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.