What is the status of the female characters in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein?
In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the women are intelligent, but submissive—often victims—powerless to protect themselves and "second class citizens." The only exception may be Caroline Frankenstein who dies before the monster is created.
Caroline is Victor's mother. She alone shows the ability to stand up to the world. Victor recounts...
Caroline Beaufort possessed a mind of an uncommon mould; and her courage rose to support her in her adversity.
The only thing Caroline cannot defy is illness. Though married to a physician, nature—in the form of scarlet fever—takes her life just before Victor leaves for school.
In Frankenstein, the women are unable to care for themselves. When the creature kills Victor's brother, he frames Justine Moritz for the crime. She is a fine, intelligent woman—and an adopted member of the respected Frankenstein family—but she is powerless within her society and is executed.
When the creature hides in the shed attached to the De Lacey cottage, he learns of Agatha, and Felix's fiancée, Safie. The De Lacey's are impoverished. Agatha is educated, but can do nothing to provide for herself or her family. She (and her blind father) relies on the care of her brother. When Safie arrives, the creature learns of the character of this young woman and what brought her to Felix and his family.
Safie related that her mother was a Christian Arab, seized and made a slave...The young girl spoke in high and enthusiastic terms of her mother, who, born in freedom, spurned the bondage to which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion, and taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet.
Safie is intelligent and independent, but when her mother dies, she travels to Felix rather than return to Turkey—a place that has no room for women of intellect. So she travels to Germany:
The prospect of...remaining in a country where women were allowed to take a rank in society, was enchanting to her.
That rank was still not one of equality.
The most central woman to the story is Victor's sweetheart, Elizabeth. She and Victor plan to marry. When Victor refuses to create a mate for the monster, the creature promises to visit Victor on his wedding night. Victor is unable to protect Elizabeth—she becomes another of the monster's victims. Victor's creature—like the scarlet fever that took Victor's mother—is a force of nature that cannot be stopped. Nothing Victor can do once he denies the creature a wife, will protect Elizabeth:
...suddenly I heard a shrill and dreadful scream. It came from the room into which Elizabeth had retired...the scream was repeated, and I rushed into the room...She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed...
Frankenstein's women are presented as intelligent, but also submissive...
Laying the foundation for Ellis, Mary Shelley, and countless other women, Dr. Gregory, in his widely-read A Father's Legacy to His Daughters, gave this advice to his daughters in 1774: "if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts [i.e., ability] and a cultivated understanding."