Monstrous Bodies

Dyson Lecturer Ying Wang explores disability, deviance, and feminism in the writings of 19th century French female authors.

“We had already talked a lot about a difference in identity. Differences in gender, race, sexuality—how they were represented in women’s writings,” says Ying Wang, PhD, a lecturer in Dyson’s Modern Language and Cultures Department, “but critics have overlooked a very important difference: body difference, disabled people, how women represent these figures and why they were incorporated into women’s writings.”

This exploration of body difference, Wang believes, possibly stems from fact that in the 19th century,the scientific, medical, religious, and moral discourses were destined to justify the link between femininity and disability. The female body is considered to be an inferior body—a weak body. When women represent and involve this disability in their works, specifically in their sentimental novels, there must be a reason, Wang asserts, a reason worth our attention and research.

“The concept of the normal body, this standard, is what creates this monstrous body,” says Wang. “Any deviation is considered abnormal—‘monstrous.’ We consider the female body to be abnormal, the second body.”

The 19th century female writer was considered a “monstrous” being by her contemporaries. Why? Wang says it’s mainly because in Western society, women’s roles were defined to be private—the angel of the house. “Only man had the right to write, and those sorts of public things,” Wang says, “Women should be wife and mother, but when they started to write, they reclaimed their subjectivity. They transgressed the gender constraints that society imposed on them.”

The novels Wang primarily focused her research on were Anatole (1815) by Sophie Gay, a love story featuring a deaf and mute man; Olivier ou le Secret (1824) by Claire de Duras, a tragic love story that deals with male physiological impotence; Delphine de Girardin’s Monsieur le Marquis de Pontanges (1856), a story about a woman who must choose between her mentally retarded husband and a handsome, young seducer; and finally Juliette Adam’s Laide (1878), a dramatic tale of a young woman cast from her home by her sculptor father for having an ugly face.

“I want to wake them up,” says Wang, “I want to wake up their long-forgotten work and I want to wake up the disabled figures represented in their novels. I think there must be meaning behind it—how Western women within the context of the 19th century were considered disabled—not equal to men—and how women writers used disabled figures to question the norm and the constraints imposed by society on their gender. ”

Wang, who has spent the last several years investigating the representation of the disabled body in 19th century women’s sentimental novels, says France’s literary women have been forgotten and their work rarely incorporated into canon—not because their writing wasn’t any good, but because the patriarchy ideology favored male writers while marginalizing women’s literary creativity.

“The women writers of that time were seen as abnormal. They were popular and famous at the time, but have since disappeared from our anthologies and literary collections,” explains Wang. “They were considered as hybrids—possessing the body of a woman, but the mentality and intelligence of a man.”

For Wang, the importance of the textual body is critical to understanding why women writers included disability in their work and how the disabled figures influenced the narrative structure of their novels.

“For example, when there are disabled figures—when the hero is deaf—the disability initiates that story. It motivates that story to explain what happened and why,” she says. “One of the major functions of this deviance—this absence of normalcy—is to initiate a story to tell.”