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Loneliness and Isolation Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Loneliness and Isolation Theme Icon
Nature and Time Theme Icon
Heroism Theme Icon
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Grendel, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Loneliness and Isolation Theme Icon

For much, if not all, of the novel, Grendel is simply looking for someone to talk to. His mother cannot communicate with him, and the various animals he addresses cannot respond. Utterly alone and isolated, he can talk only to himself. When he finally encounters humans, he tries to communicate with them, but they misunderstand him and brand him as a terrifying monster. The closest thing Grendel has to a friend or companion is perhaps the dragon, whom he meets only once. But the dragon is condescending and dismissive of Grendel.

Grendel’s most significant relationship with anyone else in the novel is with his rivals Hrothgar and Unferth. By leaving Unferth alive and by never killing all of the Danes, Grendel plays a kind of game with his rivals that leaves him someone to interact with.

Gardner’s rewriting of the character of Grendel makes the monster sympathetic largely through his pathetic loneliness. His violent outbursts and antagonistic relationship with humans can be seen as the result of a lonely creature’s misunderstood attempts to reach out and communicate with someone else.

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Loneliness and Isolation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Loneliness and Isolation appears in each chapter of Grendel. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Loneliness and Isolation Quotes in Grendel

Below you will find the important quotes in Grendel related to the theme of Loneliness and Isolation.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Behind my back, at the world’s end, my pale slightly glowing fat mother sleeps on, old, sick at heart, in our dingy underground room. Life-bloated, baffled, long-suffering hag. Guilty, she imagines, of some unremembered, perhaps ancestral crime. (She must have some human in her.) Not that she thinks. Not that she dissects and ponders the dusty mechanical bits of her miserable life’s curse.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Grendel’s Mother
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we're introduced to Grendel's mother--a fearsome monster who, unlike Grendel himself, doesn't have the gift of speech. Grendel seems to feel no real affection for his mother whatsoever--instead, he regards her as a bloated hag. Grendel's lack of affection for his mother is paradoxical--on one hand, it's proof of his dignity and humanity (he's rejecting the barbarism with which he's usually associated); on the other, it suggests his own barbarism (it's barbaric to reject your own family).

Grendel is truly alone in the universe--even his own mother can't give him the company and conversation he craves. Grendel despises his mother because she represents everything he hates about himself--his ugliness, his foreignness to the humans, etc. Grendel aspires to be a thinker and a talker, but he can never form lasting bonds with other creatures because of his fearsome appearance. It's only appropriate that Grendel should both love and hate his mom.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

Talking, talking, spinning a spell, pale skin of words that closes me in like a coffin.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Grendel has no friends, nobody to talk to. All he has to keep him company are his words. With words, Grendel can create imaginary friends, hold long conversations with himself, and generally give his life some semblance of a community. (In this way he's very similar to Frankenstein's monster in Shelley's Frankenstein.)

Grendel sneers at much of human society, but he's too clever to sneer at language. Grendel's command of language is one of the most important bonds linking him with human culture--ironically, he's every bit as eloquent as the humans with whom he fights, and who consider him a monster and barbarian. And yet Grendel hates himself for relying so excessively on language: by accepting language, Grendel is also accepting the supremacy of human culture--the very culture that defines itself against him and strives to murder him.

I tried to tell her all that had happened, all that I’d come to understand: the meaningless objectness of the world, the universal bruteness. She only stared, troubled at my noise. She’d forgotten all language long ago, or maybe had never known any.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Grendel’s Mother
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Grendel has just come from a bloody fight with the humans, and he wants to tell his mother what he's just discovered: he wants to tell her how scarring and frightening the fight was. Furthermore, Grendel wants to tell his mother what the fight has taught him: all of life is nothing but a meaningless and violent struggle for power. Unfortunately, Grendel's mother can't talk.

The passage is important because it reinforces the sympathy we're supposed to feel for Grendel. At first, Grendel just wants someone to talk to: his desire for conversation and companionship is far greater than his desire for food or power. And yet when Grendel tries to talk to the humans, he's attacked. Grendel has no friends in the universe--he's persecuted and punished for being an "other," and so he naturally assumes the role thrust upon him: that of a monster.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“Why can’t I have someone to talk to?” I said. The stars said nothing, but I pretended to ignore the rudeness.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Grendel continues to feel a deep depression over the fact that he's all alone in the universe, without anyone to talk to or relate to. He's been cursed with a love for words and conversation, but because he's a frightening creature, he has nobody with whom to converse.

Grendel's frustration has increased since his encounters with the Shaper. The Shaper's command of language has inspired Grendel deeply: Grendel wishes he could communicate with others, honing his rhetorical skill and elevating it to the level of art. (This desire is even reflected in the text itself, as Grendel starts speaking poetry instead of prose sometimes). Grendel's misery is so complete that he asks the stars to talk to him. Even when the stars, of course, "said nothing," Grendel tries to imagine that the stars could talk to him and are just being rude: he's desperate for communication.

It was a cold-blooded lie that a god had lovingly made the world and set out the sun and moon as lights to land-dwellers, that brothers had fought, that one of the races was saved, the other cursed. Yet he, the old Shaper, might make it true, by the sweetness of his harp, his cunning trickery. It came to me with a fierce jolt that I wanted it. As they did too, though vicious animals, cunning, cracked with theories. I wanted it, yes! Even if I must be the outcast, cursed by the rules of his hideous fable.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), The Shaper
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Grendel considers everything the Shaper has sung about. In his song, the Shaper claims that Grendel is descended from a semi-Biblical "bad brother" who was punished by god for his disobedience. In other words, the Shaper claims that Grendel is being punished for the sins of his ancestors. Humans, by contrast, are descended from a martyred "good brother." Notice that the Shaper's story echoes the Biblican Cain-Abel story, but with one major modification. In the Bible, Cain kills Abel before Abel can have any children, suggesting that no one is descended from the "good brother." Furthermore, Cain has children of his own and builds the first human city. (Although according to Judeo-Christian tradition, all of Cain's descendants are killed in the Great Flood, and the rest of humanity is descended from Adam and Eve's younger children.) If anything, then, humans are the descendants of the bad brother! But because humans refuse to accept their own sinful nature, they craft a different story, in which they're "good" and Grendel is "bad."

