OverGround : {BANNER_TITLE}
Home Page
What's new?
Policy and mission
Frequently Asked Questions
Contact Us


Theory | Art | Testimonies | Articles

Email this article Email this article Print this article Print this article

Truthful Fictions: Four Short Stories And Two Novels On Themes Of Disability

by J.

Some of the concerns of devotees have been explored in fiction, a medium that allows the author a measure of freedom to express personal opinions unattributably, in a way impossible in more factual writing. The author can give fictional characters tastes and opinions that reflect his own, but need not admit that he shares the tastes and opinions that his characters.express. Perhaps much of the motivation for writing fiction is that in fiction the author is free to describe tabooed sexual relationships, and to enact them vicariously through the actions of his characters. One of the areas of interest that writers of fiction have explored in this way is the effect of physical disability on the disabled person and on the people with whom he or she interacts socially.

What follows is a series of synopses of four short stories and two novels that are wholly or partly concerned with these matters. Together with each synopsis is a short discussion of some of the issues that are addressed by the authors. The issues are important; but equally important is the fact that all the pieces are worth reading for themselves, and some of them are not as well known as they deserve to be.

The story "The head and the hand" is by Christopher Priest

It begins:

On that morning at Racine House we were taking exercise in the grounds. There had been a frost overnight, and the grass lay white and brittle. The sky was unclouded, and the sun threw long blue shadows. Our breath cast clouds of vapour behind us. There was no sound, no wind, no movement. The park was ours, and we were alone.

Our walks in the mornings had a clearly defined route, and as we came to the eastern end of the path at the bottom of the long sloping lawn I prepared for the turn, pressing down hard on the controlling handles at the back of the carriage. I am a large man, and well-muscled, but the combined weight of the invalid carriage and the master was almost too much for my strength. That day the master was in a difficult mood. Though before we set out he had clearly stated that I was to wheel him as far as the disused summer lodge, as I tried to lift him round he waved his head from side to side.

'No, Lasken!' he said irritably. 'To the lake today. I want to see the swans.' I said to him: 'Of course, sir.'

The story continues in the same flat remote prose. It is the story of the final appearance of the master, a man who who has made his fortune by mutilating himself in public as an entertainment. The origin of his vocation is narrated in flashback: it was discovered by chance with companions who were playing about with a knife while drinking. One of the companions accidentally cut himself. Another member of the group offered the master money if he would cut himself voluntarily. This he did, and for good measure he cut off one of his fingers as well. The television news heard about it and in the course of being interviewed live on television he cut off another finger. By the time the story begins the master is an earless, scalped, castrated, quadruple amputee, immensely rich, living with a beautiful wife Elizabeth, and Edward Lasken, a man who had been his companion, but not a friend, from the beginning, and who had become first a secretary and afterwards also an accomplice in the mutilations when the master had become too disabled to inflict them upon himself. Lasken and Elizabeth are having a secret affair. After his last public appearance when his genital organs were removed, the master retired; but the imitators are only imitators and the public demand that the master return. Offered an immense fee the master plans his final appearance. Apparatus is built, and he is transported in an open horse-drawn carriage through crowd-lined streets to the theatre for his final performance, the master coming to the culmination of his career. The final act is to behead himself with a guillotine. The blade is to be released by a wire which is to be operated with some of the only voluntary muscles left to him. The master is arranged naked within the guillotine by Lasken. A mirror is angled above the master to reflect his image, making it more visible to the audience. The release is tied round his tongue. Before the performance he mumbles something indistinctly to Lasken who bends forward to hear.

'I know, Edward. About you and Elizabeth.' jerks the wire, the blade falls, but the secretary just manages to avoid the blade which slices through the master's neck, the fall of the head arrested by the wire, leaving it hanging by the tongue. The audience riots.

