Category: Justine’s Execution in Historical Context (2/20)

Here’s a full pic of our completed in-class graphic idea map.  Students can use it as a study guide to help them prepare for the blog summary due next week.  The green color is for William Godwin, the red for Edmund Burke, and the blue for Mary Wollstonecraft.

We’re making steady progress in our historicist analysis of the Justine episode in Frankenstein.  Please feel free to comment on students’ impressive idea map.


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The execution of Justine is a symbolically dense passage. The exact message of what Shelley is trying to convey by the death of Justine (justice) is confusing at best — and how could it not be? Her dad was a political philosopher, her mom was a feminist, and yet she still believed in Edmund Burke’s semi-sexist theories. These conflicting views are reflected in this passage, although I believe that Shelley mostly uses the work of Burke as a scaffold for the execution scene.

Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, is deeply concerned with the death of traditional European values with the rise of the Proletariat revolution in France. He writes extensively on how the class system has worked to promote civility and limit the powers of tyrants. He even remarks that Europe’s upper-class civility “kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.” Justine is this very indentured freedom. She is a servant for an upper-class family, the Frankensteins, and represents the “old money”, if you will, of Europe. Her ultimate death is not caused by the townsfolk that executed her, but rather by the Creature — he is the one who killed William and planted evidence on Justine, condemning her. A Marxist reading of Frankenstein leads one to believe that the Creature is, at a very basic level, a symbol of the proletariat. He is created by the technological prowess of Frankenstein in the same way that the new working class was created by the new technology of factory owners.

It is this working class that is creating terror in France in the same way that the Creature is creating terror in the lives of the characters that inhabit the world of Frankenstein. When the Creature kills William — an innocent, virtuous child — he also kills Justine, signalling both the end of her life and the end of the traditional European values that Burke longs for.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men mocks Edmund Burke’s idea of beautiful femininity being inherently virtuous, differentiating having virtue and merely looking it: “Not to cultivate the moral virtues that might chance to excite respect, and interfere with the pleasing sensations they were meant to inspire,” (Wollstonecraft, 47). Wollstonecraft notes that this idea of beauty pleases others but does not uplift one’s own self, putting women in a position of inspiring inferiority that requires no actual virtue. She would consider the character of Justine a prime example of this disparity in action. The characters of Frankenstein claim the maid’s beauty is at odds with her unfortunate fate. The first description of her by Elizabeth emphasizes how she clears negative emotions with her very appearance: “For the same reason that Ariosto gives concerning the beauty of Angelica – She looks so frank-hearted and happy” (Shelley, 67). Even though the text makes a distinction between beauty and Justine’s qualities, that divide is imaginary; she does not alleviate woe because she is frank-hearted and happy, but because her physical appearance reminds of those qualities. The word “frank” means truthful, yet Justine’s frankness is only skin-deep, creating a paradox of her frankness being a mask. In an everyday situation, a character may describe Justine’s virtue the way Elizabeth did, yet when dealing with the grim business of murder, that appraisal disappears: “As the trial had proceeded, her countenance had altered” (80). Beauty is only necessary as long as it pleases; when real virtue is needed, beauty does not suffice, and so it is no longer perceived as so pleasing.

The sentence of Justine in Frankenstein is supposed to inspire anger at the unfairness of the proceedings, since Justice is killed even when innocent. Her name even resembles the word “justice” to illustrate how justice dies. However, Wollstonecraft would not claim that justice died during the trial, but instead before it, pointing to the failure of beauty to balance with truth. Even though the reader knows Justine is innocent in retrospect, the presented evidence against her is overwhelming. Even Elizabeth cannot actually provide reason, instead discussing her emotional relationship with Justine: “Elizabeth’s heartrending eloquence failed to move the judges from their settled conviction in the criminality of this saintly sufferer” (Shelley, 85). While her defense is described as aesthetically pleasing, the beauty is hollow, and Justine is sentenced for her crime. The judges have already decided, but it is not because the court is unfair; in the face of all the evidence, it would be a farce to think otherwise just because of one person’s account being “heartrending”. What is unfair is that beauty was ever considered an acceptable substitute; Wollstonecraft thinks it bizarre that Burke’s definition of beauty does not come from “those exalted qualities, fortitude, justice, wisdom, and truth” (47). Justine provides no fortitude and is broken into confession, she provides no truth in her paradox of only appearing truthful, and worst of all, Justine is not able to actually embody justice when reason and evidence, the very items most important to a court, are not on her side. Wollstonecraft rejects Burke’s and Frankenstein‘s definitions of beauty if embracing beauty means one must reject the best human qualities in favor of a sham.

