The scapegoat’s place in literature

A new book examines the nature of those who are blamed for tragedy and their place in the greatest novels of our time

A review of a book about prejudice and the creation of the necessary conditions that lead to scapegoating through the eyes of authors.
Nicola Ferrarese
A review of a book about prejudice and the creation of the necessary conditions that lead to scapegoating through the eyes of authors.

The scapegoat’s place in literature

The idea of the scapegoat goes back centuries, as has societies’ need for them. Far from dying out, the scapegoat is still gainfully employed today, as evidenced most recently by the conspiracies peddled over social media during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In times of tragedy, disaster, or severe hardship, it seems that we have an innate human and societal need to point a finger and apportion blame, something rulers with a strong sense of self-preservation have long known.

The person or thing to which we point is the scapegoat. How we — and authors — identify them is among the subjects of discussion in a new book by Italian authors Gabrio Forte, Claudia Mazzucato, Alessandro Provera, and Arianna Visconti.

‘The Shadow of the Column of Shame: Literature and the Fallacy of the Scapegoat,’ published by Vita e Pensiero in Italy, explores the concept of prejudice and the conditions needed to choose a sacrifice from among the innocents.

A scapegoat’s long history

The search for, and selection of, a scapegoat — upon which or whom to attach blame — has been considered by many of literature’s greats, including John Steinbeck, Albert Camus, George Orwell, and Johan Huizinga.

To understand how a society or community scapegoats is, in part, to understand its myths, superstitions, fears, and practices.

As many of these authors would attest, scapegoating often involves a presumed ‘public enemy’ or ‘delinquent’ who poses a threat to society, one of literature’s eternal themes that seems to stretch through time and era.

In times of tragedy, disaster, or severe hardship, we have an innate need to point a finger and apportion blame, something rulers have long known.

Modern literature has also addressed this perplexing phenomenon, including the brain's ability to bypass reason. Thinkers such as the philosopher René Girard have called for "painful yet fruitful" experiments to further understand the process of scapegoating.

A deep dive into the darkest corners of the human soul would help to explain the strong motivation to find someone or something to bear the brunt of societal anger, which, in turn, would bring to the masses a temporary sense of relief.

Four authors' investigation

The researchers begin looking at this contentious issue with Alessandro Manzoni's 19th century essay, titled 'The Story of the Column of Shame' (La Storia della Colonna Infame).

Milan in 1630 was a city under Spanish rule that had just been hit by an outbreak of plague, which had killed 60,000 Milanese. The widespread circulation of superstitions meant that the moment was right for a scapegoat. That scapegoat was found when two common women filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General.

They accused a city sanitation officer, Guglielmo Piazza, of spreading the pestilence across the city by smearing it on house doors. They came to this conclusion because they saw him leaning on a house door while taking cover from the rain under a porch.

To understand scapegoats is, in part, to understand a society's myths, superstitions, fears, and practices.

Piazza was detained and tortured in the most gruesome manner to within an inch of his life. Sure enough, to make it stop, he admitted that he had spread the plague and identified his barber, Gian Giacomo Mora, as having provided it to him.

They were both found guilty and, upon the orders of the city authorities, were paraded through the streets on the back of a cart while held in place with red-hot pincers. En route, they had their right hands cut off.

At their journey's end, they had every bone broken on a breaking wheel, before having their limp bodies pulled through its spokes. After six hours, the executioner finally ended their torment by cutting their throats.

The infamous column

Mora's house and shop were demolished as per the court's decision and an 'Infamous Column' was erected in its place, to serve as a reminder of the punishment to be inflicted upon those who would dare to commit such a heinous crime.

The column-turned-monument, which was erected in part to honour the work of judges in the trials of Mora and Piazza, was located at the corner of present-day Gian Giacomo Mora Street and Corso di Porta Ticinese in Milan.

It was later removed in 1778, during the Austrian rule of northern Italy under the reign of Empress Maria Theresa.

Milan's 'infamous column' was erected as a warning of punishment... and to honour the work of the judges.


Originally intended as a warning, its meaning and symbolism changed over time, thanks in large part to Alessandro Manzoni and his book 'The Betrothed', widely regarded as a literary masterpiece and probably the most famous book in the Italian language.

In 1842, Alessandro Manzoni published a new edition of his famous novel, with the inclusion of an essay as an appendix. In this, the two protagonists, Fermo and Lucia, are falsely accused in circumstances similar to Piazza and Mora, leading to a judgement that Manzoni sarcastically describes as "a truly remarkable verdict".

A changed meaning

His writing highlighted the consequences of prejudice backed by authorities' tyranny and lack of insight so effectively that Milan's Column of Shame became illustrative of cases involving a presumed 'public enemy' or 'delinquent' who poses a constant threat to society.

Originally intended to serve as a symbol of shame, it came to symbolise superstition, the injustice of the Spanish judicial system at that time, and the constant need to scapegoat, which still persists today.

Thanks to Alessandro Manzoni, the pillar came to symbolise superstition, injustice, and the constant need to scapegoat.

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Monument of Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), Lecco, Lombardy, Italy.

According to historical sources, the term "plague sower" (or "painter", as in Nasir Ismail's Arabic translation of Gesualdo Bufalino's masterpiece) was widely used in the 16th and 17th centuries to refer to those believed to purposefully spread the plague in public places.

Misconceptions regarding plague sowers, which were rampant during great epidemics, continue to this day, as the coronavirus pandemic showed. Immigrants in countries like Hungary, Turkey, and Lebanon, are still seen as the cause of economic woes.

Cognitive shorthand

The book by Forte, Mazzucato, Provera, and Visconti looks at scapegoats in literature and explores the roots of evil and the perverted emotions through which groups become rabid and mobs bay, epitomised by the deadly trinity of demagogues, inquisitors, and victims.

