Study Guide

Grendel Isolation

By John Gardner


It's tough to be a monster in a world ruled by humans.

We mean, it's not like Grendel can join up with Hrothgar's band of brothers and go raiding and burning the neighboring meadhall. He can't even have a simple conversation with these dudes. His attempts at communication pretty often end in suffering and death.

Let's not give Grendel the entire spotlight here, though: there are plenty of other characters who suffer from isolation in Grendel. In terms of monsters, there's Mama Grendel and the dragon (he kind of likes being alone with his gold) in addition to Grendel. On the human side, there's wretched Unferth, King Hrothgar (trapped and alone because of his power) and Wealtheow (abandoned in a strange land with a husband who is not a good match).

Overall, Gardner seems to create a helpless, hopeless, uncaring universe for his characters to scurry around in. It's hard to understand what is truly right and good in this universe; maybe one litmus test is to see who handles isolation the best. Any guesses?

Questions About Isolation

  1. How does isolation change characters in this novel?
  2. What is the nature of Grendel's separation from the rest of the world (human and animal)? Is he forced into loneliness by prejudice? By his lineage or appearance? Or strictly by his behavior?
  3. Why is Unferth ostracized even though he is one of Hrothgar's trusted thanes?
  4. In what ways is Beowulf isolated or separated from his fellow men? What is the nature of his isolation and how does it affect him (or not)?

Chew on This

Gardner uses Grendel's rejection from society to build sympathy for the monster.

Isolation is necessary for characters in the novel to become powerful.