Disabled Space: Depictions of the Disabled in Modern British Literature

Society functions on the notion of ins and outs, those who are “in” the society and those who are banished from the protective walls that delineate it. One can define society variously, but inclusion and exclusion are always at the root of this abstraction. For example, “human society” or civilization includes all the people of the world, othering the members of the so-called animal kingdom. Specific societies—or cultures, towns, empires, etc.—sequester themselves from outsiders with a variety of means ranging from perimeter walls to passports and citizenship. Even within a single society, social dynamics favor some—the “in” group, those with power and privilege—while disadvantaging, excluding, and ostracizing others. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s monster experiences the cold shoulder of society, driven physically to the fringes of society for his disturbing appearance and lack of social adeptness. Different from the majority in both physicality and mental ability, the monster and his struggle parallel the real-life experiences of those who are disabled. From his depiction as a “monster” to the ostracization he faces from the people he encounters, Frankenstein’s monster is pushed to the fringes of society. Other examples of British literature, such as Hamlet, depict the disabled similarly, showing them physically driven from societal boundaries, often into nature or other places inhabited primarily by animals. Modern British literature dehumanizes the disabled by spatially aligning them with animals.

 Frankenstein’s monster is often seen occupying animal spaces. The monster absconds to the forest after Dr. Frankenstein creates him. In the woods, he has his first fumbling attempts to learn how to communicate, feed himself, and navigate the world. Surrounded by wildlife, the monsters first attempts to vocalize come from trying “to imitate the pleasant sounds of the birds, but [he] was unable…the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from [him] frightened [him] to silence again” (Shelley 73-74). Isolated in nature without a human influence to aid his development, the monster must look to animals as he learns about the world. The woods are often seen as a mysterious wild space, occupied only by animals and perhaps unknown mythical beasts. As such, the monster has no human companions in his time in the forest. He first attempts to articulate by mimicking the birds, his only available teachers. This distinguishes the monster from people, as he is sequestered to wilderness as opposed to occupying civilization alongside fellow humans. Animals are his only companions in this time, as he is, essentially, in their home. The monster is, however, also distinguished from the animals he encounters. He describes the birds as being “pleasant” sounding. Meanwhile, the monster’s first vocalizations are “uncouth and inarticulate,” which further reduces the monster’s identity and starkly contrast the praise the birds receive from sounding “pleasant.” Both the words uncouth (without manners, unrefined) and inarticulate (unable to communicate) could easily be applied to the description of an animal, and are, thus, applied to the monster to highlight his perceived lack of humanity. From the monster’s spatial positioning to the adjectives used to describe him, the monster is seen as animalistic due to his differences or disability.

 The monster’s attempts to join human society result in him being further driven into spaces typically occupied by animals. When the monster finally stumbles upon a town, “the whole village was roused; some fled, some attacked [him], until, grievously bruised by stones and many other kinds of missile weapons, [he] escaped” (Shelley 76). Upon being spotted by people, the monster is immediately attacked. In this way, he is treated worse than a mere human outsider. His presence is met with sudden violence that only abated when he “escapes,” when he removes himself from human space and once again enters the areas dedicated to animal inhabitance. The monster finds refuge in a small hut adjacent to a human cottage. He refers to his new shelter as a “kennel” and “carpeted…with straw” and “exposed by a pig-stye” (Shelley 76). Based on the description of his dwelling, the monster seems to have taken refuge in an animal shed of sorts: small, filled with straw, in a person’s backyard, and nearby the living quarters of other farm animals. Thusly, the monster is driven by the villagers from human space—where he was spotted once he exited the woods—and driven back into animal space—where the farm animals are kept—after having lived in the wilderness for a long time. Not only does this show the monster’s ostracization from human society, as he is pushed to its fringes, but it dehumanizes him by forcing him to occupy the same space as animals. The monster is consistently prevented from integrating with human society, seen instead as belonging among animals. In this way, Frankenstein depicts the disabled as subhuman, or, at least shows that British literature at the time often depicted the disabled as such.

 Other texts depict the disabled similarly among nature. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet endures disability in the form of extreme anguish over the death of his father, which causes him to behave in irrational and violent ways. This begins when he sees his father’s ghost. The ghost of Hamlet’s father beckons Hamlet off into the forest, and Horatio fears where the ghost will lead Hamlet, saying “what if it tempted you towards the flood, my lord?/Or the dreadful summit of a cliff” (Shakespeare 53). Horatio fears the ghost will lure Hamlet into dangerous natural spaces. Hamlet deals with a different form of disability than Frankenstein. While the monster struggles with looking and acting different than the majority of people, Hamlet struggles more with the mental repercussions of his grief. Still, there is a persistent association between disability and nature, and of nature as dangerous or animalistic. In this case nature isn’t depicted as peaceful or pleasant—with Frankenstein’s songbirds—but rather as nefarious and hazardous. This is reinforced by Ophelia’s death.

