dis/lit

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Mairin Martin’s Class Summary for Friday October 22nd

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Class today began with the beautiful prospect of chocolate cake. However, we proved ourselves as academics and rose to the challenge of staying concentrated on Sula even on “Happy Chocolate Cake Day.” Through small and large-group discussions we came to see that by creating the town of Medallion, a sort-of Island of Misfit Toys wherein the issues of the disabled being cast out or demonized no longer exists, Morrison causes the reader to recognize disabled people as strong individuals with unique characteristics and experiences who are not to be pitied or lumped together under a classification.

We began small group discussion with Shadrack, appropriately reflecting the fact the Morrison had originally planned to open the novel with his chapter. We questioned just what Shadrack’s role in the novel is. Shadrack is one of the most extreme cases of acceptance of “abnormality” in this novel. He is a sexual deviant who exposes himself to women and children, and curses at his customers, yet once the community understands “the boundaries and nature of his madness , they [can] fit him, so to speak, into the scheme of things” (15). We wondered whether Shadrack’s physical beauty had something to do with his acceptance. Does the physical trump the mental in this case because the physical is always present, whereas Shadrack’s signs of mental instability come and go?

Shadrack serves another function in this novel along with Tar Baby and Plum, the three loners. In the other literature we have read, the disabled tended to be outcasts because society had no place for them and/or shunned them. These three men live in a town completely accepting of all eccentricities and mental, physical, and social “others” yet they feel a need to isolate themselves. This caused the class to look at isolation for the first time as part of the nature of disability instead of as a learned behavior as a result of social disapproval. Through these isolated characters, Morrison asks us to look at and question our preconceived notions of the complicated relationship between society and the disabled and open our minds to a myriad of new possibilities. There is some significance to the relationship of these three men to their community in that all three come from almost the same starting point but reach three very different fates based on their interactions with society. Shadrack is the only one of these men who has agency and acts upon it, a representation of a disabled person who is empowered by his chosen independence from social connections. This is in stark contrast to the passive Tar Baby and to Plum who is completely without agency to the point where his dependence on others and their constant infantilization of him eventually leads them to decide his fate for him.

Our large group discussion brought about several new and interesting readings for the importance of Shadrack. Mainly, he brings to light the fact that we all have some form of existential angst about death. His grappling with it so openly bridges the gap between “us and them”- the reader and the disabled. His difficulty with the idea of death also calls us to question how “normal” it would be for someone to go through war and be able to leave such a gruesome experience behind and not be altered by it. Maybe those who aren’t affected are the people with the stunted mental and emotional facilities, not the victim of war such as Shadrack and Plum.

Dr. Foss brought up the idea that Shadrack first sees himself as separate and that his psychological issues stem from that. Frankenstein’s creature has that same metaphysical “who am I” moment Shadrack does, which can only be abated by seeing his face and being reassured of its concrete existence. Foss asked us to question how the “I” that both characters are looking for relates back to the deformity and monstrosity. On his vain of intertextual connections, Foss next awakened the class to the connections between Shadrack’s biblical namesake who was thrown into the furnace for refusing to pray to the idol of King Nebuchadnezzar. In most literary works, this would foreshadow Sharack’s eventual fate. However, in a novel teaming with deaths by fire, Shadrack is not one of them. In fact, he and Tar Baby, the two characters who profess a longing for death, are the few who actually escape it, serving again as examples of the inverse nature of life in the Bottom.

This topic lead our large group into a more specific discuss of that peculiar aspect of Medallion and its ambiguous existence. We brought up the lines from the first chapter that described the town as the Bottom of Heaven, a place from which the black people literally looked down on the white people of the valley. It seems, at first, that the black people have been given the poor end of the deal with their harsh winters and rocky soil, but later it seems that that adversity (as well as, possibly, the town’s close proximity to heaven) has created an atmosphere that could never exist anywhere else, wherein people who could not function anywhere else not only function, but thrive. This point naturally led the discussion to Eva, who is the prime example of thriving in the Bottom.

Eva’s loss of leg is, again, a contradiction to the way that we generally view the physically disabled. In Eva’s case it is not a “loss” at all but a gain for her family. By cutting off her leg, Eva is able to assure a certain level of material comfort for her children for the rest of her life. She does not borrow, cheat, beg or steal. Eva simply takes the one thing she has and trades it for what she needs. In this way, the absence of that leg can be a constant reminder to Eva of what she faced and the strength it took to face it. The lost leg also lends her an air of mystery and secrecy. Secret-holders are powerful in the knowledge that they have which others desperately seek. She holds a power over all those who wish to look at her empty space, or her one beautiful leg, and wish to ask how it happened but do not dare. In Eva, Morrison again presents us with the unusual existence of a disabled character who, not only has agency, but who is a central figure in the town. However, we are constantly reminded that this is not reality. Only characters in stories can live in the Bottom and the Bottom is the only place where the “others” can rise to the top.

This novel is the first we have read which presents an optimistic view of disabled characters who are made stronger through their disabilities and are often-times respected for them. Even those disabled characters who do not hold a significant position in society, are at least not shunned from society; they are instead treated with tolerance and grace. And not a single character’s disability serves as a literary tool for the author to make a larger argument about a topic unrelated to the character’s life.

word count 1,192

Written by Mairin Martin

October 27th, 2010 at 9:52 am

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