Volume V, Number 2, Fall 2009 · Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2008 HAAS Conference

"The Marking and the Telling — Versions of the Stigma Narrative as Given by Anne Hutchinson, Emily Dickinson, and Philip Roth" by Enikő Bollobás

Enikő Bollobás is Associate Professor and Chair at the Department of American Studies, Eötvös Loránd University of Szeged, Hungary. Email:

John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony for most of the twenty years between 1629 and 1649, has several entries in his journal-history about—as he puts it—“monster” children born to women of the colony who were “possessed with Satan” (December 6, 1638; Journal I: 279). These births occurred in 1637 and 1638, right in the years of the antinomian controversy, when Anne Hutchinson was tried for being a “nimble-tongued woman” (qtd. in Susan Howe, 116) and for becoming a “disturber in Israel” (see Amy Schrager Lang, Ch. 2, “Disturber in Israel”).

1. Howard Pyle, Anne Hutchinson Preaching in Her House in Boston, 1637 (1901)
Library of Congress

Indeed, what these women, mothers of supposedly deformed babies, shared was having been, as the Governor himself puts it, “notoriously infected with Mrs. Hutchinson’s errours” (261).

Among Winthrop’s entries we have the one of March 27, 1638, where he reported the premature birth of Hutchinson’s own child:

It was a woman child, stillborn, about two months before the just time, having life a few hours before; it came hiplings till she turned it; it was of ordinary bigness; it had a face, but no head, and the ears stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape’s; it had no forehead, but over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp; two of them were above one inch long, the other two shorter; the eyes standing out, and the mouth also; the nose hooked upward; all over the breast and back full of sharp pricks and scales […] it had two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out; it had arms and legs as other children; but instead of toes, it had on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons. (267)

Winthrop cited two authorities to confirm his description: John Cotton, once good friend to Hutchinson (she and her politically influential merchant husband were in his congregation) and the attending physician, Mr. Clarke. Cotton testified to the open assembly in Boston in Latin, saying that the child had twenty-seven “lumps of man’s seed, without any alteration, or mixture of any thing from the woman,” while the doctor, in his expert opinion, counted “lumps […] twenty-six or twenty-seven, distinct and not joined together,” and compared the child to fish (272-273).

After her husband died in 1642, Hutchinson and her ten children were moved to Long Island Sound, to all become in the following year the innocent victims of the ferocious attack of the Mohegan Indians, conducted out of revenge for the brutal attacks of the Dutch settlers on Siwanoy Indians near New Amsterdam.

2. Anne Hutchinson on Trial, November 7, 1637
Trial Drawing. National Constitution Center

Anne Hutchinson was taken to court and banished from the Colony for well-known reasons: for her ideas by which she contested the spiritual authority of Puritan patriarchy. Denying that works could fulfill the secular commission, she refused that election was predicated upon good citizenship or that the public errand of the New Israel would signal the private experience of conversion. She held meetings in her house, and dared even to cite the law in her defense: “It is lawful for me so to do,” she proudly claimed (Hutchinson, “What Law” 49). She interpreted the custom allowing the elder members of the congregation to teach the younger members as applying to women too: “It was in practice before I came therefore I was not the first” (49). She became a threat to the community because she rejected the idea of a national covenant and the governing myth of the city on the hill. Indeed, Hutchinson thus came to be seen as opposing the very idea of America.

Moreover, she was found guilty, I want to insist, because she usurped the territory of men: that of the mind and the intellect. For knowing the law and constantly citing it; claiming to have a conscience, relying on her conscience when matters of faith needed to be decided, and daring to find truth in her conscience. “Now if you condemn me for speaking what in my conscience I know to be truth I must commit myself unto the Lord,” she insisted during the trial ( “Examination” 35). She was sentenced, then, for her unwomanly actions, or, as Winthrop put it in the trial, for “being a woman not fit for our society” (Hutchinson, “Examination” 39). For Hutchinson refused to accept her position as a non-intellect, excluded from the community of intellectuals, “whose chief business it was to argue,” as David Hollinger succinctly puts it (47). Moreover, she refused to accept the position that her knowledge was, to use the Foucauldian terminology, subjugated knowledge, “a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated” (Power/Knowledge 82). Subjugated knowledge, in this case, because the subjection of women would demand that their knowledge be limited to the proper sphere of the woman—matters of the body, corporeality, in this case.

