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Shackled Imagination: Literary Illusions About Blindness

Deborah Kent Stein

Caleb Plummer and His Blind Daughter - Harold Copping-1924
Caleb Plummer and His Blind Daughter (personagens de Dickens) - Harold Copping, 1924
 

The following is an expanded version of a paper presented in February, 1988, at the Second International Symposium on Vision Loss sponsored jointly by the American Foundation for the Blind and the Foundation for the Junior Blind. One hundred eighty speakers were brought to the Beverly Hills Hilton in Los Angeles, California, to take part in the five-day-long program.
Ms. Kent's analysis of the literary handling of blind characters down through the ages and particularly today is both penetrating and accurate. It seems useful to print this successful blind author's assessment of historic and current literary treatment of blind characters. Here it is:
There isn't much to tell, says Hester when asked to describe herself. When you're blind it's all inside. ...People wait on me. They have to. And I think a lot, listen to music, I'm fond of flowers. (Sontag, 1967, p. 45).
 

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Hester, in Susan Sontag's novel, 'Death Kit', has many of the traits commonly found in literary representations of people who are blind. She is almost helpless, she does not contribute to society, and she is miserable beneath her tranquil veneer. Sontag depicts Hester here as inhabiting a world of darkness akin to a living death.

In his study, 'The Meaning of Blindness' (1973), Michael Monbeck identifies 15 traits frequently ascribed to blind characters in literature through the ages. Nearly all these traits are negative, reflecting the low social status blind people are usually accorded. These fictional blind characters are miserable, helpless, useless, maladjusted, mysterious, evil, or pitiful. They may be fools or beggars. On the one hand, they live in a terrifying, death-like world of darkness, are being punished for past sins (often sexual in nature), and are to be feared and avoided. On the other hand, they may possess superhuman powers and insights, to compensate for their blindness, or they are morally superior to sighted people because they are not tarnished by the shallowness of the visual world (Monbeck, 1973, p. 25).

Other traits can be added to Monbeck's list. Blind characters are asexual or not allowed to express their sexuality because of their disability. They are bitter about their condition and envious of sighted people. When they are cheerful and well-adjusted, they are merely concealing a profound depression. Contradictions abound in these lists. Blind characters may be diabolically evil or sublimely good: blindness may be divine punishment or it may be compensated for with heavenly gifts. But whether the blind character is inferior or extraordinary, she or he is set apart; to most writers, as well as to the general public, blind people are a unique class because they are blind. Regardless of gender, age, or social origin, blind people are thought to have much in common with one another and little in common with anyone else.

Some blind people do reflect the popular literary image, failing to adjust to vision loss and remaining helpless and miserable. A few are beggars, and some like a number of sighted people are fools. But most of the traits possessed by blind characters have no factual basis. Blind people do not have extraordinary powers, and they fall prey to the same vices that sighted people do. After a period of adjustment lack of sight is not comparable to darkness, and it is not connected to death. In short, fiction's blind characters have little to do with real blind people. Blind people comprise a random sampling of individuals with all the diversity of the general population. It is ironic that writers creative people who pride themselves on their powers of observation and their insight have embraced such commonly held beliefs about people who are blind. Leonard Kriegel's remarks about the writer's concept of the cripple are equally true for the writer's concept of the blind person:

Writers, by and large, view the world from the vantage point of the normals. Writers like to think of themselves as rebels, but the rebellions they are interested in usually reinforce society's concepts of what is and what is not desirable. And most writers look at the cripple...with the same suspicion and distaste that are found in other normals. ...The world of the crippled and disabled is strange and dark, and it is held up to judgment by those who live in fear of it (Kriegel, 1987, p. 33).

Perhaps one reason writers insist upon such views of blindness is that their experience with blind people is limited. Blind people have always constituted a tiny minority, about one percent of the total population (Twersky, 1955, p. 10). Deafness, orthopedic disabilities, and a host of other handicaps are far more common. Yet blindness especially fascinates the public, perhaps because of a primordial dread of the dark and the conviction that blind people live in a world of perpetual gloom. Writers choose to portray blindness more often than any other disability.

