Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein focuses on human nature and the possibility of controlling experience to shape character and cultural values. Specifically, it focuses on the influence of education and experience in affecting behavior.
In general, the characters are divided into three groups by education and experience: passive rescued women, ambitious bourgeoisie men, and self-taught lonesome creatures. Through the female character group, Mary Shelley illustrates how the combination of education and experience shapes attitudes and behaviors of women to be passive objects, which leads to their demise. Mary Shelley spends the least time describing the education of women, repeating one version of female upbringing. The lack of time devoted to female characters in general is not a blatant disregard of women; rather, it is testimony to the limited role women exercised in the public sphere of society. Caroline Beaufort is the model of virtuous femininity rescued from poverty to bourgeois passivity. Caroline, the daughter of a proud, failed businessman, follows her father into self-imposed exile to avoid the humiliation of failure where he falls into a terrible sickness of humiliation.
Completely dedicated to her father, Caroline attended him with the greatest tenderness. However, she saw with despair that their little fund was rapidly decreasing (Shelly 32). Luckily, Caroline possessed a mind of uncommon mold and her courage rose to support her in her adversity. By various means, she contrived to earn a pittance scarcely sufficient to support life (Shelly 32). She not only cared for him during his pathetic free fall from life, but she also actively procured work and single-handedly supported herself and her father.
It is obvious that Caroline possesses the skills and tenacity to support not only herself, but her father as well. However, when her father falls victim to death, she immediately transforms from a caring, productive woman to an orphan and beggar” (Shelley 32). There is nothing to note any changes in the attitude or actions of Caroline to warrant such a change. Rather, the change is a direct result of the death of her father. Despite the fact that Caroline possessed the ability to provide for herself, her description and social status remained tied to her father. Even though women had the ability to act as free agents in society, their description and status were invariably tied to a male.
Luckily, for Caroline, an associate of her father rescued her from her sudden socially imposed poverty. While mourning her father’s death, Alphonse Frankenstein came like a protecting spirit to the poor girl, who committed herself to his care” (Shelley 32). Caroline translates her gratitude for being saved from a tough man’s world into lifelong subservience. She immediately transfers her selfless dedication from one man, her father, to another, her new husband Alphonse Frankenstein, demonstrating the female’s artificial dependence on men. Saved to the feminine life of passive servitude, Caroline similarly rescues other girls from poverty and educates them in the virtues of bourgeois domesticity. Thus, she finds Elizabeth, whose seemingly innate, upper-class feminine virtue makes her shine amid a family of “dark-eyed, hardy little vagrants” (Shelley 34).
Upon being rescued, Caroline presented Elizabeth to Victor as her promised gift (Shelley 34). Immediately following her introduction to bourgeois life, Elizabeth is transformed into a possession of a male. Once in the Frankenstein household, Elizabeth learned to be the living spirit of love to soften and attract” (Shelley 38). Once under proper middle-class guidance, Elizabeth becomes the ideal female by providing comfort and support while becoming dependent on male energy and male provision.
Thus, like her foster mother, she is the perfect domestic woman: daughter, sister, friend, and wife-to-be. Justine Moritz, a poor girl, is also saved from her exploitative mother by Caroline. Once introduced to the bourgeois Frankenstein family, Justine is trained to be a servant. Just like Caroline and Elizabeth before her, Justine quickly learns the female role of serving others. Undoubtedly thankful for Caroline saving her from her tyrannical mother, Justine idealizes her and considers her to be the model of all excellence” and endeavors to imitate her phraseology and manners (Shelley 65).
Evidently, Justine attempted to emulate Caroline’s middle-class virtues, making her equally passive and obedient. Justine, along with Caroline and Elizabeth, is a manifestation of how women fulfill and are fulfilled by their servitude-dominated domestic lives. Women, once guided into what Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, describes as gentleness, docility, and a spaniel-like affection,” are less agents than they are objects acted upon (6). This theme is evident by the early deaths of Caroline, Justine, and Elizabeth.