top of page

Breath & Shadow

Summer 2017 - Vol. 14, Issue 3

"Extraordinary Bodies is an Extraordinary Work: Book Review"

written by

Denise Noe

Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature is a landmark work in the study of disability. In it, Thomson sensitively examines the ways disability has been interpreted in popular culture and literature.

In her preface to the book’s twentieth anniversary edition, Thomson reveals how the “seed for Extraordinary Bodies began to sprout in the late 1980s.” She notes that the book “was a latecomer to feminist literary studies and critical race studies, the academic movements from which it emerged.” 

One of the book’s contributions to disability studies was the word “normate” which she did not originate. She grabbed onto it after a Society for Disability Studies meeting at which the President, Daryl P. Evans, “mockingly flung out the word.” 

Extraordinary Bodies is divided into two major sections. The first, “Politicizing Bodily Differences,” attempts to conceptualize such differences as bases for identity. The second, “Constructing Disabled Figures: Cultural and Literary Sites,” examines the way disability has been viewed in such varied cultural phenomenon as the freak shows of the 19th Century to early 20th Century, 19th Century sentimental fiction, and the works of modern African American female writers.

Thomson begins the first section by stating, “In its broadest sense, this book investigates how representation attaches meaning to bodies.” She wants to “expand our understanding of the cultural construction of bodies and identity by reframing ‘disability’ as another culture-bound, physically justified difference” alongside other identities like race, gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuality. She wants to “move disability from the realm of medicine into that of political minorities, to recast it from a form of pathology to a form of ethnicity.”

Acknowledging that disability is “partly founded on physiological facts about typical humans – such as having two legs with which to walk upright or having some capacity for sight or speech,” she argues there are meanings attached to disability that “are entirely culturally determined.” She supports this by observing: “Stairs, for example, create a functional ‘impairment’ for wheelchair users that ramps do not. Printed information accommodates the sighted but ‘limits’ blind persons. Deafness is not a disabling condition in a community that communicates by signing as well as speaking.” Moreover, disability is not necessarily limitation of function but can be an “extraordinary” difference in appearance and points to the so-called “ugly laws” that restricted visibly disabled individuals from some public places – discriminatory laws that were repealed as recently as 1974 in some parts of the United States. 

Turning to literature, she observes that main characters are rarely physically disabled but minor characters often are – and their disabilities tend to be pivotal to defining them. Thomson asserts that the “prototypical disabled figure” frequently “functions as a lightning rod for the pity, fear, discomfort, guilt, or sense of normalcy of the reader or a more significant character.” 

Additionally, Thomson avers, “Many parallels exist between the social meanings attributed to female bodies and those assigned to disabled bodies” with both “cast as deviant and inferior.” She uses processes developed from feminist criticism to “challenge the persistent assumption that disability is a self-evident condition of physical inadequacy and private misfortune” and attacks the idea of disability as inferiority by casting it as difference rather than lack. 

Even as she utilizes observations developed in feminist criticism, she admits there are tensions between feminism and disability causes. She points out one of the most glaring: the feminist insistence on legal abortion means that disabled fetuses are often aborted, and the number of disabled people decreased. 

The second part of the book starts with an examination of the American freak show, an institution that was prominent from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Indeed, the book’s section devoted to illustrations is made up entirely of people displayed in freak shows and pamphlets advertising such displays. 

Thomson writes, “P. T. Barnum, the apotheosis of American entrepreneurship, brought the freak show to its pinnacle in the nineteenth century.” The freak show capitalized on the more general tendency to see the disabled solely in terms of their handicaps: “On the freak show stage, a single, highlighted characteristic circumscribed and reduced the inherent human complexity of such figures as the Dwarf, the Giant, the Bearded Woman, the Armless or Legless Wonder, and the Fat Lady.” She also speculates that the popularity of the freak show during the mid-19th Century may have been because the “Civil War and escalating industrial accidents from machinery produced many disabled persons among the working classes.” Resulting anxieties may have driven many people to want to view the handicapped within a context that made them appear safely “other.” 

Freak shows also often played into ancient and perennial anxieties about “hybrid” categories of human/animal, perhaps because humans have a natural tendency to fret about the boundaries between our species and others. Thus, the shows gave those on display titles such as “The Frog Man,” “The Camel Girl,” “The Leopard Child,” and “The Dog-Faced Boy.”

