The Starfish Paradigm: Impairment, Disability, and Characterization in Bobbie Ann Mason's "Shiloh"

By Bolt, David | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

The Starfish Paradigm: Impairment, Disability, and Characterization in Bobbie Ann Mason's "Shiloh"


Bolt, David, The Midwest Quarterly


It is a curious fact that some species of starfish can regrow their damaged or lost limbs. In a few cases the limbs contain vital organs, meaning that a whole starfish can regenerate from a single limb. It is also a curious fact that, in the cultural imagination, a person's impairment tends to be comparably envisaged as an interim step in a narrative that strides toward unimpairment for its very resolution. Of course there are many "marked bodies" in culture, owing to widespread prejudicial attitudes about gender, ethnicity, class, and sexuality, but what makes disability distinct, as David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have pointed out, is "its unambiguous ability to impact every other identity category at any time" (x). That is to say, no matter how marked or unmarked someone's body might be in terms of gender, ethnicity, class, and sexuality, the prospect of impairment is essentially inescapable and becomes greater with every passing day. Despite this undeniably universal relevance, however, impairment tends to be thought of in dramatic but purely transient terms. In order to "be disabled," as Mitchell and Snyder have argued, "one must narrate one's disability for others in sweeping strokes or hushed private tones. And this narration must inevitably show how we conquer our disabilities or how they eventually conquer us" (xii). The ironic consequence is that the representation of impairment becomes an engagement in "an encounter with that which is believed to be off the map of 'recognizable' human experiences" (5). Accordingly, many representations follow what I will designate the starfish paradigm, suggesting that the dreams and aspirations of someone who has an impairment rest on some form of cure, as though unimpairment were a necessary condition of success.

In illustrating this assertion, the hunch on which the essay will expand is that characterization is an essential aspect of fiction but frequently deficient in relation to disability. Although literary works may be judged in part by the complexity of their characters, when it comes to the representation of someone with a biological impairment simplicity is often accepted without comment. For example, Bobbie Ann Mason's first book, Shiloh and Other Stories, was the winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in 1983, as well as a finalist for the National Book Critics Award, the American Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. More specifically, the title work of the collection, "Shiloh," was selected for Best American Short Stories of 1981. Portraying a troubled working-class couple, the Moffitts, who are unaccustomed to spending lengthy periods of time together until the husband Leroy's job as a truck driver ends in a road accident, one of the many irrefutable strengths of this story is in the characterization of the wife Norma Jean, who, according to Tina Bucher, rebels against "typically feminine roles" (par. 2). But if the story's depictions of femininity and disability are juxtaposed, the latter may be found wanting. In a qualitative sense, the progressive representation of femininity can seem somewhat let down by the manifestly regressive representation of disability, given the difference between the complex character of Norma Jean and the multiply diminished and thus relatively simple character of Leroy.

Challenging the notion that being biologically female is a sufficient condition of femininity, the characterization of Norma Jean is grounded in feminist epistemology. After all, initiated in part by Simone de Beauvoir's much-quoted assertion that "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" (301) and the psychological research of Robert Stoller, the distinction between sex and gender was posited in the decade before Mason's publication by second wave feminists such as Ann Oakley and Sue Sharpe. The contention was, in brief, that although sex is a biological matter, gender can be better understood in social, psychological, and cultural terms. The characterization of Norma Jean might even be said to illustrate Judith Butler's radical work on performativity, which is grounded in Speech Act theory and argues that gender cannot exist before or beyond the discourse by which it is named, that it is ascribed as the result of a process that begins when a baby is first referred to as a boy or a girl. …

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