Justine didn’t deserve to die. She and Elizabeth exchange expressions of guilt, confession, and empathy in the virtue-signaling conversation regarding Justine’s upcoming execution in Chapter VIII of the Gothic novel. The most important part of this scene, set relatively early in the unfolding of the plot of Frankenstein, is Mary Shelley’s emphasis on secondary characters in analyzing the deceiving and corrupt nature of the fictional execution. “Why do you kneel, if you are innocent?” (83) asks Elizabeth, in recognizing Justine’s kneeling as an act of not protest, but rather, subjugation to law, and because everyone knows that the law only applies when punishing a criminal caste, Elizabeth and Justine become the vessels for which the stakes of an entire criminal justice system rely on for representation. This is unfair for women, for the oppressed class, or even for the supposed monster and/or mobs who, according to values of Enlightenment during Shelley’s conception of the novel as a likely response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, are worthy of the rights to a basic life guaranteeing liberty and the pursuit of property. Victor was a property-owning, white male and member of the scientific elite and thus makes a better subject than Justine for a Burkian formation of human rights criticism.

    Justine must be disqualified as a representation of women during the (French) Revolution. Further emphasis on the distance of Justine from the male, principle characters of Frankenstein is evident in the framing of Elizabeth and Victor’s conversation in a previous chapter. “Elizabeth Lavenza,” (67) signs off a letter with Justine’s flashbacks- which is proceeded by Victor’s reply in “Geneva, March 18th, 17-,’ (67). Character observations about Justine first have to pass through Elizabeth’s pen, then on page 64, through Clerval’s hands, then at the start of the letter, in addressed to the familial tradition, each of these layers of communicating ultimately function to filter authenticity of the actual story being told. The degradation of the truth told is apparent enough in Burke’s essay to be repeated in the cautionary tone, “Is this a triumph to be consecrated at altars […] to be offered to the divine humanity with fervent prayer and enthusiastick ejaculation?” (Burke 72). The irony here is that Victor writes from the future location of the Human Rights Council at Geneva before the formation of the United Nations could become content for Shelley’s feminist work. There is nothing feminist about the sacrifice symbolized through Justine’s wrongful execution; Burke sees this incompatibility of human representation in the tragic for predicting attacks on the Church, “The actual murder […] was wanting to the other auspicious circumstances of this ‘beautiful day.’ The actual murder of the bishops, though called for by so many holy ejaculations, was also wanting,” (73) and warns us about a second ejaculation, which I interpret as a vindication of the human rights framework which is evoked in the name of Justine. In conclusion, the lens of a Burkian reflection in reading Frankenstein is revealing in that, unlike the executions of the Revolution, this execution of Justine, for murdering the relative of our protagonist, is one that is very much deserved in the name of justice to punish “the patriotic crimes of an enlightened age,” (73). Burke in effect is criticizing human nature defense synthesized through moral law which is the object of the very tension underlying Elizabeth and Justine’s altercation about life and human dignity. Although a Godwinian lens convinces the contemporary reader of the collective duty to speak on violence, a Burkian approach to Shelley’s Gothic novel becomes an appropriate counter-culture mode of identifying the problems of feminine representation, images of violence, and historical context on the French regicides which complicate the secondary characters of Elizabeth and Justine’s convictions on truth and capital punishment.

🌀Bradley Dexter Christian