The death of William in Frankenstein rightfully sparked the search for his killer, and a long-time servant of the Frankenstein’s house, Justine, was convicted of the murder under a conglomeration of circumstantial evidence. Of course the reader and Frankenstein know that Justine is guilty of no such crime, however the attempt for others in the house and community to establish justice leads to her downfall. The task at hand is to examine the execution of Justine through the framework and lens of radicals such as Mary Wollstonecraft. In the words of Wollstonecraft, the execution of  Justine, who herself was “extremely pretty,” ( Frankenstein pg. 68) the embodiment of beauty, was necessary “to render men more virtuous, and to banish all enervating modifications of beauty from civil society.” (Wollstonecraft pg. 48) Justine “appeared calm, and her countenance, always  engaging, was rendered, by the solemnity of her feelings exquisitely beautiful. Yet she appeared confident in innocence..” (Frankenstein pg. 79) Ernest, Victor’s brother, even expresses his unbelief that such an amicable girl would be capable of such an atrocious crime. The community’s attempt at justice was an honorable reach for righteousness. Justine’s conviction was the perfect example of the community’s attempt to separate what Wollstonecraft would argue they “reasoned” to be true, Justine’s guilt, from her “beautiful” appearance, something that had the potential to cloud their judgement. (Wollstonecraft pg.47)

Justine’s execution is ironic, however, in that she was convicted in her innocence. William’s locket was found on her person, and her inability to reasonably explain her possession of the locket led to her conviction. If we are to make Justine’s death analogous to what Wollstonecraft says is a “respect of the naked dignity of virtue” (Wollstonecraft pg.  49) or an attempt to make society just, should not the conviction have been just in itself? I present the idea that Justine’s execution does not accurately depict the virtue that Wollstonecraft so passionately defends. Throughout the scenario, I never see justice present itself. The first wrong: William’s murder. The second wrong: Justine’s conviction. The third wrong: Justine’s execution. Along the bridge between William’s murder and the execution of Justine lies a longing for righteousness, a desired explanation and vengeance for his downfall. However, I would argue that the sole desire for these things does not ensure justice. Only when vengeance is rightfully achieved will justice prevail. In lam en’s terms, “two wrong’s do not make right” nor is Wollstonecraft’s “virtue” achieved by the wrongful “removal of beauty”, or Justine, from “civil society”.(Wollstonecraft pg.48)

The full interpretation of the execution suffered by the character Justine is a complex order, but one that may be adroitly accomplished through a critical Marxist lens. Justine may be understood as a personification of vigorous and ancient social sentiments, which is a fact exposed through certain elements of her characterization. Her name bears specific resemblance to “justice,” and she is accordingly granted an idealized mixture of humility, patience, and great beauty. These qualities, however, do not protect her from condemnation and execution. She meets this fate in an unusual way, in that in the end of her life she possesses no fear and a sense of resignation, and indeed advises the characters to  “Learn from me… to submit in patience to the will of heaven” (84). She does not act as a frightened servant would, instead responding like a goddess, saint, or philosopher, entities that would react with logical and graceful finality. This serves to further emphasize Justine’s role as more than human, but rather a symbol for the romanticized concept of “justice.”

