Deformities in Literature

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After reading chapters 6 and 21 in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, I became very interested in an idea discussed by Foster in chapter 21.  The idea is about deformities, imperfections, handicaps, or other physical characteristics.  Foster states “First, the obvious but nonetheless necessary observation: in real life, when people have any physical mark or imperfection, it means nothing thematically, metaphorically, or spiritually” (Foster 229).  In other words, when someone has any type of physical characteristic, whether it is common or unusual, it means nothing.  He supports this idea by saying that a Grateful Dead tattoo on a person doesn’t have any hidden or in depth meaning, only perhaps that this person enjoys this type of music.  He continues on by saying someone who has scoliosis simply has scoliosis and that there is nothing to analyze or consider about it.  However, when looking at literature the rules completely change.  If you give scoliosis to a character like Richard III and “viola, you have something else entirely” (Foster 229).  In literature, physically characteristics and imperfections are meant to be analyzed.  These physical characteristics can tell the reader a great deal about what type of person that character is.  Forester states “Richard, as morally and spiritually twisted as his back, is one of the most completely repugnant figures in all of literature” (Foster 230).  Typically when a character has a physical deformity, they also have a moral deformity.  This idea can be found through analyzing the characters in many works.  For instance, I have looked into the use of the deformed and the grotesque in Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor’s southern literature. 

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Oh, yes, Flannery O'Connor is a great example of this idea, and I regularly use her work when I teach AmLitII.

The role of illness and injury in literature is similar to that of names and weather. In the real world, these don't "mean" anything, but the author who chooses to insert these details is often supporting a point, and a careful reading of these details will help identify that point.

Good call, Stefanie.

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This page contains a single entry by StefanieWiegand published on October 20, 2010 10:39 AM.

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