Isolation, alienation and loneliness are prominent themes in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 classic novel Frankenstein.
The Internet is stuffed with resources to help high school and college students draw these themes out or just grab some relevant quotes for an essay.
I recently added to these resources in my own special way with this comic summary of the book.
A general idea in some analyses is that Victor Frankenstein makes a misguided attempt to create a human being from scratch due to his isolation from friends and family. This isolation can be compared with that of Robert Walton, the book’s beginning and ending narrator, a sea captain on a mission to find a passage to the North Pacific from Northern Europe.
Where does all this isolation come from, though? Why does it exist?
Walton’s isolation, as opposed to Frankenstein’s at the time he created his “monster,” is obvious and physical. He’s chosen to go on a mission through some of the least-traversed regions of the earth in a situation where he’s in charge of everything and has no peers or equals. He doesn’t get further than Archangel before he begins to crave friends like a low-carb dieter craving cheddar biscuits.
Frankenstein’s “monster” is also isolated in an obvious and physical way. You could argue that this creature, who eventually turns violent, still has free will. This may be true concerning his acts of violence, but less so when it comes to his being cut off from humanity. Victor doesn’t want to be around him and neither does anyone else. He does make good-faith attempts to reach out to people, but really, there’s only so much you can do when they keep running away screaming.
There’s no doubt that loneliness exists in Frankenstein and plays a major role in the story’s outcome. However, establishing Victor Frankenstein’s loneliness as a key explanation of his actions creates more questions than it answers: There may be a temptation to simply blame Victor for his lack of foresight, to say he’s responsible for his deeds and to point out all the times he could have stopped the destructive flow of events emanating outward from his fatal error. But this still leaves the question of why he chooses to isolate himself and to allow the destruction to continue. Furthermore, how do you define isolation, especially when it’s not just physical? Is it of a singular quality? Is it more dangerous in some forms than others?
Frankenstein happens upon Walton’s ship while pursuing his creation-gone-rogue across a stretch of icy sea. The tale of Victor’s woes is related in one go, ostensibly as it’s been recorded by Walton.
The main sentiment that Frankenstein seems to share with Walton is the feeling of being destined for greatness of some kind. Part of the loneliness, then, could be both familial and societal: When Frankenstein first brings up the fact of his going away to Ingolstadt, Germany, for his college education, he makes it sound as if this was entirely his parents’ idea. The fact that his mother dies soon before he leaves can stand in as a reason for him to act rashly or unusually, but he spends a couple years studying under a scientific mentor before he begins to seriously toy with the mechanics of human life. Also, his interest in being able to extend life and youth reaches back to before the death of his mother.
It’s difficult to analyze Frankenstein from a psychological standpoint because Shelley doesn’t give us a whole lot to work with in terms of the exact degree of parental pressure he feels or other events from his childhood that affect him. There is a little bit of delving into the possible reverse psychology of his being discouraged—first by his father and later a professor—from reading occult philosophers like Cornelius Agrippa, who feed his taste for fanciful and fantastic applications of real scientific knowledge. There’s also the fact that he identifies himself as being a fairly moody child. But the progression of these interests, behaviors and experiences isn’t followed through on enough for any kind of unique framework of character understanding to fully take hold.
So if Frankenstein’s motivations can’t be identified, much less be shown to be the product of specific societal mores, why has his story (albeit largely through film adaptations and pop culture) managed to lock itself so deeply into the collective consciousness? Why do we tend to often look at it as more than a scary story, assuming it to carry a sort of warning about ourselves and our temptations as humans?
It may be simply because Frankenstein is first and foremost an all-you-can-eat buffet of humanity’s most grievous flaws, served up in a grotesque and ridiculous manner, which is part of what makes it so fun to draw from as source material. Considering the pop-culture version of Frankenstein that has resulted from various adaptations, we may most often reference it as a warning about scientific progress, ambition without purpose, etc. But looked at in a different, perhaps less-strictly-moral light, it’s basically just everything that’s wrong with us turned up to 11. Horror, almost by definition, springs from the idea of the inescapable, the ugliness that’s part and parcel of the self.