And indeed, her punishment also targeted her body, when she was accused of a bodily crime, so to speak, a crime for which the body can be held solely responsible. Her female body that has given birth to a “monster,” the devil itself, obviously,1 will be shown to threaten by bringing disorder and chaos. Such de-humanization, as well as demonization, of the woman (going hand in hand for many centuries, as Jack Holland has demonstrated), of course, fitted into Western tradition, where first the Greeks and Romans considered, as Thomas Fahy has explored, “monstrous bodies” “omens of political and civil chaos” (4), and where later St. Augustine, for example, saw the deformed bodies as “divine warnings against the dangers of pride, disobedience, and waning faith” (4-5). Such a disabled baby blurred all boundaries between “normal” and “abnormal,” the self and the non-self, the desired and the repulsed, the feminine and the monstrous, as well as, finally, the maternal and the abject. It is indeed Kristeva’s abject that seems operative here, in this narrative of expulsion, preparing for the ultimate banishment of the “disturber,” preparing her “excorporation” by de-humanizing and demonizing her own excorporated, the new-born child (see Bryan Cheyette, 79). Not only is there a complete disregard for personal boundaries, not only do contemporary authorities give supposedly eyewitness accounts of what they could neither see nor see right, but claim to have seen some monstrous object “jettisoned” indeed, to adopt Kristeva’s words from her theorizing of the abject, “out of that boundary” (69). The newborn child is made into a devilish monster by Cotton and the physician by being categorized as just tissue and lumps: in other words, corporeal waste, which is the most typical instance of the abject. So, the two points Kristeva makes in connection with the abject ring singularly true of the Hutchinson scandal: “The feminine […] becomes synonymous with a radical evil that is to be suppressed” (68), and it is “the logic of exclusion that causes the abject to exist” (65).

Of course, Hutchinson’s punishment took another form as well: living in a Puritan community known for repressing and censoring passions and colonizing dissent, she was prohibited to give her own story. We have no narrative by Hutchinson of either her trial or the birth of her deformed baby—nothing that would contest Winthrop’s account. What we do have, however, is the suppressed narrative of the governor, omitting, as James Phelan observes, “significant information […] relevant to the character, situation, or event being reported on” (138).

I read Winthrop’s description, as well as the testimonies of Cotton and the attending physician, as a discursive gesture making a public male exhibit out of a most private female or feminine situation. As such, it offers the earliest record of human curiosities in America, preceding by nearly a century and a half the description of one Miss Honeywell of Salem (1809), commonly taken as the earliest record of the “freak,” to use a word which gained its meaning of “monstrosity, an abnormally developed individual” (see Fahy, 7) in the mid-19th century only. In a culture that easily saw the racialized body as monstrous (indeed, the Native Americans were first depicted as monstrous lower beings [see Leonard Cassuto, 30-49])— the stigmatization of Hutchinson’s baby stands as the first instance when a gendered body was made a grotesque spectacle. The monster in the 18th century was defined, as Rosi Braidotti claims, “as having some excess, lack, or displacement of his/her organs”; as having “too many parts or too few, right ones in the wrong places” (290). Moreover, monsters have been linked “to the female body in scientific discourse through the question of biological reproduction” (291)—a claim well supported by the Hutchinson scandal. Described as having protruding-bulging eyes and a gaping mouth, and retaining “its excrescences (sprouts, buds),” “mountains and abysses”—Anne Hutchinson’s child seems to exhibit all the features by which Bakhtin defines the monstrous (93) as well:

Of all the features of the human face, the nose and the mouth play the most important part in the grotesque image of the body; the head, ears, and nose also acquire a grotesque character when they adopt the animal form or that of inanimate objects. […] The grotesque is interested only in protruding eyes. […] It is looking for that which protrudes from the body, all that seeks to go out beyond the body’s confines. Special attention is given to the shoots and branches, to all that prolongs the body and links it to other bodies or to the world outside. […] But the most important of all human features for the grotesque is the mouth. It dominates all else. The grotesque face is actually reduced to the gaping mouth; the other features are only a frame encasing this wide-open bodily abyss. (92)

Now let me turn to another instance in American literary history, significant for the way power attempts to discursively construct the woman intellect through the body.

3. Emily Dickinson
From the daguerrotype taken at Mount Holyoke, December 1947 or early 1948
Amherst College Library

It concerns the correspondence between Emily Dickinson and T. W. Higginson. The moment is the spring and early summer of 1862, which, people will know, is her most difficult year, known as annus mirabilis in Dickinson scholarship. In his reply to Dickinson’s first letter, where he performs what she then calls the “surgery” (even though he doesn’t seem to have the faintest clue to her poetry)—Higginson wants to know a particular thing before giving his expert opinion: her age. And then gets this answer:

You asked how old I was? I made no verse—but one or two—until this winter—Sir. (Letter 261)

1862 was, of course, her most productive year, when she wrote probably 360 poems altogether, making her poetic output total at around 650.

Then a couple of months later the acclaimed critic and hoped-for “preceptor” was again at a loss judging those queer pieces which this queer woman sent him, and decided to request more information. Still not about her intellect, rather about the person. He asked for a portrait. As if knowing her age and knowing what she looked like would give him an entry to the text, a handle to its strangeness. But the male critic could not not consider, it seems, woman as body, woman trapped in her body; for him, her reason, mind, and soul were overshadowed by her bodily features. This is her famous reply to Higginson in her fourth letter to him:

Could you believe me—without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur—and my Eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves. Would this do just as well? (Letter 268)

Defying the male pressure to be confined to the body—and defying the current presupposition that “different degrees of disembodiment […] express the social hierarchy” (Mary Douglas, 80)—this woman poet gives a self-portrait in the form of what Phelan calls mask narration (201), a narration that is both corporeal and non-corporeal. Indeed, indulging in the modesty topos, she responds to his query directly by constructing herself as no more than a small wren-like woman, with bold hair and brown eyes. Yet in her subtext she abandons the modesty topos by constructing herself as a wildly original intellect, whose imagination allows her to bring together hair and chestnut bur, eyes and sherry in the glass. Moreover, she will convey the solitude and sense of abandonment in the image of the sherry left in the glass by “the Guest” (always a significant person in Dickinson’s poems)—convey all this, of course, only to the perceptive reader she hoped Higginson was too, or the perceptive reader she made Higginson into.

To come to my governing thesis: I read these examples as cases of stigmatization: discursive acts, where the language game collapses the distinction between fact and interpretation (see David H. Hall, 92). Stigmatization is here marking the body as different (as abject in Hutchinson’s case); it is foregrounding the body so as to be able to disregard the mind (as in both Hutchinson’s and Dickinson’s case). This stigmatization allows for an investment of the body, to use Foucault’s words, “with relations of power and domination,” and places the body “in a system of subjection” (Discipline 26).

Of course, stigmata are the replica of Christ’s wounds on the cross, meant to signify difference and election, the difference of election—election for suffering really for those who attained a form of spiritual perfection, making them one with Christ.

4. Matthias Grünewald. Resurrection, detail
The Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1515, oil on wood)
Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar

5. Jan Van Eyck. St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata (1428-29)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

They were also reminders of human mortality. Stigma, Erving Goffman writes, referred originally to “bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier” (1), pointing more and more to a “blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided” (1). As such, the phase subsequent to stigmatization was expulsion—much like Anne Hutchinson’s. Since stigma is an “attribute that is deeply discrediting” (Goffman, 3), stigmatization is intricately tied to humiliation defined by Rorty as “forced re-description” (qtd. by Hall 126). Indeed, stigmatization uses the performative power of language in “making truth,” here truth being a Rortyan “human creation” (qtd. by Hall, 86). So stigma is not something “out there” but is a quality of our descriptions and re-descriptions, made visible by the marking of the body, body boundaries in particular.