The blind character can be a shortcut to pathos or horror or both. Blindness is also a rich mine for metaphor: it can represent blind prejudice; it may stand for purity or for freedom from the tainted, physically viewed world; or, it, as it does for Sontag, can symbolize forces of darkness and death. Writers' imaginations are shackled to notions about blindness that they have accepted as literary fact, despite all evidence to the contrary. Several scholars (Twersky, 1955; Kirtley, 1975; Monbeck, 1973) have analyzed hundreds of works in which blind characters appear. The period of these works ranges from Classical Greece to modern times. A few of their findings are offered here, before some recent works are discussed. In these contemporary representations the use of old themes, as well as interesting new trends in the portrayal of blind characters, are examined.

A well-known early depiction of a blind man appears in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus, who put out his eyes when he discovered that he had murdered his father and married his mother, wanders for 20 years, scorned and pathetic, unable to care for himself, and depending on his daughter, who must lead him everywhere. Here blindness is seen as a fate worse than death. In Antigone, Tiresias' sight is destroyed by the gods, but he is granted the gift of prophecy in recompense, and he is also able to travel because he has a magic staff to guide him. The image of the helpless blind person reappears in Elizabethan English literature. Shakespeare, ordinarily the master interpreter of the human condition, presents the Earl of Gloucester, blinded as punishment for adultery and led about by his son, Edgar. Blindness renders Gloucester so unaware of his surroundings that Edgar convinces him that they are climbing a hill overlooking the sea, when in fact they are crossing level ground inland. Wishing to die, Gloucester attempts to leap to his death. Edgar persuades him that he has fallen a great distance. By the nineteenth century, the pioneering era in the education of blind children, at least one author has a different attitude. Elizabeth Maclure, in Sir Walter Scott's Old Mortality , is an elderly blind woman who operates a successful boardinghouse, assisted only by her twelve-year-old granddaughter. Another Scott character, Old Alice, in The Bride of Lammermoor , supports herself by keeping bees. Though both characters are idealized and are held up to the reader as examples of what can be accomplished through faith and perseverance, they are a vast improvement over Oedipus and Gloucester.

Such portrayals of competent blind people, functioning in society through the use of their ears and hands, and through common sense, are all the more remarkable because they are so rare. Through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, blindness remains synonymous with pathos. In Lord Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii (1834; reissued by Dodd Mead in 1946), the blind flower seller Nydia travels throughout the city. A fairly complex character, torn between love and jealousy, she is always called the poor blind girl. Rejected by the man she loves, who cannot comprehend that a blind girl could entertain romantic feelings, she commits suicide. The association of blindness with death is demonstrated in Nydia's song to prospective customers:


Ye have a world of light,
Where love in the loved rejoices;
But the blind girl's home is the House of Night,
And its beings are empty voices.
... Hark! How the sweet [flowers] sigh
(for they have a voice like ours),
The breath of the blind girl closes
The leaves of the saddening roses--
We are tender, we sons of light.
We shrink from this child of night.
From the grasp of the blind girl free us
We yearn for the eyes that see us...
(Bulwer-Lytton, p. 6)

 

Blind characters as special beings blessed by God appear frequently in nineteenth-century literature. In The Man Who Laughed , Victor Hugo writes of the blind girl Dea: [She was] absorbed by that kind of ecstasy peculiar to the blind, which seems at times to give them a song to listen to in their souls and to make up to them for the light they lack by some strain of ideal music. Blindness is a cavern to which reaches the deep harmony of the Eternal (Hugo, quoted by Twersky, 1955, p. 32).

