Each time our students encounter a disabled person within the literature they read for school, they absorb impressions about disability. Literature shapes our understanding of who fits into the cultural ideal and who is an outsider. Literature may unconsciously reinforce negative beliefs about disability by portraying disabled people as evil, superhuman, pitiable or passive. Disabled characters often end up being either killed or cured within the literature because the idea of a disabled person living a full, complex, ordinary life is often too obscure for non-disabled people to imagine. This harmful subtext about disability tends to elicit sympathy or fear and sends a strong message that disabled people are markedly different from non-disabled people. However, literature that promotes, fosters and amplifies the voices of writers with lived experience of disability (this means direct, personal experience) can go some way to countering negative stereotypes and challenging the dominant social discourse that devalues disabled lives.
This blog is a comparative analysis using a disability lens. In particular, it examines the way blindness is portrayed by a non-disabled author and by a blind writer. The first text is the ever-popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning, historical novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, an American, non-disabled writer. This novel was published in 2014 and is a story about two children on opposites side of the war. The novel opens with Marie-Laure aged six, living with her father in Paris, France, in 1934. Marie-Laure slowly loses her vision from bilateral cataracts, and the doctors inform Marie-Laure’s father that her condition is irreparable and permanent. When the Nazis occupy Germany, they flee to the French coastal city of Saint-Malo to live with Marie-Laure’s uncle, taking with them a valuable diamond called the Sea of Flames. Eventually Marie- Laure meets a German orphan boy named Werner Pfennig, who is pressured into service by the Nazi army. There is another minor character named Frederick in the novel who has a vision impairment. The inclusion of disabled characters has been widely praised, yet, some question whether the use of blindness as a metaphor for lack of perception and understanding reinforces negative stereotypes.
The second text is Selected Epistles by Olivia Muscat from the anthology Growing Up Disabled in Australia, edited by Carly Findlay. Muscat is a writer and disability arts advocate who lives in Australia and is blind. Muscat’s memoir was chosen as a comparative text because it is an account of her lived experience of blindness that can be read in juxtaposition to Marie-Laure’s experience of blindness. As well, it has been chosen to showcase an Australian disabled writer in the #OwnVoices genre. Muscat has written about how her blindness is perceived and how negative or positive perceptions of her disability either limits or opens opportunities. Muscat describes herself on her website as constantly yelling at ableist nonsense. Ableism is similar to other isms, such as racism and sexism, as it is negative prejudgement to maintain power and control. Ableism has exclusionary and harmful effects on disabled people. While physical barriers such as ramps are easy to address, attitudinal barriers created by social conditioning are much more difficult to change. This comparative analysis is a way of countering social conditioning by encouraging reflection on the representation of blindness within the literature and the quality of that representation.
|All the Light We Cannot See||Selected Epistles|
|Genre||Historical fiction set in France and Germany in WW2. The book is a hefty 544 pages.||Australian short memoir of only 8 pages. It is an #OwnVoices text.|
|Purpose||Doerr’s writing is an art form and is for entertainment. A secondary purpose is to raise awareness of historical events that inform the present day.||To inform about the physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers created by our society that exclude disabled people.|
|Title of novel||The title refers to the themes that are interwoven throughout the novel regarding light, sound and touch. Doerr asks the reader to consider the different symbolic ramifications of sight and seeing and all the different ways in which a person can be said to ‘see’. Marie-Laure cannot physically ‘see’, but she can view the German invasion of France for what it is. Alternatively, Werner has no difficulty with his vision, yet he cannot see the propaganda of the Nazi party.||The term ‘selected’ is a verb that means carefully chosen. The word ‘epistles’ means short letters. Hence, these epistles are a form of carefully chosen lessons regarding disability and social justice.|
|Portrayal of blindness||Doerr draws on two models of disability, moral and medical, to explain Marie-Laure’s blindness. The moral model of disability is where disability is viewed as punishment for sin. Here is an excerpt describing Marie-Laure’s vision loss from a moral understanding: What is blindness? Where there should be a wall, her hands find nothing. Where there should be nothing, a table leg gouges her shin. Cars growl in the streets; leaves whisper in the sky; blood rustles through her inner ears. In the stairwell, in the kitchen, even beside her bed, grown-up voices speak of despair. ‘Poor child.’ ‘Poor Monsieur LeBlanc.’ ‘Hasn’t had an easy road, you know. His father dead in the war, his wife dead in childbirth. And now this?’ ‘Like they’re cursed.’ ‘Look at her. Look at him.’ ‘Ought to send her away.’ p. 27 The words ‘despair’, ‘poor’ and ‘cursed’ indicate this moral mindset. The novel also refers to blindness using the medical model of disability. The medical model is an ‘illness’ model, viewing the problems caused by the disability as inherent in the individual and their medical condition, and not as the result of society’s failure to accept and adapt to individuals who happen to possess differential capacities, needs and requirements: Congenital cataracts. Bilateral. Irreparable. ‘Can you see this?’ ask the doctors. ‘Can you see this?’||Muscat presents disability through the social model of disability. Disability is viewed as a societal issue rather than an individual problem. She rejects the idea of ‘normalcy’ and embraces her disability identity, which offers her worth and dignity. Muscat describes her blindness as a natural part of the human experience, and she rejects the notion of pity: I don’t know how many times I have to tell you that it’s okay to refer to me as totally blind. That’s what I am. I’m not ‘vision impaired’; my vision is non-existent. I’m not ‘partially sighted’; there’s no partial about it. I have no sight. It’s gone, dead, caput. There’s no need to get flustered when I say I’m ‘totally blind’. That’s how I refer to myself because it leaves no room for interpretation. It’s final. Totally blind means I can’t see anything. Because I really can’t see anything and it’s kind of important for people who I interact with to know that. It’s a fact, like saying I have brown hair, or size seven feet, or naturally great eyebrows. I’m not offended by it, so I don’t see why you should be either. Kind regards, Totally blind Olivia- yes totally pp. 19-20|
