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Frankenstein the subjectivity of the character

Frankenstein: The Subjectivity of the Character "Safie"

Even though she is only mentioned in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for a

relatively brief period, the character, Safie, is very interesting as she is

unique from the other characters in that her subjectivity is more clearly

dependent on her religion and the culture of her nation. Contrasts can be made

between the Orient and the European society which attempts to interpret it.

Often, this creates stereotypes such as western feminists that have viewed

"third-world" women as "ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, religious,

domesticated, family oriented, (and) victimized"(Mohanty 290). Of course, some

of these things could also have said of European women of the time period,

although noone would argue the point since Oriental women were viewed as being

more oppressed. Strong contrasts can also be made in relation to the differences

between Safie's development as a foreign character and her subjectivity as a

female character in relation to those of the other female characters of the book.

While the other female characters lack depth into how their religion and culture

affect them, Safie's religion and Arabian culture sculpt her into a subject with

feminist qualities juxtaposed against her fulfillment of European domestic


Many theorists, such as Benveniste who said, "Consciousness of self [or

subjectivity] is only possible if it is experienced by contrast," argue that

one's subjectivity can only exist in their relation to the Other(85). The

subject's relation this "Other" depends on which aspect is being examined. For

example, when dealing with gender, it would be the relationship between Man and

Woman and when dealing with nationality it would be the relationship between

Native and Foreigner. Thus, the character of Safie was defined in terms of her

relationship to those around her. In the Turkish society, her role would have

been to fulfill positions of lesser rank, such as a daughter to her father or a

woman in relation to the dominant men, and when in Europe, as a foreign Turk in

relation to native Europeans. These relationships, however, were significantly

affected by the teachings her Christian Arab mother instilled in her. Her mother

"taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of

spirit" which in either Turkish or European society, though more so in Turkish

society, were in discord with the standard position and femininity of women.

Both societies viewed women as having a "natural" tendency to be unassuming and

docile and, in addition, it would be considered unfeminine to seek something

more than their domestic role. Safie does not go to the extent of wishing for

something more than a prescribed domestic role, she merely preferred the

European version of that role. This role apparently differs from the Arabian

role primarily in that the European society which she longed to join was

associated with the Christian religion and practices that she has been taught to

adore and which would be forbidden in the Arabian society. In desiring the

European role and wishing to marry a Christian, she does not break the apparent

confines of her feminine role but the confines of her Arabian culture. By

believing in the qualities expressed by her mother, and by displaying them in

her venture to violate her father's will to find Felix, she shows that her

subjectivity was not based on the opposition of women versus empowered men, as

might seem the norm, but was instead more distinctly based on the opposition of

religiously submissive women in her culture versus the Christian woman, inspired

by the freedom she experienced before being seized by the Turks, that her mother

was. Safie's affinity for the Christian religion is best shown in her revulsion

at the prospect of returning to the Turkish land and her desire to marry a

Christian and remain in Europe.

In addition to the her unique religious point of view, Safie was also

influenced by her Arabian culture but, however, Shelley does not go into much

depth this aspect of Safie and stops at only a superficial, prejudiced

description of the Turks. In fact, there are Eurocentric biases against the

Turks throughout the portion of the book dealing with Safie. In order to examine

why Mary Shelley included such biases in her work, one must first acknowledge

the distinct possibility that as she wrote Frankenstein, she carried with her

some prejudices of the Orient. This argument is supported by Edward Said's


For if it is true that no production of knowledge can ever ignore or

disclaim its author's involvement as a human subject in (their) own

circumstances, then it must also be true that for a European...

studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main

circumstances of (their) actuality: that (they come) up against the Orient as a

European... first , as an individual second(Said 306). Thus, Mary Shelley's

somewhat slanted portrayal of Safie and her father is not only unintentional,

but a symptom of "ethnocentric universalism", or having a single, stereotypical

view of an entire community(Mohanty 290). When extended to Western views of the

East, this view is more specifically referred to as "Orientalism." Orientalism

is defined as "a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the

Orient's special place in European Western experience" which "has less to do

with the Orient than it does with (the Western) world"(Said 303, 307).