This is weird and intense and unforgettable. The story raises a host of issues. The motivation of the master is difficult to ascertain. The author never makes it clear if the master's primary motivation is to participate in the act of mutilation, and that the amputations are the inevitable consequence of his desire, or whether it is the amputated state that he seeks, and that the mutilation is the agonizing way he must achieve the desired state of physical impotence. The fact that the acts are perpetrated in public is also unexplained. Perhaps the master submits to the knife in public as a method of obtaining the money needed to support himself and his wife. The fact that he so readily cut off his finger, once the idea had occurred to him, and did it in public, suggests that the presence of the audience was an attraction to him. Certainly by exhibiting himself he acquires the funds to pay for the medical attention he subsequently requires; but there is more than that. The fact that the effects are cumulative is also interesting. After each mutilation he becomes much richer and indirectly more powerful; and after each mutilation he becomes physically more impotent. The character, fictional though he is, suggests a diversity of motivations that are relevant to the exploration of the wannabe phenomenon.

In that discussion, implicit, at least in the article I wrote, implicit because I was not imaginative to think of alternatives, was the assumption that the aspirant amputee was seeking a desired state, the state of being an amputee. It may be the case that an aspirant amputee might find the process of becoming an amputee the focus of his or her aspirations, and that the state of actually having become one voluntarily is the more or less inconvenient consequence of having sought out the process. Such a person might have more affinities with those rare people who fake symptoms in order to elicit surgery upon themselves than with people who desire the state of being an amputee and regard the process of becoming one the unavoidable and painful price to be paid for achieving their desired bodily modification.

The other element that the story focuses on is exhibitionism. Here matters are once again complicated because the exhibition of the master's mutilated body might attract devotees, who are attracted to people with stigmata, but it would also attract people, sadists?, who are attracted by the process of injuring someone. Among the complex motives for the wannabe phenomenon is the subject's desire to have major alterations carried out on his or her body. These alterations would produce major alterations in the functional capacity of the body and major alterations to the appearance of the body. The wannabe might find the functional modification the primary motivation for aspiring to become an amputee: someone who had experienced social support while being temporarily disabled might seek to become permanently disabled by becoming an amputee, for example, to make such support permanent. The modification of appearance might be the more attractive motive of another aspirant, one who sought the voluntary amputation in order to express in his or her body the sexual attraction felt by the devotee. In either case it is unlikely that the aspirant amputee having obtained the desired amputation would be at pains to disguise the fact of the amputation, on the contrary, since the amputation was sought out for its functional consequences or its appearance it is likely that such amputees would flaunt, or at least make no effort to disguise their altered physical state. In other words I suspect that as well as all the other motivations there is an element of exhibitionism in the wannabe phenomenon, and that The head and the hand reveals this. The story might be no more than exercise in perverse fantasy but it is a fruitful source of questions about the underlying motivations of devotees and wannabes.

The second short story "The Watchful Poker Chip Of H. Matisse" by Ray Bradbury deals with much the same theme but more lightly and ironically. This is the story of George Garvey who accidentally becomes fashionable among a côterie of avant-garde artists because of his numbing conventionality and boringness. People visit him to be bored and they relish the experience - life imitates art in those films produced by Andy Warhol in the sixties: Sleep, and the Empire State Building. Garvey begins to enjoy the company and seeks to join in the intellectual conversation of his new friends by mugging up appropriately intellectual topics of conversation, and is astute enough to realize, as his new-found acquaintances slip away, that it is his ordinariness that attracts them. He emphasises his ordinariness and the new friends return to him; but other fashions attract them: in truth Garvey's conventional and boring virtues commend themselves uncomfortably strongly to the avant-garde, and becoming Garvey-like themselves they begin to drift away.

At this time, by accident, Garvey loses the tip of his little finger and hides the mutilation with an antique Chinese finger-guard.

'How unimaginative the world is,' his long-neglected other self said, using his tongue. 'If somehow my leg were severed accidentally I wouldn't wear a wooden leg, no! I'd have a gold leg crusted with precious stones made, and part of the leg would be a golden cage in which a bluebird would sing. And if my arm were cut off I'd have a new arm made of copper and jade, all hollow inside, a section for dry ice in it. And five other compartments, one for each finger. Drink, anyone? I'd cry. Sherry? Brandy? Dubonnet? Then I'd twist each finger calmly over the glasses. From five fingers, five cool streams, five liqueurs or wines ...'

Later, he decides that if he were to have lost an eye, instead of wearing an eye-patch, he would pay an artist to paint a beautiful eye on a poker-chip and hide his loss by wearing the poker-chip monocle-wise.

Shortly afterwards his eye waters, festers, and goes blind. He sends off the poker-chip to Matisse who paints on it the eye.

