Contents Index

Minor Rites

Mary Lowe-Evans

Chapter 6 of Frankenstein: Mary Shelley's Wedding Guest (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993), 41-51

{41} The circumstances of his marriage relate his character.

-- Victor Frankenstein, discussing his father (76)
The major narratives of Frankenstein feature cameo appearances by couples who evidence Mary Shelley's growing conviction that strong marriage ties, though restrictive, are necessary to civilized society, and who reveal her developing image of the ideal male-female partnership. The behavior of the individuals in these minor parts testifies not only to their value as humane beings but also to Mary Shelley's reluctant approval of their complementary, although separate and necessarily unequal role assignments. Paradoxically, the extreme of such sexual division of labor is Victor Frankenstein's cutting himself off from feminine influences at home in order to create the monster. Thus in Victor's case the separate-sphere philosophy is exposed as a radically divisive, destructive force in the culture. The 1831 text suggests, however, that Mary Shelley intended to denounce only the extreme of that philosophy while upholding the principle itself.

{42} Mary Shelley's tenuous emotional and financial situation from the day she eloped with Percy Shelley until their son inherited the Shelley fortune made her particularly susceptible to the ideal of the middle-class woman, protected and respected, living in a financially secure and peaceful environment. Of necessity she wrote and published prolifically during those years to support her family. But she longed for relief. A journal entry of 8 March 1831 conveys her turmoil: "Here gaunt poverty & cruel privation dog my pleasures close -- cares beset me -- & fair expectations die -- Could I concenter my affections round a home I should ask no more -- the luxuries of wea[l]th are nothing to me -- I ask only a home with one or two who would . . . find the solace of their life in my care and affection -- but this is denied me -- & I am miserable beyond words" (Journals, 520). The male-female partnerships in Frankenstein reflect Mary Shelley's frame of mind. In some ways they act as wish fulfillments, dispelling her resentment and frustration. But they also expose problems in the developing roles of married men and women in the culture at large that she was perfectly aware of. Furthermore, the novel's subtly variant nineteenth-century middle-class marriage patterns reveal nearly all the more general cultural concerns about reforming English society politically and economically.

Of the emblematic marriages embedded in Frankenstein, the most fully developed is that of Victor Frankenstein's parents. The bare facts of the senior Frankensteins' union reveal a well-to-do, middle-aged politician who, in retirement, marries the impoverished, beautiful, considerably younger daughter of a deceased old friend. (A modified Cinderella tale if there ever was one.) Immediately after the death of Caroline Beaufort's father, Alphonse Frankenstein had come "like a protecting spirit to the poor girl, who committed herself to his care" (77). Two years later they marry, and Alphonse strives "to shelter her, as a fair exotic is sheltered by the gardener, from every rougher wind, and to surround her with all that could tend to excite pleasurable emotion in her soft and benevolent mind" (78). Blackstone's legal commentaries, making of the husband a protective "cover" for his wife, and Catherine Beecher's formula for feminine behavior, designating the wife a "cultivated and refined" domestic, are {43} both echoed in this passage. But Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein is only the most clearly defined of numerous women characters in Frankenstein described as "fair," "exotic," "soft," and "benevolent" female partners.

While the separate-sphere design for women reproduced in the Alphonse Frankenstein household closely matches the Catherine Beecher model, the pattern advocated for men, as epitomized in Alphonse, is somewhat enlarged. He has operated in the public domain before marriage so that after marriage he can devote time and attention to his wife and children. In fact, this arrangement allows him to participate in both the masculine and feminine spheres of influence: "He was respected by all who knew him for his integrity and indefatigable attention to public business. . . . Nor was it until the decline of life that he became a husband and the father of a family" (76). After marriage, in his "decline," Alphonse becomes so devoted a husband that he takes up Caroline's interests to the extent that the two seem to become one: "Their benevolent disposition often made them enter the cottages of the poor" (78; emphasis mine). But, in fact, these charitable ministrations had always meant more to Caroline than to Alphonse; indeed, they were to her, as politics had been to him, "a necessity, a passion" (79). Moreover, we soon learn that Alphonse did not always accompany his wife on these visits; one might infer from Victor's account that Alphonse's retirement from public affairs was not as complete as Victor would have had us originally believe. "One day," Victor notes, "when my father had gone by himself to Milan, my mother, accompanied by me, visited [a poor cottage]" (79). The result of this visit is that Caroline, without consulting her husband, adopts Elizabeth, the daughter she had always wanted, thus relegitimizing and enlarging her own domestic role. She will enlarge her circle of influence again when she later takes the ill-fated Justine Moritz into the Frankenstein home.