These biases, apparently inherent to many European writers, are most

prominently displayed in the role of Safie's father who is depicted as

traitorous and oppressive. This ethnocentrically is best shown when his command

to his daughter is unfairly termed a "tyrannical mandate"(Shelley 110). Although

the command can easily be considered unjust in its betrayal of the life indebted

vow made to Felix, it cannot be considered more oppressive than a European's

command to his daughter. Oppressive commands from European men are sure to have

happened since a European father's position in his family is relatively absolute

in that they are the head of the household and in that society, none within the

household have greater authority. The ratio of power between men and women is

more slanted in Turkish society as is evident in the existence of harems and the

fact that women have the possibility of achieving societal rank and ownership of

property in European society and it is for these reasons, as well as her

religious conflictions, that Safie feels Turkish life to be oppressive. The

Turkish father's exercise of control over his daughter is not the simply a

Turkish practice as Mary Shelley implies it to be. This Orientalist view of the

Turks is much like the stereotypical story of the "noble" European rescuing an

Arabian damsel from the harem of the "evil" Turkish tyrant and then claiming her

as his. Thus delivering her from one, Orientalistic, form of servitude to

another, more "proper" and European, form of servitude. Of course, Safie breaks

from this stereotype in her almost feminist "rescue" of herself.

This ethnocentrism does, however, help increase the contrast between

Safie's subjectivity with that of other Arabian women, making her more

distinctly feminist, as well as more European in her distaste for some Arabian

ways and thereby a more suitable wife for Felix. Safie felt that what her father

was doing was wrong and, in acting on these beliefs to satisfy her and Felix's

happiness, she performed the most feminist act in the book and thus, was the

most feminist subject. Some might also consider her feminist for her era simply

by her rebelling against and eventually disobeying and abandoning her father.

But as was previously mentioned, Safie was "almost" a feminist in that she was

merely more feminist than the other female characters. Both Justine and

especially Elizabeth were typically feminine, meaning that they fitted and

fulfilled the stereotypical "iconic femininity" which includes being a nurturing,

domestic of ideal beauty and grace which must be protected by the dominant man.

As they fulfilled this role, they were strictly non-feminist as feminist roles

gravitate towards breaking such roles and, in fact, sometimes attempt to define

themselves outside of men. Though Safie comes closer than either Justine or

Elizabeth, she does not fulfill the feminist role, but rather supports the

"iconic feminine" role less completely than the others. She has feminist aspects,

shown in her efforts to maintain her "independence of spirit" by remaining in

Europe and by, more obviously, rebelling against her father and the

authoritative role he represents. But, since she does not rebel against her

domestic role and, in fact, rushes to it with Felix, she is primarily a slightly

non-feminist role among heavily non-feminist roles. Some critical readers might

say that there is an apparent conflict between the independent nature instilled

in her by her mother versus the oppressive nature of either European or Arabian

society, or enlightenment and domestic ideology. However, the issue of the

apparent conflict is resolved when realizing that the independence her mother

gave her was directed against the Arabian society they were forced to live in.

There was no evidence that her mother instilled any preconceived notions of

rebelling against the male dominated society in general, especially the

Christian European society which Safie had come to appreciate.

Though Safie was from an Middle Eastern culture, her mother's adherence

to a Christian belief system influenced Safie's subjectivity and caused her to

experience feelings more consistent with those of European women than Middle

Eastern. In addition to this ideology, her mother also instilled a grain of

feminist subjectivity which prompted her to resist the strong subjectivity put

upon her by the phallogocentric, male dominated society in which she lived,

encountered both in Turkey and Europe. However, this resistance was in the form

of religious preference and her willingness to eventually disobey and rebel

against her father's wishes and did not take shape in common occurrence. She

subscribed to the socially common doctrine of women's domestic position and

norms of femininity. In fact, she was, in a manner, willingly given as property

to Felix, supporting what Irigaray referred to as "women on the market."

Although her father promised her to Felix without asking her, when she learned

of the deal she did not react aversely to it but in fact "exhibited towards him

the simplest and tenderest affection"(Shelley 109). As for her feminine

subjectivity, her beauty, manner, and poise, combined with the male society's

reaction to her, placed her as typically feminine even though some might view

her slight resistance and willingness to venture forth in order to find her man

as "a masculine energy and enterprise lacking in the novel's other women"(Smith

283). In conclusion, through her mother's teachings, she was able to gain a

slightly different subjectivity than might have otherwise occurred as society,

attempted to mold her to fit its place for her. And this role differed from the

other female examples given in the work in her strong motivation to achieve her

desired European role, which was more similar to the other female roles in the

book in that it fulfilled the domestic ideology of the European society. The

society itself was phallogocentric and, by nature, riddled with its own

subjectivity, such as the Orientalism inherent in Europe, which attempted to

examine the Orient which had "a brute reality obviously greater than anything

that could be said about them in the West"(Said 304).

Works Cited

Beneviste, Emile. "Subjectivity in Language." Course Reader. 83-88

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and

Colonial Discourses." Course Reader. 289-300

Said, Edward W. "Introduction to Orientalism." Course Reader. 303-312

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford Books,


Smith, Johanna M. "'Cooped Up': Feminine Domesticity in Frankenstein." Bedford

Books, 1992 270-285

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