Stigma in these texts is significantly about setting limits and confining the Other, in our cases dissenting and deviant women, within those limits. Winthrop’s re-description of Hutchinson is supposed to make her out as a failure of a mother, therefore a failure of a woman, whose child is less than human. Her knowledge will be subjugated knowledge—that of corporeal matters—, yet here even her body will err when producing a child. Or, when Higginson demands to know more about the body of this strangest woman (her age and her looks), he too sets a limit for her not to be crossed over to the realm of the intellect. These limits, it seems, are always corporeal, reminding the person, as it were, of being trapped into the body.

To follow a seemingly far-fetched association, I would like to claim that Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre offers the most powerful musical example of stigmatization (even if done out of love, we could add)—and I know this is not the received interpretation.

Wothan’s farewell, Act 3, Scene 3
Richard Wagner, Die Walküre
Bayreuther Festspiele, 1993. Dir. Daniel Barenboim

Yet when in the final act Wotan arranges for Brünnhilde’s sleep, they both know (because they both know the Law and know that breaking the Law necessarily brings about punishment) that by the time she wakes up, the father will have marked her with the stigma of all human limitations. Stripped of the immortality owned by the child of two gods, Wotan and Erde, she will be an ordinary woman, and possibly even a subjected woman when she finds a husband (more precisely, when he finds her).

6. Richard Wagner. Die Walküre
Metropolitan Opera, 2008
An Otto Schenk production. James Morris as Wotan and Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde

Ceasing to be a Walküre, then, Brünnhilde will bear all the marks of corporeality and mortality that come with the Godhead’s punishment—marks not unlike, in terms of the human limitations they reveal, the stigmata which the mortal Jesus came to bear on the cross.

Emily Dickinson, of course, was not surprised at Higginson’s effort of confining her to the female body. All through her life she too felt this confinement, as if she was marked by a stigma of illness. In many of her letters she presented herself as the weak Victorian woman just convalescing from a serious illness. I think it is fair to say that in her writings she constituted herself as the subject with an illness, allowing illness to emerge as the dominant marker of her subjectivity.

There was one particular illness which seems to dominate her general sense of being an ill and frail woman: her eye disease. “I have been sick so long I do not know the sun” (Letter 435), she wrote to her sister Lavinia. Understanding the seriousness of this condition, what she most dreaded was going blind. Apart from the obvious reason—that she feared losing her ability to visually perceive the world—her fear stemmed from knowing too well how her age liked to exhibit “human curiosities.” Barnum’s American Museum opened in 1841 only, making freak shows “an organized institution” (see Fahy, 4).

Although she was extremely secretive about the particulars of this illness, today we know (due to the work of scholars like James R. Guthrie) that it was a chronic optical disease, exotropia, “a deviation of the cornea that prevents the sufferer from achieving perfectly binocular vision” (Guthrie, 11). Twice she went under treatment in Boston (in 1864 and 1865), where she lived for months in a boarding house, while having to cover her eyes with bandages. She was not allowed to see the sun for long periods after, and sometimes even house-light hurt her eyes. Her pain in bright sunshine never left her, as for the rest of her life she struggled with the illness:

My first well Day—since many ill—
I asked to go abroad,
And take the Sunshine in my hands,
And see the things in Pod

Exotropia is a hereditary disease, carried, as Guthrie points out, matrilineally. As such, it corresponds to the kind of stigma which Goffman describes as “tribal”; these are, Goffman claims, “transmitted through lineages and equally contaminate all members of a family” (4). Experts seem to be able to recognize the stigma of this illness in Dickinson’s portraits, especially the one taken at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, as well as in portraits of Dickinson’s mother and sister (Guthrie, 11).

