Physical Disability And Masculinity In Mid-Victorian Narrative
This dissertation examines the proliferation of weak or damaged male characters in the mid-nineteenth-century novel. A number of new literary types appeared on the scene in the novels of the 1850s, including the self-made man, the public schoolboy, and the muscular Christian. Because novelists sought to represent ideal types rather than idiosyncratic individuals, silent exemplars rather than effusive characters, authors needed a way of narrating the story of the hero without undermining his exemplarity. They did so by pairing the strong man with a weak friend who elicited emotions from the silent hero of these novels. The pairing of the strong man with the weak man led to a variety of narrative effects, including the juxtaposition of the ennui of the sickroom with active labour, and an emphasis on domesticity, sentimentality, and sympathy. The homoerotic friendships of the weak man and the strong man offered a queer perspective on the home and the increasingly industrialized workplace that sought to standardize men's bodies. The novels of Charles Kingsley, Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays, Dinah Mulock Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman, and Charlotte Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe all engage this narrative strategy. George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, which is most commonly read as a female bildungsroman, is also a rewriting of contemporary versions of masculinity. The Tom-Philip rivalry is an example of a failed schoolboy friendship between a strong boy and a weak boy, and Tom's brief career in the warehouses of Guest & Co raises questions about the seemingly praiseworthy career of the self-made man. In recasting the homoerotic friendships of the earlier novels as a rivalry, Eliot sets up the Tom-Philip as a source of affective and narrative energy. In the mid-century, the weak or disabled man became the emotional center of the novel, occupying a position quite close to that of the narrator. As a locus of feeling in the novel, the disabled man teaches readers how to read his strong companion, and how to feel rightly.
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