Better Treatment: A Critical Analysis of the Construction of Disabled Characters
by Hailey Hughes
Linda Hutcheon explains in “Historiographic Metafiction” that postmodern literature takes up historical information and narrative in a different, more meaningful way than its predecessors. The use of history in previous decades has been to serve the purpose of the narrative, rather than to analyze and examine any implications of the history (Hutcheon 830). Rather than position history as an instrument of plot in the fictional narrative, contemporary authors strive to interrogate historical implications in their narratives and, in turn, assert the need for readers to “question received versions of history” (Hutcheon 839). With consideration to the analysis of the following two texts, this definition can be understood that the power that impedes one’s ability can be the environment. For example, in the same respect that we can “disable” an alarm, which takes away its power and function, society constantly imposes expectations and stereotypes that disable the person further. The result is a stripping away of the person’s contribution to society, because his or her experiences and abilities are not validated. Ultimately, this is silencing of opposition to the current binary of ability, and it solidifies this binary—which is dangerous. Richard Powers’ novel Gain and James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird exemplify the use of historiographic metafiction in the postmodern era to assert that disability should not be the binary of ability—that there is a liminal gap between these two concepts that is harmful to people with disabilities precisely because of historical misperceptions of ability. Powers achieves this goal by structuring his narrative as a dialogue between two distinct historical moments: the Civil War era and the late 20th century. Gain illustrates the dehumanization of Powers’ contemporary protagonist, Laura Bodey, after she is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. When that cancer ultimately proves to have been caused by the Clare Corporation, a once local business established just after Civil War, Powers links the two eras quite literally by cause and effect. The company, founded by three brothers and passed on from generation to generation, becomes an international monopoly corporation that has long since abandoned its original purpose of making Americans healthier in favor of making profits through methods and shortcuts that make them sick.
Likewise, James McBride, in his novel The Good Lord Bird ironically argues for inclusivity by positioning the plot in the mid-19th century, a time period known for its dismissal of those with disabilities, and for defining specific identities such as race, gender, and impairments or limitations as disabilities. The Good Lord Bird follows the adventures of a young slave, Henry “Onion” Schackleton, who is taken from his master in the Kansas Territory and mistaken for a girl by famed abolitionist John Brown. Adopting the identity of a young female slave in order to survive, Onion is then taken on Brown’s missions with Brown’s militia and his sons, Owen and Fred, to free the slaves and eventually involved, with Brown’s militia, in the Harpers Ferry Raid in 1859. McBride’s employing history’s mistakes in reacting to the binary of ability/disability is particularly pertinent in the context of his protagonist, the abolitionist John Brown, as well as his children Owen and Fred, who has a mental impairment clearly noted by both author and other characters. McBride makes clear that despite his limitations Fred is extremely competent in many areas critical to the altruistic, if misguided, goals of his father. Thus, McBride humanizes and re-ables his character.
Each novel presents differently not only the conditions of the featured characters, but also how those conditions are perceived in their cultures. The authors convey through their characterizations how any disability—congenital, environmental, physical, mental, or emotional—should not and must not be considered the binary of ability, if our culture is to benefit fully from its humanity. Traditionally, in the pre-Civil War era, people with disabilities or any kind of chronic illness were shunned, perceived as a burden on their parents and their society. While McBride acknowledges John Brown’s son Fred’s impairment through the eyes of his young narrator, “[s]ince Fred was slow as gravy, I also seen my chance to jump . . . ,” he also has Onion, the narrator, emphasize Fred as an asset to Brown’s army. Fred tells Onion, “I’ll show you how to catch a pheasant without firing a shot” (30, 34). Onion freely acknowledges Fred’s disability and asserts that he “was wrong, for Fred weren’t a complete fool” (36). McBride also has Onion point out that Owen, another one of Brown’s sons, has “a crippled arm” (26). This disability, however, does not hinder Owen from also playing a vital role in Brown’s army. Fred’s mental impairment is what history has labeled a birth defect, but McBride never indicates why Owen has a physical defect. These observations are significant because the treatment of Owen and Fred, in particular, insinuates an important truth about the time: that is, perhaps if Fred and Owen, with his perhaps congenitally defective arm, are victims of their birth era—they are environmentally, not personally, disabled. Perhaps, if like Laura in Gain, they had been born in the 20th century with all its medical advancements as well as improved treatment of people with disabilities in general, they wouldn’t have impairments. As rendered by McBride, the people in Brown’s army, including Onion, don’t let the preconceived notions of the time—i.e., that any disability is the binary of ability—dismiss the abilities that Owen and Fred possess to make significant contributions to the army’s goal.
