A Look at Fictional Characters With Disabilities

Canadian novelist Joy Fielding (theglobeandmail.com).

This post combines new material with content from a post I wrote in 2012.

Characters in literature are compelling for various reasons, one of which can involve having a disability.

Of course, a disability is only one of a person’s many aspects. But, partly depending on the severity of the condition, it can be a very important aspect — helping to make the character admirable and/or inspirational and/or depressed and/or embittered and/or stoic, etc. It’s fascinating for readers to see how a disability affects a character’s psyche and actions, and readers who are not disabled might wonder what they’d do if they were in that situation themselves.

I recently read Joy Fielding’s excellent novel Still Life about a woman who seemingly “has it all” — happily married, good-looking, rich even before she starts a successful company, etc. — until she becomes comatose after being hit by a speeding SUV. Casey Marshall can’t move or see, but she can hear — and what she hears is shocking: the hit-and-run “accident” might have been deliberate, the various suspects include people she knows, and one of them wants to murder her before she has a chance to possibly recover. All told from Casey’s point of view. As the novel’s feverish suspense builds, will Casey in her grievous condition be able to do anything to try to save her life?

In the latest Jack Reacher novel, Better Off Dead, a major supporting character is U.S. Army veteran Michaela Fenton, who has a prosthetic leg. But she remains a force to be reckoned with — even managing to kill two bad guys in self-defense at the beginning of the Lee Child/Andrew Child book.

Lisa Genova often features characters with major physical or mental challenges. Her best-known novel is Still Alice, about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Two other works of hers I’ve read are Inside the O’Briens, about a man with Huntington’s disease (the same condition that killed Woody Guthrie); and Left Neglected, about a woman who suffers a severe brain injury in a car crash. Genova is expert at not only showing how her characters attempt to cope with their devastating diseases but also at depicting the seismic effect on their families.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars features two young protagonists — Hazel and August — who fall in love as they deal with major medical challenges. An example of the totally obvious fact that romance is potentially for everyone.

Impaired protagonists of course don’t just appear in 21st-century novels. One example is Captain Ahab, who lost part of a leg to the big white whale of Herman Melville’s epic Moby-Dick. The result is a single-minded, almost crazed desire for revenge. 

The caustic personalities of two other fictional seamen — Long John Silver and Captain Hook — also weren’t mellowed by the loss of a leg and a hand, respectively. Silver is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Hook in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Other disabled characters attract more of our sympathy. Among them is Joe Bonham in Dalton Trumbo’s searing antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun. As a soldier, Joe loses his arms, legs, and face in a horrific explosion, but retains all his mental faculties. Amid his despair, he comes up with an idea for how his life could have some meaning and…

In Heidi, a major secondary character is the wheelchair-bound girl Clara. Disabilities can of course be permanent or temporary, and Johanna Spyri’s classic novel addresses that in a memorable way.

There’s also Creb, the shaman in Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear who lost an arm and an eye during an attack by a…cave bear. 

In Alex Haley’s Roots, Kunta Kinte — renamed Toby Waller after he was enslaved — is brutally punished for trying to escape by having part of his foot chopped off. (If he had chosen the other punishment option, he wouldn’t have had descendants.) This heartbreaking scene symbolizes the survival skills African-Americans needed in a heartless system of servitude.

Also drawing our sympathy are “Mad-Eye” Moody in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Moody exhibits an appealing swagger despite all the injuries his body has absorbed over the years, Tiny Tim is an invalid kid with an upbeat attitude, and Quasimodo — while having every reason to feel hateful because of the bad hand life dealt him — is capable of acting in a noble way.

Characters with disabilities can obviously be good people…or not. 

Rowling later created British private investigator Cormoran Strike for her series of five (and counting) crime novels. Strike lost part of his leg while in the military in Afghanistan, and the prosthetic replacement often gives him problems as he doggedly tries to solve mysteries with his detective agency partner Robin Ellacott.

There are also Colette’s autobiographical novels My Mother’s House and Sido, which are mostly about a memorable mother (Sido) but also feature a devoted father (“The Captain”) who lost a leg during his military career.

Literature features numerous other characters with disabilities, yet I’m guessing they’re underrepresented in fiction. The reasons for that include the discomfort some authors (and readers) might have with those characters, and the fear of non-disabled novelists that they might not depict physically challenged protagonists in an adequate, three-dimensional way.

Your favorite characters and novels that fit this blog post’s theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s controversial, first-ever Board of Education election on March 8 — is here.

134 thoughts on “A Look at Fictional Characters With Disabilities

  1. Good post and I think you are right. Having a disability changes the way you see the world. Little things like for example how difficult it is to come to grips with no longer being allowed to drive. The frustration of having others be your carers. Losing that independence.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave,

    EIGHT!!! I’ve read a record number of 8 books you have mentioned here.

