The theme of isolation in Frankenstein raises many questions about the role of community and its importance. Many characters in the novel find themselves in isolated positions, and a few suffer grave consequences because of it. Characters suffer from both physical and emotional isolation, although, as in the case of the monster, the isolation is not always self-inflicted. Victor Frankenstein, on the other hand, chooses to isolate himself from his family, his peers, and even the monster he created. Throughout the novel, we see isolation manifested in multiple ways in multiple characters.
Mary Shelley makes this theme apparent in the very beginning of the novel by using setting and nature. The remote Arctic is her choice for introductory setting. It is not surprising that Shelly would choose to make this a theme in her debut novel; isolation and abandonment were characteristic of many Romantic texts. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an early Romantic poet, also chose to use nature as a way to engage isolation in his poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by showing the mariner unnecessarily killing an albatross. The mariner's punishment for killing the albatross is watching his crew die in front of him. Coleridge depicts the mariner as an perpetual loner based on his choices, and shows that he is eternally cursed because of this (Van O'Connor).
In Frankenstein, horrible things happen when a character is isolated from the others. When Victor’s knowledge and ambition are unchecked by his peers, a monster is created. When Elizabeth is left alone on her wedding night, the monster attacks. When society abandons the monster, he becomes enraged and malicious. These instances prove that the destructive power lies not in the monster or his creator, but in solitude. Shelley uses this theme and its manifestation in her characters to pose questions about community, knowledge, and its role in society. Is unbridled knowledge always dangerous, or is there a middle ground? Should one abandon his or her pursuits if they are driving him or her away from a community? Is it possible for someone to be more intellectually advanced than his or her peers and still maintain a sense of community with them? Mary Shelley challenges her audience to answer these questions and more about isolation.
Victor Frankenstein embodies the theme of isolation better than any other character in the novel because he experiences it in two ways. Early in the novel, Victor tells Captain Walton of his childhood and of his thirst for the pursuit of knowledge, especially in the realm of science. While Victor is in college at Ingolstadt, we see him begin to detach from society. He spends all of his time in the lab, where he creates the monster. When Victor sees the monster and realizes the extent of what he has done, he becomes an agent of isolation by rejecting his own creation, setting into motion the madness of the monster. After that, every encounter that Victor has with the monster happens when he is alone. When he goes for a walk in the Alps without his family, the monster appears and demands a mate. On his wedding night to Elizabeth, he checks outside for the monster before retiring to bed, and this is when the monster attacks his new wife. Victor embodies the theme of isolation, as well as isolation’s consequences, by being both its victim and its instrument.
The monster experiences isolation in Frankenstein as a victim. He is secluded from humanity because people alienate him based on his horrific looks, which ultimately causes him to turn to violence. He experiences rejection first at the hands of his own creator, then by the townspeople at a small village. The people run from him screaming in terror, because although his search for food is innocent, his inhuman looks cause the villagers to believe differently. Finally, the monster is scorned by the De Lacey family, who he has been observing for a number of months and has grown to love. The De Lacey family’s choice to isolate the monster is what truly pushes him to enact violence on his creator, Victor, who made him so hideous. Shelley dares her readers to contrast this type of isolation with the type that Victor undergoes. Is social rejection even more poisonous than the choice to be segregated from that society?
Captain Walton, the novel's frame narrator, is another example of self-inflicted isolation, but also of community. He is sailing the Arctic Ocean in hopes of exploring the North Pole when he comes across Victor and learns his story. We read his letters to home where he describes not feeling connected with any of his crew members. Shelley displays isolation through Walton initially by simply placing him in the Arctic, a very secluded and void place. The novel ends with Victor finishing up his narrative to Walton, and we find out that Walton abandoned his pursuit of the North Pole. Why? We discover through his letters that his crew threatened mutiny if he continued sailing to the North Pole, so he turned back. Shelley uses Walton as both a parallel to Victor and a contrast to him. Like Victor, he desired recognition and was willing to take risks in order to fulfill that desire. However, unlike Victor, Walton was surrounded by a people who advised him of his poor judgment and helped him make the choice to return to safe waters. What would have happened if Victor had been surrounded by this type of community, instead of isolating himself from it?
The Creation of the Monster
The first time that we truly see the theme of isolation manifested in Victor is when he is a student in college. At Ingolstadt, Victor studies natural science and anatomy and becomes enthralled with the idea of creation; his ambition to be called a creator is overwhelming. He says “A new species would bless me as its creator and source;…No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (Shelley, 34). This wish is what prompts his detachment from society as he begins to put together his creature. He stops writing home and distances himself from his colleagues, focusing all of his attention and energy on creating his new species. We see the physical effects of his isolation before the creature is even brought to life. Victor becomes increasingly pale and depressed, growing sicker and sicker as he comes closer to producing life. He says of himself, “My cheek had gone pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement” (Shelley, 35). After the monster is created, Victor immediately rejects him and urgently leaves the apartment. The monster is brought into the world with disdain; Victor automatically assumes that his creation is inherently evil and spends the night pacing and worrying about his family, particularly his intended wife, Elizabeth, which foreshadows her fate later in the novel. In this scene sequence, we see where Victor’s isolation begins, how it affects him, and finally, how he inflicts it upon another living thing. Victor exiling his creature serves as a channel for the intense irony in the novel: Victor isolates himself in order to create this being of which he is terrified. He rejects it, which causes it to kill the people he loves most, leaving Victor more alone than ever before. Although Victor ultimately brings all of his isolation upon himself, he embodies the theme and its consequences better than any other character.
