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Frankenstein; loneliness and the importance of belonging

“But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.”

Frankenstein (p.182)

It’s 2018, and loneliness is on the agenda. In an era where we may count our Facebook friends and twitter followers in the 100s if not, 1000s, there is growing recognition that loneliness has by no means been eradicated.  For example, The Campaign to End Loneliness quotes research showing that 17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month (Victor, 2003). Loneliness does not just affect older people in society of course and, and in fact can occur during any life stage.  Loneliness can be experienced in many ways, but in general is defined by a mismatch between the amount and/or quality of social relationships we have, and the amount we want (Peplau and Perlman, 1982). This definition accounts for the fact that just being alone in of itself does not mean we are lonely; nor does it mean we cannot feel lonely or isolated, even when we are in the company of other people.

2018 also happens to be the bicentennial anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s ground-breaking novel, Frankenstein. The novel makes me think a lot about both how loneliness is brought about, and the terrible consequences for a person if it becomes an inescapable prison.  I’ve often thought the book’s status as a classic gothic horror novel, or even the first science fiction book, overshadows the humanity at the heart of the story. It’s one of the few books ever to make me weep, in complete and devastating empathy with the much-maligned ‘monster’, Frankenstein’s cruel and irresponsible creation. This may also have been because I first read it when I was a young teenager; there’s nothing like the cruelty of adolescence to make you acutely attuned to the pain of social rejection.  Mary Shelley was also very young when she wrote the book, and perhaps expressed the theme so convincingly, having just emerged from adolescence herself.  At that period in her life, she was also herself facing social ostracisation, owing to the fact that she was in a relationship with Percy Shelley whilst he was still married to his first wife.

Such is the degree to which the novel, in the words of Joyce Carole Oates, has permeated the “collective cultural consciousness”, it’s easy to forget that the real villain is of course Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and not the monster at all. Although the monster goes on to commit several murders in the book, including most famously killing Frankenstein’s wife on their wedding night, he only turns to violence and revenge after his own hopes of happiness and companionship have been first destroyed by Frankenstein.  The monster is not inherently evil or malicious – at the moment of his birth he is as innocent as any human baby.  He craves only what we all crave; love, companionship and a sense of belonging.  Yet he is immediately cast out into the world, without friend or protector, orphaned as it were by his “father” Dr. Frankenstein.  In one of the iconic passages from the book, Dr. Frankenstein animates the monster for the first time, and see to his horror that instead of creating a beautiful, perfect being, the monster is instead a shocking aberration of nature.

“His yellow skin scarcely covered the word of muscles and arteries beneath…his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.” ( p.46)

Frankenstein flees in terror from his creation. The monster is left to try and fend for himself in the world, but soon discovers that everyone is scared of him; people run away or try to attack him due to his fearsome appearance.

jungle

The monster resorts to taking up refuge in an isolated hovel, and begins to observe the family who live in the adjoining cottage, learning to speak from listening to them over many months.  He begins to grow fond of the family; observing from a distance, but trying to demonstrate his kindness to them by doing anonymous good deeds such as chopping firewood in the night.  The monster realises that the father of the family is blind, and hopes that because he cannot see the hideous deformities of his physical form, the old man will judge him only for the content of his character, and the goodness of his soul.  When the monster first goes to visit the old man, he expresses his fear of rejection by those he has grown to think of as friends. The old man tries to comfort him:  the following passage is all the more poignant for being the only words of kindness spoken to the monster in the whole book.

“Do not despair. To be friendless is indeed to be unfortunate; but the hearts of men, when unprejudiced by any obvious self-interest, are full of brotherly love and charity.  Rely, therefore, on your hopes; and if these friends are good and amiable, do not despair” (p.109)

Unfortunately, these words of hope come to naught, as the rest of the family arrive home to find the monster kneeling at the knee of the old man, which they misinterpret as an impending attack. The monster is once again driven away with harsh words and physical violence.  To be rejected by his surrogate ‘family’ which he hoped to find a place within, inflicts a fatal psychological would from which the monster cannot recover.

