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Ambivalence and Ambiguity in Spider:  McGrath’s View of Disability as Difference

 Representations of disability in literature offer varying messages to readers, depending upon the author’s intent and use of the disabled character.  For instance, many authors advance or utilize cultural stereotypes about disability, such as the notion of the disabled as monstrous or inherently sinful, for thematic or plot-driven reasons; these depictions, such as Richard III or the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, are generally viewed by readers as problematic interpretations of disability.  In contrast, other authors characterize the disabled person as innocent, vulnerable and sorrowful.  These characters offer stark opposition to conceptions of disabled monsters and war-mongers, yet they, too, rely heavily upon cultural stereotypes regarding disability, such as the disabled as child or object of sympathy.  While one may argue that utilizing a character to evoke sympathy from readers is not as problematic as dehumanizing the disabled, both promote the concept that disabled individuals are somehow different or diametrically opposed to normal, or able-bodied individuals.  In order to oppose this ideology, authors must promote the concept of disability as human variation within a continuum of behavior and forms; this notion effectively combats generalizations regarding disability, as it requires readers to view the disabled as an individual who shares similar traits and experiences with others, rather than as a stereotype.  In his contemporary novel, Spider, Patrick McGrath utilizes a first person narration, ambivalent character responses to disability, and plot ambiguity in order to advance the view of disability as human variation, thus challenging readers to reexamine societal standards of normalcy and disability. 

 In contrast to many novels depicting the disabled experience, Spider is narrated from the point of view of a disabled main character, Dennis/Spider.   Although some may consider viewpoint as insignificant in analyzing the nature of disability in literature, McGrath’s choice to narrate from a disabled perspective allows readers to gain direct insight into the mind and experiences of a disabled individual, thus providing Spider with a strong, influential voice in the narrative.  The first person perspective places Spider’s experience at the center of the novel, thus placing him and his disability in a position of power that many disabled characters in other works are not given.  By allowing Dennis to narrate the novel, McGrath challenges readers to view reality from the viewpoint of somebody considered abnormal.  For instance, as Spider describes his account of the murder of his mother and the conditions surrounding the murder, readers are able to experience the incident from a disabled perspective; readers are able to connect his illness with the crime while avoiding the stereotype of the “crazy lunatic” murderer.  This adds complexity to the murder, and forces readers to address the issue of mental competency in assigning guilt for the crime.  The first person perspective also enhances the empathy readers feel with Spider, as it complicates preconceived notions of mental illness by adding multiple dimensions to Spider’s character.  Without Spider’s viewpoint, readers would not be able to understand the compartmentalization and complexity of his personalities.  Although Spider attempts to hide parts of himself from the other characters in the novel, readers are exposed to all aspects of his personality; due to this insight, Spider is seen as an individual rather than a generalization.  The complexity derived from the first person perspective allows McGrath to promote progressive notions of the disabled as complicated individuals deserving of in-depth analysis and understanding.

McGrath also manipulates character responses to Spider in order to advance progressive conceptions of disability.  Rather than creating a unanimous opinion of Spider, McGrath offers ambivalent reactions to Spider from the various characters in the novel.  This contributes to his characterization, but also offers a critique on previous works, which typically characterize disability in black and white terms.  For instance, interactions between Spider and his mother offer a viewpoint of disability as vulnerability and innocence, while other interactions, such as those involving Helga and the father, imply that Spider is more akin to a frightful and confusing monster.  The juxtaposition of these responses to Spider seem contradictory, yet their opposing standpoints create a confusion which is progressive in the sense that it requires readers to navigate through the ambivalence and develop their own perspective on Spider and his disability. 

Spider’s similarities to supposedly normal, or non-disabled, characters also serve to relate disability as human variation and difference.  For example, Spider shares many qualities with his father, Horace, who society generally deems as normal; while society clearly views Spider’s appearance and behaviors as abnormal, their acceptance of Horace seems absurd considering his striking similarities to his son.   For instance, while Spider is socially isolated by his peers and is generally a loner, Horace, while appearing in social settings and forming friendships with others, also displays symptoms of social isolation, such as his lack of responsiveness while sitting in the pub.  This calls into question the process by which society labels some as “normal” while others, such as Spider, are considered “abnormal.”  McGrath further questions societal labels when he characterizes Spider as simultaneously mentally unstable and emotionally more mature than his father, who is completely unresponsive to his family’s emotional needs.  This seems opposed to societal expectations of the disabled, in which they are considered infantile and emotionally less mature than able-bodied individuals.  Thus, the ability of Spider to both relate to and also to rise above his father’s emotional maturity level serves to classify disability as within the continuum of human variation rather than as a separate entity, and challenges readers to characterize disabled individuals on an individual level, rather than drawing off of generalizations.

 Lastly, the ambiguous nature of the plot in the novel challenges readers to develop their own conceptions of the events and how they relate to disability.  For example, readers are never given a straight forward answer regarding who committed the murder of Spider’s mother; while this proves frustrating for many, it also places readers in a similar situation Spider experiences, as both are skeptical and unsure of how to determine reality.  Ambiguity is of central importance to both the text’s plot and its message about disability; because of the lack of clarity, everything must be called into question and examined fully, from the events in Spider’s life to the nature of his disability and how it complicates his reality.  The plot ambiguity also allows for a wider range of reactions to Spider’s character, depending on how readers interpret the events.  The fact that some readers sympathize with Spider while others vehemently dislike him indicates that McGrath is promoting a progressive view of disability which is more honest and complicated than previous, stereotypical depictions which readers generally related to in absolute terms.

Thus, McGrath’s use of perspective, character reactions and plot ambiguity in Spider advances the viewpoint of disability as human variation and difference, in which disabled individuals, rather than being opposed to normalcy, share traits and experiences with all others on the continuum of human behavior.    Through ambivalence and lack of clarity throughout the novel, McGrath challenges readers to develop their own relationship to Spider and his disability on a personal level; this requires an in-depth analysis of Spider as a person, rather than a simplistic analysis which utilizes stereotypes regarding disability.  Due to variability in emotional response to Spider, the novel is seen as progressive for the disabled community in that it advances notions of disabled individuals as complicated and complex, rather than simplistic or stereotypical, and challenges readers to relate to such individuals on a personal level prior to forming opinions about their experience with disability.

Written by mwilson11

December 1st, 2010 at 12:45 pm