Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

From "Freak Show" to "Charity Case": The "Containment" of Deafness in Wilkie Collins's Hide and Seek

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

From "Freak Show" to "Charity Case": The "Containment" of Deafness in Wilkie Collins's Hide and Seek

Article excerpt

The article explores the representation of deafness, and in particular the deaf character Madonna/Mary, in Wilkie Collins's nineteenth-century novel Hide and Seek. The argument is that Madonna's rescue from a circus and adoption into the safety of a middle-class home transforms her from "freak show" into "charity case" through a discourse of paternalism. This process of containment parallels wider transitions in how deafness was understood socially in the late nineteenth century. Drawing on the history of deaf education and using Foucault's concepts of emergence and confinement, the article argues that this mirrors the transition from manual to oralist approaches to deaf education in this period.

The novel Hide and Seek by Wilkie Collins offers the opportunity to explore the representation of deafness in the nineteenth-century British novel. The novel features a deaf heroine, Madonna/Mary, and imagines in detail the experience of deafness. I interpret the novel through the lens of deaf studies in order to offer a new reading of this neglected text. In particular I am interested in how the portrayal of Madonna compares to preceding and succeeding models of deafness. I explore the interplay of ideas about deafness and disability, building on theorists such as Lennard Davis, Martha Stoddard Holmes, David Mitchell, David Bolt, and Tom Shakespeare, who have argued that disability and deafness are culturally constructed rather than self-evident representations of reality. As Julia Rodas has argued,

the presence of disability in Victorian fiction indicates more than a mere reflection of actual disabled persons in the culture. It points also to an underlying anxiety and ambivalence regarding this presence, a grappling with identity, a desire to experiment with places and roles. (372)

Taking this as my starting point, I focus on deafness as a contradictory spectacle of difference that ambivalently engages with discourses of "containment." I concentrate on the circus as the context in which deafness is constructed and ogled in order to explore the relationship between deafness, sensationalism, and spectacle. In conclusion I argue that the process of containment parallels the wider transition from manualist to oralist education in how deafness was understood socially in the period.

Hide and Seek

Hide and Seek, Collins's third novel, was first published in 1854 and reissued in 1861. It contains detailed reflections about the experience of being deafened, the loss of spoken language, sign language, theories about the causation of deafness, attitudes toward deaf education, and attitudes to deafness and deaf people in general. Disability and deafness were themes that Collins frequently returned to in his work. Esmail argues that "Collins is one of the Victorian novelists most interested in how diverse bodies intersect with text, most attentive to the issue of disability, and most committed to resisting the pathologization of disabled people" (996-97). Many of Collins's novels include characters with impairments, both as main characters, for example in Poor Miss Finch and The Law and the Lady, and as minor characters in his other works, such as The Woman in White and The Moonstone.

Hide and Seek is concerned with the mystery of the identity of the character Madonna, known as Mary in childhood, who is deaf1 and does not speak but signs when communicating with hearing characters (144). The novel has two parts and "Book I" establishes the domestic arrangements of the Blyth household, introducing Valentine Blyth, an artist; Mrs Blyth, his wife, who is described as an "invalid"; and the young lady Madonna, or Mary, their adopted daughter. The plot focuses on the discovery of Madonna's biological parents and the circumstances that led to her being orphaned and abandoned. In the first book the narration moves from the present day in which Madonna is a young lady in Valentine's household to recollections of Madonna's childhood as an orphan in the circus, the accident that caused her deafness, and the unusual circumstances by which Valentine came to adopt her. …

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