Reforming Victorian Sense/Abilities: Disabilities in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Social Problem Novels
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Krueger, Christine L.
This dissertation rewrites the representations of disability, impairment, and illness throughout Elizabeth Gaskell’s fiction. The project’s four chapters examine blindness in Mary Barton, pregnancy, deformity, and typhus fever in Ruth, tuberculosis and hysteria in North and South, and hysteria and disfigurement in Sylvia’s Lovers, in order to intervene with disability in its literary, historical, medical, and social contexts by uniting methodologies ranging from Disability Studies, Medical Humanities, feminist theory, and Victorian studies. By looking at the novel and rethinking it through Disability Studies, this dissertation joins contemporary theory with historical context, refreshing scholarly attention toward under-represented bodies and minds. This dissertation is the first extensive examination of how Disability Studies transforms our understanding of Gaskell’s fiction. Her novels challenge us to look generously at our definitions of disability through character description, sensory narration, and narrative development. This dissertation examines how Gaskell’s unique representations of disabled characters blur the lines between melodrama and realism, precisely to make visible alternative modes of identity, experience, and embodiment. I locate the important value of ethics as a central component of Gaskell’s novels. As an effective practitioner of social justice, Elizabeth Gaskell uses her novels as a space to explain and articulate to her readers the value of diverse representation. Subsequently, ambiguity is a central point of Gaskell’s fiction, and makes her work especially important to Disability Studies. I demonstrate how Gaskell’s novels allow for a broader consideration of disability to take shape. In this way, disability becomes a more describable and complex condition. By using Disability Studies as the central my central theoretical approach to Elizabeth Gaskell’s fiction, this dissertation creates a space for critics to discuss the range and depth of Gaskell’s fiction and understand her inclusion of disabled characters. It consists of four primary chapters, detailing the representations of disability at play in the fiction and life writing of Elizabeth Gaskell and some of the most famous Victorian writers, like Charlotte Bronte. The project is preceded by an introduction which roots disability in mid-nineteenth-century narratives and establishes the Disability Studies methodology I employ in each chapter.