Refiguring Disability: Deviance, Blinding, and the Supernatural in Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal

Article excerpt

This essay examines Thomas Chestre's fourteenth-century Middle English Sir Launfal, which features the blinding of the adulterous Queen Gwenore by the fairy Tryamour, in view of the complex legal and social valences of blinding and blindness in the Middle Ages. While blinding could both symbolize the holiness of a saint and serve as the punishment for a treasonous or sexual criminal, blindness could also signify a literary figure's inward sinfulness. By featuring the blinding of a female character that is marked by her sexual promiscuity and cruelty, Chestre's tale complicates the already dense subtext of both the punishment and the impairment. In particular, Gwenore's impaired body comes to personify Artour's corrupt, unjust, and ineffectual court, while Tryamour's status as an agent of justice casts her supernatural, all-female countercourt as a powerful and enabling force. Building upon David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's theory of narrative prosthesis, the essay argues that Gwenore's blinding represents an intrinsic narrative drive to control the deviancy that her sexual impropriety creates. However, instead of neatly concluding the narrative, Gwenore's punishment succeeds in producing alternative narratives that challenge common medieval notions of femaleness, femininity, and disability.

Despite the relative invisibility of disability as a category of analysis in literary studies, most literary texts feature characters with disabilities. Indeed, some scholars argue that narrative itself demands difference. In his critique of the construction of normalcy, Lennard J. Davis asserts that plot seeks to replicate the normal; thus, "[t]his normativity in narrative will by definition create the abnormal, the Other, the disabled, the native, the colonized subject, and so on" (42). Though Davis focuses on the rise of the novel in the nineteenth century as evidence of the dependency of narrative on physical differences, one can easily see that most narratives seek to restrain aberrancies in the plot in order to satisfyingly conclude. Ato Quayson extends Davis's work to suggest that the "deformations" that produce narrative "emerge from the intersection of a variety of vectors including gender, ethnicity, sexuality, urban identity, and particularly disability" (21). This intersection reveals not just a relationship between the abnormal and the normal, but a "dialectical interplay between unacknowledged social assumptions and the reminders of contingency as reflected in the body of the person with disability" (21, italics in original). As Quayson notes, such a dialectical interplay affects every level-narrators, characters, literary motifs-of not just the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels that Davis emphasizes, but "all literary texts" (21, 22). A cornerstone of Quayson's project is David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's theory of narrative prosthesis, which provides a term for narrative's dependency on difference. As Mitchell and Snyder outline, "Narrative prosthesis (or the dependency of literary narratives on disability) forwards the notion that all narratives operate out of a desire to compensate for a limitation or to rein in excess" (53). Mitchell and Snyder base their literary theory on David Wills' notion of prosthesis, or that which negotiates between the literary and the bodily. Wills notes that the norm is elusive; any body-whether considered normal or deviant-is always already deficient in relation to it. Thus, a prostheticized body becomes the norm, or, in other words, pure artifice, thereby dismantling any notion of a perfect or perfectly normal body. Wills compares the body to words: just as our unruly bodies cannot fit artificial ideals, words remain illusory to the material objects they name. A bodily prosthesis means to complete or fix an incomplete body, and a textual or narrative prosthesis means "to resolve or correct-to 'prostheticize' ... -a deviance marked as improper to a social context" (Mitchell and Snyder 53). …