Degree Granting Department
Mrs. Dalloway, Native Son, Tender is the Night, The Secret Agent, The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses
The "Defective" Generation: Disability in Modernist Literature aims to provide an analysis of how Anglo-American authors in the early twentieth century conceived of, utilized, and portrayed disability in their fiction. Building on the existing scholarship in the field of Disability Studies, I argue that modernists revise the tradition of representation to make disabilities a generational trait rather than a sign of individual deviance. In novel after novel, multiple characters exhibit some form of illness or impairment, which appears as both cause and effect of the instabilities and traumas of modernity. Like many of their predecessors, then, these authors portray diverse health conditions as "defects" rather than natural variations in the human body, and most draw little distinction between the types of "disorders" they represent. This perspective, however, becomes particularly destructive in the era leading up to the Holocaust, when eugenical attitudes would lead to the murder or sterilization of over a million people with disabilities. Modernists also continue to exploit disability's potential for metaphor and sometimes evoke traditional stereotypes. Unlike traditional representations, however, these works do not resolve what the authors perceive as the "problem" of disability by curing or eliminating it; instead, they portray characters struggling to lead fulfilling lives despite feeling limited by their health. Working against the public's conception of disability as solely a medical condition, many of these authors further depict the social forces that turn a perceived "difference" into a "disability."
The project is arranged into four chapters. In the first, "Idiots and Other Degenerates: Disability at the Dawn of Modernism," I use Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent to illustrate how disability becomes characteristic of a generation, primarily through the influence of degeneration theory. Mocking the popular conception of a society divided into the "fit" and "unfit," Conrad creates a circle of characters who judge others to be degenerate while ignoring their own similar traits. From that beginning, I move in chapter 2, "Modernist Style: The Inward Turn and Portrayals of Mental Illness," to an analysis of the effects of stylistic experimentation on depictions of disability in both Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. The authors' use of multiple points of view in these works leads to a representation of both an individual's experience of psychosis and the stigma that can accompany such illness, and, like Conrad, both writers elide the differences between the seemingly able-bodied characters and those they deem disabled. These authors also offer a contrast in perceptions. Whereas Woolf treats shell shock and emotional instability largely as the unavoidable effects of World War I, Fitzgerald links both schizophrenia and alcoholism to decadent behavior, thus aligning himself with the public's perception of illness as a matter of intent. Moving from style to theme, in chapter 3, "Impaired Relationships: Physical Injury and the Pursuit of Romance," I explore the ways in which authors depict physical impairments as obstacles to personal relationships. Through a comparison of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and the "Nausicaa" chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, I discuss the intersection of gender identity, disability, and romance. I argue against the critical consensus that Jake Barnes feels emasculated by his injury and that Gerty MacDowell is "doomed" to spinsterhood because she limps, contending that both authors allow their characters to maintain a sense of masculinity or femininity consistent with the hegemonic ideals of their time. While Hemingway presents Jake's wound as a physical disability that prevents his having the relationship he desires, Joyce uses Gerty's limp to mark her as an imperfect beauty in preference to an array of idealized iconic images, and in her encounter with Leopold Bloom grants her the sexual attention that she desires. In my final chapter, "African American Modernism and a Deadly Game of Blind Man's Buff," I shift focus from mainstream to African American modernism with an analysis of Richard Wright's Native Son,, addressing the author's use of folklore in relation to the metaphor of blindness. Posing the literally blind Mrs. Dalton as a revenant of the American colonists who ignored the humanity of those they enslaved and as a symbol of continuing oppression, Wright develops Bigger Thomas as both a trickster who exploits the "blindness" of others and a badman who rebels against it. My conclusion then addresses the use of disability metaphors, the attitudes those metaphors expose, and the authors' apparent agreement with or challenges to contemporary perceptions of disability.
Although critics have previously analyzed specific works or certain aspects of disability representations during this era, this project seeks a more comprehensive discussion of disability in modernist fiction than currently exists. My hope is that it will enhance our understanding of both the period's literature and the harmful attitudes that existed at the time, which the work of Disability Studies has endeavored to overturn.
Scholar Commons Citation
Mcleod, Deborah Susan, "The "Defective" Generation: Disability in Modernist Literature" (2014). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.