The authors say no other work can effectively illustrate the "cognitive shorthand" adopted by those in power to solve crises and defeats they bring upon themselves.

Plague sowers were blamed during great epidemics and still are, as conspiracies around Covid-19 show. In some countries, immigrants are the scapegoats for a struggling economy.

Ignorance causes the distorted perceptions that give rise to prejudice, and if ignorance in 17th century Milan came from a lack of objective information, ignorance today can just as easily come from excessive information triggering a "brain fog" from over-stimulation in our digital age.

As Manzoni put it: "When one follows his emotions, he is naturally blinded."

The most shocking paradox, which for Manzoni "is really the key to everything," is the phrase echoed by Pietro Verri in which he explains the judges' negligence with a simple yet terrifying sentence: "They feared he was not guilty."

Democracies are not immune

For Manzoni, it was a matter of finding "those guilty of a crime that did not even exist, only because it was imperative". Indeed, such dangers have not entered history, nor are they confined to dictatorships or authoritarian regimes – democracies are just as susceptible.

Ignorance can give rise to prejudice, as it did in Milan in 1630. Today, ignorance can result from too much information causing brain fog

The scapegoating concept is no stranger to the "phenomenon of collective immaturity of modern man", wrote Roberto Cazzola in his story of the 'Chief White Elk', about Edgar Laplante, the fraudster who impersonated a Native American tribal chief.

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Johan Huizinga, 1933 

In 1935, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga saw in immature collective behaviour that life "has become a game" and that the imminent crisis of Western civilisation was apparent in "the overall weakness of reason", which entails a decline in critical spirit. Manzoni echoed the sentiment. "Turning the lights off is a great way to not see what you dislike," he said.

Orwell and Steinbeck

The scapegoat is ever-present in literature. There are few better examples than 'Big Brother' in George Orwell's classic dystopian novel '1984', which imagines an authoritarian future in a surveillance state that relies on the constant drip-feed of party narrative.

Italian author Arturo Cattaneo talks about "the presence and necessity of scapegoats in the novel and, more generally, the party's need to constantly create an enemy to present to the masses".

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English writer George Orwell was the author of such books as Animal Farm and 1984.

Even more foretelling is that this training in hatred is carried out through systematic propaganda against the party's enemies by portraying anyone who opposes Big Brother's tyranny as a traitor and offering him as easy prey to the hostile masses.

The scapegoat is ever-present in literature. There are few better examples than 'Big Brother' in George Orwell's classic dystopian novel, 1984.

In 1939, a decade before Orwell's '1984' was published, American author John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath' — a typical 19th century novel in its context, realm, style, and characters — presented another case of scapegoating.

"In The Grapes of Wrath," writes Luigi Sampietro, "the scapegoats are represented by the uprooted peasants who set out to seek the Land of Hope but, upon their arrival, are referred to as unwelcomed guests".

They are dirty, penniless, and many. Like other families, the new immigrants looking for a better future "will end up crushed by the greed of the feudal lords who monopolise agriculture and exploit products and producers," he says.

"They will also end up being the sacrificial victims of the wrath of the other outcasts."

Defining and evolving

In his definition of sacrifice, Silvano Petrosino evokes "logical madness," particularly in connection to the savage impulse to unload the burden of suffering on the other party, especially if they are inferior or less willing to enter into a confrontation.

Friedrich Nietzsche superbly framed this phenomenon, saying: "'I suffer: someone or other must be guilty' – and every sick sheep thinks the same."

Sacrifice is connected to the savage impulse to unload the burden of suffering on the other party, especially if they are inferior.

The feelings of suspicion, disgust, and hatred by which Steinbeck's "wretched" foreigner is received rings true today, with the constant incrimination of "the other" in media coverage of crimes, in which 'the immigrant foreigner' is the scapegoat.

Author John Steinbeck, whose novel "The Grapes of Wrath" ranks as one of the classics of the 20th-century American letters, holds a press conference after being awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature.

It shows that scapegoating, which is as old as humanity, has not changed much with the passing of time, although both it and its labelling does evolve – today, one may say they had "difficulty integrating into a new social fabric", or there was a "clash of civilisations".

Camus and his plague

The French intellectual Albert Camus is the subject of the third part of the book. A philosopher, Camus authored a 1947 novel titled 'The Plague', in which a cholera epidemic sweeps the French Algerian city of Oran.

Marisa Verna, a professor in foreign literature, helps us understand why— if dialogue and solidarity for Camus are the substitutes for the plague — the entire population of Oran is a scapegoat for the contagion. The city has "no baths, trees, or gardens; neither the beating of wings nor the rustle of leaves is heard".

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On October 17, 1957 French writer Albert Camus poses for a portrait in Paris following the announcement of his being awarded the Noel Prize for literature.

Additionally, and as Giuseppe Rotolo argues, for Camus the death penalty is designed as a ritual act inspired by the dynamics of sacrifice, and, for this reason, execution seems something beyond the realm of the scapegoat.

Scapegoating, which is as old as humanity, has not changed much with the passing of time, although both it and its labelling does evolve.

In 'The Plague,' Jean Tarrou tells his friend Dr. Bernard Rieux that he attended court when his father, the investigator, demanded the death sentence against the accused.

"This miserable little man, with red hair, in his thirties, seemed determined to admit everything, so terrified of what he had done and what they were about to do to him..."

The father, in a judge's gown and "in the name of society", condemns the man who "looked like a yellow owl" to beheading. From this horror comes the son's shame, as if "infected with the plague" because he witnessed it without raising any objection.

Camus advocated individual moral responsibility, as did Manzoni and Orwell, to avoid scapegoating as a way of dealing with crises and of holding someone else liable for the consequences.

Alas, time has not demolished the columns of shame.

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