What is the symbolic significance of the death of female figures in Frankenstein?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Throughout the narrative of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein there is a haunting sense of distortion and of the unnatural. From the beginning, the scientific male characters, Walton and Victor Frankenstein, have separated themselves from their private worlds of family and beloved. Consequently, this patriarchal power in which no female is allowed leaves the female characters both socially and sexually repressed. Thus, they cannot function in the public realm: Justine Moritz is unable to defend her innocence at her trial for the death of William Frankenstein; likewise, while Elizabeth makes a moving speech, her efforts to defend Justine are equally futile because, despite being emotionally touched,

A murmur of approbation followed Elizabeth's simple and powerful appeal; but it was excited by her generous interference, and not in favour of poor Justine. on whom the public indignation was turned with renewed violence....

It is also indicative of Victor's unwillingness to relinquish his patriarchal power that he refuses to come forward and attest that his creature has killed William. Egotistically, he places his own self-preservation over that of poor Justine,

The tortures of the accused did not equal mine; she was sustained by innocence, but the fangs of remorse tore my bosom, and would not forego their hold. 

The death of Justine, therefore,is symbolic of the terrible insignificance of her life and the overall repression of women by Victor Frankenstein. Moreover, Victor even usurps female reproductive power as he first reproduces his creature on his own, then destroys the female that his creature has demanded. Victor reasons that she might not choose the creature, instead seeking another man, or she might reproduce other creatures and possess the power to seize a man and overcome him in her sexual desires. Certainly, there is more than an innuendo of rape in the violence with which Victor destroys his female creature: "trembling with passion, [I] tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged."

Likewise, the death of the passive Elizabeth symbolizes the sexual inequality of the novel's female characters. Knowing that the monster is near and has promised to be there on the wedding night, Victor, nevertheless, leaves Elizabeth alone in the bed, thinking that the creature just wants him. And, so, he causes Elizabeth to become a sacrificial victim to his male ego. Again, Victor becomes passionate with a female only after her death, when she is no longer capable of reproducing. When he returns to Elizabeth's body, Victor

...embraced her with ardour; but the deathly languor and coldness of the limbs told me, that what I now held in my arms had ceased to be the Elizabeth whom I had loved and cherished.

Victor's action is reflective of his dream of his dead mother appearing in his dream when he held Elizabeth, suggesting something, perhaps, Oedipal, but also the concept of holding reproduction in his own arms. Victor Frankenstein desires to control life, and to control it without emotion. Feminine affection is abandoned; instead, the friendship of Victor and Henry Clerval is elevated to the platonic. But, even this affection is killed, for science is Victor's real passion. Further in the narrative, without the sympathies and emotion of women, the men become tyrannical. Walton, for instance, insists that his crew pursue his goal of reaching the Arctic, while Victor insanely chases after his creature, in conflict with Mother Nature. 

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