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Exploring the Romantic Convention

The female characters of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein all seem molded according to the same Romantic pattern. The women are highly sensitive and very feminine, conforming to the Romantic ideal. Nevertheless, they also evince great fortitude when faced with danger and especially when they have to defend their families or friends. As it shall be seen, the novel offers several instances of female moral strength. This feature is even more evident when studied against the background of the contrasting male cowardice, which is apparent especially in the protagonist of the book, Victor Frankenstein.

While Mary Shelley did not adhere completely to the ideas of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, a renowned feminist, she was obviously influenced by them to a certain degree. The image of the female characters in Shelley’s novel conforms to the conventions of Romantic representation: the women are, at once, fragile and strong. Their strength is nurtured by virtue but also by courage, a feature that they display abundantly. The main female character is obviously Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor Frankenstein’s childhood friend and later on, his fiancee.

Elizabeth is portrayed as an extremely fragile, beautiful and vivacious woman. In several situations, she proves to be stronger and more apt to face distress and danger than Victor himself. When Victor’s mother dies of the illness she contracted by caring for Elizabeth, the latter is the one that offers real support to the suffering family. She conceals her own grief in order to alleviate the pain of the others: “She indeed veiled her grief and strove to act the comforter to us all.

She looked steadily on life and assumed its duties with courage and zeal. She devoted herself to those whom she had been taught to call her uncle and cousins” (Shelley 37). Her devoted nature makes her the strongest figure of the entire family. Elizabeth strives to meet any vicissitude with strength and courage, hiding her own sorrow and caring for the others. Thus, she is not only an altruist character, but also an extremely brave woman, who faces danger and discomfort with the greatest courage.

Also, despite her obscure birth and the fact that she is an orphan, Elizabeth never lets any unhappy thought disturb her own composure or that of the others. She is introduced as an angelic creature by Victor, the narrative voice that is heard throughout most of the novel: “a child fairer than a pictured cherub— a creature who seemed to shed radiance from her looks and whose form and motions were lighter than the chamois of the hills” (Shelley 31). Nevertheless, her apparent frailness is deceiving. Elizabeth proves her strength of character in several other situations as well.

One of these is very notable especially for the contrast it holds to Victor’s own behavior. When Justine is wrongfully condemned and eventually hanged for William’s death, Elizabeth bravely supports and defends her in front of the community. Even though she does not have any actual proof of her friend’s innocence, she lets herself be guided by her knowledge of Justine’s character: “…When I see a fellow creature about to perish through the cowardice of her pretended friends, I wish to be allowed to speak, that I may say what I know of her character” (Shelley 81).

Victor’s own behavior in this case is in stark contrast to that of Elizabeth. Although he actually knows about Justine’s innocence and although he is himself partly to blame for William’s death, he does not take any step to save the woman. Elizabeth, on the other hand, endeavors by all her means to help Justine, including by testifying in her favor during the trial. Her strength of character is all the more admirable since she does not allow her judgment to be biased and condemn her friend even if William’s death grieves her tremendously.

As Elizabeth herself notes in one of the letters she sends to Victor, she is obviously affected as the troubles and misfortunes of the family progress, yet she does not let the negative feelings influence her behavior and her faith in good. Victor, on the other hand, secludes himself from his family and friend as he becomes more and more engulfed in his scientific pursuits. Elizabeth perceives this but her good nature makes her associate his pain only with illness and not with selfishness: “These events have affected me, God knows how deeply; but I am not so wretched as you are” (Shelley 91).

Furthermore, Elizabeth does not blame Victor when he dallies in his wedding plans with her. She is strong enough to be willing and even to offer to liberate him from his promises if these promises would render him unhappy: “But it is your happiness I desire as well as my own when I declare to you that our marriage would render me eternally miserable unless it were the dictate of your own free choice” (Shelley 196).

When they actually get married, Elizabeth is not daunted by either her own forebodings regarding the event or by Victor’s warnings regarding the disclosures he will make after the wedding takes place. All these situations show Elizabeth to be a strong woman who can face evil and misfortune with courage, while at the same time preserving her faith in the power of good. Another strong woman is evidently Victor’s mother, Caroline Frankenstein. Although revealing only a glimpse of Caroline’s history before her marriage, Victor points to her moral fortitude.

She is brave and, like Elizabeth, she does not surrender in front of danger. Her moral strength makes her support and comfort the ones she loves. Despite the fact that she is motherless, she is able to care for her old and ill father: “But Caroline Beaufort possessed a mind of an uncommon mould, and her courage rose to support her in her adversity” (Shelley 29). When they run out of means of subsistence, Caroline finds menial jobs that would help her feed herself and her dying father. The hardships and the misfortunes do not bend her character.

Later on, she is the one to adopt Elizabeth and thus come to her rescue. When the young girl becomes dangerously ill, Caroline cares for her despite the doctor’s warnings. She thus dies saving the life of Elizabeth through her devotion. Even when she is on her fortitude, her strength and courage are undiminished: “On her deathbed the fortitude and benignity of this best of women did not desert her” (Shelley 36). Caroline Frankenstein is one example the more in favor of moral strength and fortitude.

There are other female characters in Frankenstein that conform to this Romantic ideal. One of them is Justine, who maintains her benignity and composure all through the trial despite the injustice that she suffers: “The appearance of Justine was calm. She was dressed in mourning, and her countenance, always engaging, was rendered, by the solemnity of her feelings, exquisitely beautiful. Yet she appeared confident in innocence and did not tremble, although gazed on and execrated by thousands…” (Shelley 78).

The source of Justine’s strength is again her benign character and her sense of righteousness. Safie is another example of strength in a woman, as portrayed in the novel. She is independent and willful and is able to defy her father. Her resistance to the oppressive customs of her native country is one of the indicators that she is strong and intelligent and that she has enough discernment. Most of the female characters present in Frankenstein follow therefore the same pattern. They are at once angelic and delicate figures and strong, resourceful women.

They are usually faced with the greatest ordeals and misfortunes, but manage to maintain their calmness and positive feelings in any circumstance. The main female portraits, those of Elizabeth, Caroline, Justine, Safie and Agatha, all reveal the same moral fortitude and enhanced sense of virtue. When analyzed in specific situations, they prove strong and resilient, not allowing themselves to be daunted or subdued by any misfortune. ? Works Cited: Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

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