What’s wrong with Victor is what’s wrong with all of us: He’s selfish, lazy, vain, convenience-driven and believes he deserves glory despite it all. At the same time, so little correction of his less-savory traits would be needed to stop the bloody rampage he indirectly but definitely causes. He has several chances to at least lessen the damage caused by his “monster,” a being who in many ways seems to experience humanity in a more close-up and personal way than Victor despite his lack of actual contact with human beings. These groan-worthy moments of sheer stupidity reinforce the story’s horrific nature.
The flip-side of this stupidity is the shallowness of Victor’s personal life. On the surface, he appears to have no early-formed resentments or psychological wounds: He believes himself to have had the happiest childhood of any human being ever, he loves his parents, he loves his best friend Henry, he loves his adopted “more than sister” and convenient bride-to-be Elizabeth. The lack of conflict in his life before his scientific pursuits is in itself supernatural and not believable, but it serves to make the rest of his actions and motivations more so. The question of whether he’s a reliable narrator isn’t a very interesting one, because someone who would make up the kind of story he tells is probably of the same moral make-up and personality as the person he’s pretending to be.
When he leaves his family to make his way in the world, Frankenstein has already experienced suffering in the form of his mother’s death, but as far as we know he has yet to consciously cause suffering. This concept is brought up later when Victor’s “monster,” upon committing his first murder, understands that he, far from being simply a pincushion for others to push their fears and prejudices into, is also capable of causing pain and wreaking havoc.
It almost seems simplistic to talk about Victor and his creation being mirror images of one another, but it’s true that they’re both to some extent defined by what they lack. At times, their lacks run parallel; at other times one of them seems to supply a characteristic the other needs, but in a way that doesn’t ultimately help either of them. The main difference between them, however, seems to be that Victor’s creation has a certain acute awareness of the world that Victor doesn’t: The “monster,” like Victor, is capable of complex reasoning. However, unlike Victor, his logic and explanations seem to follow as reflections from his experience. He doesn’t seek to supplant his horrifying actions, which mainly consist of strangling Victor’s relatives, with his explanations, only to understand them.
Victor, on the other hand, is constantly explaining and moralizing before he can even begin to think about actually doing something, and it’s this moralizing that seems to stop him from taking any actions that could be helpful to anyone, including himself. He manages to have zero honest interaction with the “monster” or anyone else concerning what he’s done (until he meets Walton, presumably, and by then he treats his experience as too fossilized for the sharing of it to be meaningful). He’s an expert at convincing himself that nothing needs to be done or even should be done, and in fact, his most significant and momentous action—creating the “monster”—seems to be done with almost no thought given to the deed itself.
If Shelley is doing any moralizing of her own, I think it at least partially concerns the idea that experience without reflection is arguably not experience at all. Striving to be conscious not only of the immediate result of our actions but of their possible wider effects and meaning is the way we interact with ourselves, other people, lifeless matter, human-like creatures we’ve inadvertently or purposely created, the list goes on. It is also, for what it’s worth, basically the scientific method.
Science, art and relationships, at their best, are not one person’s bold and glorious expedition but a dialogue—even if only with ourselves or nature. Reading the original Frankenstein can remind us of the importance of this type of consciousness and interaction. Whether we fulfill it by creating a stick figure comic in MS Paint, talking to a cat because we feel dumb talking to ourselves, reading a book that’s nearly two hundred years old or writing an interesting paper on Shelley’s novel for the world or just our teachers to see (do it!), we can to a certain extent enjoy the talk-show schadenfreude of knowing we actually exist. No matter how blurry and indistinct we may feel sometimes, we are not like the impossibly abstract Victor.
Unless of course, we are, in which case we should do absolutely anything to occupy ourselves rather than build an artificial human being or *cough* run for President.
While Frankenstein does offer subtle critiques of blind ambition, capitalism and harmful perceptions of masculinity (all of which can still be considered relevant), and while it does, to a certain extent, speak to the monster in all of us, I think it can also be useful to recognize the over-the-top elements as being over-the-top—even in this original version, sans green-skinned-monster-with-bolt-through-neck. Because it’s a classic, we’re supposed to take it seriously. But part of the pleasure of the horror in a book like Frankenstein is making fun of it, and part of the book’s power lies in its ability to makes us wince, squirm and laugh—hopefully all at the same time.
(The picture at the beginning of this post is taken from art in the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.)