McBride’s characterization of Onion’s acknowledgment and acceptance of Fred and Owen’s disabilities and abilities, and even their presence and function in this novel in its historical context, make clear the goal of historiographic metafiction. According to Hutcheon, “The protagonists of historiographic metafiction are anything but proper types: they are the ex-centrics, the marginalized, the peripheral figure of fictional history. . . . [This genre] espouses a postmodern ideology of plurality and recognition of difference; ‘type’ has little function here, except as something to be ironically undercut” (838). McBride positions the young male narrator, Onion, as abled-bodied, but also as forced by Brown to dress like a little girl. Initially, because Brown mistakes Onion for a pre-pubescent, mixed-race female, the author positions his narrator alongside Fred and Owen, instead of in opposition to them, as “environmentally” disabled humans. The effect of these linked characterizations is to underscore McBride’s humanization of his characters and simultaneous critique of their environment. McBride’s antebellum look at America leaves no room for problematic preconceived notions about disability or race, for that matter. Onion states: “The bigger fool turned out to be yours truly, for thinking they was fools [John Brown and Fred] in the first place. That’s how it goes when you place another man in judgment. You get stretched out wrong to ruination . . .” (35). So, Onion is aware of his preconceptions of the Brown family, but, once they are shattered, he humanizes not only the whole Brown family, but also himself, because he understands the limitations of his assumptions and can now see and treat them as people. The more we challenge our assumptions about disability—ineffective, burdensome, unintelligent—the more we humanize ourselves, because we become informed, compassionate people; this allows people with disabilities to have full autonomy over their full potential, because they aren’t hemmed in by low expectations. The binary between disability and ability is dissolved, because this binary is predicated on the illogic of stereotypes.
In Gain, Powers more overtly represents disability as forced onto the protagonist, Laura, than does McBride in creating his characters. Powers’ overt representation of oppression in comparison to McBride’s signals the frustration that the public has not gained as much insight as Onion. The company that causes her cancer refuses to acknowledge her worth as a person, because Clare Corporation does not take responsibility for making her ill. In fact, when she is dying, she tells her ex-husband: “I want the president . . . I want the . . . chief to come sit here. In my house. Tell me why this happened” (380). The leaders of the company don’t come to her house and validate Laura’s humanity by giving her an explanation. There is a significant cash settlement, but she wants the truth from them, not just cash.
This lack of human connection with Laura from the Clare Corporation reflects a shift in their business practices. Historically, the company had catered to its customers, developing new products based on perceived consumers’ needs. The founder Samuel Clare even delivered soap to their first customer’s home (38). The change in the way the business runs further asserts this notion that they could not care less about customers with cancers. Laura’s cancer dehumanizes her for the Clare Corporation because she is no longer complicit in their business practice and will not benefit them in any way. The company ignores their previous customer, because she will soon be six feet under.