“Everywhere I see bliss from which I am irrevocably excluded…I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone?” (p.82)

The only solution the monster can think of is to request that Dr. Frankenstein makes another of his kind to be a companion for him, and them to live together in exile from the rest of the human race. Although he initially agrees, Dr. Frankenstein later reneges on his promise and destroys the “bride” before she can be animated, setting the scene for the monster’s terrible revenge in like.  The novel ends badly for creator and monster alike; they end up pursuing each other to literally the ends of the Earth, with the climax occurring in the icy wilds of the Arctic Ocean.  Frankenstein finally succumbs to long-standing illness, and the monster, upon discovering him dead realises his own time has also come.

“He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more, the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish. I shall no longer see the sun or stars, or feel the winds play on my cheeks.  Light, feeling and sense will pass away; and in this condition must I find my happiness” (p. 183)

These beautiful final lines of the monster beautifully illustrate why for me, the novel remains one of the most searing depictions of social exclusion and loneliness in all of fiction; and that’s where the true horror lies.

In my own area of research and clinical practice, I work on developing psychological therapies for people with psychosis. In the psychosis field, there is an idea that repeated and prolonged exposure to social defeat, or social exclusion, just as Frankenstein’s monster experiences, might increase the risk of later developing serious mental health problems such as schizophrenia or psychosis (Selten and Cantor-Graae, 2005).  There is now increasing evidence to support such a theory.  For example, we know from collating data from different studies conducted over time, that people who have experienced social adversity in childhood, such as abuse, neglect or bullying have an increased risk of psychosis in adulthood (Varese et al., 2012).  To be clear, I am not suggesting that Shelley’s novel should be interpreted as a depiction of mental illness, but rather that it is an astute fictionalised account of the psychological damage of early adversity.  The monster is neglected by his creator; he is physically and verbally abused repeatedly throughout the book, and when he attempts to form social relationships, experiences repeated rejections.  There is also another parallel in the book between the monster’s social exclusion based on his physical deformities, and the exclusion many people with psychosis experience due to prejudiced views in society about the nature of their mental health problems.  For example, in a recent review of studies of loneliness in psychosis, Michelle Lim and colleagues identified several key factors which might be associated with an increased risk of loneliness, including “societal perceptions, comprised of internalised stigma and perceived discrimination” (Lim et al., 2018). For example, people may find it harder to maintain existing relationships, or to make new ones, if they withdraw from social activities because they are worried about being judged negatively by others due to having a mental health diagnosis.

It’s 2018, and loneliness is on the agenda. This can be nothing but a good thing.  For example, there are currently several high-profile campaigns designed to raise awareness, and develop solutions, such as the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.  I think loneliness is probably something like grief; it’s the twin of love – the flip side of the coin.  It’s maybe not something we can, or ever should try to eradicate completely.  Maybe feeling lonely has an important function – to motivate us to tend to existing relationships, and to make new connections.  Maybe all we need is a society in which this is possible for everyone, including the most marginalised.  Let’s check back in another 200 years and see how we’re doing.

References

Lim, M. H., Gleeson, J. F. M., Alvarez-Jimenez, M. & Penn, D. L. (2018). Loneliness in psychosis: a systematic review. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.

Peplau, L. & Perlman, D. (1982). Perspectives on loneliness. In Loneliness: a sourcebook of current theory, research and therapy (ed. L. Peplau and D. Perlman), pp. 1-20. Wiley: New York.

Selten, J. P. & Cantor-Graae, E. (2005). Social defeat: risk factor for schizophrenia? Br J Psychiatry 187, 101-2.

Shelley, M. (2008). Frankenstein. Oneworld Classics: London.

Varese, F., Smeets, F., Drukker, M., Lieverse, R., Lataster, T., Viechtbauer, W., Read, J., van Os, J. & Bentall, R. P. (2012). Childhood Adversities Increase the Risk of Psychosis: A Meta-analysis of Patient-Control, Prospective- and Cross-sectional Cohort Studies. Schizophrenia Bulletin 38, 661-671.

Victor, C. (2003). Loneliness, Social Isolation and Living Alone in Later Life. Economic and Social Research Council.

 

 

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