On the surface the story is a satire about social acceptability. Garvey is acceptable to his avant-garde friends because he is unacceptable. They influence each other, the avant-garde becoming conventional, the conventional becoming positively dadaistic. What is interesting about the story is that after the first fashion begins to pass, when Garvey realizes that his new friends are tiring with him he attempts to change himself mentally, to become a co-equal member of the group. This sort of intellectual self-modification does not attract them at all. He is astute enough to recognize that he must become not an equal member of the group but a caricature of the commonplace man they took him to be. By the time this has palled it is he who has become the exotic and they who have become commonplace. It is through his response to his physical mutilation that he retains his companions. The loss of the finger is a parallel to the boringness that first attracted them, and his advertising of this is a parallel to his self-conscious flaunting of the most caricatured of conventional tastes.

Exhibitionism is transferred from the revelation of intellectual deformity to the revelation of physical deformity. The motives of his audience are worth some scrutiny. They visit Garvey, they find him attractive, because he is intellectually stunted. They are voyeurs; and when the display of intellectual stunting is no longer novel, in part because they have themselves been changed and have become intellectually stunted themselves, they are tempted back to see physical deformity, revealed by suggestion.

The third short story "Man From The South" by Roald Dahl deals with the concerns of the mutilator rather than the mutilated. It is the story of a bet. A chance meeting of a rich-looking South American and a North American boy lead to a bet: the stakes are a Cadillac car against the little finger of the boy's left hand. The bet is that the boy's cigarette lighter will not light on the first strike ten consecutive times. The man from the south collects fingers. After the seventh successful strike and before the eighth attempt a woman bursts into the hotel room and grabs the man, her husband. She tells the others that the man, her husband, has no possessions of his own except a collection of forty-seven fingers. When she picks up the keys of her Cadillac, they see her hand: it has only the index finger and thumb left. The surface meaning of this story, mythic in its simplicity, is that everything has its price and that different people value things differently. The story is very skilfully written so that curiosity about the possible motives of the finger collector is never encouraged. We never wonder why he collects fingers.

A feature of all these stories is that they deal with people who voluntarily undergo, or are prepared to undergo significant physical alteration. This theme is quite different from that explored in Good Country People by Flannery O'Connor where the modification is accidental. Here the story is equally spare. It revolves round Hulga, a big, plain, one-legged girl, her leg amputated after being shot off in a hunting accident when she was very young, a graduate in psychology, expected to die young from some mysterious disease, and for that reason without a job, living with an ignorant mother, Mrs Hopewell, and a general domestic servant, Mrs Freeman, on a farm in a decadent and intellectually vacuous society in the southern states of the USA. Hulga is proud of her education and resentful of her state. Recognizing she is unattractive she has emphasised this by changing her name from Joy to Hulga.

Hulga's immediate society is described as follows:

Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs Hopewell's favorite sayings. Another was: that is life! And still another, the most important was: well other people have their opinions too. She would make these statements usually at the table in a tone of gentle insistence as if no one held them but her, and the large hulking Joy, whose constant outrage had obliterated every expression from her face would stare just a little to the side of her, her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.

When Mrs Hopewell said to Mrs Freeman that life was like that, Mrs Freeman would say, 'I always said so myself.' Nothing had been arrived at by anyone that had not been arrived at by her. She was quicker than Mr Freeman. When Mrs Hopewell said to her after they had been on the place a while, 'You know, you're the wheel behind the wheel,' and winked, Mrs Freeman had said, 'I know it. I've always been quick. It's some that are quicker than others.'

'Everybody is different,' Mrs Hopewell said.

'It takes all kinds to make the world.'

'I always said it myself.' The girl was used to this kind of dialogue for breakfast and more of it for dinner; sometimes they had it for supper too.

Depending on your point of view you can see this as funny or depressing beyond words. A travelling salesman arrives peddling bibles. He is a personification of Christian simplicity to the point of foolishness. Hulga despises him for his ignorance and stupidity, but as he is attracted to her she allows herself to be persuaded into going with the man into the hayloft. He comments on her artificial leg. He is direct and seems kind. He asks her to take it off. Hulga imagines living with him, letting him take it off for her ... She takes it off. Then he grabs it from her, and while she is immobilized he mocks her for her intelligence and education that is powerless against his cunning, brags about his atheism and his drinking, and gloats to her about how he stole another woman's glass eye.

