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Matthew Blakley’s 11/03 Class Summary

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On this chilly hump-day we began class with a small group activity that operated by rotation. Our class divided into four groups and, after responding to a designated question, each group passed their documented responses around the room (counter-clockwise). Each group got a turn with each question, which ultimately created a space for a multi-vocal response. All pertinent thoughts were recorded, and in the end each question’s answer sheet (hopefully) contained a conversation between each group’s unique ideas. This activity avoids cohesion and instead invites contrasting interpretations to elevate our readings’ textual and character analysis. The class then discussed at large the questions they discussed in small groups for the remaining 10-15-minutes of class. Thus, through small and large group discussion, our class focused on how O’Connor’s character Hulga generates no reader-sympathy at all, Banner and Carver’s short stories strongly involve disability as epiphany, and how Lahiri’s character, Libi, complies to the conventional associations of femininity with illness.

My small group was undecided whether or not to sympathize with Hulga, but the class as a whole gave no sympathy to her. Though Manly tricks Hulga into thinking he’s a Christian bible salesman and ultimately flees with her prosthetic leg, it is Hulga’s antagonistic qualities that resist sympathy from the reader. Her childish characteristics of immature fashions, what seems as teen-angst toward her mother, and her overt rudeness develop Hulga into a character to be hated. As Kathleen offered in large group discussion, Hulga is not a Tiny Tim character, and thus the reader is not supposed to like her. Then, in response, Professor Foss questioned Hulga’s character as an anti-Tiny Tim character, saying that she is in fact an “ugly disabled character,” whom O’Connor may have created to contradict the stock, sympathetic role of Tiny Tim. My small group decided that throughout our readings we found that Hulga’s character became less about her disability and more about her personal ideologies. This shift contrasts the stock disabled character, a character like Tiny Tim, and allows Manly’s deceitfulness to translate as dark humor or poetic justice. The ending could be considered poetic justice because us readers want Hulga to suffer because of her unpleasant, isolated personality. Thus, it is her personality, not her disability that makes her unique; whether one affects the other is up to you.

Both Banner’s “The Wedding of Tom to Tom” and Carver’s “Cathedral” boast characters that, through contact with a disabled character, find themselves transformed into better people. Although our class only got to discuss “The Wedding of Tom to Tom” and “Cathedral” in small groups my group had the most to say about this topic. We felt as if there was a progression from the beginning of Banner’s story because initially Anita is uninvolved with her new job at the group home, but in the end she’s so invested to it she ends up risking her job to marry Tom A and Tom B. This risk helps her gain a new perspective on her life and her own personal definition of love. Anita’s sense of bravery and newfound respect for her patients helped my group label Banner’s story as progressive. My group did disagree, however, with how Anita over uses the term “retard” in harmful, frivolous ways.

Carver’s story involves a similar transformation, although what we think Robert’s character is unique because he is so aggressive in the husband’s “transformation.” Of course my group doesn’t think the same about the disabled characters in Banner’s piece, but we do think Robert’s character is more proactive when he insists that the husband sketch a picture of what a cathedral looks like while holding his hand. The questions we offered about the husband’s transformation is his intoxication level and the severity of the disabled character’s disability. For example, was it easier for the husband to rid his prosthetic nervousness because Robert was blind as opposed to mentally disabled or physically deformed? We thought it was “easier” for the husband than it was for Anita due to Robert’s mental stability.

Lastly, in “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” Lahiri positions her character Libi victim to the stereotypical implications of women and illness. To her community, Libi is almost exclusively characterized by her ambiguous disability. Above her community’s obsession over Libi’s wellbeing, Libi is severely reduced to her physical appearance and the fact that she is, as Helen put it in large group, “unmarketable as a wife.” Libi is isolated from learning how to cook, clean, and dress as a respectable bride because her community denies her individual agency either because they think she is contagious or because they think they do not understand her. Also, upon exploring Libi’s disability, the reader is immediately told that Libi is crazy, ugly, and self-destructive.  The emphasis on her aesthetics gives reason to the reader to believe that her illness can’t help but be linked to her gender. My group wonders what her community would think of her if Libi were beautiful. Seeing as her only “cure” is a male-induced orgasm, the community would probably accept her. Another indication that Libi is unfairly objectified is because the story’s plot would not make sense if Libi were a male character. Thus, Libi’s character is purely about the politics of gender and illness.

Throughout this semester our class has analyzed many texts dealing with disability stigmas and their interactions with those considered “normal.” “The Wedding of Tom to Tom” ask us to consider sexuality and love through the lens of a struggling, somewhat smug character like Anita. “Cathedral” challenges the stereotypical ways of communication. “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” and “Good Country People” offer two primary female characters living in isolation possibly because of the implications involving their gender and illness. Today’s readings helped our class challenge the disability in literature and offered enriching, sophisticated discussions.

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