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Mary Wilson’s class summary 11/1/10

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On November 1st, Dr. Foss began the class with a large group circle.  As a large group, we discussed the thrilling conclusion of Patrick McGrath’s Spider, specifically concentrating on how McGrath portrays disability through the character of Spider.   In order to determine whether McGrath’s portrayal of disability is progressive or problematic for the disabled community, we examined both the novel itself and made intertextual comparisons.  Through this analysis, we determined that McGrath’s characterization of Spider is progressive because of its complexity and honesty; rather than serving as a simplistic plot device, Spider is a fully developed character who readers may identify with, feel sympathy for, or dislike according to their own interpretation of the novel.

To begin our discussion of Spider, Dr. Foss asked us to look specifically at the novel’s plot.  We were asked to decide whether McGrath developed Spider as a narrative device to advance the plot of the novel.  Although Spider’s schizophrenic tendencies and his disconnect with reality do enhance the style of the novel, we decided that Spider’s character was too fully developed to be considered a narrative device.  For instance, in contrast to Benjy from The Sound and the Fury (who is considered to be a plot device), Spider offers his emotional reactions to events often; this emotional aspect of the novel allows for a greater possibility of sympathy from readers.  Although readers may sympathize with Spider’s emotional plight, however, his illness creates multiple dimensions to his personality which complicates the sympathy some readers may feel.  Spider is not an evil villain, in the vein of Richard III, nor is he an innocent, pitied boy such as Tiny Tim.  Rather, Spider is complex and compartmentalized, partially an unstable Spider, partially a vulnerable Dennis, and sometimes an adult Mr. Clegg.   Although his actions are clearly immoral, Spider’s many-layered personality reveal that he is complicated and vulnerable, and develop a progressive viewpoint of mental illness as something which may cause immoral actions without creating a “crazy lunatic” character, a type which is often portrayed in more problematic works.  These simultaneous characterizations of Spider offer various viewpoints on disability and, as a whole, serve to advance the notion that disabled individuals are just as complicated as able bodied people in terms of their morality, personality and emotionality.

After analyzing McGrath’s portrayal of Spider in isolation, we then considered how this depiction relates to other works we have studied thus far.  Spider was compared to many characters in other works, such as the monster in Frankenstein, Shadrack from Sula and the woman from The Yellow Wallpaper. For example, Spider can be seen as similar to the monster in Frankenstein because he, like the monster, is seen as suffering throughout the entirety of the novel, and this suffering allows readers to sympathize with him despite his actions.  Spider’s relation to Shadrack is quite uncanny, as both characters are depicted as unstable murderers who were released from hospitals preemptively and who cope with the consequences of their actions by developing a viewpoint that a portion of themselves (either a persona, such as Dennis’ Spider, or Shadrack’s hands) is monstrous.  These characters call into question the treatment of the mentally disabled, as their stays in asylums are simultaneously portrayed as somewhat inhumane and ineffective in treating their illnesses.  Lastly, Spider was compared to the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper because, aside from the plot ambiguity which drives both works, both characters are isolated/confined to a treatment facility and, as a result, develop instability which can be seen as just as pervasive, if not greater than, the mental instability they showed prior to the confinement.  Similar to Shadrack, Spider’s intextual relationship to the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper challenges readers to consider the nature of the treatment of the mentally ill, especially the notion of confinement as an effective means of treating mental disability.  In each of the works, confinement is a mechanism which drives insanity, thus asserting that a more social and humane treatment of mental illness is vital to the well being of disabled individuals.

In conclusion, it was difficult for the class to respond in any one specific way to Spider’s character, as individual reactions to his story change throughout the course of the novel and depend largely on which aspect of Spider is being emphasized more prominently at the time; however, it is because of this variability in emotional response that McGrath’s work can be seen as progressive for the disabled community as a whole.  Rather than advancing notions of the disabled as one dimensional or simplistic, McGrath’s Spider is ambiguous and complex, offering an emotional and moral vagueness that advances the view of disabled individuals as complicated individuals, rather than generalizable stereotypes.

Written by mwilson11

November 5th, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Posted in class summaries