    First, I am so proud ….and honoured that you opened the post with Joy Fielding. She is a wonderful person, and I must catch up on her latest books. Yes, I was lucky enough to marry in, and she is my cousin-in-law. She is my fave Canadian author!!!!!!!
    Actually, Grand Avenue is one of my most beloved modern books, from anyone, anywhere.
    I digress.
    So, lol, she has written a couple of other books in this category.
    I have read almost all of her books,…one I’m trying t remember escapes me. The other is “See Jane Run”. Amnesia…is the thing here.
    So happy about this post!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting topic. My grandson was born mentally disabled. I wrote his character into a story and wept the whole time I was writing it. I don’t know how writers do it. The most haunting character for me in is the novel “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton. I admire her for writing that novel, but I don’t see how she could do it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, vanaltman!

      Very sorry about your grandson. That is difficult — for him, and for family members. 😦

      “Ethan Frome” is indeed an extremely downbeat novel, but I agree it’s a great one. And, yes, haunting.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Great blog & topic, Dave! I thought of Jake Barnes, the hero of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, who has a war wound that keeps his relationship to Lady Brett Ashley platonic.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I don’t know if psychological damage counts as a disability, but Doctor Manette in “A Tale of Two Cities” because of his unjust imprisonment, acts strangely when under extreme stress.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck , oh a small book but so big in heart.
    Steinbeck`s own experiences working alongside migrant farm workers as a teenager
    I remember reading it and it is the heartbreaking story of.George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in California in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression in the United States.
    Lennie loves to pet animals but he is so strong without realizing he sometimes kills them. These days Dave, folks like Lennie are known as special folks, are they autistic ?
    , don`t know.

    They both need each other, but Lennie`s strength harms other people and animals, and later the mob started searching for Lennie.

    To save from further cruelty to Lennie, George shoots Him.in order to save Him.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Dave an excellent actor Sidney Poitie just passed.

        Long long ago in Grade School I saw this movie with my Teacher, she took me to the movie theatre.,
        “A Patch of Blue”, a hearwarming story of an educated Blach gentleman and an uneducated White young woman.
        Amazing story, I never read the book.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Dave while in Kansas , 20 some years ago. I was a volunteer in a respite center Thursday evenings, to give parents or caregivers the night off for a couple of hours.
        I was able to get close to special people.
        Some were Down and high functioning, some were severely challenged with cerebral palsy.
        They did not know, their issues so had loads of fun,,
        Some were so flirty , some flirting with another special.
        Halloween was a fun night.
        So many from well to do families spend money for outfits.
        Always every week sith music, games, dance and what not.

        So many Dad leaves them so they are with their Moms

        Liked by 2 people

        • Wonderful that you did that, Bebe! Sounds like a fun and memorable experience in many ways!

          When my first daughter was in a children’s hospice for two years before she died, all the kids were of course disabled in some way with ultra-serious medical conditions. None were high-functioning, unfortunately, but many of the parents and staffers were inspiring. There can definitely be some upbeat moments in difficult circumstances.

          Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m reading Richard Powers’ “Bewilderment” right now. He wrote “the Overstory” which was released a few years ago and made my top ten list that year. “Bewilderment” is just as amazing and includes a young boy with some emotional/mental impairments. It tackles the question of how we teach our children (especially when they have enough challenges already) about the dangers and threat of climate change, while also keeping them hopeful enough to press on. A very good book so far, I recommend both “Overstory” and this one!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. HI Dave, I need to think about this topic a bit more. Off the top of my head, What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge told the story of Katy who is paralyzed following a fall from a swing and how she overcomes her disability. The Secret GArden by Frances Hodgson Burnett included Colin who had a hunchback. I also though of She by Rider Haggard but I think Holly was just very ugly and described as looking like an ape with very long arms. I’m not sure if that counts as a disability. I’ll think some more and visit again tomorrow. Have a great evening.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Robbie, for those mentions! Your citing of “What Katy Did” reminds me that there are some excellent children’s and YA books that include characters with disabilities. “Heidi” (mentioned in my post), R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder,” etc.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Cindy!

      Great mention of the “Little House and the Prairie” series! (Which I’ve somehow never read — or watched. 😦 )

      I don’t have statistics, but hopefully a larger percentage of recent novels have characters with disabilities than novels from many years ago. And hopefully those characters are often depicted in a three-dimensional way.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Congratulations on writing your four books, James!

