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Limitations Imposed by Society

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As the class filed in, it continued to rain steadily outside and Doctor Foss began our class.  On this day we were going to discuss the short stories by authors of the nineteenth century, this included Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”;  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”; Thomas Hardy’s “The Withered Arm”, and Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta”. After beginning class with some announcements, such as the opportunity to sit in on Doctor Foss’s first year seminar’s, Autism in Contemporary Literature and Film, movie viewings, and that at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., there would be an Italian children’s film that was focused on Disability. Professor Foss then told us that he would be making a quick drive to the library to pick up a movie for his next class, and that we would be working mostly in small groups. Upon breaking into small groups, we mainly discussed the short stories, “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Birthmark” in terms of the disabilities and their relations to gender, and touched on the infantalization of the dwarf in “The Birthday of the Infanta”. The short stories illuminated the portrayal of disability as often depicted in according to main stream gender roles and characterizing disability as a weakness and feminine, or on the other hand disability often infantilized to evoke pathos from the reader.

Typically portrayed in terms of an act being masculine or feminine, this draws the connotations of being either a strength or weakness. This is too often associated with disability and can be seen in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. In this story the narrator, a woman is characterized as being ‘hysterical’, a diagnosis that has historically be given to women in attempt to explain undesirable traits.  Her husband tries to brush off her behavior, telling her to retire to her room and sleep for a while. However, it is being in the room for an extended period of time that causes her mental illness to progress even further until she seems to reach her breaking point and rips down all of the wallpaper. Later still, when her husband reappears to check on her, he faints at the sight of what has happened and the state that she is in. Fainting is considered to be a ‘female’ action, uncharacteristic for men. This showed that when something was wrong with the individuals, regardless of it was the woman or man, they both exhibited stereotypically feminine actions. In comparison with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the creature is depicted as having hysteria, especially when he is yelling and making a scene. This brings to issue a disability of the body versus one of the mind. Is hysteria truly a disability? Or is it simply attributed as a sign of weakness? There is no clear answer, for there are mental disabilities that are characterized with hysterical qualities. But often people are simply attributed to having hysteria, as a way to explain undesirable behavior.

In Nathanial Hawthorne’s, “The Birthmark”, the main character Georgiana had a birthmark upon her cheek. Her husband Alymer pressured her to have it removed, marking it as a defect. He develops an obsession with having his wife being physically perfect. And through this, Georgiana began to internalize the effect, convincing herself that she needed to be fixed. This reinforces the stereotype that women need to be concerned with only their appearance. And when something is seemingly wrong, it needs to be alter. There is a clear juxtaposition of the mindsets of Georgiana and the narrator from “The Yellow Wallpaper”; while Georgiana was convinced that she needed to be ‘fixed’, the narrator confronts her disability and realizes that it is happening, this is acceptance rather than feeling that something is extremely wrong with her.  Though Georgiana is unable to do this, this may come from the pressure that women often undergo to be perfect. In Frankenstein, the creature knows that he cannot be fixed, yet he wants a very domestic reality, wishing for a wife to spend his life with. The social constructs of femininity have disabled the individuals.

The dwarf from “The Birthday of the Infanta” was, too, limited by social constructs, but not in terms of gender. His role was more comical and infantile. Upon seeing the princess of Spain and ‘performing’ for her, he wanted to be friends with her and play with her, but then he stumbles upon a mirror and sees his own appearance. He is horrified. This scene is used to evoke sympathy, for the ‘poor’ dwarf who didn’t know his own disability. This is similar to A Christmas Carol’s Tiny Tim, who tried to live life to its fullest and not be brought down by his own disability. Tiny Tim and the Dwarf want to live life without the limitations that have been imposed upon them. These limitations do not allow them to forget that they are not like everyone else.

