Philosophial Elements in John Gardner's Novel Grendel

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Thomas Carlyle states, “Isolation is the sum total of wretchedness to a man.” Isolation hurts people deeply and causes them to feel useless and lost. Neglect can cause serious psychological damage to an individual’s sense of compassion, their ability to be kind, and how they view themselves and others. In the novel Grendel by John Gardner, the main character is isolated from the world. This causes him to feel worthless, alone, and evil. The theme that insufficient language results in isolation and therefore evil is demonstrated through the motifs of philosophy and astrology.

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John Gardner implements the motif of philosophy through processism, solipsism, and nihilism, which supports the theme through Grendel and shows how isolation ruined his good will. After Grendel attacks the meadhall many times he “... discover[s] that the dragon had put a charm on [him]: no weapon could cut [him]. [He] could walk up to the meadhall whenever [he] pleased, and they [ the people] were powerless. [His] heart became darker because of that.” (75). Processism is the belief that the world is a useless, endless cycle that never concludes. Grendel’s new ‘immortality’ causes him to feel trapped in an endless cycle which further isolates him from society. Grendel’s immortality forces him to feel the effects of a never-ending world and its prision-like isolation. Also, Grendel never understands his mother’s feelings or why she would not speak to him, “When her strange eyes burned into [him], it did not seem quite sure. [He] was intensely aware of where [he] sat, the volume of darkness [he] displaced, the shiny-smooth span of packed dirt between [them], and the shocking separateness from [him] in [his] mama's eyes. [He] would feel, all at once, alone and ugly, almost—as if [he’d] dirtied myself—obscene.” (17). Grendel always feels alone because he never understands other’s emotions or intentions. His mother never speaks to him and he cannot figure out why. He feels extremely isolated due to his insufficient relationship with his mother even though he desperately wants one. Lastly, Grendel concludes there is no purpose to life when he speaks to the sky and, “ The sky says nothing, predictably. [He] makes a face, uplift[s] a defiant middle finger, and give[s] an obscene little kick. The sky ignores [him], forever unimpressed. Him too [he] hate[s], the same as [he] hate[s] these brainless budding trees, those brattling birds. (6). Grendel feels so alone that he starts to speak to the sky in hopes of a friend or even someone to talk to. When the sky never responds he concludes that life possesses no purpose and begins to act violent towards inanimate objects. He sees no point to life and therefore treats life as a worthless, horrid cycle. Gardner uses the motif of philosophy through processism, solipsism, and nihilism to further explain the pain Grendel feels due to his severe isolation which wounds his soul and causes him to see everything negatively.

John Gardner also exercises the motif of astrology through the signs of Virgo, Libra, and Scorpio which explain Grendel’s personality, habits, and viewpoints to further analyze the cause of his dreadful isolation. After the sky “ignores” Grendel and he throws a fit he screams, “Not, of course, that I fool myself with thoughts that I'm more noble. Pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of dead men, murdered children, martyred cows. (I am neither proud nor ashamed, understand. One more dull victim, leering at seasons that were never meant to be observed.) 'Ah, sad one, poor old freak!' (6). Virgos tend to be overly self critical and overthink their mannerisms. Because Grendel expresses quality as well as being dramatic, he overthinks himself into a deeper isolation from society. He sees himself as this wretched, freak who cannot not belong anywhere when in reality, he was born monster by chance, not by choice. Secondly, Grendel covets Weathelow’s motherly presence in the kingdom and looks at his own mother, “...whimper, scrat at the nipple [he] had not sucked in years.”, and thought, “ She [is] pitiful, foul, her smile a jagged white tear in the firelight: waste. (55). Libras pity themselves greatly and here, Grendel is digging himself into a deeper hole of sadness. The fact that his own mother will never speak to him causes him to feel extremely alone because he never will possess anyone to confide in. He lacks the motherly nurturing he did not receive which makes him cold in the long run.

Lastly, Grendel is enchanted by the Shaper’s songs but when he passes away and gets replaced he thinks he should, “have captured him, teased him, tormented him, made a fool of him...should have cracked his skull midsong and sent his blood spraying out wet through the meadhall like a shocking change of key. One evil deed missed is a loss for all eternity. (146). Scorpios act extremely violent and obviously, Grendel contains this attribute. The Shaper’s songs intrigued him and allowed him to forget, just for a moment, how alone he felt. The Shaper’s death triggers such violence because he unconsciously knows the Shaper allows him to feel calm and helps him forget all the problems he faces. The motif of astrology Gardner uses through the signs of Virgo, Libra, and Scorpio help solidify the background of Grendel’s isolation and examine his way of life.

In conclusion, John Gardner masterfully implements the motifs of philosophy and astrology through processism, solipsism, and nihilism as well as the signs of Virgo, Libra and Scorpio. Gardner’s use of these concepts explain Grendel’s pain and why he behaves the way he does in a way that relates to the reader. Obviously, these ideas also demonstrates isolation can alter someone’s being and cause them to turn chaotic, violent, and evil. Gardner’s implementation of these ideas truly enhances the story and glorifies the fact that isolation can destroy anything.

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