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  • “A Human Bundle”:The Disaggregated Other at the Fin de Siècle
  • Ryan Sweet (bio)

Picture your valet taking off both your legs …, carefully placing away your arm, disengaging your wig, easing you of your glass eye, washing and putting by your masticators, and, finally, helping the bare vital principle into bed, there to lie up in ordinary, like a dismantled hulk[.] … In these latter days we are, indeed, sometimes, as the Psalmist said, fearfully and wonderfully made; and, like the author of Frankenstein, we may tremble at our creations.

(A. W. 220)

In the 1859 Once a Week article “The Artificial Man,” the author expresses concern at the dehumanizing implications of an increased reliance on human prostheses. Mirroring Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839), a short story about a war veteran whose reliance on prosthetics is revealed in an almost identical undressing scene, this article reveals anxiety about both the potential for technology to supplant the organic whole and the ability of medicine to preserve life at the cost of human agency. The horror evoked here, as signalled by the allusion to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and the accompanying illustration (fig. 1), which shows an elderly man with four false limbs and a wig chasing a petrified able-bodied gentleman, reveals a fear about scientific progress gone too far. Though more concerned with the implications of physical loss than the replacement of human parts with prosthetics, Ernest George Henham’s fin-de-siècle short story “A Human Bundle” (1897) provides a grim depiction of human otherness enabled by improvements in surgical practice. [End Page 14]

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Fig 1.

Illustration of a man almost entirely made up with prosthetics. Once a Week 11.1 (1859): 220.

Courtesy of ProQuest llc.

Set in Manitoba, Canada, Henham’s story (first published in the popular London-based journal Temple Bar) reveals the ill fate of a good-looking young English fop who is sent to “rough it” abroad in order to gain important life experience (49)—and potentially to put off a prospective marriage with a woman below his station. During a blizzard, the protagonist, Percival, attempts to rescue an elderly friend and is found “frozen stiffly into a sitting posture, [with] his hands clasped round his knees, [and] his body leaning forward” (56). Miraculously, the protagonist survives, though he endures amputation of both legs, both arms, his nose, and his ears. Percival is described by a distressed medical student as “nothing better than a human bundle—a lump of breathing, useless flesh” (58). Here, then, we see a hyperbolized example of a disabled character, who exhibits the antithesis of the Victorian ideal of health, for which physical integrity was a bulwark.

The nineteenth-century privileging of physical wholeness has been well noted by scholars. In his seminal 1978 work, The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture, Bruce Haley highlights the importance of physical wholeness in Victorian Britain. He suggests that “no topic more occupied the Victorian mind than Health” (3). Indeed, wholeness, along with functionality and vitality, was a key component of what constituted health in this period. As Haley states, “health is a state of functional and structural wholeness. In an organism the two are related, for a structure becomes functional when viewed as part of a living whole” (20). Drawing from Haley’s earlier work, Erin O’Connor identifies the value attached to physical integrity in Raw Material: Producing Pathology in Victorian Culture (2000). As she states, “Victorian ideals of health … centered on the concept of physical wholeness: a strong, vigorous body was a primary signifier of manliness, at once testifying to the existence of [End Page 15] a correspondingly strong spirit and providing that spirit with a vital means of material expression” (104). We learn from these critical sources the tremendous cultural anxieties surrounding limb loss during this period.

Drawing on contemporary privileging of bodily integrity, Henham’s narrative complicates disability studies scholar Martha Stoddard Holmes’s “disabled male dichotomy” between “[t]he innocent afflicted child and the [adult male] begging impostor” (98, 95). Percival’s disablement certainly evokes an emotional excess, thus conforming to Holmes...


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