Respectable Femininity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

“I gazed on the picture of my mother which stood over the mantel-piece. It was an historical subject, painted at my father’s desire, and represented Caroline Beaufort in an agony of despair, kneeling by the coffin of her dead father. Her garb was rustic, and her cheek pale; but there was an air of dignity and beauty, that hardly permitted the sentiment of pity.”

Frankenstein, Page 79

The female characters in Frankenstein are few and are generally relegated to the background, as are most of the secondary characters, as the majority of the novel centers on Victor and his creature. However, unlike the male secondary characters, the only prominent women of Frankenstein are almost always depicted as long-suffering saints, whose nobility and composure in the face of adversity are their most attractive traits. Notably, Victor’s mother, Caroline, is portrayed in this manner. This depiction of the female characters in Frankenstein reflects the idea that a femininity characterized by suppressed pain, particularly one dampened by grief, is the most attractive a woman can possess.

Victor’s mother, Caroline, is introduced as the daughter of an ailing man, a friend of Victor’s father, who does all in her power to support him until his eventual passing. It is within this context that she meets her future husband, who, “came like a protecting spirit to the poor girl”. She is therefore rewarded for bearing her struggles, remaining a dutiful daughter and serving a traditional role in a patriarchal system. Within the span of two years she transitions neatly from a caretaker to her father, to a wife and caretaker of a child. It is mentioned briefly that Caroline had been “shaken by what she had gone through”, but her grief at losing her father to disease in relative squalor is never fully explored. From that point on the only emotion she shows is concern for others, going on to be described as “a guardian angel of the afflicted”. She ends up contracting a fatal illness by refusing to be stopped from nursing Elizabeth when she takes ill, and the one-sidedness of her character only continues with her death. Of his dying mother, Victor says, “On her death bed the fortitude and benignity of this best of women did not desert her”, and Caroline’s final moments are spent telling Victor and Elizabeth that she wants them to get married, and then she dies “calmly”, “and her countenance expressed affection even in death”. She never has a moment where she is without poise or composure, even as she knows she is about to die, and she is held up by Victor as “this best of women”. This woman, who we never get to know as a full-fledged character, serves as the pinnacle of idealized respectable femininity in the novel. She is charitable and kind, always thinking of others before herself, and when she has served her purpose (nursing Elizabeth from illness) she dies quietly and without incident.

These traits are echoed in Elizabeth, who, after Caroline’s death, “indeed veiled her grief, and strove to act the comforter to us all”, and Victor even claims that “never was she so enchanting than at this time”; that is, never was Elizabeth so appealing than when she was suppressing her own unexplored feelings of grief and possibly guilt at having been nursed to health only to see her caretaker killed by that same illness which afflicted her, to appease the people around her. We see a similar treatment of Justine who, is not only rendered “exquisitely beautiful” by the “solemnity of her feelings” upon being on trial for murder, but is described as a “saintly sufferer” who “assumed an air of cheerfulness, while she with difficulty repressed her bitter tears” trying to comfort Elizabeth on the eve of her own death. These women are attractive when they are denying their own emotional needs for the sake of those around them, at least in Victor’s eyes.

This idealized feminine suffering is made especially clear when Victor returns to his family home and looks upon the painting of his mother described in the quote above. This portrait, displayed prominently on the mantelpiece, is how his father wanted to remember her: sobbing over her father’s grave (where he first met her and, perhaps, fell in love with her). Her pain is romanticized to the point where her depiction in the portrait “hardly permitted the sentiment of pity” because her suffering is just so darn beautiful.

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