March 23, 2006

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.

Posted on March 23, 2006