Also in the nineteenth century are some first examples of the blind character as evil. The pirate Pew in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island , the villain Stagg in Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge , and malevolent Captain Wolf Larsen in Jack London's The Sea Wolf are superbly competent as they pursue their evil goals. Their agility renders them particularly horrifying, as though they were aided by Satan himself. This image of the blind character (usually male) as evil survives deep into the twentieth century. In Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again (1940), George is chilled by his encounter with the wicked Judge Rumford Bland:

At the corners of the mouth he thought he also caught the shadow of a smile faint, evil, ghostly and at the sight of it a sudden and unreasoning terror seized him.... He just sat quietly,... the sightless eyes fixed in vacancy, the thin and sunken face listening with that terrible intense stillness that only the blind know; and around the mouth hovered that faint suggestion of a smile which...had in it a kind of terrible vitality and the mercurial attractiveness of a ruined angel (Wolfe, p. 60).

Sinister blind characters appeared at a time when blind people were becoming educated, participating members of society. It's as though authors believed God intended blind people to remain helpless but pure. While they stayed in their place they could be pitied and given charity, or even admired for their innocence. But if they entered the real world to compete on equal terms with sighted people, then perhaps they came as disciples of the devil. All the stereotyped notions described here persisted well into the 1950s. However, one might hope to find some improvements during the 1960s and 1970s. During these crucial decades minority groups, including disabled people, became a political force and demanded equal access to education, employment, housing, and other amenities. In a growing body of work, minority authors spoke with new voices about issues and feelings long suppressed and previously considered too inconsequential or too offbeat for literary treatment. Blacks, Native Americans, women, and gays molded their life stories into fiction and drama.

As shown by the blind characters discussed so far, the public has long held negative stereotypes about blind people stereotypes that have helped to keep blind people from realizing their full potential. Though in every historical period some blind people have been assimilated, the blind, generally, have been subject to discrimination. Blocked by protective parents, skeptical teachers, and employers who refuse to accept their credentials, blind people know about the dream deferred. Blind people and others with disabilities often spend a lifetime searching for their niche in society, for good feelings about themselves.

A host of articles and personal essays written by people who are blind and directed at a blind audience emphasize again and again that public prejudice is the most relentlessly difficult aspect of being unable to see. An era obsessed with political and personal liberation should afford a perfect opportunity for blind writers to channel their experiences into fiction aimed at the public at large. The actual experiences of blind people, rather than assumptions about what those experiences must be, might even spark the imagination of a sighted writer or two. Keeping these possibilities in mind, I will examine the portrayal of blind characters in a number of works, both popular and serious, which appeared between the mid 1960s and late 1980s.

The blind character as evil has nearly disappeared in contemporary fiction. The only such character who comes to mind is Margaret Durie in Stanley Ellin's suspense novel, Very Old Money (1985). Margaret is helpless, depressed, and sinister. After losing her sight at the age of eighteen, she retires to her room for 50 years to brood before taking horrifying revenge on the woman who caused her blindness.

The sweet, innocent blind girl, blessedly removed from an impure world, is alive and well in Charlton Ogburn's novel, Winespring Mountain (1973). Raised in rural West Virginia, Letty is at home among the birds and flowers, but has had little contact with people outside her family. Wick Carter, a young man from the city, is stunned by her beauty when he sees her from a distance. But when he realizes that she is blind, he rejects her as a romantic partner. Their platonic friendship does not blossom into true love until Letty's sight is miraculously restored. Then Letty is deluged with invitations from people who never paid her the slightest attention when she was blind. No one in the novel expresses a glimmer of resentment at such treatment, and seemingly Ogburn never questions it himself. Blindness made Letty an outcast; sight made her acceptable to society.

This novel notwithstanding, recent fiction has carried blind characters a long way toward full participation in society. Sexuality is one realm that reflects a change in attitude. Once treated as almost neuter, blind characters have benefited from the sexual revolution. Letty is one of the few fictional characters in the past two decades who while blind is denied sexual expression. If anything, contemporary authors are inclined to endow blind characters with extraordinary sexual prowess and sometimes tilt toward the ancient theme that blind people are amoral. Even the helpless, passive Hester in Sontag's Death Kit , described at the opening of this article, is not only sexually active, but also aggressive and uninhibited. Within half an hour of meeting Dalton on a train, she leads him into an empty washroom for a scene of passion.