Within the context of the narrative and Marxist analysis methods, the execution can be further explicated. The central concept within this textual event is the bourgeoisie manipulation of traditional ideological entities. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx himself notes, “unheroic as bourgeoisie society is, yet it had need of heroism, of sacrifice, of terror, of civil war and of national battles to bring it into being” (42). However, “when the real aim had been achieved, when the bourgeois transformation … had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk” (42), meaning that the bourgeoisie enlightenment ideals were erected over the ancient ideologies of the past. The narrative mirrors this process. The concept of “justice” is ancient, and a battle cry for social dynamism and reform. It is loved and respected as a force that pried open the feudal social structure and broke the monarchy and lords. However, the manifestation of this important sentiment is not powerful within the text, but ultimately debased. She is bound and imprisoned by the bourgeoisie elite of the Frankenstein family, nurturing their young and appearing as a loved and valued part of the household. “Justice,” is part of the superficial façade of the elite, who use it to soften and mask the calamity that they engineer.  However, once the goals of the elite are achieved, the ideal falls away. Victor completes his ultimate work in the monstrous fabrication of the new proletariat, and the old idealism of concepts like “justice,” is unnecessary. Indeed, they cannot exist in the brave new capitalist world; whether the bourgeoisie intends it or not, their creation is inherently violent, and will murder ancient sentiment. In this way, Justine and “justice,” are slowly prepared and led for slaughter, used to further the goals of the bourgeoisie, before the societal conflict created by the elite erupts. With their mastery complete, the judicial bureaucrats throw their black ballots at the feet of justice, as it is no longer a necessary illusion.

The Marxist characterization of this event is accordingly a comic farce. Justice and Justine might recall a symbol of the French revolution: lady liberty. In true form, she exists as a goddess within the ranks of subjected masses, charging into the fray of battle lofting the symbol of the people as she leads them to victory, awe-inspiring and beautiful in fearless nakedness. In contrast, the narrative portrays her as the powerless servant to the elite, who task her with raising their children. Although appreciated by them, she does not appear in true form; her nakedness is covered and she inspires no awe, but rather sympathy. Her beauty remains in this diminished form, but her sublime aspect vanishes. She dies not in battle for the rights of humankind, but in a mechanistic decision. Her execution is a farce as she is a tool manipulated by unseen bourgeoisie hands, rather than a sentiment earnestly supported and fought over as she once was.

The wrongful execution of Justine serves as a symbolic backdrop for the corruption of good. What Justine represents is a pure, well-intentioned spirit who, when constantly pushed to a corner by negative outside forces, cannot help but cave in. She mentions to Elizabeth how she did confess to killing William, but only out of duress and fear; “ever since [she] was condemned, [her] confessor had besieged [her]; he threatened and menaced, until [she] almost began to think that [she] was the monster that he said [she] was” (Shelley 83). What we have here is a clear case of someone who, while innocent and well-intentioned, could not think ahead to see just exactly what she was sacrificing by letting the negative attacks affect her. The sheer gravity of a murder charge, with its punishment of execution, eventually became secondary to the vicious corruptive influence of her confessor, in Justine’s mind. She took his words to heart more than the truth that lay within her due to just how convincing and insistent he was. The confessor even started to “threaten excommunication and hell fire in [her] last moments, if [she] continued obdurate” (Shelley 83). Punishment in the afterlife for something she didn’t do, but something that her confessor convinced her to believe. Such compelling words, added to the fact that there was “none to support [her]; all looked on [her] as a wretch doomed to ignominy and perdition” (Shelley 83-84). This just demonstrates the sheer power of the people around you: she was swayed to conform to what everyone else believed, despite the complete falsehood of such beliefs. She, as a result, lies to herself, and her pure innocence is ruined.

