The patriarchal tropes of women are that they are nurturing, self-sacrificing, and passive. They engage in all the domestic and emotional labor that men see as invaluable, which the men race off chasing knowledge and glory, only to come home and be looked after by the women in their lives. Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, is no different. While some argue that Shelley’s novel is an antifeminist text, and an insult to her feminist mother Mary Wollstonecraft, this reading ignores the underlying message of the book. While the novel doesn’t recommend the dramatic overthrowing of the patriarchy, it demonstrates that everyone who participates in the patriarchy suffers as a result of it.
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The novel takes place in the patriarchal society of eighteenth century Switzerland. The relevance of this lies in the separate gendered labors they must perform, which are entrenched in societal norms. This division of labor means men fill the intellectual and public spheres, like Victor Frankenstein’s becoming a scientist, and his father Alphonse’s being a government official. Women, on the other hand, fill the domestic sphere. Women are expected to silently look after their families, without any agency, as Elizabeth and Justine do.
The story being rooted in the patriarchy is what causes all the problems in the story, and the eventual destruction of the Frankenstein family. The gendered behaviors of the time consisted of men being explorers, seeking out knowledge and glory, while the women stayed in the domestic sphere, caring for the family and waiting for the men in their lives to return. This is portrayal of the patriarchy is perfectly represented in the relationship between Robert Walton and his sister Margaret Saville, and the actions they perform. From a young age, Robert is curious about the world, and the glory associated with discovering the unknown. He states in a letter to his sister, “I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man”. Robert’s goals of his voyage are to locate the North Pole and discover the secret of Earth’s magnetic poles. While her brother is out chasing glory, putting the lives of his crew members in great danger during his travels, Margaret stays home, taking care of her family. Her passive existence as a character, in which we only know her as Robert’s sister, perfectly embodies the experiences of women living under the patriarchy at the time. Though we never hear of the ultimate consequences of Robert’s lust for the glory of discovering the North Pole, we see other characters in the novel suffer, living under the patriarchy.
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