Throughout Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, we are presented with various views of women, and their role in society and family. Here, I will explore the similarities of and differences between the female characters in the novel.
The first female encountered in the novel, Caroline Beaufort, becomes a model around which many of Shelley's other females are based. Frankenstein's father first encountered her while she was tending to her dying father "with the greatest tenderness," and thus it is apparent that on first encounters she is an exceptional woman. Even after her father's death, there is no sign of weakness in her character, as "her courage rose to support her in adversity"; her "soft and benevolent mind" ultimately allows her to marry Frankenstein's father. At this point we encounter the first near-universal characteristic of women in the novel - they are loved by all around them, right from first impressions. Their goodness is self-evident to anyone. Frankenstein's father has "reverence for her virtues", and this use of language gives a religious quality to the esteem in which she is held. This is another facet the reader will see oft-repeated later on.
Even in the ultimate trial, her own death, Beaufort shows no sign of character flaws or common human weakness - no selfish demands, no self pity. Frankenstein claims "the fortitude and benignity of this best of women did not desert her." As the end finally draws near, she "resigns [herself] cheerfully to death".
However, before her death, it is Beaufort that introduces the second female character of the book. For Beaufort, it was "a necessity, a passion, for her to act ... the guardian angel" and it was just while carrying out this divine duty that she encounters Elizabeth. From first description, she is "a being heaven-sent, and bearing a celestial stamp." In this quote, there are several counts of divine imagery such that one cannot help but feel that this woman, or rather girl, is at least as remarkable as Beaufort herself. The divine imagery is continued when Beaufort describes her as a "blessing" on their family. There is another aspect to this miraculous child; we are left in no doubt as to her beauty when she is described as "fairer than pictured cherub", but her beauty appears to transcend that of ordinary women. As Frankenstein puts it, "None could behold her without looking on her as a being heaven-sent" - her beauty, like her goodliness, is apparent to anyone. Like the "palaces of nature" of Lausanne, Elizabeth's beauty is that of the sublime. At the time of Frankenstein's publishing, an important distinction was drawn between subjective observation of beauty and the sublime, usually reserved for natural phenomena like those of Lausanne. Therefore it is quite incredible and even a little presumptious of Frankenstein to attribute her with such a characteristic. However, it is hinted at again; throughout the novel, beauty attracts beauty, and so Elizabeth's fascination with "the sublime shapes of the mountains" suggests that her own beauty is likewise sublime.
Portraying women in such a positive light was not typical of writing of the time, driven as it was by a strongly patriarchal tradition. That Shelley chose originally to be published anonymously is evidence enough that women writers were a rare breed and were usually frowned upon. However, the passive nature of the female characters adheres more closely to what would typically be expected of them, as both Elizabeth and Frankenstein's mother are portrayed as wonderful but nevertheless altogether dependent on the men for provision. It is possible that Shelley felt that too many radical positions in the book might alienate the very audience she was attempting to influence, although it seems early editions of the book still did just that. As the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstencraft and herself pursueing a career considered unfit for a woman, it seems unlikely that Shelley accepted such traditional stereotypes herself.
Frankenstein admits, "I looked upon Elizabeth as mine," and this male possession of the female is very typical of attitudes of the time. That she must be 'owned' in such a way suggests her own weakness and vulnerability, physically if not in character. This is suggested again, when Frankenstein confides, "till death she was to be mine only". Of course, this phrase has a second level of meaning, for it foreshadows the death of Elizabeth later in the novel. The same foreshadowing is seen immediately after the death of Frankenstein's mother, when Frankenstein remarks "one remains whom the spoiler has not seized." Thus the careful reader has it constantly suggested to them that Elizabeth will not survive, and this serves to heighten the tension of the novel. Once it becomes apparent that everything Frankenstein holds dear will be taken from him, his comment that "harmony was the soul of our companionship" furthur 'raises the stakes' in the case of Elizabeth's death. This perhaps arouses a little pathos for Frankenstein even before the event, necessary since Shelley makes him dislikeable in many other ways - for example, his arguably monstrous treatment of his own creature. A character unreservedly disliked by the reader is unlikely to receive any sympathy when events eventually catch up with him.
