Passivity and Impotence in Frankenstein
There are many ways to interpret a literary text, especially one as laden with ethical questions and literary allegory as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Shelley's complex family dynamic - her conflicted relationship with her father, her need to please her mentor/husband with literary success, her infants' deaths - enhances the intrigue of the novel and suggests multiple themes and layered meanings. One discernible theme in Frankenstein is illuminated by the bold line that separates male character from female: The men inevitably fail the women whom they claim to love, but the women are maddeningly passive, seemingly blind to the men's inadequacies. Here, however, this passivity is a defense mechanism. Because the women's place in society depends on the patriarchal system, their choices to be passive are the only way they can assert control.
Frankenstein revolves around the relationships between its characters. Aside from Safie and Felix, the romantic male-female relationships are tinged with an incestual element. Also, the males idealize femininity and take the women's adoration of them for granted. Victor's parents, Alfonse and Caroline, have an age disparity that echoes father and daughter; he rescues her from poverty by coming, "...like a protective spirit to the poor girl" and then after their marriage "strove to shelter her, as a fair exotic is sheltered by the gardener...with all that could tend to excite pleasurable emotion in her soft and benevolent mind" (32).
But before Caroline meets Alfonse, her personal strength is described as "...possessing a mind of an uncommon mould, and her courage rose to support her in her adversity" (32). When necessary, Caroline is capable of tending her sick father and supporting herself financially, but after her marriage to the patriarchal Alfonse, she yields to his expectation that she be "soft." This is where purposeful passivity works as a foil for Alfonse's patronizing ineptitude, for Caroline's adaptability to adversity shows her strength. When she exposes herself to smallpox to nurse Elizabeth, she chooses the means of her death. Shelley critic U.C. Knoepflmacher sees a tie between Caroline's death and Shelley's real life, "The demise of Caroline...suggests that Shelley could endorse this escape from a world of fathers, brothers, husbands, and male justices and identify it with the repose found by her own mother" (Levine 110). Whether or not Shelley sees a panacea in her own mother's death, her narrative does allow Caroline to take control through a seemingly sacrificial act.
Conversely, Alfonse has little inner strength and fails all of those whom he is supposed to lead. Had he paid more attention to Victor's studies, Victor may not have created the Monster. Had he given Elizabeth the freedom and confidence to look outside the family for happiness instead of awarding her to Victor as a ...