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Reading Between the Lines

by Louise Norlie

Because I'm a disabled writer, the portrayal of disability in literature has always been important to me. My interest in the subject, along with my interest in writing, was sparked in high school during one class where the assigned reading happened to include three short stories which involve characters with disabilities: Oscar Wilde's "The Birthday of the Infanta," Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" and D.H. Lawrence's "The Blind Man."

I wondered if my classmates thought of me when they read these stories. They certainly reminded me of my own life and feelings. I never knew, though; our class discussions never touched on how disability was treated in the stories. Perhaps even my closest friends, with whom I privately discussed our readings, were too polite to bring up the subject for fear of offending me. In not doing so, I now realize, we lost out on much that these stories say.

I wondered: would I ever find a disabled character depicted without pathos or farce, without tragedy or sick humor?

Because these stories are "classics," written years ago, one might assume they would not be relevant to living with a disability today. One might assume they'd be filled with primitive attitudes regarding disability. Not so.

These stories took me on unexpected paths. None of the characters turned out to be "Tiny Tims," touchingly weak and plaintive. No disabilities were "overcome," and no one was "inspired" by great "courage." The attitude toward disability expressed in these stories was much more complex and multi-layered than is often represented in today's media.

I never expected that legendary wit and aesthete Oscar Wilde would have anything to say about disability. Yet his fairy tale, "The Birthday of the Infanta," gives us a disabled person who is not aware of the world's perception of him and tragically takes society's attitudes very much to heart. It resonated with me very strongly when I first read it in high school.

This story takes place in the beautiful court of Spain in the 17th century. The princess's birthday amusements include a dancing dwarf who "stumbles" into the arena, "waddling on his crooked legs -- not properly shaped, as all other people were"; he is considered especially amusing because he appears to have a "complete unconsciousness of his own grotesque appearance."

The dwarf, we read, is at first a joyful fellow, dancing before the court with pride. He is delighted to please the beautiful princess, and falls in love with her. Later, when he enters the palace, he catches sight of himself in a mirror and realizes to his horror that those who appeared to be laughing with him were laughing at him. He wishes he had never come to know how the world perceived him. A few moments later, he dies from the shock.

Of course, this is a fairy tale and full of exaggeration. But to me it rang true: I was in high school, and, like most teens, preoccupied with my appearance and the way I felt others perceived me. I identified with the dwarf. It seemed that I could never measure up to society's standard of physical perfection. I was living in a world like his, where the imperfect were deemed ugly and unwanted.

The talking flowers and animals who in the tale observe the dwarf make comments that reminded me of attitudes that I faced ( and still face today): They feel uncomfortable when they see him ("He makes me feel prickly all over"); they wish the imperfect would go away ("He should certainly be kept indoors for the rest of his natural life"); they don't see any reasons for the dwarf's happiness ("He would have shown much better taste if he had looked sad").

Wilde does not intend the reader to feel sorry for the dwarf. He is a vibrant and lively character, but simply far too sensitive to survive. Wilde wrote it, we learned, to teach his children a lesson about cruelty. It taught me a lesson , too -- one Wilde probably never intended. Its tragic ending was a wake-up call to me that I should try to ignore the relentless pressure to be "perfect" and "normal"; that "perfection" itself is an unrealistic ideal.

Soon after, I read "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor. Disability is prominent in its complex layers of absurdity and the grotesque O'Connor's presentation of the uniquely quirky disabled character Joy is considered a tour de force.

I hated it when I first read it, and still have mixed feelings about it after a more recent reading.

The plot, which O'Connor herself described as a "low joke," concerns a woman educated at the doctoraL level who has her wooden leg stolen by a door-to-door Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce.

O'Connor's descriptions irritated me: Joy, in her early 30s, is described as a "large blonde girl." Her mother thinks of her as a child who has "never danced a step or had any normal good times" [italics added]. She is "bloated, rude, and squint-eyed" with a sense of "constant outrage." She has the "look of someone who had achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it," making an "awful" stomping noise when she walks. The reader is supposed to think that Joy is still a child, that she exaggerates her disability and causes it on purpose.

at times, Joy seems proud to be disabled: "If you want me, here I am -- LIKE I AM." I wanted to admire her for her strength, intelligence, and rebelliousness. Yet the continued descriptions in the story make it clear that this is not what O'Connor intends. the character is a mockery of a human being, warped and dysfunctional .