Grendel doesn't believe the Shaper's story, and yet his hunger for stories and art is so great that he accepts it--he wants to believe it. Grendel craves order and meaning in the universe. So even if he is cast as the villain in the Shaper's story, he'll accept this story because of the meaning it provides him. A sad story is better than no story at all.

Chapter 6 Quotes

I discovered that the dragon had put a charm on me: no weapon could cut me. I could walk up to the meadhall whenever I pleased, and they were powerless. My heart became darker because of that. Though I scorned them, sometimes hated them, there had been something between myself and men when we could fight. Now, invulnerable, I was as solitary as one live tree in a vast landscape of coal.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), The Dragon
Page Number: 75-76
Explanation and Analysis:

After his conversation with the Dragon, Grendel discovers that no weapon can cut him because the Dragon has cast a spell of invulnerability upon him. But why does the Dragon cast such a charm on Grendel?

To begin with, the Dragon's charm proves his point: Grendel needs humans, and humans need Grendel. By rendering Grendel indestructible, the Dragon ensures that humans will always have to fight Grendel off. Therefore, humans will always have a rallying point: they'll always be able to band together against their common foe, ironically ensuring the survival of their civilization.

After the charm sets in, however, Grendel seems to have lost even this antagonistic bond between himself and humanity. Previously, Grendel felt a common connection with people--a connection rooted in language and mortality, as well as fighting and antagonism. Now, Grendel is forced to isolate himself from his opponents, existentially alone again and stubbornly denying the "antagonistic cooperation" that the Dragon argued for.

Chapter 7 Quotes

What will we call the Hrothgar-Wrecker when Hrothgar has been wrecked?

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Hrothgar
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel goes on, the Dragon's theory of antagonistic cooperation becomes truer and truer. Grendel had initially sneered at the idea that humans and monsters "need" each other.  But here, he realizes that the Dragon was right all along. Grendel could easily destroy Hrothgar and his kingdom altogether. But then, Grendel would be all alone in the universe once again--life is better for Grendel and the humans when Grendel holds back and spares some lives.

The passage reiterates that Grendel depends upon some form of interaction with other people. Grendel can't stand to accept the fact that he's all alone in the universe. Even if his interactions with other beings are horribly violent, they still serve a useful purpose by reminding him that he's not all by himself--he has a name as long as others are there to give it to him, even if that name is monstrous and antagonistic.

Chapter 9 Quotes

I recall something. A void boundless as a nether sky. I hang by the twisted roots of an oak, looking down into immensity. Vastly far away I see the sun, black but shining, and slowly revolving around it there are spiders. I pause in my tracks, puzzled—though not stirred—by what I see. But then I am in the woods again, and the snow is falling, and everything alive is fast asleep. It is just some dream. I move on, uneasy; waiting.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Oak Overlooking the Abyss
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Grendel recalls a vision or dream he had of an oak tree dangling over a deep chasm. The oak tree seems poised to fall into the abyss, never to be seen again. And yet it's tied to the ground by its strong, firm roots--and Grendel is hanging from the roots, dangling over the abyss.

One could argue that this dream symbolizes Grendel's existential dilemma. For the time being, Grendel's security is complete: thanks to the Dragon, he can't be harmed in battle. And yet Grendel seems to sense that his days are numbered--sooner or later, he's going to be swallowed up by the "abyss" of death. Likewise, Grendel is constantly fighting off the existential despair of acknowledging his own smallness and meaninglessness in the face of the abyss of the universe and time. Grendel's uneasiness in this passage suggests that on some level, he knows what the vision means, and recognizes that one day he'll be defeated.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Tedium is the worst pain.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:

Grendel is invulnerable to attacks from human beings--thanks to the Dragon's charms, no sword can cut him. As a result, Grendel begins to think of himself as an immortal. He has no real problems, because his life is never in any real danger, and so the greatest pain Grendel now experiences is the pain of dullness. Life is always exactly the same for Grendel: a battle with the humans, followed by incredible loneliness and existential despair.

The passage reiterates the extent of Grendel's isolation from the rest of the world. Previously, Grendel at least felt a bond with humanity because of his mortality; now that he's essentially immortal, Grendel feels no such bond, and thus, he's alienated from all other life forms.

Chapter 11 Quotes

I am mad with joy. –At least I think it’s joy. Strangers have come, and it’s a whole new game.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Beowulf
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Grendel feels a sudden rush of excitement--a very rare emotion for an isolated, essentially immortal creature. Grendel is excited because of the arrival of a new group of humans, including Beowulf (though Grendel doesn't know him yet, and he remains unnamed throughout the novel).

The passage reinforces the ambiguous relationship between Grendel and humanity. Grendel despises humanity and yet can't survive without humanity. He craves intelligent beings with whom to interact, and challenges to his strength and immortality; therefore, the arrival of more humans is a blessing. Of course, Grendel continues to dislike humans and sneer at their culture, but since he's isolated so much of the time, he can't be picky about who he spends his time with.