      I’m no great expert on getting book sales — my two books have had so-so sales in one case and okay sales in the other case — but I can tell you what I tried to do. (Stuff I suspect you already know.) I mentioned the books in blog posts and on social media, made several signing appearances, politely asked people if they could post reviews, etc.

      Good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Dave, Flowers for Algernon , also a movie ” Charlie”, starring Clifford Robertson
    .A gut wrenching science fiction , I have also seen the movie long ago on television .

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! Wow — you got my interest with that bear-at-college reference. 🙂

      Your mention of a club foot reminded me that the protagonist in W. Somerset Maugham’s great novel “Of Human Bondage” had one. It at least partly explained his having enough lack of confidence to make some bad work and romantic decisions before he matured some.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh Dave – you do pick the most interesting topics that allow us to revisit societal values – where we have come from, where we are now and has any progress been made other than lip service.

    I recently read, Deafening a novel written by Frances Itani, which was published in 2003. This from Goodreads: “The novel is set prior to World War I in the small Ontario town of Deseronto, where the O’Neil family owns a hotel. The book follows the story of Grania O’Neil, a girl who lost her hearing when she was five years old as a result of contracting scarlet fever.”

    What was most interesting is how the narrative incorporated WWI. Grania’s husband Jim was a stretcher bearer and came home with PSTD, something that was unknown at the time (so we have made progress). The idea of disability was broadened by the discussion of physical and mental well-being within the storyline.

    Thank you for this important discussion, Dave. I can’t help myself, I must end with a quote and this one by Stevie Wonder says it best!!!. “Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision.”

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Thank you Dave, for another very important topic. As you say, literature is one of many areas of culture where people with disabilities are severely underrepresented. I’d like to second Sarah’s mention of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an incredible book which I must re-read some time. First In The World Somewhere by Penny Pepper is absolutely brilliant, very funny in places, but also incredibly powerful. How about Shakespeare’s Richard III? And I can recommend Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music in which one of the characters becomes deaf. Mental health conditions are considered to be a disability (in the UK anyway) if they have a long-term impact on one’s ability to undertake normal day to day activities. Arguably Miss Haversham in Dickens’ Great Expectations would come under this description. And perhaps also the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre? I also recently started Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks which includes a spell in a psychiatric hospital. Of course, we know that many people were wrongly committed to such places before more appropriate treatment became available. Then there are characters who become disabled through an accident. Back to Jane Eyre, with Mr Rochester this time. Bran Stark in Game of Thrones is another example. Talking of which, Tyrion Lannister might also be mentioned, although dwarfism is not necessarily a disability as such, of course – the issue for shorter people is that society is not always created in a way which suits their body type. In the UK we have ‘the social model of disability’ which places the focus on the barriers created by society as the impairment, rather than any condition which an individual may have. It is not universally accepted but is gradually becoming more recognised as an important distinction. Anyway, there are a few suggestions. Thanks again for making me think about such an important issue.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Liz! Happy you liked the post!

      And I appreciate your detailed, wide-ranging comment — including mentions of various works fitting this theme. Characters from Shakespeare, George R.R. Martin, and others — absolutely!

      While I tended to focus on physical disabilities in the post, mental challenges can certainly also be disabilities of another kind. Your examples from Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte 100-percent qualify — and I guess we can add Jean Rhys for her “Wide Sargasso Sea” prequel to “Jane Eyre.” Oh, and Boo Radley from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” among many other novels.

      Last but not least, I like the idea of the UK’s “‘social model of disability.” Wish that were more widespread!

      Liked by 4 people

    • Oh Liz, I remember the first time I read the Mr Rochester has lost his sight. I was about 14 or 15 and I couldn’t understand why the author would do such a dreadful thing to a main character. Couldn’t she had chosen someone else? Isn’t it interesting how we see things differently throughout our lives.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Rebecca, I was also about 15 when I first read “Jane Eyre” (assigned in a high school English class), and, like you, I felt bad about Rochester’s grievous injuries. I guess Charlotte Bronte felt he should be taken down a peg or two. And of course what got Rochester hurt was a key element in the novel’s conclusion.

        Liked by 1 person

        • And by the book’s end, Rochester could see his baby out of one eye. Perhaps it’s just my impression, but it seemed to me that he was going to see even better eventually, under Jane’s expert and loving care.

          Liked by 1 person

            • I should be embarrassed to tell you I don’t know, but I confess I found the novel off-putting and too liable to fairytale and expedient wrappings-up by then to pay close attention to that particular. As you might recall, I was all for ending “Jane Eyre” when Jane collapses in a heap on the heath, though I do realize that my preference would likely have ruined the commercial prospects for the author, thus defeating part of her purpose in writing, and in writing the end the way she did.

