by Lucas Cullen
On Frankenstein: Elizabeth in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was destined to become a cultural icon, in spite of – or due to – the grotesque creation that was found within its pages. The monster has become a fixture in the imaginations of people of all ages. One most often encounters Frankenstein’s monster in the time leading up to and including Halloween. Costumes, candies, and decorations all bear his image. He has also starred in several films, beginning with Edison Studios’ silent adaptation in 1910, through Universal’s Karloff craze, and all the way up to the newly-released, animated children’s movie, Hotel Transylvania. Movie studios still love the murderous mutant, but with regards to Shelley’s text, focus has been moving away from the infamous fiend. It is being re-examined from a feminist point of view, with specific attention being paid to the author’s depiction of her female characters. How does Shelley’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth, in 1818 compare with James Whale’s version of the character in his 1931 film, and what does that say about our progress as a society?
In both the novel and the film, Elizabeth is treated almost like a dream; a woman romanticized by her lover, who declines to let her see his dark side. While she is both involved and aware of the problems facing her husband-to-be (Victor in the book, and Henry in the film), she is still removed from the true horror and hopelessness of his situation, because he lives a double-life. In one, he starts out devoted entirely to completing his ground-breaking and controversial experiment, and when things go awry, the frightened scientist does his best to contain the whole situation and solve his problems on his own. He is unusually secretive, heavily sleep-deprived, and perpetually worried about the reappearance of the dreadful thing he created. In another exists his ideal life, the one which involves a happy and fruitful marriage to his dear Elizabeth. Frankenstein simply refuses to let these two lives intersect, because he is trying to preserve the “paradisaical [dream] of love and joy” (131) he thinks is contained within Elizabeth. In the film, (Henry) Frankenstein tells her, “It’s like heaven being with you.” Each version of Elizabeth is treated like a seraphic creature, based on an unrealistic stereotype, who must be protected.
Both Elizabeths are also similar in their abilities, though this similarity will be met with much less chagrin from feminist critics. Each woman has a powerfully acute sense of intuition that they use to aid their male counterparts. Victor is thoroughly distraught at having lost his family’s wrongfully accused servant, Justine. Frankenstein is sure that his creation, and thus, himself, are to blame. Elizabeth “[reads the] anguish” in his face, and is able to comfort him in his time of need, if only for the time being (61). Just before their wedding, Whale’s Elizabeth takes Henry aside because she feels that “something is going to happen” that will come between them. She cannot quite discern what it is, but that “something” is the spurned savage coming to exact his final revenge on a dissatisfied creator. While the men may not always give the gut feelings of their betrothed the attention they deserve, they are nonetheless a very positive skill-set for these female characters.
Where the two portrayals differ from one another, they differ considerably. Shelley’s Elizabeth is a much more compliant and unassertive woman. Throughout the course of the novel, she appears perfectly content to sit back and wait for her childhood friend to come to her, despite his serious illnesses, troubled mind, and short stay in a prison on the coast of Ireland. Frankenstein’s friend, Henry, and his father, Alphonse, both manage to pay him a visit during these tough times, while Elizabeth simply sends letters along with them to deliver to the man who will be her husband (36, 39, 125, 129). Whale’s Elizabeth lies at the complete opposite end of the spectrum: only about five minutes into the film, she insists on going with her friend, Victor (Shelley’s Henry), to visit Frankenstein’s former university professor, who they think may know of her beloved’s whereabouts. The professor knows where they need to go, but is reluctant to take them to Frankenstein’s isolated castle laboratory. Still, she manages to persuade him that it is crucial that they find her fiancée. When they finally arrive at the castle, they come face-to-face with a dangerous thunderstorm and an exceedingly stubborn Henry. It is Elizabeth who eventually convinces him to stop acting foolishly and let them inside the castle for the night. She takes a proactive interest in the one she loves, refusing to let him face his most pressing issues alone. Elizabeth does everything she can to assist and protect her husband, even if it means traveling the globe.
The Elizabeth in Mary Shelley’s novel and the one in James Whalen’s film adaptation have a lot in common. They are both stereotypes of the ideal Romantic woman, placed on a pedestal by the misguided men who love them. Much more realistic is their strong sense of intuition, their instincts to warn and protect the ones they care about. The difference between these two works, however, is where one sees real progress in terms of the image of women. In 1818, women were taught (and expected) to be quiet and unassuming, like Shelley’s Elizabeth. Over the next 113 years, women got bolder, more motivated, and more independent. While most will not be entirely satisfied with the more modern Elizabeth, it was certainly a step in the right direction; a step towards a fully-developed, strong female character in a popular blockbuster film. Perhaps in the next century (if not sooner), the latest version of Frankenstein’s monster will be brought to life – not by a man – but by a woman, instead.
Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Universal, 1931. Film.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996. Print.