Although her name is Joy, she prefers to be called Hulga because, she says, it lacks the obvious connotation of happiness or beauty. She has a Ph.D. in philosophy, but her intellectual background is held up to ridicule by O'Connor Joy/Hulga loathes just about everything and everybody. Then again, her neighbors are not presented as pleasant people either. They take a perverse interest in "secret infections" and "horrible deformities." This was unfortunately like people I knew who relished -- with what seemed unsavory interest -- any details I offered about my disability, injuries, or hospitalizations.

In "Good Country People," a traveling Bible salesman steals Joy/Hulga's glasses and her prosthesis. When i first read it, it seemed to me a rather crude plot device on O'Connor's part -- putting an assertive disabled character Joy/Hulga '"in her place" for her intellectual pretensions through an attack on her disability. Disabilities are an integral part of those who have them, but in O'Connor's short story, Joy/Hulga's amputation is her sole defining characteristic, *making* her repulsive in both body and mind.

O'Connor remarked of this story that "the average reader is pleased to observe anybody's wooden leg being stolen." I find that remark sickening. I'm insulted by O'Connor's portrayal of Joy/Hulga .

Reading this story made me wonder if I would ever find a disabled character depicted without pathos or farce, without tragedy or sick humor. It was then that I was assigned to read "The Blind Man" by D.H. Lawrence.

Although the central character is a blind man, Lawrence's short story involves three equally important characters, only one who is literally blind. Isabel and her husband Maurice, blind and with a "disfiguring mark on his brow" from service in World War I, are visited by Isabel's childhood friend, Bertie. Maurice and Bernie are polar opposites, and seem uncomfortable around each other. Maurice leaves to do some chores And later, when Isabel asks Bertie to look for him, the two men encounter each other in the barn and experience an enigmatic moment of discovery, touching each other's faces and leaving the normally aloof Bertie strangely disturbed. I found it notable that the critical moment in this story with a physically disabled character involved touch and physical contact.

The story's conclusion is not about touching a blind man or being touched by a blind man; .it is simply about contact with another human being . Disability was part of this story just as it is a part of life's mystery and ambiguity.

I often find disability used as a symbol for the weak, ugly, malignant, or undesirable. that's what flannery O'Connor did with "Good Country People." A character with a disability is often pigeonholed as outside of "ordinary" life, freakish and bizarre. Oscar Wilde's story showed that.

But in "The Blind Man," this is refreshingly not the case. Lawrence doesn't use disability as a symbol for anything; he doesn't stereotype anyone. Thus, Lawrence's story seemed idyllic to me. It places a disabled character and a disability into the fictional world in a natural and beautiful way. When I first read it, I was encouraged to find a story that subtly captured the essence of what I hoped my life would be. I wished that I too would be able to fit into the world gracefully.

But life cannot be so easily summarized. I found that I could not "fit" into the world as seamlessly as I expected. Living with a disability changes the way I am perceived and likewise changes the way I perceive the world.

Literature is a way of sharing these different perspectives, and these three short stories, even in their unpleasant moments, have something to tell us.

Louise Norlie has written a number of short stories and is working on her first novel. Visit Louise Norlie's blog.

Thank you, Louise - I hope to read the stories by Wilde and Lawrence. Then, as you said in your blog, the ghost of Flannery can haunt the both of us. :c)

I have been interested by literature as such, and have collected a great deal of stories, accurate, elegant, and otherwise. Characters with disabilities are some of the more interesting and complex characters I have found as they adjust to the ever changing landscape of their life, just like the authors of the stories who often had disabilities of their own.

I totally disagree that Flannery O'Connor (the only ACTUAL disabled writer of the three mentioned) was illustrating disability as any more *grotesque* than she routinely illustrated everything else. The concept was that Joy/Hulga was extremely intelligent but was still pitied by those she considered her intellectual inferiors. Rather than drop her pretensions of "genius" and mental superiority, realizing and finally empathetically understanding that "no one is perfect" (including her), she instead stubbornly holds on to her illusions of being "better"... and in so doing, she stupidly assumes she can't also be outwitted by one even smarter than she is. The message is transcendent: there is always someone "better" than you are, so give it up.

Louise Norlie sells O'Conner (the over-educated disabled genius who lived with her mother, as Joy/Hulga did) quite short.

I knew someone would respond to my article in this way. Please realize I am not in any way putting down O’Connor as a writer. Joy/Hulga is, like TJ indicated, very much a part of the grotesque atmosphere of the story. This short story is a classic and TJ has perfectly summarized its “message” and “moral.” I am not claiming that the “message” is otherwise – I am focusing strictly on the how the portrayal of character seemed to me at the time.

When I first came across this story, I knew nothing about O’Connor. Whether or not she was a genius, whether or not she was disabled, whether or not she lived with her mother…was irrelevant to how this story affected me at first (and how many other disabled people I’ve contacted have reacted to it).