7. Lavinia Norcross Dickinson, about 1852
The Todd-Bingham Family Papers, Yale University Library

In American literature probably Hawthorne’s was a similar hereditary stigma, who suffered from the being marked by the sins of his two vehement Puritan forefathers. But in Dickinson’s case it was all corporeal, very obviously setting up, as stigmas do, limits, and confining her within these limits. These were limits of visual perception, eyes “finite” (qtd. in Guthrie, 173), particularly painful for a poet with a fondness for the “Light” and the “Noon.”

All this would not be worth discussing at such length had Dickinson not come up with a way of dealing her stigma, or “stigma management” in Goffman’s terminology (97). For, according to Goffman, two strategies of stigma management are possible: one being “to conceal or obliterate signs that have come to be stigma symbols” (92), the other, best evoked by the figure of Hester Prynne probably, being “disclosure, when the individual voluntarily wears the stigma symbol” (100). Dickinson chose the latter, of course, and in a most brilliant manner. Being limited by her eyesight, having to “guess at seeing” (1018), she made indeed “some sort of accommodation with illness” (Guthrie, 27), learning to see in the dark. “We grow accustomed to the Dark,” she writes (419). Ultimately her stigma management was narrative: putting into writing all the forms and processes of stigma. There is a sense of hospitality in Dickinson toward the stigma of her illness; it is the hospitality of poetry, treating the illness in the Derridian manner as a welcome Guest. Dickinson would have been happy to go along with Derrida’s reflections on the ambiguities of the Latin root word hostis, meaning “host,” “enemy,” “foreigner,” “guest,” and “hostage” alike (see Michael Collins, 586). And indeed, what at times seemed like the enemy, her severe eye illness, and whose hostage she often felt to be, became the guest hosted by the poet through language. For, as Derrida famously claims, “language is hospitality” (Of Hospitality 135).

Here lies the major difference between Anne Hutchinson and Emily Dickinson: we only have the Hutchinson story as given by the stigmatizers, while she herself could not give her own account. Because the prohibition on narrative self-making is part of the stigma, Hutchinson was prevented from answering the pornographic gesture of the accusers, who marked her body as less than human, as docile, bestial, silent, and objectified, to adopt Susan Rubin Suleiman’s summary of the markers of male pornography (9).
Dickinson’s genius lies in recognizing that stigma management is necessarily discursive and narrative; only words possess a “reparative” power, to use D. W. Winnicott’s term for the psychoanalytic talking cure (qtd. by Wesling, 14).2 In renouncing her desire for sensory stimulation (the bright light), Dickinson withdrew into language and the imagination, where the light was “Slant,” and where her poems could become, as James R. Guthrie points out, “adjuncts of the self” (172).

Renunciation—is a piercing Virtue—
The letting go
A Presence—for an Expectation—
Not now—
The putting out of Eyes—
Just Sunrise—
Lest Day—
Day’s Great Progenitor—
Renunciation—is the Choosing
Against itself—
Itself to justify
Unto itself—
When larger function—
Make that appear—
Smaller—that Covered Vision—Here—

Interpreted by Guthrie as “Dickinson’s self-admonition to rebandage her eyes rather than expose them to morning’s light” (17), the poem opts for letting go of temporal and worldly matters so as to move into that other realm, the imagination. Disoriented by having to wear her bandages and therefore finding herself in darkness during daytime too, she easily mistook day for night: “Good Morning—Midnight,” she writes in one poem (425), and speaks about “Sunset on the Dawn” in another (415). Amazed at how humankind acts as if blindfolded, unable to appreciate what it might see, she writes:

Had we the eyes within our Head—
How well that we are Blind—
We could not look upon the Earth—
So utterly unmoved—

Elsewhere, blindness becomes a vehicle to make her see God.