The De Lacey's Rejection of the Monster
In sharp contrast with Victor, the monster’s experience with isolation is entirely out of his control. As readers, we don’t know the monster’s story until the second volume when he confronts Victor in the Alps to demand a female companion. The monster tells of his experiences with desolation, which ultimately works to evoke sympathy from the readers on his behalf. His account ends with his most traumatic rejection, which came at the hands of his beloved De Lacey family. The creature had been watching the De Lacey family from a hovel near their house, and had learned everything from them: language, literacy, and social practices. He felt very connected to the family and repeatedly calls them endearing names such as his “friends” ano his “beloved cottagers.” One day, the family leaves on some errands, leaving the blind patriarch of the family at home. The creature approaches him, hoping to tell his story to Mr. De Lacey and gain his good graces before the rest of the family sees him, because the creature’s unnatural looks have been his social downfall. He knows the importance of this moment, and says, “This was the hour and moment of trial, which would decide my hopes, or realize my fears” (Shelley, 101). The rest of the family comes home while he is speaking to Mr. De Lacey and the monster tells Victor, “Who can describe their horror and consternation on beholding me?” (Shelley, 103). They physically force the monster out of the cottage. It is this rejection and the isolation that follows that is the turning point for the creature. Until this point, he never enacted any violence on another living thing, but after, he wishes to revenge himself against all humans, especially his creator. This is his motivation behind killing Victor’s brother, William. It could be argued that until the denial by the De Laceys, the being could be called a creature. After it, however, we can legitimately call him a monster. The isolation that the monster feels in this scene is his moment of transformation into what Victor assumed he was from the beginning. This moment is the birth of the real monster. Shelley uses the De Laceys as an agent of the monster’s transformation, and shows that their choice to deny the monster social acceptance is what makes him truly evil. As Shelley progresses her novel, it becomes clearer and clearer that the monster’s solidarity is ultimately what causes him to be malevolent.
Impact in/for Frankenstein
Isolation serves an important function in Shelley’s novel. A thorough understanding of this theme is important to the text because it develops characters, exposes the consequences of itself, and generates challenging questions about the role of isolation and community in our everyday lives. Isolation touches the lives of every character in Frankenstein in some way. The most obvious are Victor and the monster, but through them, isolation seeps into everyone else’s lives in the form of death and destruction. Shelley makes it clear that there are two different types of isolation: self-inflicted and societal. We see self-inflicted isolation manifested in Victor; he detaches from his world and the people he loves and as a result, everyone suffers tremendously. Rejection from society is demonstrated in the monster’s life. Again and again, he is turned away from love and companionship, which what he has longed for since he was first brought to life. Eventually, he resorts to sinister actions to avenge his miserable life. The persistent power of alienation also shows the power of a strong community. Is community the only deterrent to unchecked knowledge? Would Victor have proceeded with his scientific conquests if he had had a community of peers to audit his ambition? The entire novel is based on Victor’s laboratory circumstances, but why do these circumstances occur? While Victor’s ambition and pride are definitely what cause the creation of the monster, his isolation is the channel through which they come to fruition. Similarly, the monster's exclusion from society is the catalyst for his horrific actions.
Adaptations of Frankenstein often alter the presence of isolation and community in the story. Many adaptations, such as Young Frankenstein, show Victor in his laboratory with a lab assistant. Even the very first adaptation in 1823, a play called Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein, portrays Victor as having a servant who aids him in the lab. This new character changes Victor’s role, and his responsibility to the monster substantially. Having another “creator” in the lab with Victor causes the theme of isolation to become nearly obsolete. If Victor did not act alone in creating the monster, then the carnage that follows can be blamed on the monster. Placing another person in the lab completely justifies Victor’s insatiable ambition. A lab assistant totally eradicates the contrast between the isolation of monster and that of Victor. Instead, we see only the solidarity of the monster. When this contrast between self-inflicted and societal rejection is eliminated, the audience loses any chance of sympathy for the monster. This is when we, as an audience, start to adopt Victor’s belief that the monster was born evil, when in actuality, the evil lies in seclusion.
References and Suggestions for Further Reading
Peake, Richard Brinsley. "Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein." Romantic Circles. Ed. Stephen C. Behrendt. University of Maryland, Aug. 2001. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein: A Longman Cultural Edition, Second Edition. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007. 5-179. Print.
Sherwin, Paul. "Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe." Modern Language Association 96.5 (1981): 883-903. Print.
Van O'Connor, William. "The Isolation of the Poet." Poetry 70.1 (1947): 28-36. JSTOR.