Racism led to a special focus on non-white “freaks.” Thomson avers, “Several physically and mentally disabled black men were displayed under the title ‘What Is It?’, a name that expressed the freak’s ambiguous humanity and challenged spectators to resolve the disparity between this body and their expectations.” In a poster for the display of a microcephalic black man, P. T. Barnum wrote, “Is it a lower order of MAN? Or is it a higher order of MONKEY? None can tell! Perhaps it is a combination of both.” Indeed, some handicapped people, usually blacks, were billed as missing links. 

Freak shows largely ended as medicalization replaced the idea of the disabled person as freak. Thomson asserts, “By 1940, the prodigious body had been completely absorbed into the discourse of medicine, and the freak shows were all but gone.” 

In her next chapter, “Benevolent Maternalism and the Disabled Women in Stowe, Davis, and Phelps,” Thomson writes, “Whereas the freak shows discussed in chapter 3 display extraordinary bodies as entertainment and wonder, sentimentalism uses disabled figures in a parallel spectacle to generate sympathy.” Diverging in some significant ways, she continues that “both modes of representation appropriate disabled figures in the service of individualist ideology.” She focuses on three novels: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills (1861); and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Silent Partner (1861). Thomson holds that these novels link “liberal individualism” with what she calls “benevolent maternalism,” a specifically middle-class white female version of the former. 

All three books feature an idealized white maternal benefactress and marginalized female figures who are physically disabled. Thomson argues that the disabled female characters “fulfill major rhetorical roles by arousing the sympathetic indignation that activates benevolent maternalism,” understanding the latter as a “springboard from which white, middle-class women could launch themselves into a prestigious, more influential public role.” 

Thomson points to how a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin exemplifies how the novels use disabled female characters. Slave traders Haley and Marks tell stories “ostensibly proving the illogical and intractable nature of female slaves.” Marks tells of a female slave whose “young ‘un” had a “crooked back” and how shocked he was that she was upset when he gave the child away. Marks cannot comprehend maternal devotion to an imperfect child but, Thomson notes, “for Stowe” this devotion “humanizes the slave.” Haley tells of swapping a blind slave child for a “keg o’ whiskey’ and being shocked that the mother tried to keep the child, eventually going “head first, young ‘un and all, into the river,” accidentally drowning both herself and her child in her effort to keep the child with her.

Thomson writes, “Stowe’s slave mothers refuse to depreciate” their handicapped youngsters, “underscoring the principle of universal, unconditional acceptance of all human beings that supports the novel’s condemnation of slavery.”

Stowe illustrates the brutality of slavery through disabled female characters Prue and Hagar who play major roles in Cabin. 

While Stowe used disabled figures to underline the evils of slavery, Davis used them to illustrate the horrors in the lives of impoverished factory workers. Thomson argues that Davis puts the hunchbacked Deb Wolf at the center of Mills, focusing on a disabled woman who is “defenseless before her oppressors.” Her pitiful handicapped body is contrasted with that of the “idealized Quaker woman.” 

Indeed, Thomson argues that the hunchbacked Deb represents a kind of ultimate horror for a female as she is trapped in a body so repulsive it “prevents her from attachment to a man, women’s conduit to power and status.” 

Thomson believes Phelps’s The Silent Partner “seems to accept as its premise Godey’s Lady’s Book 1985 assertion that ‘It is a woman’s business to be beautiful.’” Thomson elaborates that the beautiful Silent heroine Perley Kelso is a “figure of transcendent benevolent maternalism” contrasting with the “wretched Catty Garth,” a deaf and mute mill worker who “runs wild in the streets.” According to Thomson, “Catty is the woman Perley must save, but almost must never become.” 

When Thomson concludes this section of Extraordinary Bodies, she asserts that the novels of Stowe, Davis, and Phelps “at once claim and repudiate the identification between the two groups of women, offering compassion as an ambivalent compromise.” 

The book’s last large section is about how disabled characters figure in the writings of 20th Century African-American female writers. Thomson writes that they try “to produce a narrative of self that authenticates black women’s oppressive history yet offers a model for transcending that history’s limitations.” Thomson elaborates that the writers she examines attempt to “recast the dominant representation of black womanhood.” 

Thomson describes Audre Lorde’s book. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, as a way to reconcile the identity of a woman who is “fat, black, and nearly blind.” In Thomson’s view, Lorde, like other African-American women writers, deals with a figure whose “extraordinary body disqualifies her from the restrictions and benefits of conventional womanhood, freeing her to create an identity that incorporates a body distinguished by the markings – some painfully inflicted, some congenital – of her individual and cultural history.”