What I see not, I better see—
Through Faith—my Hazel Eye

But it is due to her soul’s “Bandaged moments” (512) that she identifies death with not seeing: in “I felt a funeral in my brain,” for example, the dead person in the coffin is “but an Ear” (280). It is along these lines too that one of her well-known tautologies for death was born: “I could not see to see” (465). Or in another poem: “Image of Light, Adieu” (1556).

It seems quite reasonable to claim that Dickinson owed, at least in part, her stunningly original and complex metaphorizing of death to her eye problems, eye treatment, and the ensuing fear that she might go blind. In one of her most tender notes sent to Susan in 1883, when Gilbert, Susan’s son and Emily’s favorite nephew died, she described—in a gesture of sympathy—his suffering on earth as under the “menace of light,” while conceptualizing his death as a state where a “Rendevous of Light” is already possible because “Dawn and Meridian are one” (Sewall, 204-205).

Pass to thy Rendevous of Light,
Pangless except for us—
Who slowly ford the Mystery,
Which thou hast leaped across!

Dickinson has managed to use her physical impairment, which she always feared would de-humanize her, as an impetus to a higher level of consciousness. She used her stigma marking as a vehicle to a greater understanding of the significance of her life. To not just be, but to know about being too.3

Now I would like to turn to my cases of racial stigma. The first one is about particular visual narratives of lynching. In January 2000, I had the good fortune to see in New York an exhibit of lynching photographs. These were all postcards that white people sent to friends and family to chronicle the events of physical torture, the stigma burning, which they had witnessed. The photographs were, as Fahy claims, “visual souvenirs that were widely sold and collected at lynchings” (20), capturing “the ritualistic spectacle of lynchings” (20), and found their ways to family albums, a popular art form in the 19th century designed to chronicle and celebrate special occasions. As such, the photographic albums “functioned as a home-constructed freak show” (19), where physical stigma was reinforced by social stigma, burned upon the body by the narrative gaze of the prejudiced witnesses.

8. The Lynching of Rubin Stacy (1935)
Reproduced in Allen et al., 117 (plate 57)

The victims themselves, however, were deprived of any form of stigma management—until this exhibition was put on. Indeed, I see the exhibit and the subsequent book that was put together of the photographs (Allen et al.) as a belated attempt of stigma management, which—although unable to annul the crime or resurrect the victims—becomes reparative. By telling about lynchings as well as about such the peculiar discourses surrounding lynching, the exhibit successfully defies the long prohibition of narrative self-making, preventing African Americans from reaching a higher knowledge about being.

And, finally, Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Here the protagonist, Coleman Silk, classics professor and former dean of small Athena College, passes over from black to white, more precisely, to the ethnically marked version of white, Jewish.

9. Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk. Miramax, 2003. Dir. Robert Benton.

Having, as a man of colored ancestry, performed Jewishness, he simply replaces one stigma for another, becoming, as the narrator puts it, “a heretofore unknown amalgam of the most unalike of America’s historic undesirables” (132).

With the narrative of stigma foregrounded in several ways, I see the novel turn on the topos interlocking stigma and narration.

First, Silk’s performance is all too discursive. He invents his Jewishness, the Jewish stigma, with words, when at age twenty-six he decides to fiction his racial origins, making up an elaborate story about the saloon keeper Jewish father and the whole family. He passes down this fiction to his four children, providing the grounds for their Jewishness too. So, it seems, all races can be performed, even the Jewish; all one needs is a narrative of family stigma, which will performatively bring about the stigma identity. In other words, stigma identity does not pre-exist the narrative, rather it is the narrative that creates this identity founded on stigma.

Running away as far as possible from “the tyranny of the we and its we-talk” (108), Coleman decides to craft and follow his own personal Emancipation Proclamation and thereby make himself into a free individual.

[F]ar from there being anything wrong with his decision to identify himself as white, it was the most natural thing for someone with his outlook and temperament and skin color to have done. All he’d ever wanted, from earliest childhood on, was to be free: not black, not even white—just on his own and free. (120)

This Emancipation Proclamation is the narrative of his family history in the form of make-believe: it is a piece of discourse whereby he reinvents himself.