The significance of these representations in the context of their historical eras cannot be overlooked. The Good Lord Bird is set in the pre-Civil War era, but Laura’s narrative in Gain takes place in the late 20th century. With the Americans with Disabilities Act enacted in 1990, great strides have since taken place in the disability rights movement. Although there are still a lot of challenges to overcome, people with disabilities are generally treated with more respect and autonomy. A general overview of the way Laura is viewed by the Clare Corporation and even her own realty company is shocking in the context of the strides in the era. Powers attempts to rewrite the history of capitalism to reflect the lack of morality in business practices. The irony produced by the juxtaposition of The Good Lord Bird set entirely in the pre-Civil War era and Gain, a novel that progresses chronologically through the early 19th century including the Civil War to the late 20th century, is created from the desire to subvert the foundations of past historic perceptions to produce a discourse about how disability rights and ethical treatment is still an issue (Hutcheon 842). The irony is that, as mentioned before, if Fred and Owen had been born in this era, the 20th century, then they might have been less likely to suffer under unfair stereotypes and received better medical care, but Laura’s experiences negate this possibility. With this in mind, one can suggest that the perceptions of Laura’s illness reflect the lack of compassion and morality in the current business world. The characterization of Laura in the 20th century allows the characterization of Fred and Owen to be striking in the context of the pre-Civil War era. In fact, in his book The Good Body: Normalizing Visions in Nineteenth Century America and Literature, author William M. Etter examines the origins and consequences of representations of the “normal body” and the “abnormal body” in 19th-century literature and culture. He says of the representation of the normal body: “When nineteenth-century American literary texts communicated socially constructed visions of the ‘normal’ body, this body was an ideological entity that simultaneously represented physical and spiritual health and social and national value in specific geographic and cultural contexts” (6). The Civil War was a time of general upheaval of American values and identity—the question of slavery, the value of a now crippled soldier—so, the identity and values of America in this time period are vulnerable, even though “normalization” during this time tries to solidify the acceptance of the “normal” body by positioning it as a binary to the abnormal body. Likewise, the Clare Company’s treatment of Laura can be understood through the “reconceptualization” of disability rights and ethics in the 1990s. Marcia H. Rioux, in her chapter, “Bending Towards Justice” in Disability, Politics, and the Struggle for Change documents how the “paradigm shift” in the perception of responsibility for disability rights affects those with disabilities:
As an individual pathology, disability is seen as a physical, psychological, or intellectual condition that results in a functional limitation. This means it gets framed as an individual, rather than society problem, and one that can be prevented or ameliorated through medical, biological, or genetic intervention or therapy, rehabilitation services, and technical supports. But there is no leverage or argument that either the society or the environment needs to be changed if the problem rests in the individual as the paradigm suggests. (36)
Powers makes quite clear the cruel twist of irony at the heart of Gain’s plot because, for all intents and purposes, the Clare Corporation appears to take responsibility for their cancer-stricken customers; for example, the cash settlement money and the Benjamin Clare Charitable Fund established by the company even renovated and updated the patient care facilities at the local hospital (Powers 388). The symbolism is pertinent, because all of the actions taken reflect their desire to control the outcome of this situation for their monetary benefit, not because they actually care about the well-being of these people they have injured. So, even though Laura is now worthless as a customer of Clare, her illness benefits the community, because now they have a better-equipped hospital to bring in revenue as well. There is “no leverage,” as Rioux states, within society, to address the underlying issue. The greed of the capitalist society disabled Laura and perpetuates disability for the benefit of the community. As Powers illustrates, Laura still has ability and influence on society when she is bedridden and even posthumously. This ongoing ability and influence are exemplified in the actions of her children after she has died: Laura left little Post-it notes of guidance for them so that her “able” survivors could, in fact, survive. Tim, her son, goes to graduate school and discovers the sequence of amino acids and proteins of Laura’s strand of ovarian cancer; with his team, he is able to find a cure. Ellen, Laura’s daughter, becomes an LPN, marries and tries to conceive, but she struggles with infertility; because the doctors are always examining her ovaries, they are able to detect her ovarian cancer early (403-05). With these plot points in mind, one can assert that Powers is implying that there is gray area within the traditional definition of disability as a binary to ability. In fact, Hutcheon quotes Paul de Man, who states that: “The binary opposition between fact and fiction is no longer relevant: in any differential system, it is assertion of the space between the entities that matters” (qtd. 837, emphasis added). Hutcheon extends de Man’s point, stating:
Historiographic metafiction suggests the continuing relevance of such an opposition, even if it be a problematic one. Such novels both install and then blur the line between fiction and history. This kind of generic blurring has been a feature of literature since the classical epic and the Bible, but the simultaneous and overt assertion and crossing of boundaries is more postmodern (837). So, perhaps, one can suggest under the assertions of Hutcheon that the binary of ability—the abled body and disabled body—allows for the opportunity to emphasize the need for different classifications of disability, because the binary calls attention to this need.
