The presentation of physical disability in the Gothic is a direct response to the long-held habit of Western culture to define the human norm, then to construe the non-normative as dangerously close to being non-human. While Gothic writers have often indulged in 'othering' to create a fear of the unknown across the boundaries of race, nationality, or ethnicity, these characters are generally still painted as mostly human 'others'. But, as Leslie Fiedler suggests, “the strangely formed body has represented absolute Otherness in all times and places since human history began,” and the Gothic rather gleefully characterizes the physically disabled as the 'other Other'. The character is then marginalized or demonized, and can easily be made into a non-human monster.
In a romantic Gothic novel like Frankenstein, the monster embodies deformity with its hideousness where its misshapen form results from an integration of body parts from different corpses. Besides, the narrative is an amalgamation of different textual elements from sources like the bible and The Ancient Mariner among many others, which are distorted.
On the other hand, in a fin de siêcle Gothic novel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, deformity is present in the atavistic and ugly appearance of Hyde, whereas there is suggestion of moral disfigurement in all the characters, including professionals like Utterson. Besides, the narrator who conceals, and the society that is so secretive, where Hyde (homonymic for “hide”) embodies that secrecy, highlights how the Gothic aims to uncover the disguise for deformity or disgracefulness in society.
Through deformity, the Gothic novel interrogates society and its failure to recognize its inherent short-comings, as can be seen by how the monster and Hyde are foils for many other characters in their respective novels, so as to bring about a greater level of self-reflexivity in a world where all negative aspects are projected unto the “Other”.
It should be noted that the Gothic demonstrates hypocrisy or blindness to the human condition in portraying the disabled in this manner. After all, part of the reason for our irrational fear of disability is that in any moment, a healthy body is one broken blood vessel removed from becoming a body with disabilities. If we live until old age, we are more and more likely to join that group as well. Modern activists, therefore, resist the fixed boundaries implied by the 'healthy self/disabled other' binary, instead using the term 'temporarily abled-body' to describe a body which might, at any moment, become disabled. In this manner, the binary oppositional boundary is removed. Interestingly, by working to resist the limiting boundaries and defining categories that imprison the Gothic self, even the oldest Gothic literature in some ways anticipates this type of deconstructive thinking. Gothic characters are forever crossing boundaries and implying that those boundaries did not truly exist; perhaps in some small ways, the sympathetic moments we experience with a character like Quasimodo or the Frankenstein creation work to that end.
Courtesy of Pang Shi Hua, National University of Singapore and Wendy Fall, Marquette University
See also: otherness
Anolik, Ruth Bienstock. Demons of the Body and Mind : Essays on Disability in Gothic Literature. Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland & Co., 2010. Print.
Fiedler, Leslie. “Foreword.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. . New York: New York UP, 1996. i–xv.
Punter, David. "'A Foot is what Fits the Shoe.'." Gothic Studies 2.1 (2000): 39. Print.
Punter, David. Gothic Pathologies : The Text, the Body, and the Law . Basingstoke : Macmillan ; New York, N.Y. : St. Martin's Press, 1998. Print.