While Alphonse crosses gender-determined borders of social activity, then, Caroline, although expanding her domain, remains severely circumscribed. Completely uninvolved in public affairs and ignorant of her father's economic situation before his ruin, Caroline Beaufort had been schooled in the "gentler" arts. For a brief period, {44} when her father's failure had demanded it, she had shown an enterprising side by plaiting straw. But this activity seems to have been, like Penelope's weaving as she awaited Odysseus's return and retirement from military life, merely a way of marking time until her rescuer appeared.

Victor Frankenstein casually discounts the age difference between his parents: "There was a considerable difference between the ages of my parents, but this circumstance seemed to unite them only closer in bonds of devoted affection" (77). In fact, considerable age difference between marriage partners of the middle and upper classes was perfectly acceptable in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, it created a real, though largely unacknowledged barrier between the partners that reinforced the artificial boundaries erected to define male and female roles. Both physical vigor and life experiences separated May-December marriage partners like the Alphonse Frankensteins, emphasizing the inequities that the law guaranteed and making it unlikely that they could be fully sympathetic to one another's needs or occupations.

Yet, if we accept Victor Frankenstein's assessment of his parents' marriage, it was ideal. That assessment is, of course, colored by his experience of them as parents. Before his adopted sister Elizabeth Lavenza and his brother William entered the family, Victor had been the only darling of his parents: "Much as they were attached to each other, they seemed to draw inexhaustible stores of affection . . . to bestow them upon me. . . . I was their plaything and their idol, and something better -- their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by heaven . . . to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties toward me" (78). Encoded in this description of Victor Frankenstein's early childhood is a combination of several contending nineteenth-century philosophies about appropriate parent-child relationships. Here we see an extremely sentimental view of the absolutely innocent child combined with the notion that parents are not only required to educate that child but will be called to account for the child's future happiness or misery. Mary Shelley very likely intended this passage to provide a contrast to Victor Frankenstein's later mistreatment of his "child," the Creature. But it {45} also incorporates issues that her own parents had confronted in their roles as educational philosophers, and that she herself had been facing while raising and educating her son.

Both William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft believed early childhood to be the time when an individual's values are formed. Although that principle is now considered a given, in Mary Shelley's world it was still arguable. Even more arguable were the questions of how involved or indulgent parents should be in helping to form their children's values, and which parent should provide what sort of influence.

Although both rejected the idea of a highly structured course of study or abusive physical discipline for a child, Mary Shelley's parents agreed that a child should not be treated as a "plaything" or left without direction. Nor should a child be worshiped as an "idol." Rather, one's offspring should be respected as an intelligent being and encouraged from an early age to develop "moral faculties." Such development could be brought about by exposing the child to a wide variety of imaginative written works that would provide vicarious experiences for dealing with human conflict. Both regarded as harmful to the culture the growing tendency to rate scientific study higher than the humanities. William Godwin summed up his philosophy of education in his preface to Bible Stories, published in 1802: "Imagination is the characteristic of man. The dexterities of logic or of mathematical deduction belong rather to a well regulated machine; they do not contain in them the living principle of our nature. It is the heart which most deserves to be cultivated; not the rules which may serve us in the nature of a compass to steer through the difficulties of life; but the pulses which beat with sympathy, and qualify us for the habits of charity, reverence, and attachment" (St. Clair, 280). As benign as Victor paints them, the educational methods of the senior Frankensteins do not measure up to these principles that Mary Shelley was raised by and to which she subscribed throughout her life. Neither in early childhood nor in his later education does Victor Frankenstein seem to have been firmly guided toward concerns of the "heart." Furthermore, in Victor's later studies his mother seems to be completely absent as an influence, and Victor implies that Alphonse's guidance is minimal: {46} "My father looked carelessly at the title page of my book and said, 'Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash.' If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded . . . I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside. . . . But the cursory glance my father had taken of my volume by no means assured me that he was acquainted with its contents" (83-84).

By including such apparently inconsequential but revealing observations as these in his own "irrevocably . . . determined" history (75), Victor suggests that early excessive pampering and later lack of educational guidance in the home are partly responsible for his self-indulgent obsession with bringing into the world a Creature he cannot possibly love. Accordingly, we might take as ominous his declaration that "no human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself. My parents were possessed by the very spirit of kindness and indulgence" (82).

Here and there before Victor's quintessential act of self-indulgence in animating the Creature the dire consequences of his own spoiling are predicted: "The lives of my parents were passed in considerable seclusion. It was my temper to avoid a crowd and to attach myself fervently to a few. . . . I was indifferent to my schoolfellows in general" (81); "My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement" (82).

