Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

From Virginia's Sister to Friday's Silence: Presence, Metaphor, and the Persistence of Disability in Contemporary Writing

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

From Virginia's Sister to Friday's Silence: Presence, Metaphor, and the Persistence of Disability in Contemporary Writing

Article excerpt

The article aims to produce new thinking about the representation of disability in contemporary literature, especially understood with reference to uses of metaphor and the question of a material disabled presence. It also wishes to make a claim for what is termed the "persistence" of disability in contemporary writing, an idea that connects writing over the last 25 years back to the modes of disability representation established early in the twentieth century. As such, it starts with a set of thoughts about Virginia Woolf's half-sister Laura Stephen, disabled and ultimately institutionalized, and the ways in which a reading of the presence of Laura in Woolf's fiction suggests a method that allows for a more sophisticated analysis of the instances of disability in contemporary writing. The article then discusses marginality, metaphor, and materiality in a range of contemporary texts, suggesting that, although frequent and highly problematic representations of characters with disabilities continue, there are appropriate metaphors that can reflect the productivity of disability aesthetics and disabled lives. It ends with an analysis of J. M. Coetzee's 1986 novel Foe, which aligns this idea of productive metaphor with a reading of the disability ethics suggested by material location and narrative possibility.

Virginia's Sister

This article aims to produce new thinking about the representation of disability in contemporary literature, especially understood with reference to uses of metaphor and the question of a material disabled presence. It also wishes to make a claim for what I term the "persistence" of disability in contemporary writing, an idea that connects writing over the last 25 years back to the modes of disability representation established early in the twentieth century. Such persistence can be read in a number of ways: in multiple texts it speaks of the continuous and highly problematic recourse made by fiction to characters with disabilities in order to emphasize values that negate the presence and meaning of disability; but in other writing it generates a sense of the productive presence of disability and characters with disabilities. As I hope to show, in this productive space metaphor need not be something that has, at all times, to be policed for fear of the damage it does to disabled communities. Rather, disability metaphors can be subtle and meaningful in the ways that they speak of disability experiences and lives.

Before moving to a specific concentration on the contemporary, I want to start with an extended example from modernist writing that arcs around the article and ties into the later commentary on more recent literature. The sister in the title here is, in fact, a half-sister-Laura Stephen, born prematurely in 1870 to Leslie Stephen and his first wife Minny Thackeray and so some 12 years older than her famous sibling, Virginia Woolf. In Leslie's letters, written during his eldest daughter's childhood, Laura emerges as a figure whose behaviour makes her seemingly beyond control-she has "fiendish" bursts of temper and "dreadful fits of passion," while her talk is described as "a queer squeaking or semi-stammering or spasmodic uttering" (Lee 101). Leslie finds her "intensely provoking" and in one letter declares, "I long to shake the little wretch" (Lee 102). As his ability to control his daughter increasingly failed, Leslie Stephen resorted to sedation and physical punishment, locking Laura up in her room in the family home before finally institutionalizing her, probably in 1892. Virginia Woolf herself later wrote of her father's relationship with his oldest daughter that "the history of Laura is really the most tragic thing in his life I think [. . . His] letters are full of her" (Lee 100).

The information we have on Laura Stephen is almost entirely compiled from letters and journal entries from the Woolf family, and the perils of retrospective diagnosis notwithstanding, looking back it seems clear that she had some form of autism. …

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