity, Bordering on Contempt”, Wollstonecraft wrote “But, granting that woman ought to be beautiful, innocent, and silly, to render her a more alluring and indulgent companion;– what is her understanding sacrificed for?” (Wollstonecraft 91) As Victor acknowledges Elizabeth’s very active mental presence, he is contradicting the social belief that women were merely objects with no depth to their thinking. This belief was prevalent during Wollstonecraft’s era and prevailed beyond 1818 when Shelley published the first edition of Frankenstein. A reader who is ignorant of the importance of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication would read through the quoted paragraph with nothing more than a passing glance. It may appear that Elizabeth is simply being introduced and a basis for her character is being formed. There appears to be no detail great enough to dwell upon – except the lack of physical detail in Victor’s description of her. With the knowledge of Wollstonecraft and Vindication, the introduction of Elizabeth in this manner becomes a profound event in the novel and provides a segue for further development of Elizabeth’s character beyond the merely physical.
Aside from appearance, the majority of Wollstonecraft’s groundbreaking work centered on the lack of proper education for women. She argued that an education for young girls and women was not a privilege, as society tended to believe, but was a necessity. She stated that if women were more educated, they would be able to take a more comprehensive view of the world (Wollstonecraft 122), but because of their poor education they are “made … the slave of sensibility…” (Wollstonecraft 128). Wollstonecraft further argued that the only good wife is an educated wife and therefore education was necessary for a marriage to thrive (Wollstonecraft 150). These ideas are clearly forwarded in Shelley’s Frankenstein and a reader familiar with Wollstonecraft will then notice that Shelley purposely mentions Elizabeth’s education. “I delighted in investigating the facts relative to the actual world; she busied herself in following the aërial creations of the poets. The world was to me a secret, which I desired to discover; to her it was a vacancy, which she sought to people with imaginations of her own.” (Shelley 66) The difference in the subjects Victor and Elizabeth delight in alludes directly to Wollstonecraft’s ideas for education. Despite pioneering educational rights for women, Wollstonecraft did believe that there were distinctions in the subjects appropriate for men and women. She cautioned women to keep everything they learned secret so as not to overpower their male counterparts (Wollstonecraft 100), so it can be inferenced that maybe Elizabeth had the same desire to learn about the sciences as Victor did, but Shelley forwarded her mother to caution Elizabeth from displaying any amount of interest in education other than what was allocated to women at this time.
Although educated with Victor, Elizabeth is limited in the ways she can further her education and develop her interests in academics. When Victor leaves Geneva to start the creation process on his second monster, Shelley writes that “Elizabeth approved of the reasons of [his] departure, and only regretted that she had not the same opportunities of enlarging her experience and cultivating her understanding.” (Shelley 164) Here, Elizabeth bravely admits her desire to be further educated. Wollstonecraft argued that women should be highly educated in order to be more than a companion to their husbands. Elizabeth could be frightful in this passage that as Victor continues his education through experience, he will grow bored with the little companionship she is able to offer due to her significantly lacking education in comparison. Even without knowledge of Wollstonecraft, a reader could still understand the above average intellect and reasoning that Elizabeth possesses. Coming from a wealthy middle-class family, Elizabeth was afforded an education that women in lower social classes could not have ever dreamed of obtaining. Elizabeth is not so pitiful as to wish for more education in the novel other than in this passage.
Wollstonecraft argued that a proper and equal education was a cornerstone to marriage, but also distinguished in her writing that education provided women an outlet in marriage. Elizabeth is revered as a nurturing figure in discussions – a homely figure, a good friend, the ideal of a “perfect” wife. Wollstonecraft would argue that she is only capable of these things because she was afforded an education. However, despite Elizabeth being properly educated and Victor recognizing and admiring Elizabeth’s mental presence and character, she is not exempt from the “death” that Wollstonecraft believed came with marriage. In Vindication, Wollstonecraft stated that marriage “…is the natural death of love, and domestic peace…” and that in marriage it is only natural that a woman would want more independent principles (Wollstonecraft 54). Elizabeth’s gruesome physical death could be a profound visual for the mental and spiritual death that Wollstonecraft believed women suffered after marriage.
The knowledge of Wollstonecraft and Vindication is essential to comprehend Elizabeth and credit her with a central role in the Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft’s voice in Frankenstein accomplishes the deepening of Elizabeth’s character beyond a minor influence. With a developed understanding of Vindication, the reader can see where Shelley’s voice is lost and Wollstonecraft’s is gained, and how her fight for women’s education and a right to be more than just an object is what has endured Elizabeth to this day. Frankenstein would not be complete without Elizabeth’s character and she would not be complete without Wollstonecraft’s influence. Elizabeth is more than Victor’s cousin, friend, and his dearly departed wife of a few hours. Elizabeth, with all of her homely attributes customary of the time period, is what enables Victor to continue his education. She is an encourager and a confidant, but only because she was educated in order to be his companion from the very beginning when she came to live with the Frankensteins.
Shelley was a masterful writer who forwarded several contemporary pieces into her novel and employed them all remarkably well. Her mother’s voice, which she did not hear as a child, can be found woven throughout her story in parts that are centrally focused on Elizabeth. It is because of the influence of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication that Elizabeth is more than a minor character. Unfortunately, without knowledge of this work, Elizabeth becomes glossed over, like many women of the time period, by the patriarchal overtones of the “simple monster story” of Victor and the creature.
DiQuinzio, Patrice. “On Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Frankenstein.” Personal interview. 19 Oct. 2016.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. 3rd ed. Ontario: Broadview, 2012. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 2nd ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2015. Print.