The premise of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one which in some metaphorical capacity or another is recurrent throughout literature. The concept of ‘playing god’ as it were is acted out in the historically important work, which is considered to be reflexive of some aspect of the human condition. This aspect, which desires to demonstrate power, to exercise control and ultimately to prevail over that fragile thing called life, is seen most potently in Dr.
Frankenstein. Thus, as we consider the potential parallels between this story Children of a Lesser God, we may make note of an interesting effect. The stormy relationship between the story’s protagonists, James and Sarah, suggests something of the same human condition, though in a decidedly different incarnation. In the love relationship between the teacher, in James, and the hearing impaired Sarah, the former assumes a controlling interest in the latter’s life.
Attempting to impress upon her the importance of learning to speak in lieu of signing, James adopts Sarah as a puppet even as presumes to love her as she is. Naturally, the resentment which she experiences causes a severing in their relationship. It may not be entirely apt to compare Sarah to Frankenstein’s monster, at least insofar as she is within the power of her own reason and therefore, is capable of exercising a meaningful form of free will. Instead, it may be more appropriate to characterize Jim as sharing parallels to Dr. Frankenstein.
The mode in which he presumes to entitle himself the authority to dictate such vital life decisions for Sarah is quite revealing, illustrating an inherent tendency in the character to attempt to create a life where one already exists. If there is a meaningful analogy to be made between this story and Frankenstein, it would be in the observed destructive nature of control. We may argue that in both James and Dr. Frankenstein, this control came from a place of good intention, indeed, even from a place of love.
But in both, we can see also that the inherency of free will provoked the flight of the subjugated. In this way, maybe the most apt parallel between Sarah and the monster is in their respective tendencies toward defiance, even in their shared recognition of the underlying good intentions of their self-proclaimed masters. There is a naturally problematic relationship which we may argue emerges from—for Sarah and the monster—a natural conflict between personal volition and imposed dependency.
And for both, the outcome of this conflict would be the instinct of escape. One of the most compelling issues to consider in relationship to the material covered in this course is that of public perception and the handicapped. Indeed, while society has become markedly sympathetic toward the needs and demands of those who have been born enfeebled or are impaired by injury or illness, this is nonetheless a sympathy which comes with no small degree of pity and curiosity. Certainly, the nature of a condition will have an impact on the way one is perceived.
In The Long Road Home for example, the relationship between war and injury at least impresses a concept of honor upon the acquisition of disability. And of course in Muderball, we are led to a moving admiration for men inclined toward active lifestyles in spite of being wheelchair bound. Still, it is fair to acknowledge that these are examples which pointedly frame admiration for the disabled according to their willingness to triumph over adversity, as it were. This is not necessarily an appreciation of the disabled fulfilling everyday goals and lifestyle ambitions.
In the contexts, we are more likely still today to reflect the patterns suggested by the telethons or, conversely, by FDR. Such is to say that, in reflection of the course material with which we have contended, it seems that the image of the disabled which is projected by the telethon culture is one of presumable helplessness. Though positive ends are served by the telethon in principle, the approach has historically been to invoke pity and, in a regard, to put the handicapped on display in a spectacle context in order to garner sympathies.
For many, it is still natural to assume this is a fair and thorough portrayal of the handicapped. By contrast, another reality which is still relevant to us today is the consideration that FDR’s decision to hide his handicap from the general public—while no longer feasible—would still be rational. FDR was able to obscure in as many ways as possible, the visual impression that he was bound to a wheelchair for fear that this would cost him credibility and electoral viability.
Though we tend to congratulate ourselves as a society for achieving a point of tolerance and progressive enlightenment, it is fair to suggest that the difficulty of hiding such a disposition in the glare of today’s media lights would make it fairly unlikely that a man in a wheelchair would achieve the image needed to be elected in the United States. This is a telling indication of the way that we perceive disability today, in spite of our claims to the contrary. The issue of masculinity and ‘freakishness’ is one that is frequently problematic in our literature and with respect to the general human condition.
Referring directly to the answer applied to the question regarding FDR, one of the primary cultural conflicts detaining the full acceptance of the handicapped or disabled is the sense of a close relationship between masculinity and virility. Such is to say that manhood or manliness will often be defined by a perception of one’s athleticism, strength, fortitude and courage. Many of these things, which are manifested sportingly in a social context, are likely to be psychologically associated with confidence, sexual prowess and a healthy genetic background.
From a strictly Darwinian perspective, one might argue that there is a procreative appeal which inherently generates appeal in the ascendance of man to certain physical characteristics. Absent of these characteristics, it is often more difficult for a man to be identified in a positive cultural light. Thus, with regard to the discussion on freakishness, our readings have shown that in fact it is quite difficult with a man possessing a less than ideal body to convey masculinity.
Even for those who have earned the glory and recognition of being maimed in war must suffer the self-doubt and insecurity of devastating impairment. Here, one of the gravest struggles is found in trying to recover a sense of one’s own masculinity. By contrast, it is appealing to consider the themes of Murderball in this light. The quadriplegic men featured in the film do engage in some frank discussions of their sex lives, providing a useful and often un-broached discourse for its audience.
This, in conjunction with the aggressive decision to remain active and to not allow themselves to be seen as fragile does show that these men have found ways to derive masculinity from less than the idealized masculine form. In this context especially, we can see that masculinity is not inherently defined by one’s physical characteristics. And in fairness, neither is it defined by one’s physical or sexual prowess. Instead, we see that it is defined by one’s willful determination to pursue the identity which, physique aside, is instinctually natural.