Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Victorian Fictions of Interdependency: Gaskell, Craik, and Yonge

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Victorian Fictions of Interdependency: Gaskell, Craik, and Yonge

Article excerpt

Victorian fiction by Elizabeth Gaskell, Dinah Mulock Craik, and especially Charlotte Yonge offers alternate ways to imagine dependency and disability. Basic fictional elements such as plotting and genre produce a message of interdependency as both a social norm and a social good, catalyzing a range of relationships including, but not limited to, marriage. Later critics' dismissal of all three writers' Christian ideologies of self-sacrifice may reveal our pervasive devaluation of the interdependency that, like disability, is a universal experience.


Dependency and independence are problematic keywords for contemporary culture because of our deeply held and unexamined feelings about both of them. Feminist philosopher Eva Feder Kittay describes our feelings about dependency as those of "fear and loathing" whose counterparts are various ideas about the desirable state of independence and our relationship to it: "we have been able to fashion the pretense that we are independent-that the cooperation between persons that some insist is interdependence is simply the mutual (often voluntary) cooperation between essentially independent persons" ("Love's Labor Revisited" 248; Love's Labor xii). This fiction of independence, Kittay argues, is both false and dangerous: "our mutual dependence cannot be bracketed without excluding both significant parts of our lives and large portions of the population from the domain of equality" (Love's Labor xii). She wants to find "a knife sharp enough to cut through the fiction of our independence," and does so in Love's Labor with a "dependency critique" that attends to the social, economic, and political disadvantages public ideologies of in/dependence produce for all involved in relationships of asymmetrical dependency (xii).

One goal of Kittay's critique is a reengineering of our perceptions about the normalcy of vulnerability across the life cycle. As she asserts in a later essay, "We need to see our dependency and our vulnerablity to dependency as species typical" ("Love's Labor Revisited" 248). Another route to this goal is to explore narratives that invite us to imagine dependency, independence, and interdependency otherwise, seeking widely and not restricting ourselves to contemporary culture.

Surprisingly, one source of enabling narratives of interdependency is Victorian writing. Disability pervades Victorian medical and social discourses, reflecting the age's fervor for clinical research and charitable action, both of which targeted the 'afflicted.' Victorian literature, similarly, is rich with disability representations, partly because life in nineteenth-century Britain offered so many ways in which to become disabled in a lifetime, including industrial accidents, diseases, poverty, and warfare.

Literary disability scholars often turn to the Victorians for examples of our most damaging public narratives of embodied differences. Charles Dickens, to pick the most common example, generated not only the iconic figures of boy cripple and malignant dwarf (Tiny Tim and Quilp) but also a host of angelic invalids, corrupt prosthesis users, and benign intellectually disabled people of both genders.2 In writing by Dickens and his contemporaries, disabled characters often function "as a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight," bearing out David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's important theory of narrative prosthesis (39).

As they are careful to point out, however, "it is easy to fall prey to the self-congratulatory belief that we occupy the most progressive moment of disability awareness in history" (xiv) and assume, for example, that Victorian texts are universally less evolved in their ways of imagining social relationships based on embodied differences. In fact, part of Narrative Prosthesis's value is its sustained ability to catalyze other critical inquiries, and Victorian fiction in particular invites such investigation. …

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