Ophelia, another character in Hamlet afflicted by mental illness, supports the concept of dangerous nature when she dies in the forest. Ophelia is thought to “go mad” after the death of her father and the strain of unrequited love, thus falling into a state of grief akin to Hamlet. In a state of “madness,” Ophelia goes off into nature, climbs a willow tree and “fell into the weeping brook…alas, then she is drowned” (Shakespeare 235). Ophelia commits suicide by falling from a tree and drowning in a river. The perception of disability and nature differs in Hamlet compared to Frankenstein. Those who enter nature (Hamlet and Ophelia) do so on their own volition, as opposed to the monster being driven into the woods like some kind of brute. Regardless, Hamlet constructs the forest as a hazardous place for the mentally ill or disabled to escape to, or, in the case of Ophelia, meet their untimely demise. Whether by their own minds or by the impelling force of society, the disabled are driven from the safety of society, forced to the perimeter, and deemed outsiders by those in the society. 

Other texts display a similar association between nature and disability—especially mental disabilities or that which would cause the subject to be deemed “mad” by their contemporaries. Quite similar to Hamlet and Frankenstein, Charlotte Smith’s poem, “On Being Cautioned Against Walking on a Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because it was Frequented by a Lunatic,” shows the forest a place that lures and houses those seen as “deranged” by or different than society. In her poem, Smith describes “a solitary wretch who hies/To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow” (Smith). What Smith calls a “lunatic” stands on a tall cliff overlooking the ocean. The subject of this poem is described with the same disdain as Frankenstein’s monster, described as a “wretch.” While this doesn’t have the same animalistic quality as the adjectives applied to the monster, it still dehumanizes and belittles the so called “lunatic” in a similar way. As seen across all these texts, those seen as different are often put in natural settings. In this case, the subject is put in a hazardous place (on the edge of a cliff), which is quite similar to where Ophelia found herself (in a willow tree above water…and then in the water), which constructs an almost fatal quality of water, and a lure of these people towards the water.

The disabled are often dehumanized by being depicted on the outskirts of society and away from other people. In some cases, this representation is meant to garnish sympathy, such as in the case of Frankenstein’s monster. However, it also reveals a cultural conception that those who seem “different” or have different abilities, physical characteristics, or mental disposition belong away from human society, out in the wild and scary forest with the other animals. This shows that, in any scale of society, someone will always find themselves on the outside. In this case, the disabled find themselves ostracized and belittled by their counterparts. People need to continue to identify these kinds of stigmas in order to continue to push towards accurate representation of minorities and equality for those who are seen as the outsiders in society.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Smith, Charlotte. “On Being Cautioned Against Walking on a Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It was Frequented by a Lunatic.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51893/sonnet-on-being-cautioned-against-walking-on-an-headland-overlooking-the-sea-because-it-was-frequented-by-a-lunatic.

3 thoughts on “Disabled Space: Depictions of the Disabled in Modern British Literature

  1. This is a very insightful post. I like how you connected Hamlet and Frankenstein to show how disabled people are often forced to the fringes of society. I think this is a very interesting notion.You touched on how the spaces they are forced into are often animalistic ones. This implies that society looks at disabled people as less than human. This is of course not true in the real world, and leads me to question why so many texts display disabled people like this.

  2. Great opening sentence! Really hooks the reader in! I like how you say the monster is given “the cold shoulder of society” meaning he is the one being cast out. Also, “Modern British Literature dehumanizes the disabled by spatially aligning them with animals” is a profoundly sad, but very powerful statement. I think it is a very important factor that you are not just referring to the disabled in this essay, but the mentally ill aswell. Both (shown by your textual evidence, and by real world examples) have shown to be alienated and shunned by society in early/modern British literature.

  3. I really like how you connected both readings to discuss the depictions of disabled people in these types of works from Modern British Literature. I was hooked right away and when you talked about the monster and how he would be seen living like an animal in the woods was really interesting. He is portrayed as someone who doesn’t fit into the social norm and given the cold shoulder from everyone. When most people see something that is abnormal to them they tend to be rude. This is extremely sad and just because someone is different shouldn’t change the way we act towards them. You then talked about disability in Hamlet, with Ophelia being seen as mentally ill. I love the connection between nature and disability that you bring up. Even though nature is seen differently between the two works, somehow they are still connected.

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