McBride, by characterizing John Brown as accepting of his sons’ disabilities, conveys a larger message about Brown’s crusade for equality. For Brown, equality should not exist solely between different races, but among all people. McBride demonstrates this by placing Owen and Fred in positions of equality alongside their peers. In fact, Ann Dowker, author of “The Treatment of Disability in 19th and Early 20th Century Children’s Literature,” asserts that some characters in 19th-century literature were given disabilities to demonstrate submission to God. Dowker also states: “This emphasis on submission to the will of God applies to all characters, and applies to a whole range of circumstances: not only disability. The need for such submission is certainly a strong feature of the treatment of disabled characters, but it does not set them apart from others: Their non-disabled friends and siblings must also submit to the will of God.” It does appear that Dowker’s explanation of the treatment of characters with disabilities in the 19th to early 20th centuries contradicts William M. Etter’s observation about literature in the 19th century, but Dowker highlights the change in characterizations of characters with disability that Etter also notes:
Conceptual crises regarding “normality” emerged, for instance, when texts confronted the lived experiences of individuals with disabled or abnormal bodies or when a writer’s normalizing fictions could not be sustained with ideological coherence or stability and began fracturing under their own weight. Such conflicts underscore the crucial fact that even though the dominant vision of the corporeal body which emerged from nineteenth-century American literary culture was a normalizing, racist, and exclusive one, the history of this vision was not teleological. African-American slave narratives, the memoirs and pension applications of Civil War veterans, and historical instances of Native-American resistance to United States imperialism provide numerous examples of bodies conventionally deemed “abnormal” which were nevertheless valuable, powerful, historically valid, and politically challenging. (10-11)
McBride’s novel was written in the 21st century, but adopts the style of these writers that constructed unstable narratives of “abnormal” bodies in the face of vulnerable identity in the 19th century. McBride, therefore, challenges the dominant characterizations of people with disabilities in 19th century novels, which, in turn, allows his audience to re-conceptualize historical-based notions about how people in specific eras ought to be treated in history. It is certainly significant that the Christian principle of every person having inherent value is a prominent motif in this text, because, with this principle, every person has worth regardless of skin color and/or disability. One can postulate that McBride uses religious principles to imply that every person deserves equality.
McBride’s characterization of Owen and Fred exemplifies Brown’s religious views, which contradict religious slaveholders at the time. Pro-slavers in the Civil War era used the Bible to justify their beliefs and actions, but John Brown believes that the Bible calls for all people to be free. Brown’s whole mission is to get others to submit to the Word of God, which requires those who fully and truly submit to free people from bondage. Owen and Fred already exemplify these attributes that John Brown desires from all people: they are submissive to God by being abolitionists, even though Owen isn’t religious. Therefore, one could postulate that McBride utilizes Brown’s acceptance of his sons to advocate for umbrella equality and, whether intentionally or not, mimics what many authors were doing in the 19th century. Furthermore, he demonstrates a difference between John Brown and religious slave holders: the way in which they use the Bible to advocate for their causes. McBride rewrites history in this way to try to advocate for equality for all in the 21st century, because equality is just an illusion for far too many people. Minorities, especially people with disabilities and black people, still endure inequalities every day. Also, some people still use the Bible to justify hatred against other people. In the face of these current historical realities, one can certainly support the claim that through Brown and his passion (perhaps even madness) for acceptance and inclusion that McBride critiques such use of the Bible in 21st-century America.
The Clare Company not only ignores and dehumanizes Laura but also largely ignores members of their own family that have illnesses: Benjamin and Peter. However, until the Corporation takes from Benjamin and Peter’s “abilities” to get what they need from them to jumpstart their businesses in times of economic strife, they respect and accept these “disabled” family members. Powers exemplifies this when, “The sickly cousin, who rarely came out in public, spoke of Uncle Benjamin’s untapped legacy, the coal tar work, the copious notebooks filled with the chemistry of anesthesia. What would it cost Clare now to continue that research?” (191). Powers also notes that, “Without Ben Clare’s scientific ramblings, there would be no Utilis, no Native Balm Soap, No Clare” (191). Once Benjamin fails to come up with business ideas useful to the Clare Corporation, they allow him to become a recluse and wither away. This is the same treatment that Laura receives. To reiterate, once Laura becomes sick and can no longer serve a purpose to Clare, they want nothing to do with her as a person—a customer; when she becomes sick, the Corporation—by its neglect and denial of responsibility—affirms that Laura is just a pawn in their business scheme after all. Peter is also just a means to an end. Peter reinvents the structure of the business but then, when his time is up, he also fades away. In this way, Powers represents the way in which the Clare Corporation dehumanizes all those who are ill or disabled, even their own family members.
