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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the Codependence of the Masculine and Feminine

Updated on June 9, 2013

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein not only shows the readers a picture of the egotistical male, but also the lack of power women have. While the product of the egotistical male is easy to spot, it being Frankenstein’s monster, the feminine wrongs are shown by being “…so materially and physically erased in the text that [it] is invisible…” (Dickerson, 4). This is quite true. In fact, the most prominent characters that exhibit feminine qualities are male. Even these feminized male characters lack power in the novel, perishing over the course of the text.

However, though feminine characters lack an outright form of power, Mary Shelley is able to show that the masculine and feminine have a codependence. In fact, Mary Shelley seems to be saying that men like Victor go bad because they are unguided by women (Dickerson, 8). The feminine characters and the masculine characters seem to have a check and balance system. One cannot be successful without the other. Shelley illustrates this through the elements of nursing throughout the novel.

One of the most prominent illustrations of the codependence of the masculine and feminine in the novel involve the story Frankenstein’s mother, Caroline. Caroline was the daughter of a prominent businessman who had the misfortune to lose his money and then fall ill. It is Caroline who takes on the role of nurse, spending the majority of her time “attending” to him (Shelley, 15). The text also states that she attended to her father in the “greatest tenderness” (Shelley, 15). By Caroline’s efforts alone she manages to keep her father alive for several months. Though her father was successful in the masculine world of business, if it had not been for the feminine qualities of Caroline he would have perished far earlier.

However, Caroline was not simply a sweet and tender nurse. In fact, the text says that Caroline was from an “uncommon mould, and her courage rose to support her in her adversity” (Shelly, 15). Courage is a primarily masculine quality. It is no accident that Shelley chooses this word to describe the character of Caroline. It shows the reader that Caroline, a female, is able to take control of her situation by using a masculine quality. This, in addition to the “great tenderness” that she shows her father, combine to show that the extremely feminine yet slightly masculine Caroline is able to survive. It is clear that without both qualities she would have starved and perished along with her father.

A second prominent moment of nursing occurs after the creation of the monster. Victor Frankenstein falls into an anxious state and it is the feminized Henry Clerval that is able to bring him back to health. The feminine practice of nursing is the only thing that can heal the very masculine Victor Frankenstein. Though very bright, the masculine man is unable to save himself without the help of the feminine. During his illness, Henry becomes his “only nurse” who restores Victor to life with “unbounded and unremitting attentions” (Shelley, 38-39). Henry Clerval is the perfect candidate to improve Victor Frankenstein’s health. For, though he is a male, the combination of his masculinity with his femininity allows him to take care of his dear friend. In fact, the text states that Frankenstein’s sickness would send Elizabeth into a “wretched” state (Shelley, 38). Elizabeth is a perfectly feminized character, lacking the masculine qualities necessary to keep calm in a dire situation. The feminized male is the only solution to the problem.

In addition to Clerval’s ability to physically nurse Victor back to health, he is also able to nurse his mentality back. After Victor heals from his illness he claims that he is “unsocial” (Shelley, 45). However, Henry strives to make Victor happy again. He does so by teaching Victor to love traditionally feminine things like “the cheerful faces of children” (Shelley, 45). Children, of course, fall in to the feminine sphere of life in the Victorian era (Dickerson,8). Henry’s obvious love and mentioning of children further equates him with feminine behavior such as maternal instinct. Unsurprisingly, though Victor is set up as the most masculine character in the novel, he is cheered by Clerval’s attempts. He says, “a selfish pursuit [had] cramped and narrowed [him] until [Henry’s] gentleness and affection opened [his] eyes” (Shelley, 45). This shows that the masculinity in the novel can often be as single minded and unresponsive as Victor was after his illness. However, the careful affections of the feminine are necessary to draw masculinity into a more open and understanding state of mind. It again illustrates the codependence of the masculine and feminine. One cannot be wholly functional in society without the other.

The final time that Victor is nursed in the novel is after the monster murders Henry Clerval. Unfortunately, Victor does not recover as easily this time as he does earlier. While the circumstances are different, not only is the monster still running rampant, but also Clerval has been murdered, the most significant difference this time is that the nurse portrayed in this situation does not love her patient. Victor is tended to by a “hired nurse” whose “contenance expresse[s] all the bad qualities [of her] class” and speaks with a tone that expresses her “entire indifference” (Shelley, 130). This experience cannot even compare to the tender ministrations of Henry Clerval or Caroline Frankenstein. In fact, the hired nurse simply wants to do her “duty” as she was hired to “nurse [Frankenstein} and get [him] well” (Shelley, 130). Unfortunately, her detached nature does not aid in Victor’s recovery. In fact, though he has been treated for two months, at the end of these months he still “tremble[s]” and is “unfit for agitation of any kind” (Shelley, 132). Without the tender femininity that is expressed through Henry, Frankenstein is not able to regain his strength. This further represents the need of the feminine in a very masculine world.

There is another instance of nursing in the novel. This is the attention that Robert Walton lavishes upon a nearly dead Frankenstein on the ship. The first look at the situation does not immediately bring the feminine to mind. Walton is a very masculine character. He, much like Victor Frankenstein, longs for the egotistical sublime. Walton wants to win the recognition that he feels he so rightly deserves (Shelley, 3). The feminine traits that Walton possesses easily sneak past the readers’ noses.

However, Walton is rather feminine. Firstly, the reader must take notice of Walton’s fuss over Frankenstein. After initially rescuing Victor from the water, Walton “remove[s] [Frankenstein] to [Walton’s] own cabin, and attend[s] on [Frankenstein] as much as [Walton’s] duty [will] permit” (Shelley, 9). Walton has very clearly taken on the role of Frankenstein’s only nurse, much like Henry Clerval did in the past. This equates Walton with the feminized male of Clerval, thusly feminizing Walton as well. Again, it is this nursing that [benevolently restore[s] [Frankenstein] to life” (Shelley, 10).

The second feminine trait that Walton possesses is found at the end of the novel. This is the ability Walton has to listen to his crew, and give up the quest for the egotistical sublime to save his life and the lives of others. Feminine characters such as Caroline and Henry also gave something up to save the lives of those they care about. This sacrifice further feminizes Walton, effectively making him the feminized male. It is this feminized character that manages to heal Victor. Without these feminine traits, neither Victor nor Walton would have lived past the first few pages of the novel, further proving the codependence of the masculine and the feminine.

Though the feminized characters in the novel are oppressed, they do exert some power over the masculine characters. Without feminine traits the masculine traits would be unsuccessful. Eventually falling victims to the product of their own desires. Shelley shows that a balance of masculine and feminine is what creates a successful world. She shows countless times that the feminine characteristics save the male characters. The female characters, as well as their feminized counterparts, are the “unjudgmental nurses and lovers of the men and children who offer patience, unity, harmony, control” (Dickerson, 8). Neither the masculine nor feminine can be complete without the other.

Works Cited

Dickerson, Vanessa, D. “The Ghost of a Self: Female Identity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Journal of Popular Culture 7-8. Web. 13 Nov 2010

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 3rd ed. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994. Print.


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