“Justine shook her head mournfully. ‘I do not fear to die,’ she said; ‘that pang is past. God raises my weakness and gives me courage to endure the worst. I leave a sad and bitter world; and if you remember me and think of me as of one unjustly condemned, I am resigned to the fate awaiting me. Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of heaven!’” (Shelley, 72)
The women in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” are often considered to have very little depth, if any at all. There is the saintly Elizabeth, Victor Frankenstein’s ‘cousin’ and later fiancée, whose primary attribute is angelic goodness. There is also Frankenstein’s own mother Caroline, a sort of proto-Elizabeth, who once again, only seems to have the primary characteristic of kindness and maternal love. And finally, there is the poor doomed Justine Moritz. Like Caroline before her, Elizabeth somewhat adopted Justine as both a beloved servant and confidant. And all three women’s deaths have profound effects on the choices Victor Frankenstein makes throughout the course of the novel. His mother’s death is the catalyst of his obsession in controlling the forces of life and death, Justine’s execution is the price that he should have paid in doing so, and Elizabeth’s death is the final consequence that drives Frankenstein into a fruitless desperate chase towards revenge.
In generalized feminist literary theory, it is frowned on when a female character’s death represents a driving force of the male character’s narrative journey. The popular name for this trope is called “fridging”.
The term “fridging” is derived from the website “women in refrigerators”—an online archive created by writer Gail Simone. The archive listed female characters in comic books who had been “killed, maimed, or depowered” in ways that furthered the male characters’ story arcs. The trope was named a rather disturbing moment in a 1994 Green Lantern comic in which “..the hero’s girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, is left dismembered in his refrigerator by villain Major Force…The panel is wholly focused on Kyle Rayner’s reaction to the discovery of his girlfriend’s body, visually composed to emphasize his trauma while obscuring hers.” (Scott 1)
While Simone created this archive to list female superheroes who were “fridged”, the trope extends far beyond the comic book genre. We see it in everything from films, to television, to video games, to classic literature—and Frankenstein is no exception. Indeed, scholar Erin Goss suggests that that fridging a female character—or rather, dismembering a female corpse, is a political exchange of violence. She writes:
In the face of female death, Bronfen suggests, the male artist finds a way to deny his own mortality while both lamenting and celebrating the death of a woman whose beauty he can claim, at least partially, to own. In the dismemberment of the corpse, however, I suggest we should see something else. Parallel with the creative act that demonstrates triumph over death is the communicative act that displays that triumph for another. In that act, self assertion becomes sociality and individual sovereignty becomes the currency of political exchange. Rather than remaining the object of an aestheticizing gaze, as does the corpse, the dismembered body becomes a communicative object, a sign without specific signification that makes possible a social circuit among the men who can exchange their violence with one another. (Goss 4)
This certainly applies to Victor Frankenstein. All of the female characters are described in a sense of ownership; their entire being is dependent upon Frankenstein. Caroline exists to coddle her son and her death spurs him towards the desperate desire to conquer death. Elizabeth is his playmate and confidant; it is a given she will be his wife someday and she expresses no other desires or purpose but to care for him. And the poor, framed Justine—she is hardly more than a shadow of Elizabeth herself, a fellow orphan who lives upon the Frankensteins’ charity and loves them desperately. And this love leads to her ruin.
But while the fridging trope is generally a frustrating example of misogyny in media in the modern day context, I would argue that we ought to look a little deeper when applying it to Frankenstein. At first glance, Caroline, Justine, and Elizabeth all seem to be perfect examples of this trope; all accessories to Frankenstein’s varying obsessions and shame. But it must be asked—why would Mary Shelley, the daughter of such a prominent and progressive feminist (for that time) choose to write these female characters this way?
There are a few possibilities. It is wholly possible that Shelley was imbued with her own sense of internalized misogyny, and felt that male characters could better express her point and ideas. After all, male characters have far more agency in this era and Shelley knew better than to write such a scandalous story about a Victoria rather than a Victor.
But this does not erase the question as to why these three female characters exist solely to coddle Frankenstein’s own narrative. Surely Shelley could have written her male protagonist while still having well-rounded, nuanced female characters at his side. Therefore, the charge of Shelley deploying the “fridging” trope cannot be entirely dismissed.
However, I would argue that Shelley’s enacting this trope is a purposeful narrative choice, done so precisely because it is misogynistic and jarring. She wrote the majority of Frankenstein between two opposing narrators, Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. While we can make certain arguments that Victor Frankenstein is the “true monster”, it is readily apparent that neither character is good. Frankenstein toyed with the forces of life and death and promptly abandoned his responsibilities, out of sheer arrogance and cruelty. His refusal to come forward led to his younger brother and Justine’s deaths. And while the creature is certainly pitiable and could have been just as good and kind as the angelic Elizabeth had Frankenstein given him the same love and tenderness, this does not excuse him from the murders of a young child and two women. The creature compares himself to Milton’s Lucifer; cast out of paradise. Perhaps this is so, but in the end, he still is Lucifer.
Therefore, if Shelley is writing from the perspectives of two arrogant, unreliable narrators who only see women as accessories to support themselves—killing off the female characters to further both of their traumas makes absolute sense. Not because Shelley believes these women are accessories of the male characters, but because Victor and his monster do. We have already established they are both monsters; their treatment of women is certainly a contributing factor.
I would argue that Shelley’s “fridging” of the female characters of Frankenstein is not necessarily an example of the trope, but rather a subversion. Shelley did not kill off her female characters for the express purpose of furthering her male characters’ arcs. Instead, she used their deaths as an example of how her male characters were monstrous. I would argue, that despite popular conception, we are not meant to sympathize or empathize with Frankenstein or his creature, but rather to feel unfettered disgust towards them both. We are meant to raise a skeptical brow when the creature demands a mate for companionship; female readers will wonder if the mate will follow him so blindly. Frankenstein tearing apart the limbs of his female creation is a visceral reminder of what he has metaphorically done to the women in his life. For neither Frankenstein nor his creation are capable of seeing female characters in their own right. They exist only as accessories to their men. Perhaps that is how Shelley felt next to her much older and more famous husband. Regardless, Shelley’s subversion of this trope demonstrates how truly monstrous both her protagonists behave throughout the course of her story.
Goss, Erin. 2018. Dec. 01. “Frankenstein, Dismembered Women, and What it Takes to be
a Man.” Published in Journal Litteraria Pragensia: Studies in Literature and Culture. Volume 56. Page 34.
Scott, Suzanne. 2013. “Fangirls in Refrigerators: The Politics of (In)visibility in Comic
Book Culture.” In “Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books,” edited by Matthew J. Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2013.0460.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1851. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus:
the 1818 Text. Oxford; New York :Oxford University Press, 1998.
Simone, Gail. WiR – The List, 1999, www.lby3.com/wir/women.html.