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Essay/Term paper: The subjectivity of the character 'safie' in frankenstein

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Frankenstein

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The Subjectivity of the Character "Safie" in Frankenstein

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 ideology.
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 statement:
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, 1992

Smith, Johanna M. "'Cooped Up': Feminine Domesticity in Frankenstein." Bedford Books, 1992 270-285


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