|The use of vision in the novel||Doerr utilises Marie-Laure’s blindness as a ‘narrative prothesis’, a term coined to describe how disability props up the narrative. This prop is evident in how Marie Laure’s blindness is used as a figurative device to convey a lack of insight rather than an authentic representation of disability. Consequently, sight, seeing, perception and vision are symbols throughout the novel. Frederick is another character whose disability is utilised as a narrative prosthesis. He only passed the vision test to enter the Schulpforta because he memorised the charts. However, he is also the person with the greatest level of perception about what is happening. Frederick is bullied by others for his refusal to participate in torturing a prisoner. He is eventually beaten savagely, resulting in a brain injury and requires care for the rest of his life. The characters and disabilities of Marie-Laure and Frederick are created to support the narrative, and as a result, they are not fully developed.||The focus is to outline the attitudinal barriers, ignorance and discrimination to Muscat’s lack of vision, rather than describing her blindness. It is a narrative of agency and resistance.|
|Language||Doerr’s utilises figurative language as a powerful art form. However, Marie Laure has little to say in the novel, and we learn about her primarily from Doerr’s descriptions: In a corner of the city, inside a tall, narrow house at Number 4 rue Vauborel, on the sixth and highest floor, a sightless sixteen-year-old named Marie-Laure kneels over a low table covered entirely with a model. The model is a miniature of the city she kneels within, and contains scale replicas of the hundreds of houses and shops and hotels within its walls … Marie-Laure hesitates at the window in her stocking feet, her bedroom behind her, seashells arranged along the top of the armoire, pebbles along the baseboards. Her cane stands in the corner; her big Braille novel waits facedown on the bed. The drone of the airplanes grows. Another interesting observation about the type of language utilised by Marie-Laure that creates a sense of passivity: Roughly 60% of Marie-Laure’s utterances are requests for information, as compared to an average of 28% for other characters. Conversely, only 5% of her utterances are commands, while utterances for other characters range from 10% to 20% commands. Wells-Jensen (2016)[i]||Muscat relies on direct, clipped phrases and irreverent language as a way of self-advocating for respect: Dear people who assume that because my eyes don’t work my mind doesn’t either, Fuck. You. Best wishes, None of your damn business|
|Ableism||Utilising vision as a metaphor for understanding has ableist[ii] implications. As well, Marie-Laure’s passivity and dependence are also indicative of ableism. Yet, it is the disabled characters in the novel who have the greatest insight into their situation.||Muscat’s writing is a treatise against ableism.|
|Mobility||Marie-Laure is constantly counting things as a way of navigating her way around. She also relies on a model of the city as a three-dimensional map. These techniques are not realistic, effective, or a realistic portrayal of how blind people get around. However, considering Marie-Laure’s isolation, the absence of disability support, and the time period of this novel, it is not unreasonable to suggest that this could have occurred. What is problematic is that some non-disabled people believe that blind people utilise the mobility techniques described in the novel.||Muscat mentions her use of a cane and a guide dog for mobility in a matter of fact manner to indicate to the reader that her blindness is not a problem. It is the response of non-disabled people to her blindness that creates difficulties for her.|
|Identity||While Marie-Laure is portrayed as a heroine within the novel, many questions should be considered about her identity as a disabled person. Considering Marie-Laure lost her vision as a child from bilateral cataracts, there is the absence of any description of Marie-Laure’s feelings about her blindness or any discussion of her identity as a person who is blind.||Muscat presents herself as someone with a great deal of pride in her blind identity. She is the expert on her disability. I never sit around and wish I wasn’t blind. It isn’t a good use of my time. And most of the time I hardly notice that I’m down 20 per cent of my five senses. Sometimes I have to remind myself that other people get most of their information visually. p. 21|
|Agency (Do the characters have control over their own lives?)||Marie-Laure demonstrates agency when she volunteers for a task to assist the French Resistance. Also, at the end of the novel, she receives a graduate degree. However, these are the only two examples of Marie-Laure’s agency, whilst throughout the rest of the novel, she is mainly passive and dependent. One of the strangest scenes in the novel is when sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure is bathed by her father. He washes her hair and, at the end of her bath, hands her a towel and helps her out. Blindness does not impact the functional ability for self-care, yet Doerr deliberately placed this scene in the novel. At this moment, Marie Laure has no agency, but it also is highly inappropriate.||Muscat’s narrative is jam-packed with examples of her agency. Dear person at Flinders Street Station, I don’t know what part of me walking straight towards the escalator makes you believe I don’t know the escalators are ahead of me. Don’t grab my arm and try to drag me on. It’s dangerous and pretty fucking rude. Yours truly, Just trying to get where I need to go|
 #OwnVoices refers to literature that features a marginalised perspective that has been written by someone who shares the same marginalised characteristic. Unfortunately, the hashtag has been utilised to gatekeep disabled authors from writing in other genres, and as a result, some publishers have now abandoned the use of the #OwnVoices hashtag.
 Mitchell, D.T & Snyder, S.L. (2001) Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
[i] Wells-Jensen, S. (2016) On Blindness and Portrayal of Marie-Laure in All the Light We Cannot See in Lighthouse Interpoint and The Toast
[ii] Ableism is the belief in the superiority of the non-disabled life.