In Julia C. Collins's novel The Curse of Caste, Colonel Frank Tracy, a white Louisiana slaveowner, threatens to disinherit his son Richard and erase him from the family memory if he does not give up his attachment to Lina, a mixed-race woman and former slave whom he has married.1 Richard tells his father, "I cannot forsake my wife," for he plans to spend his life with her despite his father's disgust. Enraged, the colonel draws a pistol, points it at his son, and says, "I will see you die at my feet before you shall return to the arms of that accursed wife!" (41). He fires.
The shot does not kill Richard, but the infection it causes puts him in a "critical state," keeping him bed-bound miles away from Lina for several months (43). He lies sick with a fever, often delirious and raving for his wife. His condition continues to worsen, and he seems to "fluctuat[e] between life and death" (45). During one of his unconscious fits of fever, Richard proclaims, "What matters it, if her skin is dark, if the blood of the despised race tinges her veins? Oh! believe me, she is good and pure!" (44). His words echo those used in anti-miscegenation arguments to relate blackness to toxicity and contamination. Collins presents an interesting juxtaposition here through Richard, a man whose body and blood battle toxic infection even as he professes the purity of his black wife's body and blood. The novel draws upon the cultural association between race and disease yet undermines it to show the true toxin to be racism, not race.
If we could freeze the moment when Colonel Tracy fires that shot and map its impact on other characters' lives and bodies, we would see a web connecting several characters in this novel who suffer from critical and prolonged illnesses. It is as if the bullet and the hatred it represents travel like a virus, linking these characters: Richard; his mother, Mrs. Nellie Tracy; his wife, Lina; [End Page 82] his friend George Manville; his father, Colonel Tracy; and even his daughter, Claire, who is born just before Lina dies. In this essay I argue that by pathologizing the violence of racism, Collins creates a contagion that connects the novel's sick characters and establishes an alternative family tree linking the births of black and white members. Because they are sources of information essential to repairing the rifts in the family (and the narrative), these ill figures are vital to the narrative, whereas the convention in nineteenth-century fiction is for invalids to be in-valid or ancillary to the plot.
By reading sickness in The Curse of Caste as disability, I do not suggest that disability should be read as a disease or as a condition requiring correction, as the medical model of disability studies implies. Instead, I think our analysis of illness in literature could benefit from a social model of disability studies that focuses on what Simi Linton has called society's ableist bias (161). Scholars agree that literary representations of sickness and disability reflect and contribute to the social understanding of different embodiments. As Rosemarie Garland Thomson has argued, the sick and disabled inhabit extraordinary or non-normate bodies that typically receive outsider status in culture and literature.2 Similarly, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder recognize that authors' dependence upon characters marked by physical difference has the potential to cause "disabled populations [to] suffer the consequences of representational association with deviance" (8). Rather than craft the experience of sickness in her novel as aberrant, Collins integrates and validates her invalids by connecting them to one another and making their knowledge central to the plot. Whereas sick or disabled individuals are culturally imagined to lack authority because of their bodies, in The Curse of Caste they possess authority because the health of their bodies is compromised. The physical limitations on their speaking and writing mean that the knowledge they hold—knowledge that others seek—is contained within their disabled bodies. The attention Collins...