Female characters in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are few and far between. Of these few, the most significant in terms of relevance to Victor’s story would be his adopted “cousin” Elizabeth – his “more than sister”. Elizabeth’s status as the predominant female character in the novel gives her an exceptional importance with regards to the interpretation of gender roles in the novel. The character Elizabeth functions as representative of the novel’s perception of the “ideal femininity”, which here is one that will stifle itself for the benefit of others. The ideal woman is a subjugated woman, a woman whose needs are ignored in favor of those of the people around her. My analysis will focus on the last few paragraphs of chapter one, where Victor describes Elizabeth coming into his family, and how this introduction reduces her character to an object whose purpose is to be a vessel for the pleasures of others.
In this introduction to the idea of Elizabeth as a part of the Frankenstein family, she is only ever discussed in terms of her significance to others. To Victor, Elizabeth is “the beautiful and adored companion of all [his] occupations and…pleasures”, to her former guardians, she was “a blessing to them”, and to Victor’s mother, she is “’a pretty present for my Victor’” (Shelley, pg.37). It is discussed how “Everyone loved Elizabeth”, and how “all regarded her” with “passionate and…reverential attachment” (pg.37), but nowhere in these introductory paragraphs is there any mention of how Elizabeth feels about being brought into a new home, or about what these new people in her life mean to her. She is made into an object for others to fawn over and cherish, one apparently without feelings of her own. The description of Elizabeth as “a pretty present” is particularly telling, directly comparing her to an inanimate object defined by its intention for, and value to, another person. This diction effectively commodifies her character and the endless praise that is bestowed upon her thereafter implies that this commodity status is something commendable, since no explanation of what Elizabeth does to receive this praise is included. All we know about Elizabeth is that she is pretty, or as Victor phrases it, “a child fairer than pictured cherub–a creature who seemed to shed radiance from her looks” (pg.36), and that she exists in their possession. Based on this knowledge, it can be concluded that, as a woman in Frankenstein, to be valued as highly as Elizabeth is one need only exist as someone’s beautiful possession. Victor even goes as far as to refer to her as “a possession of my own” (pg.37), which he attributes to “childish seriousness”, but it is difficult to find fault with him when his mother introduces her as a “promised gift” (pg.37), the phrasing of which already implying some sort of future entitlement to a person he has never met. Again, nothing is offered from Elizabeth’s perspective, and by the lack of protest from her we can only infer that she is blankly and passively accepting the fate that has been decided for her, for which she is endlessly “cherished” and adored.
The characterization of Elizabeth in her introductory passages sees her praised for essentially letting herself be objectified by the people around her. She is by far the most “beloved” female figure by the other characters in the novel, and this status signifies a level of value placed on her as a woman. Through Elizabeth, the novel defines a woman of “value” as one who rejects any feelings of her own in order to serve some purpose to others, or one who simply doesn’t have any feelings to stifle. Whether or not Elizabeth is making a conscious effort to do so is unexamined in the novel, and ultimately irrelevant because she would be treated the same either way, as a trophy on the family’s mantle.