Social limitations are often implemented from stereotypes and do not allow for those with disability to escape their differences. To some, they can be seen as a mark on society, a defect. To others they are helpless and need our sympathy. It is too often overlooked that they are individuals with varying personalities and characteristics, like everyone. Those with disabilities are not more feminine, or infantile then others. This analysis can be critiqued in the nineteenth century short stories that were read for class.

Written by sroop

October 6th, 2010 at 11:51 am

Allison Miller’s Formal Post on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Part 2)

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 My father was enraptured on finding me freed from the vexations of a criminal charge, that I was again allowed to breathe the fresh atmosphere and permitted to return to my native country. I did not participate in these feelings, for to me the walls of a dungeon or a palace were alike hateful. The cup of life was poisoned forever, and although the sun shone upon me, as upon the happy and gay of heart, I saw around me nothing but a dense and frightful darkness, penetrated by no light but the glimmer of two eyes that glared upon me. Sometimes they were the expressive eyes of Henry, languishing in death, the dark orbs nearly covered by the lids and the long black lashes that fringed them; sometimes it was the watery, clouded eyes of the monster, as I first saw, them in my chamber at Ingolstadt. (Shelley, 162-163)

What is interesting about this passage is Victor’s perception of the world after Henry’s death. Notice how he said life was now poisoned. Before his creation, his life was happy, content, ambitious. To him, the world (especially Geneva, his home) was pure. After Henry’s death, everything, including the good memories, blended into the same thing; hate. Everything becomes tainted because of the Monster’s crimes, which represents disability as a disease spreading everywhere, that for Victor, the world could never be the same. Victor hated the world because he could not escape his creation, and the disease. When he realized that nothing could be the same, Victor slowly degraded himself by creating  a mental prison and suffered when each person he loves died. He always confined himself  to think which for him is quite dangerous because thinking too much is the factor that degraded him.

What’s really interesting are the pairs of eyes he saw sometimes in his mind, either of Henry’s corpse, or the Monster himself.  The eyes are a powerful tool because they are used to stare or gaze. Once a person gazes at someone else, that person being gazed at becomes the object of speculation. In this case, Victor becomes the object of speculation. When he thought Henry looked at him from his “mental prison,” Victor felt guilt and horror. He believed that he killed his friends by the Monster’s hands, and when he didn’t tell anyone of his crime, his sanity faded, therefore creating a mental prison. The other way in which Victor becames mad is the Monster’s eyes. He hated those eyes, but at the same time, the monster switched roles, becoming the master, while Victor was his slave. To me, Victor was more like a mental patient in his “mental prison” while the Monster had the power to torture him, and degrade him even more.

When one noticed  the Monster’s disability, they noticed that the Monster killed people because of his environment (society excluded him because of his deformity). What he can’t have (love from society), he can take away from others, and that is what he did to Victor. I’d like to think of it as a mental institution torture that Victor endured, because he had friends and families he loved. His family comforted him, which helped him hold on to hope as well as sanity. However, once the Monster murdered his friends and family, he proved that he had to power to take away hope and sanity. Victor was then left alone in isolation where his thoughts were his only comfort. When Victor thought the Monster looked at him, he got angry, but fearful. During this time, he couldn’t do anything except wait in fear for what the Monster might do next. The Monster had the power to gaze upon Victor, while Victor became the victim of circumstance. The roles changed between the disabled and non-disabled. The Monster gained power over Victor, while Victor broke down. If one thinks about it, Victor, at first, was the spectator of  the “freak show.” However, when he degraded, he became the “freak” in the freak show. It is just like normalizing judgment, where an institution watches for something abnormal, and tries reforming the person, but backwards. Instead of reforming the disabled, Shelley represented the disabled in control, while the non-disabled transgressed into the disabled. 