In the section, Thomson traces the depiction of the disabled in Ann Petry’s The Street (1946); Toni Morrison’s first five novels, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), and Beloved (1987); and in the book already described, Lorde’s 1982 book Zami, designated by its author as a “biomythography.” 

Thomson believes that Petry’s The Street “offers a modernist representation of disability that serves as a transition between the nineteenth century sentimental novels . . . and the postmodern, post-civil rights representation of disabled figures in Morrison and Lorde.”

The disabled character of The Street, Mrs. Hedges, is so fat that “people [in her hometown] never really got used to the sight of her.” She has a “mysterious, awful bodily condition that she hides by wearing a bandana and staying at home, sitting at her window above the rest of humanity in the street.” Halfway through the novel, the reader learns that Mrs. Hedges is disfigured by a “mass of scars” she got “after she escaped from a tenement fire by squeezing herself through a tiny basement window.” 

Mrs. Hedges is called “a mountain of a woman” with “powerful hands” and Thomson writes that the character’s “strength and size violate the diminutive and delicate stereotype of womanhood.”  Thomson argues that Mrs. Hedges, who acts as a madam to a group of prostitutes, is herself freed by her enormous scarred body from the specifically male gaze and, unlike the attractive, sexually objectified women who work for her, she “refuses victimization” and can “endure injustice and prevail.”

From The Street’s massive Mrs. Hedges, Thomson turns to disabled characters in Toni Morrison’s novels. Thomson quotes Morrison, saying that her works often feature a “pariah figure.” Morrison states, “The black community is a pariah community” and that, like all communities, this pariah community “contains pariahs within it that are very useful for the conscience of that community.” 

Thomson believes grandmother Eva Peace of Morrison’s Sula is a “prototype” for Morrison’s disabled characters. Thomson writes, “Eva’s leg has been amputated, perhaps on her own initiative so she can collect insurance money that will feed her children.” Ironically: “Eva’s amputation frees her from poverty.” 

Morrison’s Tar Baby features elderly, blind Marie whom Thomson describes as “like the blind seer Tiresias” and as possessing “the knowledge associated with the gaze, but without the sense of sight.” Beloved has two disabled characters, limping Baby Suggs and one-armed Nan, and Thomson asserts that their bodies “bear witness to racism’s violations and to their own survival.” 

In Song of Solomon, Morrison creates Pilate Dead, a character lacking a navel. In an interview, Morrison revealed that the lack of such a normal ordinary marking helped designate Pilate as someone who had to “literally invent herself.” 

All the aforementioned disabled characters, according to Thomson, contrast sharply with a disabled character from Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye. In Morrison’s debut novel, Pauline Breedlove, who limps because of a disabled foot, “serves quite a different rhetorical function from the other.” Thomson asserts that while other disabled figures in Morrison’s work are “empowered,” Pauline is “diminished” because she has internalized white racist ideology, “finding her praise and satisfaction keeping a rich white family’s house and loving their blue-eyed, blond-haired girl instead of her own daughter.” Additionally, Thomson believes, Paula symbolizes not only a black’s internalization of white racism but “destructive ideologies of female martyrdom.”

After dealing with disability in the works of Toni Morrison, Thomson returns to Audre Lorde’s Zami. In that book, Thomson believes that Lorde’s project was to take the devalued “categories of identity” and build a positive identity with “value, power, and fresh meaning.” Thomson writes that Lorde “exalts the extraordinary body.” 

The concluding chapter of Extraordinary Bodies is “From Pathology to Identity.” In this chapter, Thomson reiterates that the book’s basic goal is to “broaden and shift our current academic conversation about identity production and physical difference.” She notes that, historically, “the disabled figure operates as a code for insufficiency, contingency, and abjection” that contrasts with a “supposedly stable, universalized normalcy.” Ultimately, Thomson wants her book to change the way we look at disabled bodies so we see them as extraordinary rather than abnormal, and to “shift our conception of disability from pathology to identity.” 

This reviewer believes that Thomson’s brilliantly conceived, lavishly illustrated, and cogently argued book succeeds marvelously in laying the foundations for that welcome change in the popular view of disability. It is a book that rewards multiple re-readings and provides an intellectual banquet. Extraordinary Bodies is a solid achievement that should be cherished by extraordinary and “normate” alike for its freshness of vision and depth of insight. 

Thank you, Rosemarie Garland Thomson!


Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, Columbia University Press, 1997/2017

Denise Noe is a struggling writer who is disabled by schizotypal personality disorder, impulse control disorder, obsessive and compulsive disorder, clinical depression, and chronic lower back pain. She is interested in literature, film, math, geology, and social welfare issues.

bottom of page