The Depiction of Disability and Disease in Fiction

Way back in 2012, I wrote a column for The Huffington Post about disability and disease in literature. I thought I’d revisit that topic today with some relevant novels I’ve read during the seven years since then.

In that blog post for the later-went-downhill HP, I mentioned characters with bodily challenges in novels such as Jane Eyre, Moby-Dick, A Christmas Carol, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Roots, Misery, Treasure Island, Johnny Got His Gun, and the Harry Potter series. I also had this to say about the topic:

“Protagonists with physical issues can be admirable, inspirational, pitiable, embittered, etc. — or a mix of all those things. It’s fascinating for readers to see how a disability affects a character’s psyche and actions, for better or worse. Readers also might wonder what they’d do if they were disabled themselves.”

And of course readers who are disabled themselves may very well identify with protagonists in a similar situation.

I added in the 2012 post that such characters might be “underrepresented in literature for various reasons — including the discomfort some authors and readers might have with (them), and the fear of other authors that they might not depict physically challenged protagonists in an adequate way.”

Yet plenty of novels include very or somewhat disabled characters, who are often sympathetic — but not always.

The most recent novel of this type I read was Still Alice, just last week. Also known for the movie version that won Julianne Moore (pictured above) an Oscar, Lisa Genova’s haunting book chronicles Dr. Alice Howland’s descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s — with the story poignantly told from Alice’s point of view. The brilliant Harvard professor is only 49 when diagnosed, and her bout with dementia of course shows that no one — successful or not, affluent or not — is immune from disability. The novel also skillfully depicts the mix of courage and self-pity many people feel when their brains or bodies betray them, and shows that family members are not always totally supportive; for instance, Alice’s very upset husband acts rather boorish at times.

The novel I read before Still Alice was Lois Lowry’s compelling young-adult book Gathering BlueThe Giver sequel that stars a girl (Kira) whose deformed leg makes her an outcast in her harsh community. Kira’s skill at embroidery saves her from a certain death she would’ve faced if she had no stand-out skills, but she ends up living a sort of gilded-cage existence.

Also in the YA realm is John Green’s powerful The Fault in Our Stars, which tells the story of a teen girl (Hazel) with thyroid cancer who meets a teen boy (Augustus) with bone cancer that caused him to lose a leg. Their very challenging lives are made better by their romantic relationship — obviously, almost everyone wants love no matter what their condition. But as is often the case with disabilities in literature or real life, we don’t get a “happy ever after.”

Then there are J.K. Rowling’s four terrific Cormoran Strike novels (The Cuckoo’s Calling, etc.) written under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Cormoran is a super-smart private investigator who lost part of a leg while in the British military in Afghanistan, and the resulting pain and walking difficulty often exhausts him. But the charismatic Strike is stoic in the face of all that, and his disability both increases his sympathy for the underdog and the sympathy readers feel for him. Cormoran’s assistant (at first) and business partner (later) — the appealing and admirable investigator Robin Ellacott — has some scars of her own, mainly of a psychological nature.

Dana in Kindred is psychologically stressed though able-bodied in most of Octavia E. Butler’s memorable novel. But then comes the book’s shocking conclusion — with Dana’s new physical disability depicted as both real and symbolic after she had been pulled back and forth several times from 20th-century California to slavery times in America’s pre-Civil War south.

In Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, the late-middle-aged “Sully” drags himself around with a bum knee while still doing very physical blue-collar work and avoiding medical treatment. Yes, some characters with a disability partly have themselves to blame by not taking better care of themselves.

Then there are novels featuring multiple characters with physical issues. (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s terrific So Much for That has four — including protagonist Shep Knacker’s wife, father, best friend, and best friend’s daughter. There’s lots of humor among the depressing subject matter (which can soften the downbeat-ness of a novel with disability and disease); plenty of understandable rage against America’s money-draining, soul-sapping, for-profit medical system; and an amazing ending I didn’t see coming.

Another novel starring multiple sick or injured characters is Edith Wharton’s riveting Ethan Frome, with its tragic triangle of Ethan, his wife Zeena, and Zeena’s cousin Mattie. Two of those three characters are involved in a horrific (but intentional) accident that leaves them disabled to varying degrees, while the other is sickly (yet perhaps only psychosomatically so).

Going back to another early-20th-century classic, we have medical student Philip in W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage born with a clubfoot that contributes to lowering his self-esteem enough to seek a disastrous relationship with the cold/unaffectionate Mildred.

Last but not least, it almost goes without saying that people — whether fictional or real — are not their disability. The disability is part of who they are, but not all of who they are.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about an appalling Republican dinner invitation — is here.