The Stigmatization of Frankenstein’s Monster
By Estefania Alvarez
For Scary Monsters with Prof. Shalon Noble
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein incorporates various themes throughout the story’s development; some of them predominantly being the consequences of prejudice and the yearning of societal acceptance. Throughout the novel, the continuous prejudice the Monster is met with leads to the downfall of his social identity. This process can be analyzed by looking at Canadian-born sociologist Erving Goffman’s perspective on the sociology of stigma, more specifically, his labelling theory.
In the novel, the monster’s stigmatization, due to his discredited identity, labels him as monstrous. In Goffman’s book, Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity, he proceeds to illustrate how stigmas can occur in three ways; “abominations of the body,” in which the stigma is physically perceivable (disfigurement, obesity, etc.); “blemishes of character,” which consist of undesirable character traits (lying, dishonesty, etc.); and “tribal stigma,” where an individual is stigmatized because it pertains to a devalued group (i.e., LGBTQ) (4). Any of these forms of stigma can lead to a discredited, or spoiled, identity, meaning the individual becomes socially devalued and/or rejected by society (“Social Stigma”). Frankenstein’s Monster can therefore be said to have a discredited identity due to his monstrous appearance. The Monster’s stigma is predominantly visible to the point where it evokes “breathless horror and disgust” to his creator (Shelley 84). His “abomination of the body” immediately shows the townspeople that he deviates from the social norms of appearance.
Not only does the Monster suffer from a predominant stigma, but once he attempts to integrate himself into the world, he is also met with societal mistreatment. His initial impression is always met by horror and fear and he is treated as monstrous in every encounter despite engaging in good-natured acts. This phenomenon is not uncommon. In fact, a study performed by sociologists Stiles and Kaplan examined the hypothesis that physical stigmas can make others perceive any of the stigmatized individual’s acts as deviant, even in the case of benign actions or behaviours. An instance of the prejudice Frankenstein’s Monster suffers from is seen when he is chased away by the cottage family he strove to be part of, along with the reaction he is met with when saving a young girl from drowning, wherein his benevolent action is responded by getting shot in the chest (Shelley 153). This incident leads to the Monster’s incipient feelings of “hellish rage” and “eternal hatred and vengeance [towards] mankind,” acting as a catalyst for the development of his deviant identity (153).
Furthermore, the Monster fails to use the “empowerment model” to deal with his stigmatization, leaving him hopeless of human nature and resorting to the destructive “coping model.” The empowerment model is described by Oyserman and Swim as a coping strategy in which the stigmatized individual is encouraged to “gain a better understanding of the social world around them, to talk with other people, and to create positive outcomes” (qtd. in Naggy et al., 1553). The Monster tries to adopt this strategy when going through numerous preparations, such as language acquisition, to introduce himself to the cottage family in hopes of finding love and acceptance. However, he shows awareness of his discredited identity by introducing himself to the blind man first, as the “unnatural hideousness of [his] person [is] the chief object of horror” (Shelley 146). This plan fails when the fellow cottagers Felix, Safie, and Agatha arrive, and strike the Monster until he is chased away from their home. Rejected by society, the stigmatized character begins to find himself “unsympathized with” and wishing to “spread havoc and destruction around him […] and [enjoy] the ruin” (Shelley, 149). Additionally, the Monster attempts to apply another element of the empowerment model when he tells his story to Victor. According to Creed and Scully, telling one’s story as a stigmatized individual can serve as an attempt to encourage understanding towards their situation and “may allow stigmatized people to counterbalance misinformation and undermine the negative effects of stigma and system-justification processes” (qtd. in Naggy et al., 1554). However, the Monster does not get the full understanding he sought from his creator; consequently, he adopts the “coping model” to deal with the social rejection that is brought on by his discredited identity. Contrary to the former model, Oyserman and Swim define the coping model’s strategies as placing “focus on prevention and avoiding negative consequences rather than creating positive ones” (qtd. in Nagy et al., 1553). The Monster applies the model by resorting to social isolation in the woods in order to avoid further mistreatment and prejudice from people. Nevertheless, by prioritizing the avoidance of further social rejection by “[flying] far from the scene of [his] misfortune” (Shelley 151), the Monster begins to internalize his label as a social deviant.