Then he makes off with the leg, leaving Hulga alone and immobile in the hayloft. The story stops, and it is written with such conviction that you wonder how Hulga is going to escape from the hayloft, how she will explain the loss of her prosthesis to her mother.

This story is dense with issues: perhaps the key one is the relationship between education, intelligence, and trust. The whole process of education is founded on trust: the student has to be able to believe that the teacher is faithful, that the teacher is dedicated to the task of instruction, that what the teacher teaches is true. This means that students are likely to be easily manipulable by an unethical teacher. A parallel to this manipulation is the ease with which scientists are duped by fake mediums and other psychics: you can only do science if you can rely on the truth of scientific reports, and consequently when reporting their work scientists try to tell not just the truth, but the whole truth, about what they have discovered. This means that they are predisposed to believe that other people are telling them the truth, and when a skilful prestigitator tells a scientist that he has read the contents of a hidden message by psychic means the scientist is disposed to believe the claim rather than look for trickery.

The art of the salesman is quite different from the art of the teacher. The game is to part the punter from his cash, and considerations like truthfulness are secondary. The salesman is a predator; the customer is prey, and this is why advertisements are so much more seductive than lectures. This difference is played up in the story by the salesman's choosing to appear to be a fool. He is not a fool: he is manipulating his potential customers, and consequently he is not attempting, as the teacher attempts, to tell the truth; he is attempting to say whatever is required to make the sale. The educated sophisticated Hulga is the dupe. The fact that he is a salesman should have alerted her. He knows that people in general are trusting and he manipulates her. This potential for manipulation exists in every human relationship but it may be more sharply focussed in the relationship between someone who is disabled with someone, a devotee, who is able-bodied. The devotee may not wish to admit that he finds someone attractive partly because she has a stigma, fearing that to do so would make him unacceptable to that person, and therefore he might feel that he has to dissimulate his interest. If he does he is cheating in the relationship, pretending to feel something quite different from what he actually feels. This is the relationship portrayed in microcosm by O'Connor.

There is a further layer of irony, because Hulga experiments, for the first time with feelings about relating to someone who finds her amputation an asset, and finds, perhaps to her surprise, that they are positive, rather than negative. There is a double irony because he wants to collect her artificial leg. In his cunning he defeats himself. He is attracted to Hulga, either because she is an amputee, per se, or because being an amputee, she possesses the fetish object, a prosthesis. Had he chosen to display himself to her as he really is, cunning and cynical, perhaps they could have formed a relationship together that would have been mutually agreeable. As it is the rô:le he has chosen to play leads him only to the partial triumph of depriving her of her prosthesis, while depriving them both of the relationship they might have shared together. Compared with the other stories this is much denser, the people are much more solidly conceived and the relationship between Hulga and the salesman contains a logic and an inevitability that sets the story apart from the other stories.

It may be significant that O'Connor was herself disabled and died at the age of 39 of lupus.

In Victorian fiction one of the conventional characters who appeared quite frequently was the superfluous slave-girl. The superfluous slave-girl provided a pretext for getting a non-passive female character into the story, someone who makes a contrast with the passive blond ultra-feminine heroine, but who presents no sexual challenge because she belongs to the wrong social class, is physically disabled, preferred disability a limp, or because she dies, self-sacrificingly in the last chapter, bringing hero and heroine together, and at the same time removing the final impediment to their pairing.

This is neatly satirised in Barchester Towers in which Madeline Stanhope plays the part of the ultimate disabled prick-teaser, a semi-recumbent, semi-fallen sophisticate, physical status echoing moral status, physical status arising from moral status. Madeline Stanhope is part of the family of the prebendary Dr Vesey Stanhope who draws a stipend, but lives in Italy, paying a curate, presumably a pittance, to undertake his clerical duties in England, while devoting himself to food. and one of the finest collection of the butterflies of Lombardy in the world. Madeline, in early youth a beauty, surrounded by suitors, chooses the exact worst one, Paolo Neroni, a man lacking grace, lacking character, and lacking money, and marries him, returning to her parents' home a short while later after suffering a grave and permanent injury to her leg that leaves her with one leg eight inches shorter than the other and with a catastrophic limp.