I think this is very important because one could spend all their time explaining about how the Monster portrays physical disability and how people may sympathize with him as the victim, but no one would ever imagine Victor as the victim of the Monster. Shelley reversed the roles of the disabled and the nondisabled in order to warn readers that anyone can degrade into what they fear most, and anyone can break the normalizing judgment power by becoming the one in power. There is no such thing as the ideal person, which Shelley metaphorically describes (such as Walton’s quest to the Northern part of the world). Even if one tries to find the ideal idea, the ideal idea consumes them little by little, and making one become the very thing they swore never to be.  I also would like to believe that Shelley used Victor’s degradation as a way of representing a little aspect of madness, which could considered a part of cognitive disability. If Victor did have madness, it means Shelley portrayed two types of disabilities; cognitive and physical. The question is which one would society fear more?

Written by library1288

September 27th, 2010 at 10:08 am

Helen’s Formal Blog Post on Frankenstein (pt. 2)

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I continued for the remainder of the day in my hovel in a state of utter and stupid despair. My protectors had departed and had broken the only link that held me to the world. For the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom, and I did not strive to control them, but allowing myself to be borne away by the stream, I bent my mind towards injury and death. When I thought of my friends, of the mild voice of De Lacey, the gentle eyes of Agatha, and the exquisite beauty of the Arabian, these thoughts vanished and a gush of tears somewhat soothed me. But again when I reflected that they had spurned and deserted me, anger returned, a rage of anger, and unable to injure anything human, I turned my fury towards inanimate objects. As night advanced I placed a variety of combustibles around the cottage, and after having destroyed every vestige of cultivation in the garden, I waited with forced impatience until the moon had sunk to commence my operations.” (pg. 120)

In this passage from the beginning of chapter sixteen, Frankenstein’s Monster attempts to sever the ties that he has made to the world of “normal” humans by burning down the home of De Lacey and his children. This family, however inadvertently, has educated him in the ways of the world, and the Monster hopes that they will nurse feelings of affection and admiration for him: “…my heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures” (114). Because he is now an educated man, the Monster is able to blame his previous ill treatment at the hands of others upon his ignorance of the world and believes himself to be ready to reveal himself to the family who will undoubtedly welcome him with kindness once they understand him. The monster seems to feel certain that this family of outcasts, who made sure that “The poor that stopped at their door were never driven away” (114), would also receive him. Although he has been educated from books such as Plutarch’s Lives and Milton’s Paradise Lost and should therefore have understood that human beings are capable of good and evil thoughts and deeds, he idolizes this family to the point that he cannot allow himself to think that they might turn him away. Instead of realizing that there might be something wrong with the way the family judges him, the Monster blames himself and his perceived disability, just as society does. As a result, he, like Richard III, decides to live up to the negative expectations of others. The Monster turns to violence and revenge, qualities that he assumes are the dominion only of evil beings and not things to which humans generally seem to be prone, and blames his master, the creator of a disabled creature, for his actions. Like the Duke of Gloucester, the Monster exploits his disability in order to assert dominance over the people who judged him harshly.

Although the Monster, Frankenstein, and society see the Monster’s violent tendencies as another outward exhibition of his abnormality, part of which is his profound size and strength, his grief over his situation and his capacity for revenge are very human characteristics. The Monster feels what an “average” human being feels. He is highly intelligent and articulate, qualities that he uses to sway De Lacey at the end of chapter sixteen. The Monster’s ability to feel hurt and anguish draws sympathy from readers despite his actions, while the people affected by his wrath are unable to see any motivation for his murderous actions. For example, Frankenstein keeps referring to the Monster’s “wickedness” (126) as if it were within the Monster’s natural capacity, not something that he has been told is expected of him by the way others react to his presence. The Monster ends up, like the Duke of Gloucester, exploiting his image to get what he wants. For Gloucester, this means downplaying his wiliness by drawing attention to his disability and semblance of helplessness; the Monster, on the other hand, uses his superhuman strength to frighten and harm those closest to Frankenstein. By doing so, each character is able to exert a modicum of control over their situation, although they do so by catering to the misapprehensions of society.