This is a strong corollary to the death of justice and ideological purity during the French Revolution. Good intentions and aspirations were what fueled the start of the Revolution, with the rise and empowerment of the poor, downtrodden Third Estate and the subsequent goal of securing equality and justice under the law. William Godwin aspires to see this occur as much himself, as he states in his 1793 Enquiry Concerning Political Justice: “To the general mass of the adherents of equality… if there be any force in the arguments of this work, we seem authorized to deduce thus much from them, that truth is irresistible. Let then this axiom be the rudder of our undertakings” (Godwin 789). Note how very non-forceful and non-threatening he is with stating his personal opinions by stating how there is, above all, only one “force” in his work which calls for special attention. This tone of his indicates how he wants the reader to be eased in comfortably to his opinions. His conviction that “truth is irresistible” is undoubtedly a tenet that justice strives to uphold, and a tenet that poor Justine could not uphold herself. She was swayed by negative outside forces, and so was the Revolution itself. His hope that truth’s irresistible nature would lead to it always being championed and protected, that it would be the “rudder,” the fuel to people’s fire, sadly is not the case, due to simple human fallibility. Sure, truth as an ideal should in theory always be defended no matter what the circumstances are, but circumstances definitely do matter. Justine’s circumstances– she was lonely, with everyone around her condemning her about what she allegedly did, and with a corruptive confessor by her side, constantly feeding her lies– shook her inner core, to the point where she could not help but be swayed in the end. The same goes for what happened to the French Revolution: the noble ideals championed at the outset of the Revolution soon gave way to extremist influences, with truth and justice eventually being discarded, giving way to tyranny, with the Reign of Terror being a good example of that. Proper truth and justice, and those championing it, were drowned out by the surge of radicals. The inner core of the Revolution was thus corrupted, much like poor Justine, and Justine’s as well as Godwin’s best intentions were left unfulfilled.

Justine Moritz’s trial and execution are explored carefully over several pages in Frankenstein, commanding the reader’s attention to the treatment of justice in this scene, even as it involves a seemingly minor character. In a particularly powerful moment, Justine finishes testifying before the court and seems almost immediately to acknowledge and accept the direction of the trial: “I commit my cause to the justice of my judges, yet I see no room for hope. I beg permission to have a few witnesses examined concerning my character; and if their testimony shall not overweigh my supposed guilt, I must be condemned, although I would pledge my salvation on my innocence.” (Shelley 81)

What we see here is a sort of self-abandonment in the acceptance of the law – To Justine, it represents something that is absolute, and in a way, faultless. Although she knows she is innocent, she believes in the certainty of the law, and this belief is manifested in her decision to confess to the crime she did not commit. We can gather from Justine’s confession and her trial as a whole, that enforcing the law and enacting justice are separate to such a degree that judges act solely on their own “harsh unfeeling reasoning” (Shelley 85) in accordance with the law – so powerful is this separation that it even soaks through to the individual level, where it compromises freedom from personal guilt and responsibility.

Based on Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790, it seems he would have a mouthful to say about this as well. In particular, he makes the point that the core values of the revolution undermined sentiment, and lacked an element of humanity. On pages 76-77, Burke states that “This mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in the antient chivalry…if it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great… All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason.”  Through the lens of this particular quote, we can see that Burke would identify Justine/justice as a tool of the law, rather than a guiding light, to be molded according to reason over human sentiment – and since, as Burke says, the “reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place”, what we observe is that law has an unnatural and absolute power, and “we have no compass to govern us.” (Burke 78). Placed in the context of his entire argument in Reflections, the implication of such a philosophy is a regression of humanity and society into total anarchy.

Justine’s execution in Frankenstien can be interpreted in multiple ways. One lens with which to view her execution is through the ideas proposed by William Godwin in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Godwin’s text exemplifies the idea that Justine’s execution was metaphorically an “execution of justice”. It is no coincidence that the name Justine and justice are so similar. Justine represents what is true and just, and her death represents the absence of these concepts. Godwin mentions in multiple instances the importance of truth in a society: “Truth is irresistible” (789), “The progress of truth is the most powerful of all causes” (791), “The general diffusion of truth will be productive of general improvement” (794). The reader believes in Justine’s true version of the story, in which she does not murder William. However, Justine’s tale does not serve to convince the jury of her innocence, and she is thus executed. The Frankensteins rely on the system of legal justice to save Justine: “If she is, as you believe, innocent, rely on the justice of our laws” (79). This quote demonstrates their simplistic and unwavering belief in the system; Justine is innocent, therefore there should be no way that the court can find her guilty. However, the court does not demonstrate justice: Justine is executed in the face of her truthful claims. The ignorance of Godwin’s idea that truth is all-powerful supports the idea that Justine’s execution was not just.

