Mary Wollstonecraft is a renown feminist who published an essay entitled “A Vindication on the Rights of Man” in 1790. The essay is a response to Edmund Burke’s dramatic defense of the beheaded Marie Antoinette and the French monarchy. He claims that the revolution was absolutely barbaric and that it was an obstruction of the natural order, because evolution totally dictated that we be ruled by a monarchy. Years later, Wollstonecraft’s daughter Mary Shelly released the novel Frankenstein which included the death of a young hapless maid named Justine Moritz.  Wollstonecraft would have interpreted Justine’s character as an indictment of the clerical system and a representation of the oppression that women face. Wollstonecraft would have none of the argument that says that “Justine was killed by the monster and no one else”; she would absolutely blame the church in addition to blaming victor for the creation of the creature. She would not see Justine as a tragic martyr, someone to idolize and beautify for her obedience- she would see Justine’s obedience to the church and social norms as a symptom of a much larger problem: gender inequality and a meek populace.

Let’s remember that because Justine was a God-fearing Catholic, she did her best to do right by God and this meant listening to the authority of the church and subscribing to the standards that they set. This turned sour for her once she is badgered by her confessor (a local priest) into confessing for a crime she hadn’t committed and she said that she “began to think that she was the monster he said she was. He threatened excommunication and hellfire” (83) if she didn’t confess to this crime- what was a good catholic supposed to say to that? She would be branded for life as a terrible woman and a terrible catholic- ruining her place in society.

Justine’s character arc ends tragically, heading straight to death after Elizabeth’s visit. But please, don’t think that it was her devotion to God that ruined her. After all, would you blame a sheep about to be murdered by the farmer who raised it for following him to the slaughterhouse? She was just doing as she was taught- she was modeling what it meant to be an exemplary woman: little, quiet, smooth, and fair.  This is something that Wollstonecraft is very critical of. She said that it is not right to assume that “nature [would make] women little, smooth, delicate, fair creatures, [women were] never designed that they should exercise their reason to acquire the virtues that produce opposite, if not contradictory, feelings” (47). From this we can infer that she would have thought that women shouldn’t be bashed or hung for being self aware and capable of defending themselves. Nor should a large system with enormous amounts of power such as the clergy endorse having a priest (or anyone) push women to conform to this standard. This is corrupt and a severe misuse of power.

Edmund Burke, on the other hand, would have thought this to be an injustice only because they killed someone who was so obedient. Hell, he would have thought Justine as divine or beautiful for emulating the malleable Marie Antoinette. He would have blamed the monster for Justine’s execution.

Wollstonecraft would have argued that Justine should not be considered divine or beautiful because she did what she was told. Justine was ignorant of what she could have been, stifled because she was not raised in a society that valued her intelligence. Instead, Justine was referred to as “the most grateful creature in the world” (66) and after the death of Elizabeth’s aunt was praised for the “softness and winning mildness to her manners, which had before been remarkable for vivacity ” (66). It was her meekness and obedience that made her valuable and Wollstonecraft would have absolutely wanted audience to want see more for Justine and women in society.

Wollstonecraft would interpreted her as the portrait of the chronic condition that women in 1818 were plagued by and a symptom of the problem with assuming that following the church is the natural state of man.

We cannot just follow things or people because their authority is based on their seniority.  Wollstonecraft would want you to question the powers that be because “asserting that Nature leads us to reverence our civil institutions from the same principle that we venerate aged individuals, is a palpable fallacy” (51).

So anyway, catch you at the revolution comrades!
Maria Nguyen-Cruz