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For our September 7th class, we discussed four pieces of literature: “Frankenstein”, Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta”, Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant”, and Robert McRuer’s “Introduction: Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence”.
Dr. Foss opened up the discussion with a subtle reminder to post to the website for potential extra credit – and I will also subtly remind you myself to do so. Moving from that, we jumped directly into our discussion of the ending of Frankenstein, with particular care spent on the disability-aligned nature of the characters. The class immediately established the conversation with a rather apt pop-culture comparison: Frankenstein and Jeff (The Creation) share a similar dynamic as Tony Stark and Ultron. Both characters are selfish, shirking responsibility throughout the novel, with a particular focus on revenge and a failure to turn blame inwards. Both characters started out relatively pure, with Frankenstein from a peaceful family and Jeff having been created with a heart, both claiming the other corrupted themselves. Even so, it was agreed, “Cool motive, still murder.” This led the class to agree that both could be seen as “disabled avengers”.
Referencing Walten’s involvement in the story, Frankenstein’s personal exploration can be seen as a cautionary tale, helping Walten travel a better path without risking the deaths of even more innocent lives. Jeff, however, attempts to excuse his actions with his visage – using “deformities” as an excuse. Victor similarly can be seen as a negative stereotype reinforcer if we see his own personality traits as an extension of disability. After the long narrative told to him by Frankenstein, Walten starts to empathize with Jeff, their own conversation showing that stereotypes may overpower personal opinion.
The question lies, however. Is Frankenstein, the narrative, progressive? The answer was “maybe”, with many points going in the progressive aisle (at least, more progressive than other stories of the time). Jeff is shown as a thinking, feeling person rather than a dumb monster. He’s shown as an academic, fighting what stereotypes we can locate in other narratives of the era. Neither character is used as a plot device for an otherwise normative story – something we see in a lot of contemporary media. Victor himself is shown as potentially inwardly disabled while outwardly passing, defying some stereotypes of the time as well. Lastly, neither disability is “cured” at the end of the story, with both characters retaining their identities, defying the common trope of “disability cure = moral cure”.
From there, we moved on to Oscar Wilde’s piece “The Birthday of the Infanta” and his other piece, “The Selfish Giant”, starting with small group discussions. My group initially identified the story as having parallel to modern “Freak Shows”, later moving on to the characterization of the cast. The two characters that show the most emotion are the Dwarf and the King, both sharing humanity that the rest of the cast does not. With this, we agreed that the story was progressive-ish, as the princess was the real monster in the end, with a general theme being “beauty is on the inside”.
For the second piece, “The Selfish Giant”, my group began the conversation with the idea that the Giant had anger issues and required an “angel” to keep him company. From there, we discussed the possibility that the kids only appreciated him for what he could offer to society (the garden), with class and capitalist themes. Lastly, we discussed the Giant and the little boy, and how they got along – and the idea that the other children may have avoided the Giant’s touch, unlike the little boy. The Giant also seemed similar to the children, as he didn’t want to share his space, which is a bit immature.
While our small group did discuss the academic piece, I’ll save that for the ending of this summary, and jump straight to the group discussion of the two pieces I mentioned previously. In Infanta, we discussed the judgment the Dwarf underwent – based solely on his outward form, with no space in the world for him. Again, inner beauty vs outer beauty. However, there were some potential problematic aspects of this story. Firstly, he is portrayed as somewhat simple-minded is problematic, however, this is offset by his capability elsewhere. Secondly, it feels incredibly unrealistic that the Dwarf wouldn’t know what he looks like, and using that as a device to kill him is certainly not what we want in a progressive story. The Dwarf seeing himself as a “monstrosity”, even though he likely wasn’t taught this, may play into the idea that “everyone knows instinctively that disabled people are lesser beings”. He’s also not a fully realized character, seemingly killed off only to teach a moral lesson. The cactus also threatened violence against the Dwarf, using terminology that the rest of us would use to describe the cactus itself. Moving on, we ended that discussion with the agreement that this story was also one of class – where one cannot have a plotline of a disabled person as a romantic rival for royalty (heresy at the time). The Infanta was, in her own right, a “freak” – put on stage only as a spectacle, with parallels to freakshows. Lastly, her use of “play” in the quote “let those who come to play with me”, referencing the dwarf, may show that she has some recognition of her part in the narrative.
The class discussion of the Selfish Giant was short, but to summarize: it was potentially progressive, with his physical difference helping him interact with the kids. The Christ-child shows him his real worth, with divine sanctioning – potentially also being disability-aligned through his stigmata, which are marks of disfigurement. This ended the class period, but as I mentioned before, I’ll backtrack for one last paragraph.
My group explored the Robert-McRuer piece through the lens of history and sociopolitics. We noted the interesting parallel between compulsory able-bodiedness and compulsive heterosexuality, noting that heterosexuality is only a “norm” in more recent times. Indeed, heterosexuality was only relatively recently defined. Many cultures in history didn’t place this importance on normative heterosexuality. In particular, recent thought on heterosexuality is informed through the dogma of Cold War era geopolitics – the Cold War as a fight against the irreligious Soviet Union, and the radicalization of American “traditionalism”, “products of their time”, bigotry as a means to an end, creating both an in and out-group. We touched on the movie however briefly, noting that the character only regained his humanity after he was “cured”, which is indeed problematic. To end the discussion, we noted that homosexuality was, up until very recently, seen as an illness, and it is still stigmatized to this day despite contemporary movements.
2 thoughts on “Tristan Barber Class Summary for 9/7/21”
Woah! You managed to put a lot down for the summary. I’m impressed. I really like when you mentioned “inner beauty vs. outer beauty” as I hadn’t thought about it before. There as good thought process about how that applies in stories. Those that are ugly, usually have a kinder heart while those that have good looks (deemed by society) have a foul heart.
Your summary was very thorough! The Birthday of the Infanta was one of the most interesting stories we’ve read (in my opinion), and I think you did such a great job summarizing and analyzing it. I also like how you applied the topic of inner vs. outer beauty to everything we discussed in class.