When reading the first volume of Frankenstein, I was struck at times by the clearly defined gender roles that are present in the text. Elizabeth’s character particularly interests me because, at least so far, she plays the only main female role and appears to be somewhat of a foil to Frankenstein. He often mentions her sweet and delicate disposition, which starkly contrasts his own feverish and extreme tendencies that he develops at school when building his creature.
However, there are moments when a stronger version of Elizabeth peaks through, such as in her reaction to her aunt’s death: “She felt that most imperious duty, of rendering her uncle and cousins happy, had devolved upon her. She consoled me, amused her uncle, instructed my brothers; and I never beheld her so enchanting as at this time, when she was continually endeavouring to contribute to the happiness of others, entirely forgetful of herself” (73).
Here, Elizabeth shows a quiet strength that I believe is not completely recognized by her cousin. According to Frankenstein’s account of her behavior, she acts to instill happiness in others, which is fine with me, but I do take issue with his assertion that he had “never beheld her so enchanting as at this time.” Here, it seems like Frankenstein sees Elizabeth not as an autonomous being but as something designed to make him happy.
He sees her consoling nature as her “most imperious duty” – in other words, the recovery of her male companions is more urgent and important than her own. However, I don’t want to just pin Elizabeth’s action as her blind acceptance of her gender role. Even though she would be expected to take on this motherly countenance as the only female member of the household, it could be that her reaction is equally motivated to quell her own grief. Distracting herself by consoling others could be her way of managing her own grief – her “duty” to her family may not be her only motivating factor.
I’m curious to see how their relationship evolves over the course of the novel – will Elizabeth continue to act only for the benefit of others, or will she develop her a sense of independence apart from Frankenstein? It will be interesting to see whether Elizabeth can grow beyond the gentle, passive stereotype into a character capable of contending with the intense nature of her cousin.