"The Power of Monstrosity: Review of Ruth Bienstock Anolik's (ed.) Demons of the Body and the Mind" by Attila Mócza
Attila Mócza is a PhD student of the ‘English and American Literatures and Cultures’ PhD study program at the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Szeged, Hungary. In his PhD research, he focuses on social critiques, social representations, and the reception of power in immediately contemporary Gothic literature. Email:
Demons of the Body and the Mind
Anolik, Ruth Bienstock ed.
North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010.
The popularity of Gothic literature is constant from the second half of the nineteenth century to our present day. The interdisciplinary field of disability studies gained importance almost two hundred years after the publication of the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. In spite of the fact that the Gothic genre in literature definitely thematizes differentiation, deviation, othering and so on, it seems quite astonishing that the two fields together are not commonly encountered in scholarly analysis. Demons of the Body and the Mind: Essays on Disability in Gothic Literature edited by Ruth Bienstock Anolik is a collection of essays that attempts to emphasize the disciplinary significance of both Gothic literature and disability studies by merging these fields in a scholarly book.
The book is divided into two thematic parts. The first is organized under the title of “Monstrous Deformity: The Horrifying Spectacle of Difference” (21-108). Seven essays in this chapter deal with physical disabilities. The title of “Visible Specters: Horrifying Representations of Invisible Pathology” (110-226) is given to the second thematic part of the monograph. This section of nine essays is organized around mental disabilities.
The notion of subversion can be regularly found in academic works on Gothic texts. Thus, it does not seem surprising that several essays discuss it. The most relevant among them are those studies that argue for the subversion of the patriarchal structure of society. Melissa Wehler in her work “Revising Ophelia: Representing Madwomen in Baillie’s Orra and Witchcraft” (111-118) analyzes Joanna Baillie’s two Gothic dramas. In these plays, madness represents disability in the female characters of Orra and Grizeld Bane. As the author points it out, they are considered mad because they reject and, thus, subvert the patriarchal structure of society. Another significant study in this respect is Maria Purves’ “‘Don’t Look Now’: Disguised Danger and Disabled Women in Daphne du Maurier’s Macabre Tales” (181-196). The author proposes that the disabled women in du Maurier’s macabre tales are subversive figures of patriarchy. They are seemingly weak women due to their disability, but it turns out that they are endowed with power as they become the nemesis of male characters in their respective tales. Catherine Delifer argues for the transposition of gender roles in her “Lucas Malet’s Subversive Late Gothic: Humanizing the Monster in The History of Sir Richard Calmady” (80-96). The incomplete body of Richard makes him a feminized, disabled man. The subversion of gender roles is complicated by Lucas Malet’s being a pseudonym of Mary St. Leger Kingsley Harrison, because it raises the work of a female writer to the level of a male artist.
Apart from gender-specific considerations, subversion is an important phenomenon for other scholars as well. Lisa M. Harmsen in “Knight of the Seal: Mad Doctors and Maniacs in A. J. H. Duganne’s Romance of Reform” (157-169) states that the relationship between reason and madness is subverted in Duganne’s Knight of the Seal. Doctor Palmarin tortures his patients in a lunatic asylum which makes him even more insane than the patients. The character of the doctor questions the phenomenon of madness on the basis of the argument that if a physician who ought to be curing insane people turns out to be mad, his patients can prove to be sane in turn. Cynthia Hall’s argument is based on a similar concept from another perspective. Hall in “‘Colossal Vices’ and ‘Terrible Deformities’ in George Lippard’s Gothic Nightmare” (35-46) analyzes Lippard’s novel, The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime, in which characters with deformed bodies are sources of infection to healthy people. Hall heightens this fact in order to claim that the seeming difference between diseased and healthy bodies is subverted as contagion dissolves the boundary between the healthy and the diseased.