She returns with a daughter, a maid, and the clothes on her back, her injury possibly having been caused by the brutalities of her husband. Though she can walk her gait is so ugly that she simply gives up walking, is carried everywhere, and reclines on sofas.

Madam Neroni, though forced to give up all motion in the world had no intention whatever of giving up the world itself. The beauty of her face was uninjured, and that beauty was of a peculiar kind. Her copious rich brown hair was worn in Grecian bandeaux round her head, displaying as much as possible of her forehead and cheeks. Her forehead, though rather low, was very beautiful from its perfect contour and pearly whiteness. Her eyes were large, and marvellously bright; might I venture to say, bright as Lucifer's, I should perhaps best express the depth of their brilliancy. They were dreadful eyes to look at, such as would absolutely deter any man of quiet mind and easy spirit from attempting a passage of arms with such foes. There was talent in them, and the fire of passion and the play of wit, but there was no love. Cruelty was there instead, and courage, a desire for masterhood, cunning, and a wish for mischief ... Her nose and mouth and teeth and chin and neck and bust were perfect, much more so at twenty-eight than they had been at eighteen. What wonder that with such charms still glowing in her face, and with such deformity destroying her figure, she should resolve to be seen, but only to be seen reclining on a sofa.

Called back to Barchester by the new evangelical bishop, Bishop Proudie, Stanhope takes his family of ne'er-do-wells with him. Because she is mysterious and still very beautiful, because she has a questionable past, and because she is uninhibited, and for her time, is very sexy indeed, Madeline has more than enough male admiration, especially from the point of view of the wives and sisters of the clergymen of Barchester.

Two clergymen in particular, the saintly high-church Mr Francis Arabin, the low church parvenu Obadiah Slope, are especial targets of her wiles. The game Madeline plays is social manipulation and she arranges the mariage of Mary Bold to Mr Arabin; but not until she has had both Arabin and Slope jumping through hoops on her account. The novel makes it quite clear that neither Arabin nor Slope regard Madeline's disability as disqualifying her from becoming his wife, on the contrary it is one of the features that both find attractive. Madeline's role in the whole novel is extremely interesting as a figure who, placed on the margin of able-bodied society as a consequence of injury suffered in a morally questionable partnership, is free to be satirical about the conventions that bind the able-bodiedparticipants.I especially like response of Mrs Proudie, the bishop's wife, when Obadiah Slope,the bishop's chaplain,and more than anything her own creature, called to explain his conduct after spending a period alone tête à tête with Madeline excuses himself:

'But she's lame, Mrs Proudie, and cannot move. Somebody must have waited on her.'

'Lame,' said Mrs Proudie; 'I'd lame her if she belonged to me ... '

There are interesting parallels between Obadiah Slope and Francis Arabin who both seem to court the demure young widow Mary and the outrageously sexy Madeline in alternation. Slope's dilemma is the more piercing, Madeline is much more overtly sexy than any able-bodied woman is allowed to be and Slope lusts for her, but he has the need to court the good widow Mary Bold for her money. Where sexual attraction is taboo in general, the attraction felt by the devotee towards the disabled woman is no more reprehensible than the attraction of any able-bodied man to any able-bodied woman.

Disqualified from entering the mariage-market Madeline is as spiritually liberated as she is physically trapped. She amuses herself by bringing the saintly Arabin and the demure Mary Bold together, not out of any altruistic spirit but just for the amusement of the social manipulation. In the novel the convention is observed: the passive conventional blond heroine - Mary Bold is not actually a conventional Victorian blond, she just acts as if were - gets the man and bears children in boring domesticity, while the brunette, active woman, who has a comradely relationship with the hero, even aiding the hero in his pursuit of his ideal companion, the interesting woman is deliberately disqualified from the competition she would otherwise win, in Madeline's case, had almost won. Madeline's disability allows her to combine both the elements of action and passivity in her person, a person which is much the most interesting character in the novel.

The stump is a novel in three parts, written in the first person, that deals with the life of Angela Todd, a promising young tennis-player, who abandons the game when she has an affair with Walter Plessant, an older married man.

