Though it may not be obvious upon initial reading, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein contains subtle commentary on the gender roles of her society. When we examine the time period in which she lived, along with her family history, we begin to uncover Shelley’s motivation to comment on the presumed role of women, which she more than likely resented. This is not to suggest that her sole purpose for writing Frankenstein was to covertly challenge the patriarchy; it is simply a way of analyzing the text more deeply.

Mary Shelley was born in 1797, a time when women were considered the property of their fathers before marriage and the property of their husbands after. They could not vote, own land, or attend university, and thus were not equally represented as citizens. When Shelley was five years old, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which is considered foundational feminist literature to this day. In the book, Wollstonecraft argues that women should be educated, and that the main reason they were perceived by men to be “incapable of an education” is because the roles for women did not extend beyond petty romantic and sentimental trivialities, as a matter of societal design.

Shelley’s mother personally rejected the traditional social norms for women and had several romantic partners, as well as children out of wedlock. In addition, Shelley’s father was considered a radical intellectual, who believed in equality for the sexes. The influence of her parents’ non-conforming lifestyle is self-evident, as Shelley made similar behavioral choices, including having an affair with a married man. It would stand to reason that Shelley may have been influenced by her mother’s writing, and that she agreed with much of its contents. But how much?

Shelley’s thoughts on gender are interpreted best through the characters in Frankenstein, by way of comparison. The women are depicted as being models of kindness and virtue, existing only for self-sacrifice; while the men are depicted as corrupt, full of hubris, and driven by their own selfish desires. We see this particularly with the character of Mrs. Frankenstein, in her endless devotion to Elizabeth, an adopted child whom she cared for as her own; so much so that it led to her own death. In contrast, Viktor Frankenstein abandons his creation precisely at its most vulnerable moment, shirking off fatherly responsibilities out of fear. Viktor’s entire character arch could be interpreted as an excoriating commentary on the patriarchy.

Shelley depicts the domain of men as being limitless; the entire world is their oyster. Men live in the public sphere. They are scientists and explorers, fulfilling their dreams and going on adventures. The domain of women, however, is depicted as being domestic. A woman’s sphere is private, and consists of child-rearing and tending to a husband. Women were not encouraged or expected to participate in society. We can observe Shelley’s resentment for this in Chapter 18, when Victor is saying goodbye to Elizabeth. Shelley writes:

Elizabeth approved of the reasons of my departure and only regretted that she had not the same opportunities of enlarging her experience, and cultivating her understanding.

This is a middle finger to the patriarchy for sure, but a mild-mannered one at best. It is not a feminist screed or a call to action. The deeper message here is subtle and requires a specific level of modern liberal education in order to spot.

Ultimately, at the time Frankenstein was written, Mary Shelley’s readership would be somewhere around 98% male. Perhaps she didn’t want to distract from the story with obvious pronouncements on the rights of women. Or perhaps she just didn’t feel comfortable entering into pubic debate, which would mean following in her mother’s footsteps. There is no evidence from her background to suggest that Shelley was a conscious feminist activist, but her entire existence was, essentially, a protest against the gender norms of her society.