Outside Looking In: Loneliness and Isolation in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”

© November 2013 Mary Crockford

In his essay collection titled A Philosophical Enquiry, Edmund Burke wrote that “All privations are great, because they are all terrible. Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude, and Silence. (Burke and Smith, 65)”  This statement could be applied directly to the central theme of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Isolation. By way of the novel’s epistolary form, elements of environment, and fractured relationships, Shelley conveys the profound loneliness that internal and relational disconnectedness cause for the novel’s main characters: Robert Walton, Victor, and the Creature.
The first glimpse into this theme of isolation occurs with the introduction of Robert Walton, whose descriptions of the Arctic in which he has stationed himself take place through a series of letters to his sister, Margaret. His characterizations of such an extreme location are indicative of one aspect of his emotional state, that of disappointed ambitions as an aspiring poet, expressed in his yearning for communion with the poetic fathers he imagines dwelling “in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated” (Shelly et. al. 11).  But Walton’s loneliness is due less to actual failure than to his determination to outrun his father’s “dying injunction” and pursue the life of an explorer and man of science (Shelley et al. 11).  The ship he hires, the Archangel, is itself an “isolated vessel on its path to further isolated regions” (Smolka 23). He does provide for himself a measure of community by hiring shipmates to aid him in his journey north through “the seat of frost and desolation.” He mans his ship with an able crew, assuring his absent sister that they are “men on whom I can depend…possessed of dauntless courage.” Nonetheless, as the only learned individual on his vessel, he longs for a companion “possessed of a cultivated as well as capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own…” (Shelley et al. 15). His lieutenant is a “man of wonderful courage and enterprise” and “madly desirous of glory,” but one of “national and professional prejudices, unsoftened by cultivation” (Shelley et al. 16). As a result of both curiosity and desire for adventure which act as his “enticements…sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death,” and the belief that he would “find no friend on the wide ocean,” Walton emerges as the first of the book’s characters to acknowledge “the want of a friend” (Shelley et al. 9,15).  His communications about the men in his charge, and the emotional tenor of his letters to Margaret, are indicative of a man desiring not simply companionship, but also open discourse and mental enlargement.  Walton’s loneliness meets with kindled hope when he encounters Victor, whose own lengthy solitude is evidenced by his entry into the narrative from across the “vast and irregular plains of ice, which seemed to have no end” (Shelley et al. 22).  The bitter cold of the Arctic expanse emerges at this point in the narrative as an unmistakable “metaphor for the comfortless, solitary life” each of the book’s main characters, in some measure, leads (Claridge 8).
Just as Walton’s shipmates confront a seemingly impenetrable barrier of fog, a sledge appears and Walton becomes “watchful with anxious thoughts.”  While at first the team watches the “rapid progress of the traveler,” and becomes “excited by…unqualified wonder,” (Shelley et al. 22-24), their hopes are dashed as they again face isolation and the figure becomes “lost among the distant inequalities of ice.” It is not until the next morning that Walton awakes to find his crew talking with a second individual appearing “on the brink of destruction,” one Walton hopes to hold “as a brother of my heart” (24,27).

The focus then shifts from Walton to the rescued Victor, whose tale of isolation comes into microscopic focus. Soon after Victor enters the Archangel, it is clear that his particular brand of loneliness is one for which there is no simple remedy:

“You have hope, and the world before you, and have no cause for despair. But
I—I have lost every thing, and can not begin life anew.” (29)

Victor’s tale begins as one by whom every familial relationship is portrayed as ideal, though too ideal to be believed as the story progresses and it becomes clear that he spends all his time neglecting or avoiding them.  As a student, his self-styled brand of intellectual inquiry also isolates him from the scientific community in which he claims to want inclusion.  Despite the admonition of a professor that his studies of discounted theorists have amounted to nothing, and that he should scrap his misguided early education, Victor withdraws into his own prejudices, precipitating a pattern of psychological withdrawal and justification that leads to his self-appointment as a scientific martyr and outsider. He declares himself a lone genius better served by remaining silent, insulating himself from accountability and objectivity:

“The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of
those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was
required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little
worth.” (54)

