From Caricature to Character: The Intellectually Disabled in Dickens's Novels (Part One)

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Yet the reliance upon disability in narrative rarely develops into a means of identifying people with disabilities as a disenfranchised cultural constituency. The ascription of absolute singularity to disability performs a contradictory operation: a character 'stands out' as a result of an attributed blemish, but this exceptionality divorces him or her from a shared social identity. (Narrative Prosthesis 55)

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David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder's primary plaint in Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (2000) is that Victorian and early modern literatures habitually spin disability into a spectacle, into a flashing sign or symbol meant to attract attention to something other than itself. Fictional disability often functions as a crutch or prosthesis upon which characterization, plot, theme, and tone may lean, little attention being drawn to the larger disabled population represented by the single, imaginary example. The physically disabled character's very distinctiveness can lead, not only to isolation from those other fictional persons who react with distancing pity or disgust, but to a kind of representational disconnect from those real-world individuals with disabilities whose numbers--recognized within the boundary of the novel or short story--would strip the character's exceptional disability of its rhetorical power. Mitchell and Snyder suggest that Victorian literature is highly dependent upon such "static languages," that it predicates itself on predictably "sterile" and delimiting formulae of narrative-making (142). The question of whether this generalization can be justly applied to the work of one of Victorian England's most prolific writers serves as the governing impetus for this essay.

Charles Dickens seems an intuitive choice for literary defender of the intellectually disabled, a manifestly humanitarian author likely to carve out in his fiction that welcoming, inclusive space so wanting in a Victorian milieu increasingly preoccupied with education, industry, and self-reliance. Dickens's first three novels bespeak a ready advocate for victims of many kinds of social injustice. The Pickwick Papers (1836-7), Oliver Twist (1837-9), and Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9) together establish what will become life-long, very loud sympathies for the destitute, the orphaned, the poorly educated, and the imprisoned debtor. Like his friend and collaborator Wilkie Collins, Dickens also manifests an enduring interest in the physically disabled, especially those whose vision impairment, faulty hearing, mobility difficulties, or visible disfigurement are compounded by class inequities and poverty. Intellectually disabled characters provide an even more severe indictment of Dickens's society: the author ties the origins of figures like Smike, Mr. Dick, and Maggy right back to contemporary medical, educational, and social problems.

And yet, while Dickens often appears sympathetic to the plight of these various groups, his body of work complicates any attempt to cast him as a consistent progressive. As Peter Akroyd notes in his biography of Dickens, the novelist "was a radical by instinct rather than by ideology," a disjunction that results in curiously disparate approaches to the same oppressed populations as one moves from novel to novel (137). Dickens's representations of the intellectually deficient are, like his renderings of the physically disabled, tonally complex and, occasionally, ethically suspect. Only gradually does the maturing author move from old stereotypes that operate in traditionally limiting--often internally inconsistent--ways, towards more stable and three-dimensional configurations of the idiot and imbecile. Notably, as these disabled figures grow more nuanced and less bound to one-dimensional role-plays that functionally ostracize them from their peers, they also become both more peripheral to the plot and more easily absorbed into the communities of their respective novels. …