Hester's sexuality is a metaphorical land mine. Rather than establishing her as a bona fide woman, it allows Sontag to explore an underlying theme the psychic and spiritual connection between sex and death. Hester's blindness, we are told, is a suffocating darkness that gradually extinguishes Dalton's life force.

Several other works break free of the tragic image, fostered by Bulwer-Lytton's rejected Nydia, of the isolated blind woman who is destined never to be loved by a man. In Blind Love (1975), Paul Cauvin recounts the summer affair between Jacques, a quiet French schoolteacher, and Laura, his blind love. Jacques accepts Laura without reservation at once, but it is Laura who objects to their relationship. Her adventurous spirit masks a profound depression over the loss of her sight, a loss she says she never forgets. In one scene Laura puts on dark glasses and gets out the white cane she normally refuses to use, trying to shock her lover with the insignia of her infirmity. Convinced that she would only be a burden to him, she warns him that he is not cut out to play nursemaid for the rest of his life. Laura never breaks free of this self-loathing, and the novel never examines the social landscape that brought it into being.

Two best-selling authors, Irving Wallace and Fred Mustard Stewart, also depict attractive, desirable blind women. In Stewart's Ellis Island (1983), Georgie O'Donnell's lover, Marco, rejects her not because she is blind but because he succumbs to another woman's wealth and prestige. Devastated, Georgie prepares to spend the rest of her life alone. Stewart makes it clear, however, that she has other options. Her family wants to introduce her to suitable men, but Georgie takes no interest in them. Then, after years of unhappy marriage, Marco is widowed; and he and Georgie are reunited. Georgie proves to be an ideal mother; and when Marco is elected to the Senate, she is perfect in the role of senator's wife. Though this novel is superficial, it does present a blind woman who is not an outcast, but rather fulfills the feminine role as it is idealized in popular fiction. Wallace's portrayal of Nataly Rinaldi in The Miracle (1984) relies more heavily on conventional devices. Nataly, a beautiful actress who lost her sight three years earlier, hastens to Lourdes when the Pope announces that the Virgin Mary will reappear to effect a cure. She promptly wins the love of a young man staying at her hotel but does not suspect that her lover is a Basque terrorist intent upon dynamiting the shrine. At last the Virgin appears to her and restores her sight. The would-be terrorist is also redeemed, and the two go off together, in the standard happy ending.

Nearly all these fictional blind women, though attractive to men, are passive and helpless. Only Georgie O'Donnell in Ellis Island learns even minimal travel skills. The use of a cane is generally pictured as degrading. These women are easily victimized, too, and in need of help and protection. On the night of their first meeting, Nataly's soon-to-be lover rescues her from a would-be rapist.

The depiction of these blind women as sexual beings marks an enormous stride from the portrayal of Nydia. It is interesting, however, that blind women are cast as romantic leads at a time when women in general are increasingly independent. Even in romantic fiction, female characters are in control of their lives. Perhaps the perceived helplessness of blind women appeals to writers and readers who feel uneasy with today's liberated woman.

Blind men, too, are sexual beings in contemporary novels. Mitchell Ashley, in Robert O'Neill Bristow's Laughter in Darkness (1974), scandalizes his landlady by entertaining a stream of female readers and housekeepers. His lover Georgia, though hurt and outraged by Mitchell's conduct, cannot bring herself to leave him, for no other man has ever so gratified her. And rerunning the myth that blind people are compensated with extraordinary insight, she wondered if God had given him a sense, and he was seeing her as no man would ever see her, deep, deep inside where there were no lies. (Bristow, 1974, p. 114).