By the time I wrote this article, I had learned that O’Connor was disabled although I had not read a detailed biography of her life. Yet this has nothing to do with what I am expressing – simply my reaction to these stories at a certain time in my life.

Of course, the fact that O’Connor was disabled makes interpreting the story much more complicated. I was struck by, and am still struck by, her statement that “the average reader is pleased to observe anybody's wooden leg being stolen.” She also indicated in the same article that she used the wooden leg as a symbol for Joy/Hulga’s “afflictions,” physical and spiritual. This can be read here: http://ftp.ccccd.edu/mtolleson/2328online/2328notesoconnor.htm

Perhaps – dare I say it? – O’Connor has simply decided that her message is best presented by the way that the "average reader" perceives disability.


Good point, Louise, but now we are getting into religion, philosophy and so forth...I am a disabled Irish-American Catholic, like O'Conner, and while not born in the south, I have lived here over a decade now and I "get" the place, which she famously called Christ-haunted. It is.

O'Conner believed we were all given a unique 'moment' to understand Christ (the Protestants would say "accept Jesus as savior"), and one of her well-known stories was aptly titled "The Violent Bear it Away". She did not see her (or any) 'affliction' as a bad thing, but simply as the fact of existence in a fallen world. We *ALL* have afflictions, and some are more obvious than others. When she said the 'average reader' was pleased to see the wooden leg stolen, I believe she was referring to original sin and the resulting cruelty we all have.

If you look at this from a Catholic perspective, she was being subversive: most people enjoy believing they are compassionate, whether they truly are or not. By painting a nasty gimp character (i.e. stacking the deck), she implicated the reader in the decidedly UN-compassionate choice of the Bible salesman (check occupation there!) who steals her leg. The 'average reader' is shocked and surprised by their own emotions at the end of the story, since both characters come off very badly. The Bible salesman proudly informs Joy/Hulga: "I been believing in nothing since I was born"... which makes the aformentioned 'average reader' a little alarmed and ashamed to have identified with such a sadist. That was her intention.

I see such work as intrinsic to disability rights theory: the ABs think they are as compassionate as the dickens, while privately laughing at the gimp jokes. They aren't, and this story puts them on notice: we aren't fooled, as Joy/Hulga was. We know who you are. Do YOU know who you are?

Most of the disabled characters in O'Conner's stories (and there were many) are similar catalysts for exposing the selfishness and/or hypocrisy of the world around them.

In WISE BLOOD, the protagonist Hazel violently blinds himself in an effort to spiritually purify himself, which has been the subject of numerous literary in-fights. Did she mean that as an unqualified positive or negative act? She doesn't make it clear. Critics have pronounced that OF COURSE it was meant to show that Hazel has totally lost his grip on reality--but check out Butler's LIVES OF THE SAINTS and get back to me. It is entirely possible that she means Hazel has ascended to some higher spiritual level, as "grotesque" as we find such acts in modern times.

The story is a spiritual mirror of the people who read it.

Anyway, my two cents. I heartily recommend THE HABIT OF BEING, the collection of Flannery O'Conner's letters, which are fascinating reading. (What can you say about someone who considered St Thomas Aquinas relaxing bedtime reading?)

As you may have guessed by now, she was my favorite American literary figure, and I am very protective of her.

Interesting perspective, TJ. This story is undeniably complex.

I understand how you feel about your favorite authors. One of my favorite American literary figures is criticized often and I wince at it every time! :)



If I may make one additional comment concerning the O'Connor quote about the story being "a low joke". I don't know if you read the whole quote, but I think it indicates that she did not believe that is what the plot was. A fuller quote is:

"I once wrote a story called Good Country People in which a lady Ph.D. has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce. Now I'll admit that, paraphrased in this way, the situation is simply a low joke..."

I think the use of "paraphrased in this way" indicates that she thinks this kind of summary gives a false impression of the story. In fact, in the sentences following the quote above, she indicates how she thinks the story should be approached. Decidedly not as a low joke. The quote comes from an essay entitled "Writing Short Stories", which is based on a lecture she gave at a Southern Writers Conference.

O'Connor's is one of the few fiction writers I have come across who is also extrememly interesting when she writes ABOUT writing - quite humorous too.

I read GS's comment and feel inclined to post. It's true that there is more to the story than the "low joke" aspect - which is why it is a well driven, complex story. Still though, it is not mandatory always to approach a story according to what the author said, although we keep this in mind. We can make up our own minds and express our own feelings on what the story means to us.

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