When Mrs. Silk is visited by her son for the last time before he disappears forever, she is naturally crushed at the thought of never seeing him again, or ever seeing his future wife and children. She is disappointed because Coleman shows no race consciousness: “Lost himself to his own people,” she says (324). But for Silk it is the lack of a piece of discourse comparable to the one he makes up which allows his self-construction as a Jew. “You think like a prisoner. You do, Coleman Brutus. You’re white as snow and you think like a slave,” the mother tells him (139). What she does not understand, however, is that he gains a different kind of freedom by his narrative self-making, by his self-fashioning as a stigmatized Jew.

Second, the reader gets familiarized with Silk’s passing through Nathan Zuckerman’s imagining the events. In his imaginative reconstruction—“live-entering” (vzhivanie) in Bakhtinian terminology—the narrator does not tell of how it “really” happened, but how he imagined it to have happened. All through his life Silk considered his secret unspeakable and unnarratable; he never allowed himself—as the stigmatized and also the stigmatizing individual—to become the narrating-I who would take responsibility for what he has done. Therefore, the narration of stigma, both the received and the given stigma, could not have a reparative effect, bringing about a psychological reconciliation with the ones he harmed: those who he abandoned and those who he lied to.

Third, the final fall of Silk is brought about by a stigmatizing text of sorts too. His old-fashioned and quite innocent comment gets interpreted by Athena purists, this “highly judgmental and self-righteous” academic community, as one critic puts it (Safer, 211), as a racial slur, a Rortyan humiliating re-description, causing his ultimate downfall. Unable to uncover his secret, Silk must die a death fitting a Greek hero, “in battle” (see Timothy L. Parrish, 454), where the deaths of his wife and girlfriend come about as collateral damage to the primal tragedy.


I have chosen my four cases because they represent different modes of interaction between stigma and narration. Neither Anne Hutchinson nor the victims of lynchings were allowed to tell their own story, to give an alternative account to those of their stigmatizers. Coleman Silk constructed his narrative to rid himself of one stigma, but gave up on even the possibility of a narrative coming to terms with his current stigma, not the Jewishness, of course, but the lie. For all of them, telling about the marking would have allowed them to contest the narratives of power—church, white racists, and academia, respectively—and to perform the reconciliation which Levinas calls Facing. Only Emily Dickinson was able to defy the prohibition of narrative self-making and properly host her stigma in language, thereby extending her boundaries.

What they all subscribe to is not just that stigma management is always discursive, aiming at reparative narration, but that ultimately, for stigma to be repaired, its re-descriptive markings as bodily limitations must be accommodated in and through language, bringing about a re-evaluation of frontiers.


1 That Winthrop saw the workings of Satan in the malformed babies of these women is clear from his description of the stillborn infant born to Mary Dyer, a well-known follower of Hutchinson, where he implied, as Carol F. Karlsen has convincingly demonstrated in her classic book, that during the birth of the “monster with horns, claws, and scales” the “bed whereon the mother lay did shake” (Winthrop, Journal I: 268; Karlsen, 17).

2 In a similar vein, Susan Wendell has written on how pain is easier to bear if it becomes an “experience” available for interpretation (326).

3 In an essay dated 1997, the African American sociologist Felly Nkweto Simmons discusses her difficulties when speaking, at conferences, about the racialized body as a personal experience. “My authority to do this,” she claims, “is questioned or dismissed as subjective and ‘confessional.’ I’m expected to be, but not to know about being” (52). All this is painfully reminiscent of Frederick Douglass’s complaint of being used by white abolitionists as illustration only for their claims but always being denied the possibility of giving his own interpretation.

Works Cited

  • Allen, James, Hilton Als, John Lewis, Leon F. Litwack, eds., Without Sanctuary. Lynching Photography in America. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000.
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  • Collins, Michael. “The Antipanopticon of Etheridge Knight.” PMLA 123 (2008): 580-597.
  • de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
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