Though Mitchell's competence in bed is well established, he is astonishingly helpless in nearly every other activity. Unlike the female characters described above, Mitchell insists on being allowed to do things for himself. In the novel's opening scene, he drops several bags of groceries on the sidewalk. Though a friend offers to assist him, Mitchell refuses all help as he proceeds to step on the bread and slither about in the eggs. Later, Mitchell forces his friend to stand silently by as he attempts to make himself a sandwich. He first slathers the bread with horseradish, believing he is using mayonnaise. When he realizes his mistake, he gets a fresh slice of bread and daubs it with bacon grease. Even in his own apartment, Mitchell cannot move about freely without the help of his dog guide.

Nevertheless, despite its misrepresentations, Laughter in Darkness depicts blindness with a refreshing twist of humor. There is an adolescent quality to much of Mitchell's behavior he rewards his guide dog with slurps of beer and boasts of his involvement in a barroom fight but he also has a genuine sense of wonder and adventure. Central to Mitchell's story and to several other recent works portraying blind characters is the theme of independence. After Mitchell loses his sight, his mother begs him to move back home, but he is determined to make his own way in the world. He trains with a dog guide and lands a teaching job at a small college. Yet he still finds:

people preconditioned to serve him and the only way, unless one surrendered, was to fight for independence. Because he suspected at first and knew later that surrender was like, exactly like the loss of his sight, gradual, more and more, and if he let them, they would feel virtuous, close to God while they destroyed him (Bristow, 1974, p. 67).

Writing at the height of the Me Generation, Bristow tries to demonstrate that no man is an island, that all human beings need love and support. Unfortunately, however, Mitchell's need for closeness is tied to his blindness. His pleas for independence are absurd when he is clearly unable to handle responsibility and to care for himself. At last, after a cathartic LSD trip during which he imagines that he can see again, Mitchell is reconciled to his blindness and to his need for Georgia's love. When he invites her to live with him, he tells her he needs her to help grade student papers as well as to share his bed. In the end Bristow indicates that Mitchell must bow to his limitations by living with a woman who will nurture him.

The theme of independence pervades the Broadway play Butterflies Are Free , by Leonard Gershe (1969). Don Baker, a young blind man, has been coddled by his clinging, domineering mother, but he finally persuades her to let him rent an apartment in Greenwich Village on a two-month trial basis. As the play opens, he meets Jill Tanner, his next-door neighbor a free spirit. After some light banter and a picnic of apples and cheese on the floor, Jill seduces Don, and he looks forward to an ongoing relationship. When Don's mother warns her about his needs and limitations, however, Jill is frightened away. Don is so depressed by this that he is ready to abandon his dreams of independence, and he implores his mother to take him home again. It is Mrs. Baker, however, who insists that he accept life's disappointments and learn to survive on his own. Jill learns an essential lesson as well. In a confrontation, Don tells her that she needs him as much as he needs her, and she joins him for another picnic. This work, too, avoids depicting blindness as a tragedy, and injects some humor into the story. Yet the premise seems to be that for Don, as for Mitchell, independence is an illusion. After a month in his apartment, he must leave his door unlocked so that visitors can let themselves in, since it would take him too long to answer the door himself. In his neighborhood he has learned only to travel to the delicatessen and the laundromat, and this only by counting steps. Tutored at home, he has no experience of the world, no training that would equip him to hold a job. Don's only salvation is a link with a woman who will tend to his needs. Preposterously, Gershe implies that Jill, whose greatest commitment to date has been a six-day marriage, must and will become that woman.

The old theme of blindness as retribution surfaces in Jonathan Penner's novel of guilt and atonement, Going Blind (1977). While his close friend August is slowly dying of cancer, Paul Held becomes sexually involved with August's wife, Ruth. Like Oedipus, Paul brings about his own blindness through an automobile accident caused by his own carelessness. Again, blindness is compared with death. Having lost the vision of his right eye, Paul ponders: And my Ruth?...How could she marry a Cyclops,...or any man less than whole after her life with August? If something happened to my remaining eye, she would be worse off with me than she had been with him (Penner, pp. 29-30).

