- Disability and Modern Fiction: Faulkner, Morrison, Coetzee and the Nobel Prize for Literature by Alice Hall
This engaging study examines disability in relation to the works of William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and J.M. Coetzee. Hall argues convincingly that “the ethical, aesthetic and imaginative challenges implicit in the representation of the disabled body” are central to the work of each of these authors, and that “a focus on representations of literary disability can enrich our understanding of individual texts by Faulkner, Morrison and Coetzee and suggest new connections between them” (5–6, 6). In her first chapter, Hall explores the connections between Faulkner, Morrison, and Coetzee, rejecting a simplistic linear formulation of influence but effectively making the case for considering the three authors together. Chapter 2 focuses on Faulkner, offering detailed discussion of Soldier’s Pay (1926), The Sound and the Fury (1929), The Hamlet (1940), and A Fable (1954). The earlier works are placed in the context of a post-First World War social crisis in America, as well as the rise of the eugenics movement, which forms the background for the main focus of the chapter, a discussion of Faulkner’s representation of “idiot” figures. Hall references contemporary court cases, reports by learned societies, other fictional works, and biographical material, and uses this material deftly to illuminate the novels. In this chapter, as indeed throughout the study, the use of contextual and biographical material works well to enrich the discussion of the fictional texts.
Toni Morrison’s work offers Hall an abundance of material for consideration: as Hall notes, “Every single work of fiction by Morrison includes at least one character that is impaired, disabled, or marked out by a distinct physical difference” (49). Hall considers six novels—including Sula (1973) and Beloved (1987)—and takes notions of beauty in Morrison’s work as her central theme. Hall draws out a parallel between Morrison’s “redefinition of beauty” in her fiction, and her “experimentation with an alternative aesthetic of beauty” (82) in the Foreign Bodies exhibition she curated at the Louvre in 2006 (an image from which appears on the cover of Hall’s book). As a scholar who is not a specialist in any of Hall’s three central authors, I found this the [End Page 111] most engaging chapter of the study, particularly in the generative way Hall develops the intersections between beauty and disability in Morrison’s fiction, curatorial work, and nonfiction. Age and ageing in the later writing of J.M. Coetzee form the central focus of chapter 4 (which, at 52 pages, is the longest chapter of the book). Under this umbrella, Hall touches on a wide range of themes, including care and dependency, prosthesis, metaphor, and blindness. Chapter 5 analyses the lectures given by her key authors on receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature, delivered in 1949 (Faulkner), 1993 (Morrison), and 2003 (Coetzee). Hall explains that “disability functioned as a central metaphor” (145) in all three speeches, and she draws upon a range of work on metaphor in disability studies to develop an insightful discussion of metaphor both within and beyond the Nobel Prize lectures. A brief conclusion rounds off the study.
Overall, this is an absorbing study of three canonical twentieth-century authors, which draws on a wide range of work in cultural disability studies and critical theory. Hall is admirably disciplined in keeping her discussion focused on Faulkner, Morrison, and Coetzee, and the depth she is able to achieve means that her study will be essential reading for scholars of these three authors. At times, however, I felt that she might have benefitted from a broader canvas. In the chapter on Morrison, for example, Hall briefly discusses an essay by Alice Walker, before returning to her focus on Morrison, and I was left with the sense that there was more to be said—and that what would have been said would have been interesting. There are similar examples in the other chapters. This is...