The narrative of the Clare Company’s actions reflect what insurance companies do to their customers with disabilities or chronic illnesses in this era. In fact, Olga Khazan, author of “How Insurance Still Discriminates against the Sick,” discusses a study that asserts that even though the Affordable Care Act makes it more difficult to bar people from being covered by their insurance because of pre-existing conditions, this still happens to people with chronic illnesses. Khazan states that, “some insurers are still finding ways to keep sick people off their plans, particularly when it comes to people with HIV.” Another problem is that insurers are accepting chronically ill patients, but raising their deductibles. This study provides further evidence that insurance companies, even though their purpose is to make the burden of sickness easier, do not really care about the people they are serving, only what profit the people can bring in. With Powers’ commentary on events in the Civil War era and the late 20th century, he is not only critiquing how the Clare Company treats Laura and other members of their own company, but also the way the current healthcare system works. Powers’ conveys his message that the business world bows down to profits, while forgetting that their decisions affect more than the business. Insurance companies and other businesses worship at the feet of profit, even though they could no doubt continue to make profits while also benefitting other people, or, at the very least, not killing those other people. They are like the pro-slavers using the Bible to justify their actions, but, as both Gain and The Good Lord Bird make clear, instead they should be like John Brown and Laura Bodey’s children.
Implicit in both Powers’ Gain and McBride’s The Good Lord Bird is the necessity of the validation of multiple “truths,” which the ability/disability binary prohibits, because it allows persistent stereotypes about disability to exclude differing levels of ability. Hutcheon describes the purpose of postmodern historical metafiction, the genre of these two novels, as “[a genre] that does not ‘aspire to tell the truth’ as much as to question whose truth gets told” (846). Through their novels, Powers and McBride collaborate with the reader to affirm and argue the veracity of multiple “truths” in disability culture. In doing so, they break down the binary of ability and, in turn, access our collective dignity and power implicit in humanity.
Dowker, Anne. “The Treatment of Disability in 19th and Early 20th Century Children’s Literature.” Disability Studies Quarterly 24.1 (2004). Google Scholar. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.
Etter, William M. The Good Body: Normalizing Visions in Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, 1836-1867. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010. EBSCOHost. Ebook Web. 4 Mar. 2016.
Hutcheon, Lisa. “Historiographic Metafiction.” Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 830-46. Print.
Khazan, Olga. “How Insurance Companies Still Discriminate against the Sick.” The Atlantic 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird. New York City: Riverhead, 2014. Print.
Powers, Richard. Gain. New York City: Picador, 2009. Print.
Rioux, Marcia H. “Bending Towards Justice.” Disability, Politics and the Struggle for Change. Ed. Len Barton. New York: Routledge, 2001. 34-47. Ebook Web. 4 Mar. 2016.
Hailey Hughes is a junior at Marshall University, where she will receive her BA in Creative Writing in May 2017. She can usually be found reading a memoir or anthology of essays with a glass of sweet tea nearby. Her academic interests lie in disability theory, American history, and the personal essay. Hailey’s other interests include collecting books, spending time with friends and family, and attending church activities. Hailey also works as a tutor at the Marshall University Writing Center. Her academic and creative works have been published in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal and Marshall University’s literary magazine, Et Cetera. She was recently awarded a second place distinction at the Maier Awards at Marshall University for her video essay, “A Braided Exegesis of African American Hair.” Hailey is a staff writer for The Odyssey and a contributor to The Mighty, a writing platform in which people can share their stories about disability. Hailey is very grateful to be able to contribute to the growing body of work surrounding disability studies and culture, because she has Cerebral Palsy and is very active in the Cerebral Palsy community.
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