Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, has several themes imbedded in the text. One major theme is isolation. Many of the characters experience some time of isolation. The decisions and actions of some of these characters are the root cause of their isolation. They make choices that isolate them from everyone else. However, other characters are forced into isolation for reasons that are not in their control—the actions of another cause them to experience loneliness. The story begins with Robert Walton writing to his sister, Margaret, about his voyage to an undiscovered place. In these letters, as the voyage gets underway, he writes of his loneliness. Letter II states, “I have no friend …” (Hunter 16; ch 1). He describes how his “enthusiasm for success” will be experienced alone and how he must suffer his disappointments alone. Finally, he states, “I desire the company of a man” (Hunter 10; ch. 1 ).
In another letter, Walton is telling his sister about a conversation he had with Frankenstein about friendship. Frankenstein tells Walton, “I once had a friend …” (Hunter 16′ ch. 1), implying that he no longer has any friends. Isolation is evident from the very beginning. Robert Walton chooses his isolation. He chooses to take this voyage. Walton has planned this trip for six years. He states in his first letter, “I am required not only to raise the spirits of others but sometimes to sustain my own…” (Hunter 9; ch. 1). He understands exactly what he is getting into, and he chooses to continue anyway. George Levine states in his critical essay, “Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism,” that Walton is “isolated from the rest of mankind by his ambition …” (Levine 210). Walton’s desire to accomplish this task causes him not to have any friends or companions.
Upon hearing Frankenstein’s story, Walton understands that he is heading in the same direction that led Frankenstein to where he is at. He states, “I cannot lead them unwillingly to danger …” (Hunter 151; ch. 7). He recognizes that Frankenstein had put many people in harm’s way without them even knowing. He chooses to step away from this isolation and allow his crew to return from danger. Victor Frankenstein also chooses his isolation. He becomes so caught up in his studies and in creating this monster (or “human being”) that he becomes ill from the confinement. He first initiated this isolation with the desire to be the only one to create life. He desires to be set apart from other scientists and to be called “father.” He relates to Walton that he “seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (Hunter 32; ch.3). He admits to neglecting his family, saying that he was “caused … to forget those friends who were so many miles absent …” (Hunter 33; ch.3).
While doing so, he rationalizes these feelings by saying, “[his] father would be unjust if he ascribed [Frankenstein’s] neglect to vice or faultiness” (Hunter 33; ch.3). Frankenstein pushes the blame of disregarding his own family onto his father and the pursuit of knowledge. He chooses not to accept responsibility for ignoring those closest to him. Instead, he chooses to be apart from all of them. After returning home, Frankenstein’s isolation continues due to him knowing and understanding what he has done. He becomes so engulfed in his own agony and self-centred pity that he pushes himself away from his family when they need him the most. Instead of admitting what he has done and what has really killed William, Frankenstein allows Justine to take his fall. His guilt and feelings of anguish take him further and further into isolation. He states, “solitude was my only consolation – deep, dark, death-like solitude” (Hunter 59; ch.1).
Upon his consent to create a female for the creature, he departs from the only person who could help him, Clerval. He, again, becomes “immersed in a solitude” (Hunter 113; ch.2). Frankenstein’s actions caused the deaths of many of his loved ones. He resolves to get revenge and, therefore, ends up in complete and absolute isolation. Frankenstein’s creature is another character that experiences much isolation. As is different from the previous characters, the creature does not choose his isolation. Frankenstein creates this being and then rejects and abandons him. The creature is forced to teach himself and survive on his own. His discovery that he is very different from everyone else leaves him afraid and shunned by people. He is driven into the woods to hide and attempt to survive. The creature desires companionship desperately. He does not intend to hurt William. He wants to educate him so he can have a friend. The creature, whole-heartedly, blames Frankenstein for his isolation. He tells
Frankenstein, “This passion is detrimental to me; for you do not reflect that you are the cause of its excess” (Hunter 98; Ch. 9). Frankenstein has seen the results of his first creation and is terrified to create another being like that. He refuses, thus pushing both himself and the creature further into isolation. Mary Poovey states in her critical essay, “The Lady and the Monster,” that “because the monster’s physical form literally embodies its essence, it cannot pretend to be something it is not” (258). Although Frankenstein must always live with the fear and knowledge of what is out there, he can live in a society with people who love and care about him. The creature is bound to suffer life alone in hiding because one of one selfish man’s desire to be set apart from everyone else.
Elizabeth and Justine are two minor characters who suffered isolation at the hands of others. Elizabeth is at home, patiently waiting for Victor to return. He continually pushes her away. She is forced to live without him until he decides he is ready to marry her. Justine is accused of murdering William. Frankenstein knows the truth and, yet, allows Justine to face trial. She is forced to admit that she killed him and is put to death. Had Frankenstein been forthright about the situation, Justine would not have faced her separation from the community and family. Her reputation will always be that of a murderer. Shelley’s use of isolation as a theme creates an atmosphere or tone of solemnity. One is inclined to realize how serious the novel’s content is as a result of this dismal feeling. A sense of despair and desperation is created, while the tone draws upon the reader’s sympathy. The reader is drawn both to Frankenstein and the creature. In a sense, it is simple to place oneself in either of the character’s shoes.
One has surely felt lonely at some time, whether it be at the hands of another or because of one’s own actions. These grave and daunting sensations are vital to the novel’s gothic feeling. Frankenstein’s theme of isolation is a great one. The causes of the isolation are clearly evident, as are the effects of it. Every character deals with their loneliness differently. For some, isolation is their only option. There is no choice as to whether or not they will interact with people. For others, there is a conscious choice to remove themself from loved ones. The effects of the isolation, however, are the same for all – death. Walton is fortunate enough to have understood that this action, which he was participating in, had very severe consequences. He becomes aware of what is to come before forcing himself and his crew to experience this isolation and eventual death.
- Hunter, J. Paul. ed. Frankenstein: Contexts, nineteenth-century responses, criticism. By Mary Shelley. Norton Critical Edition. New York: New York. 1996.
- Levine, George. “Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism.” A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 7, no. 1 (1973): 17-23. Rpt. in Frankenstein: Contexts, nineteenth-century responses, criticism. By Mary Shelley. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. Norton Critical Edition. New York: New York. 1996. 208-14.
- Poovey, Mary. “My Hideous Progeny: The Lady And the Monster.” The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. Chicago: U of Chicago P. (1984): 121-31. Rpt. in Frankenstein: Contexts, nineteenth-century responses, criticism. By Mary Shelley. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. Norton Critical Edition. New York: New York. 1996. 251-61.