Since Alphonse Frankenstein had put his political activities behind him before marriage, Victor had not witnessed firsthand any of the altruistic projects his father may have undertaken. His visiting the poor, an act of charity largely relegated to women, was done primarily in deference to his wife. Aside from these visits, Caroline herself was devoted entirely to her family, especially the children, thus perfectly fulfilling the role of domestic angel while neglecting any individual talents she may have had. Meanwhile, as the family moved "more than a league from the city" (81), to where the complex ethical problems indigenous to urban areas impinged less frequently on their consciousness, Victor's education tended more and more to the abstract, "heartless" sciences: "I confess that neither the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states possessed attractions for me. It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired {47} to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my enquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world" (82). In contrast to Victor's preoccupations, his friend Clerval's interests lay "with the moral relations of things" (82). Along with Clerval, Elizabeth serves to counter Victor's tendencies to be too metaphysical and abstract in his concerns. "She was the living spirit of love to soften and attract; I might have become sullen in my study, rough through the ardour of my nature, but that she was there to subdue me to a semblance of her own gentleness" (83). As Margaret Saville had done for Robert Walton, Elizabeth refines Victor's nature in these early years. It is important to note, too, that just as Margaret Saville must later attempt to exert her civilizing influence from her home in England, Elizabeth enters Victor's philosophical and professional world only by way of her letters. She is expected to and does provide an overlay of humaneness to his sensibilities as long as he is at home. Once Victor leaves, however, the influence of his mother, Elizabeth, and Clerval is nearly extinguished. The question of Elizabeth's failed relationship with Victor is particularly important to an understanding of his monstrous act of creation, and I will consider that subject in detail in chapter 7.

It is the speciously harmonious relationship of his parents, however, that provides Victor's first exposure to a culturally approved, apparently ideal marital union. The real dysfunction of that union shows itself in its product, Victor, who seems incapable of genuine unselfish love in spite of his surface cultivation and sensibility. Notably, Alphonse Frankenstein takes on his wife's nurturing role after her death: "My father's care and attentions were indefatigable" (225). While she was alive, however, the two had more or less kept their assigned places.

The relationship of Alphonse and Caroline establishes a model of marital behavior, although a flawed one, to which others in the novel might be compared. Elizabeth's father, a ruined Milanese nobleman and political activist, puts Elizabeth out for adoption when his wife dies, never doubting the conventional wisdom that child rearing is primarily a feminine occupation (79). On the other hand, Justine {48} Moritz's father had favored her, but "through a strange perversity, her mother could not endure her and after the death of M. Moritz, treated her very ill" (109). The parents of Safie, the beautiful young Arab who brings such joy into the De Lacey home, are also out of sync. Her father is a "treacherous Turk" (167) who attempts to control her choices, while her mother, a Christian Arab who has "spurned the bondage to which she is now reduced" (165), encourages Safie's independent spirit.

Of all the couples in Frankenstein, Safie and Felix come the closest, perhaps, to Mary Shelley's ideal of what a relationship should be. However, it seems significant that although we are led to believe they eventually will, they do not marry in the novel. Before Safie arrives on the scene, the Creature observes that Felix is the "saddest" member of his family and seems to "suffer more deeply" than the other De Laceys (154). Yet, although he displays a sorrowful countenance (we later learn that both his poverty and his separation from Safie cause his despondency), he maintains a cheerful tone of voice for the benefit of his blind father. He is "slight and graceful in his figure" (150) and, along with his sister, Agatha, "appeared to weep" (152). We thus learn that he is a man who has all the sensitivity and even some physical characteristics a woman might be expected to have. Safie's arrival utterly transforms him, and this emblematic reunion clarifies the quality of their relationship: "Felix seemed ravished with delight when he saw her, every trait of sorrow vanished from his face, and it instantly expressed a degree of ecstatic joy, of which I could hardly have believed it capable; his eyes sparkled, as his cheek flushed with pleasure; and at that moment I thought him as beautiful as the stranger. She appeared affected by different feelings; wiping a few tears from her lovely eyes, she held out her hand to Felix" (158-59). The observation that Safie "appeared affected by different feelings" than Felix implies that she may be responding to this emotionally charged reunion less extravagantly than Felix and therefore more like a man. Felix appears "as beautiful as" Safie to the Creature in this scene, further reinforcing the idea that the two have entered each other's gender-determined domains. Finally, Safie sends a double message: "wiping a few tears from her eyes . . . she held out her hand to Felix" {49} is a gesture that combines feminine emotionalism with masculine restraint.