It is worth investigating the role of Frankenstein himself with respect to women in the novel. For a start, it is almost exclusively his view of women that the reader is provided with. There can be no doubt that Frankenstein holds his mother and "more than sister" in the highest esteem, but since there is no second opinion with which to compare his own, it is difficult to make a completely fair judgement of them. One is foced, to a large extent, to accept his insight as gospel, despite the obvious bias in doing so.
Frankenstein is referring to science when he says he is "concerned with the outward substance of things", but it is not difficult to see how this affects his perception of people also. His monster is ugly and therefore Frankenstein rejects him. By contrast, his flattering and frequently exaggerated praise of the two women closest to him at least suggests that are outwardly beautiful.
On the other hand, many commentators on the novel have seen Frankenstein as attempting to usurp the role of women, by creating new life - in a sense 'giving birth' - without the female involvement. Personally, I disagree with this view as it is surely exactly the kind of attaching of gender stereotypes that such critics claim they seek to overturn. If Frankenstein seeks to usurp the role of women, surely he would not revere them so greatly. A key theme of the book is the Miltonian 'life from non-life', and in this Biblical tradition it is indeed the male figure who creates life! Shelley's query is not of man usurping woman but of mankind usurping God; a dilemma much more relevant to her time, and surely a more frightening one. In this instance, Frankenstein's sex is unimportant - it is his mortality that he seeks to exceed, an attempt more in keeping with the numerous Classical references of the novel.
There is one final female character in the book. This is the Frankenstein's servant Justine, who is perhaps the perfect charicature of women in the book. Elizabeth describes her "softness and winning mildness", while Frankenstein calls her "frank-hearted and happy." It is interesting to note that one woman praises another for her passiveness, and indeed it is this passive nature that is typical of women in the book and particularly prominent in Justine. Even in the face of the greatest injustice, Justine submits to the judicial system, saying "I must be condemned, although I would pledge my salvation on my innocence."
It is a matter of interpretation as to whether her submissive nature is a result of gender or class. The justice system of the time was certainly biased heavily against the lower classes, and in general they were seen as inferior by those wealthier than themselves. On the other hand, women were also 'second class citizens', if they were citizens at all, and were subject to endless discrimination because of it. Maybe it is the combination of both that results in Justine's extreme passiveness.
Again like the other women in the novel, Justine is seen as a target of pity. Beaufort's miraculous optimism on her deathbed arouses pity for her; our pathos for Elizabeth comes from the subtle allusions to her eventual demise. Justine's role as a figure of pity is, like her other traits, exaggerated - she is from a broken home and abusive mother; her siblings die; finally, she is hanged for a crime of which, had Frankenstein intervened, she would have been demonstrably innocent.
The final aspect of Justine's magnified character is that crucial link Frankenstein draws between outward beauty and inner perfection. When he had met Justine in her younger days, Elizabeth reports, he called her "very clever and gentle, and extremely pretty." That is to say, her external aesthetic virtue must reflect her internal configuration as a passive and intelligent young woman, at least in the eyes of Frankenstein. Her passiveness is again praised by Frankenstein. Perhaps the way Frankenstein's external appearance quickly reflects his feelings - as when Walton first encounters him, in a "wretched" state - is the cause of his own views on the link between the outward and inward.
In conclusion, I would say that the perception of women, especially Frankenstein's, is a key element of the book. The link between physical beauty and spiritual goodliness is most evident in women, but it extends beyond them - to Frankenstein's creature, 'born' ugly and assumedly born evil, and to the "young and handsome" Clerval. Shelley is careful to show that, at least in the case of the creature, Frankenstein's assumption is wrong - but in the end, the prophecy is self-fulfilling. Dismissed as evil and shunned by all, the creature inevitably lives up to his malovelent reputation. Shelley thus demonstrates that if we judge people in this way, we should not be surprised that our portrait becomes fitting. Shelley's portrayal of her female characters as at least passive and for the most part simply weak is surprising given her background, but it can be explained since she felt other issues of the day - the unrestrained ascent of science, for example - more pressing and did not wish to court controversy for its own sake. In short, the female characters in the play are essential to understand Frankenstein's nature and ultimately to arouse the reader's pathos for him.