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Essay/Term paper: Frankenstein: the subjectivity of the character "safie"

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Frankenstein

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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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