For a time Paul manages to conceal the gradual loss of vision in his remaining eye. As expected, Ruth is aghast when she learns of his impending blindness and tearfully leaves him. Paul also faces the loss of his college teaching position, and he again hides his visual loss. Only when his tenure is secured does he admit his disability. News of his tenure brings Ruth back into his life, and when she becomes pregnant they joyfully plan to marry. By the novel's close, Paul has learned Braille and can travel with a cane. After his months of anguish, blindness is no longer an obstacle in his professional or personal life. He emerges, a man restored after a sojourn in purgatory. But he never even thinks to challenge the attitudes of Ruth, the college, or the world. The problems lie not in society but rather in Paul himself. He feels that it is only natural that he be rejected because of his blindness. James Dickey's novel, Alnilam (1987), offers a different perspective on a blind character's relationship to society. A loner most of his life, Frank Cahill feels that he has tacit permission to live outside the law when be becomes blind. In the opening scene Frank is unable to find the bathroom while spending the night at a rooming house. Without compunction he makes his way outside and relieves himself in the yard. Later he reflects, [Blindness] placed him beyond or to one side of the law. He knew that everyone who came into contact with him...would sense this to be the case. It was provable and he was living it (Dickey, p. 26). Blindness, according to Dickey, also gives Frank a unique window on the truth. A doctor tells him:

... you're headed for the big dark, the solution to the universal puzzle...You'll be seeing in other ways now....Your other senses will become far more acute. You'll be able to hear a baby cry through a stone wall. Music, any music, will have so many levels it'll be like whole buildings, floors or sounds. And your nose...is going to be an entirely new implement. Whatever's in the wind or in the air of a room, you'll know and the others won't. (Dickey, p. 16).

To heighten the sense that Frank is privy to special knowledge, Dickey frequently divides the pages of the book into two columns, DARK and LIGHT. In the LIGHT column the narrator recounts events as they occur; in the DARK, Frank himself interprets these events.

Before the novel opens, Frank had received a telegram that his son Joel had died in a training accident at an Air Corps base. Though he had never seen his son, since his wife had left him before Joel was born, out of curiosity he begins an odyssey to learn what he can of Joel.

At the training base Frank gradually unravels the truth about his son that he had inspired a secret cadet society, Alnilam, bent on the spread of anarchy. The members of Alnilam's inner circle perceive Frank as a seeker and bearer of truth and revere him as a being free of the constraints of law. After they cause a fatal flying accident, the cadets are triumphant, telling Frank that he has become the symbol they will carry with them forever. Alnilam offers a complex portrait of a blind character. Frank Cahill, often abrasive and self-indulgent, has moments of gentleness and sensitivity as well. With no close connections to other people, he nonetheless is intensely interested in everyone around him. A seeker of truth, he is also a master of deception as the owner of an Atlanta carnival.

Frank's almost egotistical self-confidence helps him adapt quickly to his blindness, rarely regarding it as an impediment but rather taking each situation in stride. Blindness is a loss but not a tragedy; it simply requires that he learn new techniques for such activities as traveling and carpentry. But this realistic portrait is distorted by Dickey's conviction that blind people, as a class, have a direct line to truth. Even in his exploration of Frank's relationship to law and anarchy, Dickey never perceives him as a member of a minority group forcibly excluded from society.

Most of these works concentrate on the individual's adjustment to vision loss, as though once she or he has come to terms with blindness on a personal level, there are no more issues with which to grapple. Even Don Baker in Butterflies Are Free , though he has been blind all his life, is entering the adjustment process as he tries for the first time to survive on his own. This emphasis on the adjustment period keeps blindness at center stage in most of these works. It is seldom allowed to recede into the background, to blend in with the other aspects of a character's life and situation.