              Liked by 1 person

              • I remember your mixed feelings about “Jane Eyre,” and I understand that the reader has to suspend belief here and there. Still, I love the novel. You’re right that without a semi-happy ending, “Jane Eyre” would probably not be the phenomenal success it was and still is.

                Like

                • Well, we do share a love for its opening scene, one of the most engaging I know in all literature.

                  The ending was more than semi-happy, I think, given the impediments the plot allows its principles to overcome– unless you’re a little French girl from an earlier marriage. Suddenly, you’re off to boarding school…hopefully a better-run, better-stocked, better-heated one than the boarding school Jane endured.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • I agree — great first line, and great opening scene.

                    I felt the ending was not totally happy because of Rochester’s injuries, even as his health was improving somewhat. And almost any school would be better than Lowood!

                    Like

      • Hi Rebecca, England during the 1840s, when “Jane Eyre” was written and published was a morally strict society that was heavily influenced by Christianity. So Rochester had to be punished in some way for trying to corrupt the virtuous Jane. It’s like under the Hayes Code, murderers in movies had to be caught and punished.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. Another great post, Dave! Makes me think of “I, Claudius” by Robert Graves. Claudius is probably a favorite of mine in this genre because of the way he uses people’s impressions of his disabilities to his strategic advantage.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Find it interesting that earlier creations, like Long John, Ahab and Hook, aren’t especially mellowed by their misfortunes and whether that was just part of the ‘get on with it,’ attitude that sometimes prevailed in the past. My maternal grandfather only had one leg but you did not dare suggest he was in any way ‘disabled,’ not if you wished to keep your throat intact. They lived up a set of stairs and at one point he walked miles to his work and back again every day. My Nan used to greatly upset my Mam every Christmas by running after the bus and leaving him behind so she could nip into her local on the way home. It just seems to me that apart from Tiny Tim…even poor Quasimodo did not have much going for him at all, not even Esmeralda or the object of ridicule, that today’s characters seem to get better treatment.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne!

      You brought up a VERY interesting point I didn’t explore; how disabilities were viewed in literature (and real life) long ago vs. in more modern times. Things do seem somewhat better now — more enlightened, more accepting, etc. — though of course quite far from perfect.

      Your vivid mention of your determined maternal grandfather reminded me a bit of how Franklin Roosevelt mostly hid his disability from the public during his 1933-1945 presidency. (Glad everyone’s throat remained intact. 🙂 )

      Liked by 3 people

      • Lol. He did indeed hide things. I guess a lot of people hide things, that might not be visible physical disabilities either. I see Sarah has mentioned Holmes and I also wonder if things like addiction are more ‘out there’ because here’s a main, well known character with an open ‘problem in a set of books written some time ago’ And there’s plenty others. Let’s look at the alcoholism in Dickens for example. So then you’re wondering if that was because he had problems that he wrote of it but maybe physical problems were j better hidden and less appealing.

        Liked by 3 people

  14. Very interesting topic this week! Certainly in my reading there is, perhaps, a limitation of characters with physical disabilities – aside from those you’ve already mentioned. However, the synopsis of ‘Still Life’ made me think of ‘Marabou Stork Nightmares’ by Irvine Welsh which is about a man in a coma. This is probably my favourite of Welsh’s novels (that I’ve read so far!). Depression seems to feature in those characters who are quite high functioning – Sherlock Holmes being one of them, not helped by his tendency to slip off into drug addiction when he’s bored. Although now I put my mind to thinking of other characters I arrive at a standstill! With that in mind I’m very much looking forward to reading everyone’s comments!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Sarah!

      The plot line of “Still Life” felt a bit familiar to me, too; various novels have indeed featured a comatose character (in addition to the “Marabou Stork Nightmares” work you mentioned, Stephen King’s “The Dead Zone,” among others). But Joy Fielding certainly put her own stamp on it, and I found her book very compelling — and a total page-turner in the second half.

      And, yes, many fictional characters have depression — worthy of a blog post of its own!

      Liked by 4 people

      • It’s good to be able to put a unique spin on something. Welsh handled it very well also from what I can recall and it certainly had a memorable ending.
        I’m just reminded of ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ by Jean-Dominique Bauby. I read it quite some years ago but quite remarkable for many reasons.
        And we shall look forward to your upcoming post about fictional characters and depression… 😉

        Liked by 4 people

        • I agree, Sarah! So many plots in literature have been done multiple times; the key is what novelists do with those plots — giving them unusual twists, modern twists, etc.

          Ha! 🙂 I might do a post on depression in literature. Then again, I might not. 🙂

          Just looked up “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” — sounds like quite a memoir of someone dealing with a massive stroke.

          Liked by 4 people

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