Victor insulates himself from both criticism and accountability, sets his attention to mastering the “principle of life,” and leaves school after deciding that he has learned all that such a limited institution could reasonably offer him.  He begins clandestinely perusing cemeteries and morgues for “secrets of the human frame” (68), body parts for use in his creation, certain that he “alone could be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret…” (62). He retreats more and more into his laboratory, described by Smolka as “a border against the external world,” to which he alone has access (19). His detachment from “the friends who were so many miles absent” (69) continues for months, until his work in the “solitary chamber” and “workshop of filthy creation” reaches culmination and his creation awakens. Horror dawns upon him with the opening of the monster’s “dull yellow eye”, and his once unshakeable confidence in the worthiness of his endeavors is jaundiced by the reality of what his efforts have wrought.  The monster’s awakening and capacity for movement render it what psychologist James M. Schultz calls “the thing he could not confess and had to hide” (par. 6), and his secrecy deepens. As the creature begins to move about, following its innate curiosity and unwittingly transgressing boundaries that any ignorant child would, Victor plunges headlong into denial and tries unsuccessfully to immerse himself in his remaining fantasy, the woman Elizabeth:

“From sheer exhaustion, I slept, but a sleep disturbed…I thought I saw
Elizabeth, in the bloom of health…but as I imprinted the first kiss on
her lips, they became livid with the hue of death;…” (75)

Upon awakening to find the creature standing over his bed, he repeats his rejection and flees, hiding until he meets Henry Clerval in the morning. He leaves with Henry, still protecting his terrible secret. Thus continues the protracted nature of Victor’s isolation, which will be characterized by habitual fleeing from one concealing place to another, avoiding culpability for his creation’s misdeeds, and retreating further behind walls of escapist fantasies and mental instability.
Victor’s immediate revulsion and departure from his creature at the moment of its animation marks “the first of several rejections that the creature constantly encounters” (Smolka 17). The creature’s first experiences are those of an abandoned newborn child, bereft of both individual identity and parental guidance in a world in which it “knew, and could distinguish, nothing…feeling pain invade…on all sides…” (146).  It lacks the foundations of language, lamenting “the uncouth and inarticulate sounds” preventing communion even with the woodland birds that represent its only safe company (148).   Its first experiences with comfort take place outside the purview of human companionship as well, as the requirement of warmth is furnished through accidental provisions discarded by others in the woods to which it fled:

“I was still cold, when under one of the trees I found a huge cloak, with which
I covered myself…” (147)

“…I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was
overcome by delight at the warmth of it.” (149)

The creature has learned from its first moments that it must only observe people from afar, so begins to glean what it can of the world through a family of cottagers whose “conversation opened new wonders…”.  He protects himself from discovery and ultimate rejection by the members of the family, taking advantage of the “borderline” of night, relegating himself to “live in the sheltering darkness” (Smolka, 19,21).  He listens outside doors and windows, alone in the knowledge that he is a “figure hideously deformed” and “not even of the same nature as man” (173).  His awareness of his repelling aspect prevents him from pursuiing human companionship, and forecasts a perpetually lonely existence. He is now the sum of what Schultz describes as “full blown forms of humiliation and mortification” (10), an apt description of the state of mind of an individual resigned to observing life as a marginalized outsider—a voyeur. His only respite from the “overpowering sense of space” caused by his loneliness is to peer through windows and fantasize that those he observes are his friends and companions (Hogel 216).  In one of the novel’s plentiful allusions to Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the monster compares its lot as an outcast to that of Satan, finding his own isolation more grievous than one ousted from Heaven itself:

“Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.” (24)

At this point, the creature “establishes a correlation between his condition and an aspect of the novel,” and “reflects that hell is an internal condition…produced and increased through loneliness” (Pollin, par. 14).  The effects of the “terrible burden” caused by Victor’s failure to habituate the monster to home and society produce “progressively damaging results upon the creature” so that “everything it does or feels relates directly to its emotional seclusion” (J.J., par. 9).  He becomes what psychiatrist Selma Fraiberg predicts for the “unnurtured, unloved child,” a life as “the criminal who seeks to negate his overwhelming sense of nothingness by inflicting pain on others—a scream that “I exist, I am” (Claridge, par. 22).  The consequences of the monster’s frightful attention-seeking activities mount quickly, beginning with the murder of the innocent child William, and its celebratory statement that “I, too, can create desolation…” (207).  With the subsequent framing of Justine for the child’s murder, and the killing of Henry, the monster’s intention is clearly to repay Victor for the “emotional desertion” (J.J., par. 8) it endures with “a thousand other miseries” (207).
As the paths of the monster and Victor converge through its terrorizing occupations, Victor finds himself “as waking from a dream, in a prison, surrounded by jailers” (24). These “jailers” that isolate Victor both psychologically and emotionally from those around him are the tormentors invited in by his own avoidance of accountability, now vivified in the monster’s relentless determination to destroy him. His pattern of having repeatedly “avoided disclosure and maintained a continual silence,” while ignoring his internal conflict between guilt and self-preservation, perpetuates his own bizarre form of loneliness (18).
As a result of Victor’s repeated failures to warn of the dangers the monster presents, the creature’s violent rampage culminates with the strangulation of Elizabeth on her and Victor’s wedding night. This latest in the string of tragedies occurs due to Victor’s propensity for forcing the concerns of his loved ones into the background, favoring secrecy and alienation in his single-minded pursuit of his ambitions. Despite the protests of his bride, Victor dismisses her and leaves her completely unguarded, even as he knows death is a constant threat. He sacrifices her to his obsession with the monster, and blames her for her own murder:

