‘What the Hell Happened to Maggie?’: Stereotype, Sympathy and Disability in Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’

    Tutkimustuotos: ArtikkelijulkaisuArtikkeliTieteellinenvertaisarvioitu


    Disability activists have long argued that the expression of pity towards the disabled frequently serves to reinforce the “tend[ency] to divide the world between the lucky and unlucky, between us and them” (Shapiro 24). Indeed, the rejection of pity—as well as sympathy, with which pity frequently is conflated—has been embraced as something of a guiding principle by the disability rights movement generally, and this has naturally had implications for the treatment of sympathy in fictional narratives involving disabled characters. In the first part of this essay, I will examine the prevailing stance on this issue within the disability rights movement. I hope to show that, while the “no pity” position justifiably opposes representations of the disabled that reinforce the perceived weaknesses of the disabled population, or, equally debilitating, rely largely on sentimentalized notions of disability, there are alternative ways of looking at the role played by sympathy in response to disabled characters in fiction. In this light, Toni Morrison’s only short story, “Recitatif,” provides an intriguing case study. Like many narratives involving disabled characters, “Recitatif” relies for its effects on readers’ perceptions and feelings on the intermittently-revealed character Maggie, whose implied disability renders her an elusive presence that haunts the two protagonists of the story, Twyla and Roberta, as they reflect on their past. I claim that the protagonists’ concern—their sympathy—for Maggie as they try to make sense of their own treatment of her, extends them beyond their own preoccupations and propels them towards a less defensive stance towards each other. In this sense, it is possible to view Maggie as having a “prosthetic” role in the development of this sympathy, in that the narrative appears to depend on Maggie’s disability for its effects (Mitchell 20). For this reason, I will examine Maggie’s role in the story, both in terms of the pity or sympathy that it apparently induces, as well as its potentially prosthetic function. I will suggest that, while Maggie certainly remains limited in terms of representation and largely prosthetic in terms of function, the narrative makes a significant move in guiding readers towards a more complex view of Maggie’s identity as well as a deeper level of sympathetic engagement than occurs in many other prosthetic characterizations. Out of this discussion, I will show how Morrison’s elicitation of sympathy thus moves beyond simple pity to a more nuanced response to the disability of the character that serves the most important function in the story in regulating readers’ emotions. I hope to demonstrate, moreover, that a rigid rejection of sympathetic responses to disabled characters denies readers an important opportunity to develop, as John Dewey suggests of sympathy generally, “a cultivated imagination for what men have in common and a rebellion at whatever unnecessarily divides them” (121).
    LehtiJournal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies
    TilaJulkaistu - 2011
    OKM-julkaisutyyppiA1 Alkuperäisartikkeli tieteellisessä aikakauslehdessä, vertaisarvioitu

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