All of the works I have discussed so far have been written from the outside, by sighted authors trying to depict the experiences of people who are blind. In many cases the author does not even try to enter the blind character's world but conveys it indirectly, through the perceptions of sighted people in the story. To my knowledge only two authors who are themselves blind, Gary Adelman and Jacob Twersky, have written adult novels which involve blind characters.

In Honey Out of Stone (1970), Adelman recounts the inner journey of Ben Storch, who lost his sight from diabetic retinopathy. Ben, a poet and a professor of literature, at the opening of the book is in prison for aiding draft resisters during the Vietnam War. Through intricate flashbacks and poems, Adelman braids together the many strands of Ben's past and present his loves and friendships and his political convictions and artistic passion. Blindness brings no mystical compensation; he is neither better nor worse than other people. After an initial period of mourning, he resumes his life where it had left off. Yet, as in Penner's Going Blind , the loss of sight becomes a metaphor for death, and Ben's adjustment to blindness a kind of resurrection. In his opening paragraph Adelman writes: I would describe this place. I am blind, yes, but that coffin had its key. (Adelman, 1970, p. 1).

The other novel by a writer who is blind is The Face of the Deep by Jacob Twersky (1953). It precedes the period under discussion by more than a decade, yet it is the only novel written in any era which focuses squarely upon the issue most crucial to people who are blind: the struggle for genuine equality. Twersky tells the interlocking stories of five blind men and women from childhood to adulthood. Through many vivid incidents the reader is shown blind children rejected by their families and educated by teachers who regard them as inferior and unable to compete in the world. Twersky recounts the patronizing remarks of strangers on the street and shows the devastating rejections of would-be employers. Yet this novel is far more than a tract about negative attitudes, for its main purpose is to explore the effects of prejudice upon blind people themselves.

Though all these characters Rosie, Ken, Fred, Clare, and Joe perceive themselves as stigmatized, they respond in a variety of ways. Rosie and Ken cling to the blindness system, cultivating only blind friends, and working in sheltered shops; they never attempt to find a place in broader society. Fred, on the other hand, tries to dissociate himself from his blindness to prove that he is superior to ordinary blind people. Clare pretends to be the sweet bringer of sunshine most sighted people want and expect her to be. The most powerful theme here is the divisiveness of self-hatred. Fred and Clare dream of finding sighted partners, and their deepening love for each other is destroyed because neither of them wants a blind mate. Fred, who has entered his father's business, refuses to give Ken a job when he is out of work, fearing that his colleagues will not respect him if he is supervising only blind workers. Ken also represents everything Fred despises about blindness. In the novel's closing scene Ken stands on a corner with a tin cup, the victim of another blind man's prejudice and contempt.

The novel's last blind character is Joe, who earns a doctorate in history and, after a series of rejections because of his disability, obtains a teaching position. He also marries one of his readers. Despite his success Joe continues to feel a profound kinship with other blind people. Contemplating the good things in his life, he realizes how easily he might not have had any of them. Joe describes himself as a man at a banquet, surrounded by starving people.

Blindness is never a tragedy in The Face of the Deep , but the discrimination that blind people encounter is shown to have devastating consequences.

As this brief sampling shows, the blind characters in Western literature of the past two decades are more competent, mobile, attractive, and well-rounded than ever before. Nevertheless, the old stereotypes flourish. Ironically, such popular authors as Fred Mustard Stewart seem best able to avoid stereotyped images. Georgie O'Donnell is neither a saint nor a villain, neither a bearer of truth nor a harbinger of death.

