Portrayals of Physical Disabilities in Literature Analysis

Historical Identities

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Literature has always included characters with physical disabilities; literature reflects the societies in which they were created. Laura, for example, in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1944), is pitiful and pathetic. She is not only impaired by her lame leg but also by an oppressive mother whose pity denies her any opportunity to develop. False impressions may be created by characters such as the deaf mother in Elmer Harris’ Johnny Belinda (1940), which perpetuates the myth that deaf people are unable to speak. Blind and crippled characters, in various literatures, are often beggars. Dwarfs and midgets are often circus freaks or clowns. A disability may be presented as metaphor, as when the mother of the blind son in Leonard Gershe’s Butterflies Are Free (1969) pontificates that “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” The blind heroine fending off a violent attack in Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark (1966) was originally said to depict a disabled person capable of fending for herself, but is now criticized as a depiction of a handicapped, dependent woman who is an easy victim. Classic portraits of the disabled, such as Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Helen Keller (both in her autobiography The Story of My Life, 1903, and in William Gibson’s dramatic retelling of her discovery of language in The Miracle Worker, 1959), are said to need other balancing portrayals, in order to present disabled people as full members of society, not necessarily obsessives or wild children.