Society’s labelling pushes the Monster to adopt a deviant master status by internalizing his “monstrous” label. A master status is a sociological term that describes a “status that has exceptional importance for social identity, often shaping a person’s entire life” (“Master Status”). It is either ascribed or achieved, the former being shaped by characteristics that one is born with, while the latter is a social status that is achieved through one’s actions and choices throughout life. The Monster adopts a deviant master status in two steps; first, he internalizes the label society has unjustly ascribed to him as monstrous by engaging in primary deviance; next, he engages in secondary deviance, resulting from acting upon the fully internalized label that becomes the Monster’s master status. The sociological term for this process is called the labelling theory. After resorting to social isolation, Frankenstein’s Monster begins to identify as Satan, instead of Adam, in Paradise Lost as they both “bore a hell within [them]” and “[find themselves] unsympathized with” (Shelley 149). This shows how he begins to internalize society’s labelling and changes his social status accordingly. Shelley’s stigmatized character describes the “mildness of [his] nature [as having] fled,” only remaining with “gall and bitterness” within him (152). This emotional state portrays the Monster’s internalization of the monstrous label and the beginnings of his mindset as an individual with a deviant master status. According to the labelling theory, a person who has suffered prejudice and deviant labelling, such as stigmatized individuals, can experience a “sense of injustice that emerges [differentiating] the individual from the community,” leading the individual to internalize the deviant label and sense that they do not belong amongst non-deviating individuals (Scully 202).
Furthermore, in cases such as the Monster’s, not only will the stigmatized individual internalize the label, but he will also “[come] to identify with the role, and may even go as far as to continue the role by means of career choice as a deviant or criminal” (202). This is seen when the monster engages in secondary, or formal, deviance. Victor’s creation formerly engaged in primary deviance, meaning he committed norm violations that any person can do without directly affecting their self-concept (“Primary Deviance”). This is seen when he destroys and burns the cottage due to his emotional state, noting that he is “unable to injure any thing human,” therefore “[turns his] fury towards inanimate objects” (Shelley, 151). However, the Monster is later seen to engage in secondary deviance and reinforces his monstrous identity in the process. The main difference between the two forms of deviance is not only the severity of the acts themselves, but the reasoning behind it. The latter is done as an act of self-fulfilling prophecy and sets the deviant’s identity in stone, as seen with the Monster when he claims that “for the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled [his] bosom, and [does] not strive to control them; but, [allows himself] to be borne away by the stream, [bending his] mind towards injury and death” (151). In the Monster’s case, his shift towards secondary deviance begins when he engages in the murder of Victor’s younger brother, William. This act serves as the last step of the internalization of his labelled identity and development of a deviant master status. He now engages in deviance as a monster in order to “revenge [his] injuries,” his social mistreatment, and to instill fear to humanity (156). The Monster also rationalizes his deviance when he tells Victor: “I am malicious because I am miserable; am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” (156). When applying the labelling theory, it is seen that the Monster’s label internalization, and engagement in primary to secondary deviance, serves as the final straw in his formation of a deviant master status.
In the end, Goffman’s labelling theory can be used to explain the process of Monster’s stigmatization that leads to the internalization of his monstrous label and deviance. The unfortunate downfall of an innocent being due to prejudice can shed light on the impact that societal standards have on what is considered normal and acceptable, and the consequences they can bring forth on stigmatized individuals.
Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Simon and Schuster, 2009.
Nagy, Peter, et al. “Why Frankenstein Is a Stigma Among Scientists.” Science & Engineering Ethics, vol. 24, no. 4, Aug. 2018, pp. 1143–1159. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s11948-017-9936-9.
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Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. Edited by David Lorne Macdonald and Kathleen Dorothy Scherf, third ed., Broadview Editions, 2012.
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