“She left me; and I continued some time walking up and down the
passages of the house., and inspecting every corner that might afford
a retreat to my adversary.” (289)

In finally deciding to confess his creation of the monster, Victor meets with others’ disbelief. His lonely existence, and that of the monster, once again find their fulcrum in the isolated topography of the “vast portion of the earth” and Victor determines to “quit Geneva for ever.”  He gives chase to the monster, vowing to do so until both “perish in mortal conflict” (300, 301).
At the novel’s end, the fates of all three lonely creatures converge on the Archangel. With the close of Victor’s confession to Walton, and his “untimely extinction”, his earthly isolation ends. Walton, however, experiences a renewal of his own loneliness, and determines to end his own isolation by returning to England to “there find consolation” (324). His solitary reverie is interrupted by the appearance of the monster, hovering near his now-freed creator’s form. It futilely bemoans the misery it has caused in response to its own privations, having for so long “cast off all feeling, subdued all anguish in the excess of my despair” (324). Despite the end of his obsessive purpose with the death of his father, the creature finds no hope of release from his torment and remains forever “the miserable and the abandoned…an abortion, to be spurned…” It promises Walton to no longer be “the instrument of future mischief” and to commit a fiery suicide in “the most northern extremity of the globe…” (330-331). Walton remains the only soul with the hope of escaping the isolation that permeates the tale, as the monster flees into the same “darkness and distance” that has characterized its brief life. Walton is left alone, carrying one last burden—that of the only living witness to every aspect of Victor’s and the monster’s unbelievable tale.
Whether through ignorance and confusion, or reckless leaps outside the bounds of scientific or social propriety, the characters that “vie for authority” in Shelley’s tale all experience varying degrees of privation leading to isolation and loneliness (Mandal, par. 6). By virtue of being created and born in an atmosphere of secrecy and disgrace, and subsequently rejected for his deviant appearance and behavior, Victor’s creature is a stark illustration of the perils of relational deprivation during a child’s formative years. Conceived first in the morally desolate mind of his human father, then vivified in a sterile and loveless laboratory environment, the creature can only violate his father’s perceptions of perfection and lovableness and be consigned to a life of rejection. Victor Frankenstein stands as a symbol of the dangers of relational neglect that result from “unrestrained pursuit of human knowledge” (Mandal, par. 6, 8) and lead to secrecy and seclusion. The novel warns of the potential perils of rearing children without “those sympathies necessary for…being” (Shelley et. al. 209). The creature symbolizes the arrested child that may be introduced–or unleashed–on society, through the absence of boundaries needed for the protection and preservation of both. Walton’s lesson is a gentler one, perhaps simply that in a world characterized by unanticipated complications and tragedies, dependable and encouraging relationships are the best and most predictable source of solace and self-improvement. In the end, Frankenstein‘s tale is a cautionary one, in which the vastness of the narrative is littered with evidence of the pain of solation and loneliness, and scant promise of deliverance from its torments.

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund, and Adam Phillips. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford[etc.: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.
Claridge, Laura P. “Parent-Child Tensions in Frankenstein.” Thesis. University of Pennsylvania,
1985. Studies in the Novel Spring 17.1 (1985): n. pag. Parent-Child Tensions in Frankenstein. University of Pennsylvania. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
Hogle, Jerrold E. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 2002. Print.
J, J. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – The Downward Spiral of Loneliness.” Yahoo Voices. Yahoo Contributor Network, 26 Apr. 2007. Web. 28
Mandal, Anthony. “Knowledge & Gender in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein'” Web log post. Cardiff Book Talk. Cardiff University, Web.
Pollin, Bernard. “Philosophical and Literary Sources” University of Pennsylvania, 1965. Web.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Leonard Wolf, and Marcia Huyette. The Annotated Frankenstein: With Maps, Drawings, and Photographs. New York, NY: Potter, 1977. Print.
Smolka, Michal. “An Echo of Social Alienation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Thesis. Masaryk University Brno, 2007. Web.

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