Alienation in Frankenstein

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores themes of alienation in Mary Shelley's 1818 masterpiece, Frankenstein. The lesson argues that alienation is a powerful driving force for the novel's major characters.

Mary Shelley

Born Alone to Die Alone: Alienation in Frankenstein

Mary Shelley's 1818 masterpiece, Frankenstein, presents one of the greatest science fiction-horror stories of all time. The story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation has captivated audiences for almost 200 years now. A large part of the novel's staying power can be attributed to its ability to address universal human themes--the thoughts and feelings with which we can all identify.

This is particularly true of the novel's exploration of alienation, that terrible feeling of being misunderstood, isolated, and alone, even in the middle of a crowd. Shelley suggests that alienation is a feeling we all endure and it can make us do desperate and terrible things.

Victor fleeing his creation, from 1831 edition

Misunderstood, Rejected, and Alone: Frankenstein's Lonely Triad

Frankenstein's Monster: The Loneliest of Them All

Of course, no one in Shelley's novel is more alienated than the monster himself. His first encounter with humankind is rejection: his creator, Victor Frankenstein, is horrified by what he has done and recoils from the monster at the moment of his birth.

Within hours, the monster is driven into the forest by terrified townspeople, who viciously attack him on sight.

Eventually, he stumbles upon the DeLacey home, where he hides for months. As he watches them, he learns about love and family, something he desperately craves.

His infant experiences haunt him. He knows that his physical appearance is terrifying and that he must somehow compensate for his terrible outer shell if he is to be understood and accepted by the DeLaceys.

During the night, he performs many small acts of kindness for them without their knowledge, such as bringing them firewood and food from the forest. When he can, he practices speech and softening his voice to a gentle timbre. He watches how the family moves and behaves toward one another, all in the desperate hope that his gentle heart and loving spirit will be recognized above his gruesome appearance.

It is not to be. The DeLaceys react with the same horror and terror as his creator and the townspeople. The monster realizes that he will never be accepted into the human family. He will never overcome his alienation from humankind.

So he seeks revenge on the man responsible for his outcast birth. But first, he offers one last solution: a mate. If Victor will create for him a wife, someone to end his loneliness, then he and his bride will retreat to the jungles of South America and never bother humanity again. Victor imagines an entire race of monsters springing from this one couple, and refuses his creation's request. The monster vows to make his creator as lonely, isolated, and miserable as he.

The monster's existence shows how miserable, and ultimately destructive, alienation is. The monster has the capacity to be a profoundly gentle and loving being, but he can only withstand his loneliness for so long. The rage and destruction that follow merely reflect the depth of his pain.

Victor Frankenstein: The Isolation of Genius and Guilt

Victor's sense of alienation doesn't begin with the monster's vow of vengeance, of course. No, he has been alienated in one way or another all his life. As a young man, he would lock himself away to pursue his studies. Even those closest to him couldn't understand the depth of his work or his ambitions behind it.

His isolation became more pronounced when he began in earnest his project to harness the powers of life and death. His lofty ambitions to create life stem partially from grief. Victor is haunted by the death of his mother, who passed away just before he left for the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. Due to the intellectual distance between himself and his family and friends, no one realizes the scope of his grief, or that it would manifest in such a terrifying form.

Victor's alienation as a scholar and scientist is nothing, however, compared to his alienation after the monster is born. His guilt is even worse than his isolation as a scholar. Victor has only himself to blame for the monster. Victor is not just ashamed of what he's done. He's terrified. He's violated the laws of nature. He's presumed to play God.

He wonders how anyone can possibly forgive or love him again. He shuts up his secret and slowly withers inside, withdrawing from the dear ones who can't possibly understand him. For Victor, his is a secret too diabolical ever to share. What he has done alienates him forever from his family, and from the rest of humanity.

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