Written by Helen

September 27th, 2010 at 12:33 am

Katherine Sullivan’s Formal Blog Post on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

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Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine, my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous. (Shelley 84)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein paints the portrait of a monster that is equally a disabled human form, and super-abled cyborg.  The Monster is characterized as being created from deteriorated human parts (parts that were inherently un-abled in that they were dead and non-functional) that were revived in their final successful form as a gruesome conglomeration of defiance of the world’s natural order.

Tobin Siebers refers to Donna Harroway’s assertion of cyborgs as “a hybrid of machine and organism” (178). Although The Monster is not composed of artificial mechanical parts as we traditionally think of prosthesis, he is indeed composed in an unnatural way that employed the use of semi-functional parts to replace failed parts. In this way, I believe that he does satisfy the category of cyborg.  The characters that we see interact and respond to The Monster are not exactly repulsed by his “disability,” but by his ability. Even after being resurrected from rotting flesh, he is still stronger, he is still larger, and he is still a cyborg.

The above block quote features The Monster’s views of himself as an unnatural creature.  He asserts that although his creator has formed him to ultimately be “more powerful,” “more supple,” and essentially “superior,” he does not intend to use this power in violence or to take advantage of is “naturally”-fabricated abilities.  Instead, he wished to suppress these characteristics that make him unique from the individuals he has met and observed.  He denies the potential, positive or negative, that his new form has alighted him and desires only to be submissive and respectful to Frankenstein if he will, in turn, protect him and take responsibility for his creation.

Instead of initially taking responsibility for his creation and taking the opportunity to form a relationship as he would with any unaltered living thing, Frankenstein exhibits what Ato Quayson would describe as an “aesthetic nervousness” when facing The Monster.  He is paralyzed by ignorance in the face of the super-abled cyborg, and wracked with fear caused by that ignorance.  This tragedy of misunderstanding forces The Monster to feel outcast and despised.

Written by Katherine Sullivan

September 24th, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Amanda Gorman’s Formal Blog Post on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Part 1)

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“And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant, but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?  I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me; I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had forever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!” (pg. 103)

In this passage Frankenstein’s “monster” first comes to the horrible realization of the fact that his identity is doomed as that of the monstrous Other in society.  Whereas he is very peaceable and calm when he is at first estranged from society, when later on in the novel he is over and over again looked at with shock and horror and scorned, he becomes the monster he is seen as by society.  In chapter 15, the “monster” is able to gain the empathy of a blind man who, without being able to react to the “monster’s” hideous form notices first about him his sincerity.  Clearly his form is not directly what made him monstrous.  Rather, his monstrosity comes into being as revenge for the cruel reactions to his form.  Frankenstein’s “monster” is not born a monster, but becomes a monster through the crippling stigma in his society attributed to deformed bodies.
The passage reflects the importance of knowledge of one’s creator upon his/her identity formation.  At this point Frankenstein’s “monster” does not know about his creator, he implies that he knows his creator was someone different than the creator of humans, because his body is inhuman.  It is interesting to note that whereas Frankenstein’s “monster” was not created by God, neither was he created by the Devil.  Rather, he was created by a bungling mad-scientist-type, and so his deformities are not a demonic curse but a byproduct of scientific accident.  In this way, although deformity as accident may not be a particularly elevating representation of disability, it is a step up.
However, Shelley introduces an even more interesting complication in this part of the “monster’s” inner dialog: “I was more agile than they and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs.”  If we see here the “monster’s” unique skills alongside his limitations as a metaphor for certain kinds of disabilities, this may be a very fruitful comparison as well as a more well-rounded view of difference.  For example many people with bipolar disorder experience incredibly prolific creative periods as well as a decreased need for sleep.  Rather than see the potential for greatness here, it has long been the perspective of society-at-large to dismiss these potential perks, forcing bipolar patients to get sleep, and dismissing creative work as the product of mania.  Frankenstein’s “monster” wonders why it must be the case that perks of difference are almost always seen as overshadowed by the greater problem of their being different, and consequently threatening.

Written by gormanda

September 24th, 2010 at 3:13 am