The history of Felix's relationship with Safie -- he provides a means of escape from France for Safie's father and pays for his benevolence with his own family's imprisonment and impoverishment -- reveals that he is not only sensitive but courageous, resourceful, and committed to egalitarian principles. These are all virtues Percy Shelley possessed. Mary Shelley may very well have had Percy Shelley at his most impulsively generous in mind when she created Felix, just as she had her lover's darker, obsessive, egoistic tendencies in mind when she created Victor Frankenstein.

Safie proves to be in every way worthy of Felix. Though a minor character in Frankenstein, it is clear from her impact on both the De Laceys and the Creature that she clarifies an important "meaning" of Frankenstein: society must make talented, educated women indispensable to the family and the culture or else it is doomed. As Felix is likely to be an idealized version of Percy Shelley, so Safie seems to represent Mary Shelley's exemplary alter ego. Breaking the mold advocated by Catherine Beecher, she closely resembles the vindicated woman Mary Wollstonecraft had described earlier. She is taught by her mother, as Mary Shelley had been, "to aspire to higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit" (165). Safie, who appears to be about his age, also demonstrates courage and resourcefulness equal to Felix's. Escaping her father's restrictions, she ventures into a land where she cannot even speak the language, hoping for greater opportunities to fulfill her potential. With a hint of "masculine" opportunism that seems to dilute the strength of her affection for Felix, Safie finds the "prospect of marrying a Christian and remaining in a country where women were allowed to take a rank in society" enchanting (166).

As with Margaret Saville, Safie's very name elicits a rich composite of personalities and meanings that helps us evaluate her character. The Arabic word safi, which translates as "purity," was the surname of the ruling Persian dynasty from 1500 to 1736, while the Greek sophia means "wisdom." Sophia was also a favorite British name for the heroines of popular early novels. In Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749), for example, the spirited young Sophia Western (affectionately known as {50} "Sophy") runs away from her father, much as Safie does, because he refuses to let her marry her disinherited lover. Safie's name therefore incorporates the nineteenth-century British interest in the exotic East, respect for feminine purity and wisdom, and pride in the respectable but sporting middle-class female character.

Safie's name and character, as well as Felix's character, are also likely to have been derived partly from Mary Shelley's reading during 1815-16. For several weeks in September 1816 she reread selected works of Jean Jacques Rousseau. His Emile (1762), a treatise on education addressed to mothers, features Sophie, a well-born young woman who marries Emile, a French orphan who is her intellectual superior. But, as her mother had done in The Rights of Woman, Mary Shelley apparently uses the story of Safie and Felix to challenge Rousseau's representation of unequal male-female capacities.

In addition to Emile, Mary Shelley also reread Rousseau's Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse during this period. An epistolary, semiautobiographical novel, it recounts the story of Julie, a young woman torn between love for her tutor and duty to her father, who has arranged a marriage for her. The parallels between Julie, Safie, and Mary Shelley herself are obvious. But unlike Rousseau's heroine, who respects her father's wishes, Mary Shelley and Safie, her fictional alter ego, choose the love of their tutors over their fathers' dicta.

Safie cleverly escapes her father's control and the vicissitudes of the harem for the relative freedom of the De Lacey cottage. There she proves her worth both by thriving under Felix's able tutelage and by returning a measure of the financial security the family lost when Felix had championed her father. She brings unparalleled joy into the household with her exquisite beauty and musical talent. In fact, she seems to occupy precisely the position Mary Shelley described in her journal: "I ask only a home with one or two who would . . . find the solace of their life in my care and affection" (Journals, 520).

Anne Mellor, too, sees Safie as one of several Mary Shelley heroines who projects an ideal suggested in her mother's works, an individualist who yet contributes significantly to the welfare of an egalitarian bourgeois family (Mellor, 209, 214). Safie's legal position in the De Lacey family never becomes quite clear, however. And while her rela- {51} tionship with Felix seems more balanced than other male-female couplings in the novel, we are left with the impression that she gets disproportionate attention in the family. What's more, her unmitigated physical perfection, like Caroline Beaufort's and Elizabeth Lavenza's, belong to the conventions of a fairy tale rather than to real life.

Since we are viewing Safie and Felix through the eyes of the Creature, one might argue that we are getting his biased representation of the couple, a picture that overstates Safie's influence. Nonetheless, this intriguing, young, nearly married couple may represent Mary Shelley's hopes and uncertainties about her future with Percy Shelley, as well as about the possibility of truly egalitarian relationships in the culture generally.