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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

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