It’s Time to Disentangle Disability from Metaphor and Put Characters with Disabilities at the Center of the Narrative

It’s Time to Disentangle Disability from Metaphor and Put Characters with Disabilities at the Center of the Narrative

By Sierra Armor 

A girl with long brown hair poses with her arms behind her back in front of a wood paneled wall. Especially within classical literature, it is difficult to find characters with disabilities who are not written-off as villains or confined to the periphery of the narrative. Unfortunately, there has been a long tradition of authors using descriptions of disability to cheaply elicit shock and fear, or, alternately, to generate pity. While many characters with disabilities are villainized, others, typically in Victorian-era and early 20th century children’s literature, are depicted as supernaturally innocent or naive. The latter stereotype is also harmful– in addition to being condescending by promoting an image of people with disabilities as childlike, the saintly characters that make up this trope are one-dimensional, only serving as objects of pity, used to complicate an able-bodied protagonist’s sense of morality.

In an article, Susan Nussbaum, a playwright and activist, identifies several frequently-used literary formulas which center around disability. One of these formulas points out that, within popular narratives, a character with disabilities is often used a foil for a “self-involved non-disabled protagonist,” so that, at the end of the story, the character with a disability is miraculously “cured,” mirroring the protagonist’s redemption. To illustrate this formula, she uses Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Tiny Tim is a foil for Ebenezer Scrooge. Tiny Tim, who uses a crutch, though his disability is unspecified, is described as being on the brink of death as a result of poverty and lack of medical care. Dickens gives Tiny Tim’s character no depth beyond descriptions of his frailty and innocence, and his existence only serves to enhance Scrooge’s guilt.

It’s rare to find a narrative centered around a person with disabilities, where the story focuses on the character’s personhood, rather than the disability itself. So often, a visible disability is made into an exploitative spectacle to be used as a metaphorical device or a symbol within the story. According to Naussbaum, characters with disabilities usually “fit into one or more of the following stereotypes: Victim, Villain, Inspiration, Monster,” and these characters’ storylines are typically resolved “in one of a few ways: Cure, Death, Institutionalization.” She concludes that these well-worn formulas must be subverted, allowing for newer, more accurate accounts of people with disabilities to take center stage.

For far too long, characters with deformities, scars, or missing limbs have populated literature as villains, with their non-normative bodies used, unjustly, as symbols of evil and moral rot. Think, for instance, of the persistent trope of the antagonistic pirate within childhood classics like Peter Pan and Treasure Island, where the pirates’ missing limbs are used to elicit shock and fear out of young readers. The outdated stereotype goes beyond children’s tales— other villains with disabilities include Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab, whose missing leg serves to signify his obsessive, maniacal behavior, and Shakespeare’s Richard III, whose deformity is depicted as directly connected to his villainy and hatred. Additionally, many characters with deformities are featured within the gothic horror genre, in novels such as Frankenstein. In Jane Eyre, sudden blindness occurs as a shocking gothic trope. Even in Oedipus Rex, the loss of sight happens at the pinnacle of the story and becomes linked with the tragic fall of a family.

Historically, disability in literature perpetuates the twisted myth that disability is somehow linked with punishment for wrongdoing. The most prominent example of this is Sarah Chauncey Woolsey’s What Katy Did (1872,) which features a twelve-year-old girl, Katy Karr, who is unable to walk after falling off a swing. Katy’s injury is made out to be a divine punishment for pushing her sister down a flight of stairs earlier that day and a direct result of disobeying her aunt, who has forbidden Katy’s use of the swing. Only at the end of the book, when Katy is morally “redeemed,” does she regain the ability to walk.

Narratives like What Katy Did, along with A Christmas Carol, and others, link bodily difference with moral unwellness, creating a problematic metaphor. These stories assume that characters with bodies that don’t look or function like standardized “normal” bodies, must, at the end of the book, conform, and be “fixed.” At the end of these narratives, the characters almost always find themselves miraculously “cured.” This is because, rather than focusing on the development of the character’s personality, these tales have a bad habit of using the disability itself to generate a cliche conflict and resolution. It is extremely difficult to find stories that contrast this formula, ones that depict a society adjusting to accommodate people with diverse abilities.

Another nonsensical myth about people with disabilities, often told in early twentieth century children’s classics, is that a child with a disability simply needs to socialize and get fresh air in order to be “cured.” At the climax or very end of stories like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911,) Joanna Spyri’s Heidi (1880,) and Pollyanna (1913,) the characters magically shed their disabilities. In The Secret Garden, Colin, a boy who hasn’t walked for ten years because of a spinal condition, is depicted as having a disagreeable personality, until he undergoes a transformation. After continued exposure to the outdoors, Colin’s personality softens, and, simultaneously, he regains the ability to walk. Burnett portrays his physical disability as if it were merely a result of his attitude towards life, and, obviously, this connection between disagreeability and disability is harmful and incorrect.

There are, of course, relatively recent books offering more nuanced and complex characters with disabilities. Two that I’ve encountered are Katharine Dunn’s Geek Loveand Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime, which seem to have been viewed somewhat favorably by reviewers, disability theorists, and activists. While Haddon’s novel is a portrayal of a protagonist with Asperger’s Syndrome, Geek Love is both a satirical exaggeration of the spectacle that society makes out of difference and a celebration of those differences. Although these stories are an improvement from Victorian era cliches and the vicious stereotypes of the gothic horror genre, both have their criticisms as well. For instance, Mark Haddon admits that he’s not an expert on Asperger’s Syndrome, and some people argue that Geek Love leans too heavily on using disability as a metaphor for general outsiderdom. Hopefully, even better stories centered around protagonists with disabilities will reach mainstream consciousness, and, now, more than ever, it’s important to pay attention to narratives written by authors with disabilities themselves.

Sierra Armor is a Creative Writing and Literature student at Bennington College, who is originally from New Hampshire, but resides part-time in Austin. This winter, she’s interning with Art Spark Texas and collaborating on two new Art Spark Volunteer Orientation videos.

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