by Steven Gonzalez

In William Godwin’s  Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), he contends that equality and justice in a society are eminently appealing and that the people within a society should look to achieve equality, not through the use of violence, but through peaceful means. Godwin admonishes the use of violence proclaiming, “Let us anxiously refrain from violence… The cause of justice id the cause of humanity. Its advocates should be penetrated with universal good-will.”(pg.789) Godwin notes that a society can achieve this ideal notion of equality and justice among all people through the individual’s focus on reason, tranquility, and the tireless pursuit of truth. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the character Justine personifies this idea of an “individual focus on reason, tranquility, and truth” as a manner to achieve equality and justice from the perspective of the reader. Consequently, upon Justine’s death, the ideal notions of equality and justice are eradicated within the society of Geneva along with her as a result of the lack of reason, tranquility, and truth expressed in her conviction and execution. Justine’s death, used to symbolize the death of justice in the novel, serves as a perfect exemplar for the consequences that arise from a person’s disregard for reason, tranquility, and the pursuit of truth.

 

Initially, Elizabeth introduces Justine into the novel in a letter to Victor by describing Justine’s past and her upbringing. Then, Elizabeth compares the republican institutions between France/England and Switzerland: she does this to convey the smaller distinction between people of different classes. She emphasizes this difference noting that “there is less distinction between the several classes of its inhabitants; and the lower orders, being neither so poor nor so despised, their manners are more refined and moral.”(Shelley 65). Additionally, Elizabeth further goes on to describe how Justine isn’t seen or treated as an inferior to the rest of Geneva because of her lower socio-economic status stating, “Justine… learned the duties of a servant, a condition which, in our fortunate country, does not include the idea of ignorance, and a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being.”(Shelley 65). Next, Elizabeth describes the righteousness of Justine’s character calling her the “most grateful little creature in the world”. Observing this through the lens of William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice allows us to see the direct correlation between the benevolence of Justine’s character and the equality she experiences within her society. Following William’s death, we see a shift in Justine’s character and consequently, a shift in how society views Justine just like Godwin would predict. Justine begins to abandon her dedication to reason in her studies, tranquility in her demeanor, and truth in her statements and so society begins to see her as a wretched below human individual accusing her of murdering William. This is most evidently depicted in the lines, ” I did confess, but I confessed a lie. I confessed, that I might obtain absolution; but now that falsehood lies heavier at my heart than all my other sins… In an evil hour I subscribed to a lie; and now only am I truly miserable.”(Shelley 82). It seems that even Victor Frankenstein at this point seems to see her as being inferior referring her to her constantly as “poor victim” with a pitiful almost patronizing tone. It seems incredibly ironic that Victor, with the power to stop Justine’s death through truth, decides to let her die a violent death while simultaneously grieving and lamenting, ” I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation … Anguish and despair penetrated into the core of my heart, I bore hell within me which nothing could extinguish.”(Shelley 83). Finally, Justine dies because of Victor’s deviation from reason, tranquility, and truth and Victor Frankenstein acknowledges this lamenting, ” I beheld those I loved spend vain sorrow upon the graves of William and Justine, the first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts.”(Shelley 84).

Ultimately, Godwin’s solution for achieving equality through the individual’s pursuit of reason, tranquility, and truth was evident as being correlative but not necessarily causative: There happened to be equality and justice when Justine expressed a pursuit of reason, tranquility, and truth but not necessarily because of her expression. One idea I found interesting  was Elizabeth’s introduction of Justine in her letter because even though she describes how Justine is not seen as inferior, she herself uses patronizing and condescending language to refer to her, often calling her “little creature”, and “poor girl” perhaps indicating the inevitable lack of equality in a seemingly perfectly equal society. On this point is where I ultimately disagree with Godwin, not on his methods of achieving an equal society but simply whether an “equal” society is eminently desirable in the first place. In a truly equal society, there is no variance in class, in politics, in character, and most importantly in ideas. Godwin even mentions this idea and even champions it stating, ” Each man will find his sentiment of justice and rectitude echoed by the sentiments of his neighbors.”(Godwin 794) This seemingly homogenous authoritarian society is not ideal in any definition of the word. Moreover, we should seek to achieve the highest order of equality of opportunity and to preserve the dignity of all human beings, but we as a society should not expect nor desire the homogenous equality of outcome which Godwin seems to idealize as his final goal. Ultimately, the idea that subscribing to an easy to follow, simple ideology in order to solve nuanced inequalities within a society is reckless, irrational, and untenable.