The Fluidity of Normalcy: Disability in English-Canadian Novels, 1984-2007
Even though persons with disabilities have had their rights ensconced in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they continue to be neglected, ignored, and mistreated. Persons with disabilities comprise one of the largest minority groups in Canada, yet Canadians’ attitudes toward disability oscillate between what Michael Prince calls “pride and prejudice” (Absent Citizens 32)—that is, between progressive and discriminatory perceptions. These attitudes prompt a few questions: why is disability such a problem in Canada? Why is it riddled with uncertainty? How do we deal with this uncertainty? To help answer these questions, this study analyzes seven Canadian novels published between 1984 and 2007 with the intent of exploring how they represent disability. The novels are Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, Lynn Coady’s Strange Heaven, Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters, Frances Itani’s Deafening, and Arley McNeney’s Post. Two key arguments arise from these novels: one, disability may be thought of as an identity rather than a stigmatized condition; and two, normalcy in Canada is not fixed, but fluid. I begin with Mistry’s novel, then proceed chronologically. While Mistry’s novel conveys the tragic consequences of a rigidly defined conception of normalcy, it does not quite present a progressive portrait of disability. Mistry’s depiction of Nariman Vakeel is a stereotypical example of the way disability is portrayed in fiction; in this manner, it serves as a foil to the novels that follow. Findley’s novel, a parody of the biblical flood, allegorizes the German and Canadian eugenics movements along with the ambivalent attitudes that Canadians appear to harbour toward disabled people. Noah, the novel’s cruel despotic figure, serves as an allegorical stand-in for German and Canadian eugenicists, while Mottyl the half-blind cat and the ape-children Lotte and Adam serve as stand-ins for the victims of eugenics. Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy presents disability within a complex and multifarious framework. Through the disabled narrator Harry Vincent, disability intersects with nationality, gender, and history; Vanderhaeghe’s portrayal of Harry, a Canadian working in Hollywood, exemplifies the fluidity of normalcy. Through his interactions with Hollywood personalities, he demonstrates that disability, nationality, masculinity, and history are all fluid concepts, as much imagined as they are socially constructed. MacDonald’s novel features another disabled narrator, Lily Piper, who reconfigures Gothic expectations surrounding the disabled body; through Lily, MacDonald challenges Gothic affirmations of corporeal normativity and offers a more fluid and empathetic model for conceiving the body in Gothic texts. In Strange Heaven, Coady demonstrates how a patriarchal society disables women; at the same time, she offers a fluid conception of mental illness. Bridget Murphy, the depressed protagonist, struggles within the Cape Breton society in which she lives. While the men in Coady’s Cape Breton present obstacles that in various ways disable her, the Cape Breton mindscape blurs the lines between mental illness, eccentricity, and reason. It is difficult to tell who is mad, who is eccentric, and who is rational, and in this manner Coady’s novel demonstrates fluid normalcy. Itani’s novel presents the development of Deaf culture in parallel with Canada’s development as a nation. Itani sets her story at the beginning of the twentieth century, and progresses through the Great War. Her protagonist, a Deaf woman named Grania, learns to speak and use sign language, and eventually marries a hearing man. Their marriage captures the fluid essence of Itani’s novel: the text functions as a buffer zone in which both hearing and Deaf people can equally participate. McNeney’s novel Post suggests that disability constitutes a type of normalcy. It presents the most overt challenge to a rigidly defined standard of normalcy: Nolan Taylor, a Canadian Paralympic basketball player, undergoes surgery to correct her faulty hip. Her surgery launches her into an identity crisis, prompting her to realize that disability was her norm, and that able-bodiedness has disrupted her sense of self. Overall, these novels, particularly those following Mistry’s, offer dynamic portraits of disabled characters and, as a result, deviate from literary convention, which states that disabled characters typically stand on the sidelines rather than the spotlight. These novels offer new ways of conceiving the relationship between normalcy and disability, suggesting that normalcy in Canada is an imaginative construct that can be constantly re-shaped and re-imagined.
Canadian fiction, disability, mental health, mental illness, institutionalization, Canadian history, Canadian law, segregation, discrimination, disability studies, disability rights, aesthetic nervousness, narrative prosthesis, deafness, impairment
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)