Skip to main content
  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: December 2017

14 - Signifying Selves: Disability and Life Writing


As numerous scholars have pointed out – not least in this volume – disability has been a prominent topos in the Western literary tradition from antiquity to the present. Think of Oedipus, Richard III, and Ahab. Disability has figured prominently in popular culture as well, especially in the modern era. Some of the first motion pictures exploited physical anomaly for its value as spectacle in the new, inherently voyeuristic, visual medium. Indeed, one reason horror films so often feature visible disabilities, such as facial scars, amputated limbs, and limps, is that by their nature, visual media display disability in a way that writing cannot. As media have emerged and representation has evolved, Western culture has capitalized on disability, quite literally, for millennia.

But despite its pervasiveness, diachronically and synchronically, in the literary and popular culture of Western Europe, disability has not always been recognized as: a product of social and cultural arrangements; a basis for personal, communal, and political identity; and an existential condition. Rather, disability has usually functioned as a code according to which visible flaws body forth inner faults, allowing character to be read off the body. Functioning this way, disability has served Western culture profitably, but it has served those with disabilities ill – reducing them to a single dimension, denying their complexity, and eliding the contextual factors that oppress them. Disabled characters are usually viewed from outside; when they are not tragic, doomed, and stigmatized protagonists, they are often foils. Consider the juxtaposition in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) of a sympathetic, reflective Ishmael against an obsessive, self-destructive, and masochistic Ahab. Ishmael survives to tell his tale; Ahab is sent to a death he not only deserves but seems to desire. So while disability has been a persistent, even prominent, presence in Western culture, it has also, paradoxically, been a conspicuous absence. That is, its prominent representation has all too often amounted to misrepresentation.

Recommend this book

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this book to your organisation's collection.

The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability
  • Online ISBN: 9781316104316
  • Book DOI:
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to *