Plessant leaves his wife and Angela goes with him to live in a primitive cottage in the country in Ireland. Angela falls in love with Walter, but Walter proves to be increasingly self-absorbed and moody and insensitive. He is supposed to be painting but he never paints. He becomes vindictive. They quarrel and still angry with each other leave the cottage in a hurry to replace an unexpectedly empty gas cylinder, Walter, driving too fast, crashes the car and Angela, injured in the crash, is knocked unconscious.

The following parts of the novel deal with Angela, alone, to her angry satisfaction, abandoned by Walter, having lost her right hand as a result of the accident, failing to rebuild her life in any satisfactory way. Part two deals with the immediate physical rehabilitation:

The doctors and nurses constantly tried to boost my morale and would give direct answers to my questions. All this helped. I felt I owed to them and to myself to get well. I tried to relax. Stopped thinking about the future or the past and simply accepted whatever treatment might be necessary to ease the present.

How else can one contemplate or endure one's own irrevocable incompleteness. Flaps of skin. Stitches. Dressings. They fold the skin over. Tuck it neatly. Stitches in every direction. Some days the pain seems to increase. Rawness. Tenderness. Or sometimes just loss - loss of sensation. But strange tinglings in nerve-ends. A sense of waste and emptiness leading to a partial loss of identity. How does one look at a wound without horror or disgust, and think: This is me?

Apart from her tennis the only job that Angela had had previously was as a secretary. The loss of her hand made such work impossible so she found work in the Civil Service as a filing clerk. While she is working for the Civil Service a file is lost, and Angela is suspected of taking it. There is nothing in the novel to suggest that she did; but equally there is nothing to suggest that she didn't. However, apart from the fact that Angela is the person who seems to have had it last before its disappearance there is no evidence against her. But things did not return to normal, and she feels under surveillance. Her response in conversation with a colleague who suspects her:

'Look here, Fred' I said to him one morning, 'this ridiculous business of the papers ... If I had taken them, I'd have fifty per cent more chance of getting away with it than you, for example. Want to know why?'

He sat bolt upright in his chair. Miss Arthur stopped typing. I had to go through with what I'd planned to say: no turning back. 'Fifty per cent fewer fingerprints than you!' There was an awkward silence. I tried to laugh. Alone. The joke was really on me - -no mistake about that. Grimly I persisted. 'And if they arrest me they'll have a job with the handcuffs ...' By now I felt quite hysterical: the continuing silence convinced me that they were not, never had been on my side.

Shortly after this incident she leaves her job and doesn't get another one.

The third part, the gloomiest, deals with Angela's social life. The book seems to me to be a realistic representation of the bitterness that can arise both through loss of capability and through the unthinking response of people to those who have become physically mutilated. I think that the representation of Angela's shame, when she tries to hide her deformity and her later reaction of bitterness where she uses the stump as a social weapon are extremely persuasive and realistic. Angela's response to what has happened to her need not be thought of as an inevitable response but it is a coherent response. She is deeply disillusioned with men, coming into contact with a depressing collection of failures and 'stump collectors'.

The end of the novel is shocking and depressing.

There is an interesting contrast between the representation of Angela's battle against disability, a direct confrontation, that leads time after time to defeat, and the representation of Madeline's where the social responses to her disabled state are exploited as both a source of licence and a source of power. Each of these stories while being fictional has its own insights to offer about relationships between able-bodied and disabled people: in a way they are truer than a lot of non-fiction.


The head and the hand.
Christopher Priest (1972)
in New Worlds 3 pp. 160-174
David Garnett M. Moorcock (ed.)
Sphere Books, London.
The watchful poker chip of H. Matisse
in The October country pp. 58-69
Ray Bradbury (1956)
Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd, London
Man from the South
in Someone like you
Roald Dahl (1948)
Michael Joseph Ltd, London
Good country people
in A good man is hard to find pp. 169-196
Flannery O'Connor (1980)
The women's press Ltd, London
Barchester Towers (ed. 1992)
Anthony Trollope (1857)
Everyman's Library, London
The stump
Alexis Lykiard (1973)
Hart-Davis and MacGibbon Ltd, St Albans and London
Email this article Email this article Print this article Print this article

Ce site existe aussi en français  -  © OverGround 2017