A further example of how Justine’s execution represents the execution of justice lies in the quote from Frankenstein that says: “I subscribed to a lie; and now only am I truly miserable” (84). Justine falsely commits to the crime of killing William. While she may have been despondent about her situation prior to falsely confessing guilt, she feels ultimately worse after confessing a lie. This once again corresponds with Godwin’s ideas that truth is ultimate: the corruption of truth involves suffering. Frankenstein also suffers from the concealment of the truth: “The tortures of the accused did not equal mine; she was sustained by innocence” (82). Frankenstein is not able to admit his own truth, and thus he suffers more in life that the truth-sustained Justine suffers in the face of death. Frankenstein and Justine both suffer from their repression of the truth, but Justine, as a symbol of justice, is able to hold her head high due to the knowledge of her own truth. One of Godwin’s final statements is that “The improvement in question consists in a knowledge of truth. But our knowledge will be very imperfect, so long as this great branch of universal justice fails to constitute a part of it” (794). Truth and justice go hand in hand. There cannot be truth without justice and vice versa. The oppression of the truth in these passages shows that there is necessarily an oppression of justice as well. Justine’s execution is simultaneously an execution of justice.


If Justine is to be considered the anthropomorphism of Justice, then her unfair trial and death is as ironic as irony can get. Her conflict with the jury is a classic example of the conflict between the actual and the assumed interpretation of the concept. Justice is “all benignity” as Godwin puts it (p. 790), and not “brutishness and inflexibility” as the adherents to the cause of Justice believe. And so Justine remains loyal to the Godwin-ian view of fairness, in all its inevitability and reliance on the “private conviction of individuals” (p. 790), until the very end. When Justine is being tried, she relies on the “great instrument of justice, reason” (Godwin, p.790) and rests her innocence on a “simple explanation of the facts” (Frankenstein,p.80). She lends support for her defense from her past (p.81) by calling character witnesses, in analogy to Godwin’s proposition that history eventually manifests as a fundamental, reformative truth that gives way to Justice.

It can be concluded that Justine embodies the Utopian view of fairness that is a gradual but a voluntary endeavor, as opposed to a violent shift in the social paradigm. That being said, we see that Justine is an isolated character. She has suffered the loss of family, a mentor, and a ward and the hatred of a mother and her society. She has no support. Victor is silent. Even Elizabeth’s support is fickle (p.83, para 2). Justine refuses Elizabeth’s offer to “melt the stony hearts of [Justine’s] enemies” (p.84) and instead resigns herself to her sentence. Her passiveness makes her seem almost like an instrument of fate; like Justice embodied offered to the masses: an ephemeral shortcut to social equilibrium, as Godwin thinks of fairness, just ripe for the taking.

Justine’s exit so early in the novel signifies that true Justice based on logic and reason will play no part in resolving the novel’s conflict. Victor’s inaction despite his knowledge of Justine’s innocence perhaps foreshadows the balancing injustice of the Creature’s survival. In all cases, Justine’s death is a result of “a mistake of [justice’s] adherents” in understanding the true meaning of fairness. And just like this “mistake” is a wrinkle, an anomaly, in the grand scheme of justice, so perhaps will be the resolution of Frankenstein’s conflict.


If we look at Justine’s death as a historical commentary, then it is a confirmation of Burke’s general prediction regarding the French Revolution. While Burke’s writing came before the French Revolution, and while the text may not be considered anti-revolutionary, Justine’s death certainly reads like a sad admittance of the failures of the French Revolution.  Justine definitely fits the archetypal personification of Justice with her calm, confident, and beautiful demeanor upon trial (79). Her beauty also recalls Burke’s slightly over the top and melodramatic description of Marie Antoinette, who keeps a “serene patience” in her imprisonment. Burke ultimately predicted that this revolution would end in a bloodbath, and though many tore him down at the time, he ended up being right on that count. Justine’s death seems like an acknowledgement of the failures of the revolution: Justine is the people, and this incident mirrors the Reign of Terror.

Justine’s primary role is that of a servant and caregiver to William. When William dies, she is blamed immediately for his death and killed for it. This mirrors what happened during the Reign of Terror, where former revolutionaries and sympathizers of the cause were accused of counter-revolutionary activities and publicly executed. Justine, as the caregiver for William, was wrongly executed based on evidence provided by the monster. Through this reading, her death seems to be a sad admission of the failures of the French Revolution and an acknowledgement of the wanton violence that plagued the end of the French Revolution.