Isolation in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"
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The Recurring Theme of Isolation
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a framed narrative, with layer upon layer of story told through three different perspectives: Dr. Victor Frankenstein, his monster, and Robert Walton.
Walton is a curious man, questing to discover the unknown of the North Pole. He discovers Dr. Frankenstein, wandering, emaciated, and near death; he learns that Frankenstein has, in a quest for science and knowledge, brought a horror to life. That horror is his monster, who is ultimately searching for a sense of belonging in such an unforgiving world.
What begins as a look into Walton’s voyage in isolation turns into an unfolding story of the three and each of their entrapments in solitude. Though there are great differences in their quests and interests, they each become consumed in isolation. Two end in despair; but what of the other?
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Dr. Frankenstein, as a young boy, isolated himself to his studies; he was more intrigued by the theories of scientists than by spending time with his family or friends.
“[H]ere were books, and here were men who had penetrated deeper and knew more. [He] took their word for all that they averred, and [he] became their disciple” (Page 28).
Standing outside of the “norm” of society at the time, choosing isolation would have been far easier than finding acceptance. This early consumption carried on into his adulthood, where he became intrigued with the secret of life; without any outside opinions to deter him, Frankenstein delves into an obsession with creating a monster, built of reanimated human tissue, unconcerned with the consequences that may follow.
“My cheek had grown pale with study,” he relates, “and my person had become emaciated with confinement” (Page 41).
Originally, Frankenstein isolated himself to the study of science, which is seemingly ordinary; later on, he obsessively isolated himself to discovering the secret of life. Once he held it, however, he was appalled:
“Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch” (Page 45).
Through the rest of the novel, Frankenstein isolates himself in shame and guilt; he isolates himself to the sole task of destroying what he has created.
Frankenstein’s isolation is always consistent in its presence, but not in its reasoning. Throughout the novel, he transitions from solitude due to his studies, to the creation of the monster, to a desperate, lonely path to retribution.
Frankenstein’s monster experiences a rather different type of isolation, considering what he is; he is forced to solitude because society would never accept him, because he is the only one of his kind. Unlike Frankenstein’s isolation, it is not by choice; and, while Frankenstein has family and friends he can and does return to at times, the monster is entirely alone in the world, except for his one and only connection to his creator:
“You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow creatures, who owe me nothing? They spurn and hate me” (Page 84).
In solitude, the monster dwells on hatred and vengeance for Frankenstein, who rejects him as the rest of society does. It also must be taken into account the depth of isolation during this time. A man back then had no television, no internet, hardly any newspapers, and the transportation of mail was slow; so, for someone who chose not to communicate with the outside world, they were truly cut off from it.
For a time, the monster’s only window into the world is the window of the cottage, where he observes and learns the English language. He then tries to educate himself about the world through the books he finds and reads, taking them as accounts of history rather than fictional works as they were.
Fascinated by these new concepts, they “produced to [him] an infinity of new images and feelings, that sometimes raised [him] to ecstasy, but more frequently sunk [him] into the lowest dejection” (Page 108). The monster desperately tries to emerge himself into society unlike his creator, who adamantly draws himself away from it.
Robert Walton, however, is more similar to the monster’s creator than the monster, in the sense that he has chosen his isolation; like Frankenstein, he is consumed by his curiosity for the unknown and becomes lost within it.
He quests after the remote North Pole; “I may there discover the wondrous powers which attracts the needle and may regulate a thousand celestial observations… I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man” (Page 4). Like Frankenstein, he becomes consumed by the idea of discovering a secret unknown to man.
In the end of the novel, Walton is both Frankenstein and the monster’s final outlet, both expressing their regrets and pains due to their solitude; Frankenstein has narrated to him how his original, chosen seclusion ultimately led to the expiration of everyone dear to him, leading to true, unsolicited solitude.
The monster, finding his creator and only link to society dead, relates to Walton the grief of his existence, having no motivation to continue on, now entirely alone. Walton witnesses the downfall of a man and a beast. Perhaps he was able to see the dangers of his own chosen isolation; perhaps Frankenstein’s tale saved Walton from a similar fate.
What do you think Robert Walton did after the end of the novel?
Did Walton learn his lesson?
Each of these three characters experienced isolation in different ways and for different reasons. By the end of the novel, however, they all have one thing in common: the realization that their isolation ultimately caused, or in Walton’s case, would eventually cause, their despair.
Dr. Frankenstein brought a life of solitude upon himself with his obsession in creating life, which turned quickly into an intense repulsion of his work. Frankenstein’s obsession with this pursuit blinded him to seeing any value in what he had: a loving family and a devoted, patient fiancée. When isolation was a choice, it did not seem a sacrifice to leave his family and friends.
Isolation was forced upon Frankenstein, as it was upon the monster, when the monster took everyone away from him. Here, Frankenstein found complete despair. In this, he died; when the monster discovers this, he too comes to the realization that his actions have killed his only contact, and the monster is consumed by despair as his creator was.
Walton, all the while, gathered both of their accounts and witnessed both of their ends. Mary Shelley leaves the reader with no conclusion of his lessons learned from it all; he could very well continue sailing north, through the freezing cold, companionless. But, perhaps he returned to his dear sister in the realization that he desired no such despair.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (the 1994 movie adaptation – full movie)
© 2014 Niki Hale