A young Irish immigrant, disappointed in love, she happens to be blind. Writers of serious fiction, however, almost inevitably write about their blind characters using all the old images and ideas, in part because serious fiction is founded upon metaphor. Thus such writers as Sontag, Penner, and Dickey included their blind characters for their metaphorical value. Yet serious literature is learning new ways to interpret what it means to be black or female. It is time for writers to question their hackneyed notions about blindness and to discover new ways for blind characters to function within a literary context. One of the most serious problems in depicting blind characters is the tendency of both author and reader to assume that a particular character is a blind Everyman, though there are novels, such as The Face of the Deep , which present more than one blind character and thus convey the diversity of the blind population. However, if an author takes the trouble to become educated about blindness, and has a sincerely positive attitude, even the portrait of a single depressed, helpless blind person need not stand for all blind people. White-Eye Ramford, a minor character in Anne Tyler's novel, Searching for Caleb (1976), is a blind street musician in New Orleans. In The String-Tail Blues, he laments his life of dependence: Once I walked proud, once I pranced up and down/Now I holds to a string and they leads me around (p. 278).

But Tyler does not accept this helplessness as inevitable. She explains, He had lost his sight at twelve, or maybe twenty, his stories differed; and by the time he reached middle age he should have learned how to navigate but he hadn't. He was hopeless. In two sentences, Tyler shows that Ramford's life could have been different, that not every blind person sings The String-Tail Blues. Ramford is resigned to hopelessness, but he does not speak for the millions of other blind people who walk the earth. If writers come to follow Tyler's example, they might break the shackles of stereotype and free themselves to portray blind people as the diverse collection of individuals they truly are.


POSTSCRIPT:

Since I wrote this article in 1988, several new novels which include characters who are blind have appeared on the scene. Blindsight by Michael Stewart is based on the notion that blindness is a fate worse than death. Stewart's protagonist submits to a series of painful, life-threatening experimental treatments which may restore his sight, though major brain damage is a possible side effect. This novel perpetuates some of the worst and most bizarre notions about blindness Stewart even has his hero cut his toast diagonally, because it is easier for him to angle it into his mouth point first. Overall, however, the most recent books veer away from the tragic mode, portraying blind people who are self-assured, inventive, and adventurous. In Loving Little Egypt by Thomas A. McMahon, a brilliant student at a school for the blind sabotages the telephone system and triggers a series of madcap escapades across the country. In Peggy Payne's Revelation , a twelve-year-old boy adjusts to the loss of his sight after he meets a group of active blind children his age. John Moon in Joanne Greenberg's powerful novel Of Such Small Differences is a deaf-blind poet who struggles for dignity in a world which would prefer to keep him out of sight. Greenberg exposes the custodialism of sheltered workshops and the misconceptions of the general public and depicts some acutely painful moments between John and his guilt-ridden family. These books seem to be setting an encouraging new trend, portraying people who are blind more honestly than ever before. Let us hope that the trend will continue as we carry on the work of educating the public about the realities of blindness.
 


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Deborah Kent Stein | To the members of the Chicago Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois, she is known as Debby Stein, but to the thousands of fans of her dozen books for young adults, she is Deborah Kent, an author who understands what it's like growing up in the 1980s. In addition to her fiction Deborah Kent has written thoughtfully and with insight about blindness and disability in general as well as authoring several in a series of children's books about the states of the Union. After earning a master's of social work from Smith College, Debby Stein worked for several years in community mental health. Then, in 1975, she decided to spend a year in a writers' colony in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, learning whether or not she could make it as a writer. Her year stretched into five, and the answer to her question was a resounding yes. Her first book, Belonging , was published in 1978. It is an exploration of the struggles of a blind teenager to fit into her high school. Four of Ms. Kent's books are part of the National Library Service collection: Belonging, Te Amo Means I Love You, Heartwaves, and Jody. One Step At a Time, published in September, 1989, is the story of a teenage girl who learns that she has retinitis pigmentosa. It may soon become part of the NLS collection as well. Deborah Kent lives in Chicago with her husband, Dick Stein, and their six-year-old daughter Janna. She is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind.

 

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THE NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
The Braille Monitor - Vol. 33, No. 1 - January 1990


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30.Dez.2015
Publicado por MJA