In addition to the concept of subversion, the phenomenon of contagion is further discussed in the monograph. An essay by Carolyn D. Williams entitled “The Case of the Malnourished Vampyre: The Perils of Passion in John Cleland’s Memoirs of Coxcomb” (119-128) is of utmost importance in this sense. Lady Travers is a sexually insatiable vampire. Her sexuality is the source of contagion in that she vampirizes men who have sex with her.
Perhaps another one of the more common and significant issues represented in Gothic literature is the binary opposition between subordination and domination. The articles in the collection point out that disability can be the source of both. In his essay “A Space, A Place: Visions of a Disabled Community in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Last Man” (23-34), Paul Marchbank argues for the inadequacy of visibility as a hierarchy-constructing phenomenon through the characters of the Monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Adrian in The Last Man, respectively. Both characters are subordinated in their society because of their visible disability. “The Dangerous Mr. Casaubon: Gothic Husband and Gothic Monster in Middlemarch” by Elizabeth Hale (61-67) discusses George Elliot’s Middlemarch. Being neglectful of his wife’s desires and needs, the obsessed pseudo-scientist Mr. Casaubon oppresses her. After his death, he haunts her, which heightens this further. In this case, the disability of the husband is a source of his domination over his wife. Tamara S. Wagner’s essay entitled “Ominous Signs or False Clues? Difference and Deformity in Wilkie Collins’s Sensation Novels” (47-60) scrutinizes the fat Fosco in The Woman in White as well as the half-human and half-machine Dexter in The Law of the Lady. Wagner casts light on the fact that the disabled figures in the novels are in a partly subordinated and partly dominant role in their milieu, which makes disability an ambiguous, instead of a merely detrimental phenomenon in their case.
Demons of the Body and the Mind has several strong points as a serious academic work. The discourse on the Gothic genre in the book is diverse – a quality that not only manifests itself in the variety of prosaic literary texts, novels and short stories under investigation, but also in the article of Melissa Wehler which, by analyzing two Gothic dramas, draws our attention to a rarely discussed field. The question of genre and its significance is equally important in sub-genres. The so-called Female Gothic and the Urban Gothic are present in plenty of articles in the collection, making the book relevant to the study of various themes and characteristics of Gothic sub-genres and pertinent perspectives dedicated to them.
The primary texts analyzed in the essays can be broken down into several fields. Both American and European literature are represented by nineteenth and twentieth century works. Among them, several novels and short stories are familiar staples of the Gothic canon, while others may only be canonized in the future. The examinations of works that are not widely known, and consequently understudied even within Gothic studies, raise the academic level of the monograph as they familiarize the reader with these works themselves and the subjects they touch upon.
The collection is logically structured into two coherent, thematic parts. The articles are well-argued and the sub-sections are organized around thought-provoking issues. One contentious issue I feel compelled to mention is connected to the article “Deviled Eggs: Teratogenesis and the Gynecological Gothic in the Cinema of Monstrous Birth” by Andrew Scahill (197-216) in which filmic representation is discussed. Although it fits into the book, as disability is a crucial issue in Scahill’s study, the departure into film studies contrasts with the book’s intended literary focus; it is intended to collect “Essays on Disability in Gothic Literature,” not films.
I consider the thematic merger of Gothic literature and disability to be of prime importance; the former is a highly popular literary genre and the latter is a current and critical issue in the twenty-first century. The monograph’s argument is articulated in an understandable and convincing manner, proposing that the healthy and the disabled are only products of social conventions, and thus, the terms do not have any inherent meaning at all. Hence, this book calls for a much-needed re-evaluation of entrenched conceptions of disability and health.
All things considered, I think that Demons of the Body and the Mind amounts to a serious secondary work on Gothic literature and beneficial reading for experts as well as lay fans of the genre. It comprises of essays on varied topics that has potential to widen a scholar’s field of vision, especially those who specialize in the literary Gothic. This interdisciplinary discussion of disability, the central topic of the collection, marks a significant contribution to the field.