Deaf Characters in Literature

Stories Reflect Changing Attitudes About Deafness

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The cultural attitudes about deafness over the generations have been largely mirrored by the literature of the time. In many of the older classic novels, deaf people were often portrayed negatively by writers who saw them as being either dimwitted, damaged, or devious.

While contemporary authors have made strides in portraying deafness in a more balanced light, there remain lingering myths and misconceptions that plague even the best of novels.

Characters from Pre-20th-Century Literature

Most of the early stories about deafness were written by hearing writers. One of the earliest was by Daniel Defoe, the famed novelist who went on to write "Robinson Crusoe."

The novel, "The Life and Adventures of Duncan Campbell," was an exceptional book for its time. Written in 1729, it described the daughter of a character named Loggin as "a miracle of wit and good nature" who had a highly cultivated mind and was able to speak and lip-read easily.

For his part, Defoe derived much of his inspiration from the work of his father-in-law, who was a teacher for the deaf in England.

Defoe's portrayal was a notable exception to the rule wherein deafness was more often portrayed as either a pitiable flaw or a tool for deception. Among the examples:

  • Cadwallader Crabtree in "Peregrine Pickle" by Tobias Smollett (1751), who wasn't deaf but pretended to be in order to spread vicious gossip
  • Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" by Victor Hugo (1831), a deaf, disfigured hunchback who meets a tragic end after falling in love with a beautiful gypsy
  • Sir Kenneth of Scotland in "The Talisman" by Sir Walter Scott (1851), who pretends to be a deaf Nubian slave in order to spy on others in the King's army
  • The King and the Duke in Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1885), one of whom pretends to be deaf while the other uses fake sign language to con others

Characters from 20th-Century Literature

While deafness was portrayed in a slightly more sympathetic light by 20th-century authors, many of the same negative stereotypes persisted. This was true not only for deaf characters but those with any form of disability from Tom Robinson in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Lenny in "Of Mice and Men" to Laura in "The Glass Menagerie." All were ultimately damaged characters irrevocably destined for tragedy.

During this time, deafness was often used as a metaphor for cultural isolation in many of the classic 20th-century novels. These included such characters as:

  • James Knapp in Eugene O'Neill's "Warnings" (1913), a wireless operator who goes deaf and later commits suicide after causing the crash of the SS Empress
  • The Old Man in Ernest Hemingway’s "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" (1933), a suicidal, deaf drunk who wants nothing more than to close himself off from the world
  • Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" (1951), who dreams of being deaf and living in a world of complete silence
  • Misses Tutti and Frutti in Harper Lee’s "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960), two deaf sisters who were the ready targets of ridicule and abuse from children of the town

Fortunately, not all deaf characters in literature were destined to the same torment. A number of contemporary authors made strides to move beyond the clichés and portray deaf people as fully dimensional beings with rich, inner lives. Some of the best examples include:

  • John Singer in Carson McCuller's "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" (1940), a deaf man who manages to forge deep relationships with people in his small Georgia town
  • Linda Snopes Kohl in William Faulkner's "The Mansion" (1959), a deaf, strong-willed woman who causes chaos in her Mississippi township when she decides to educate black children
  • Alice Guthries in Sara Flanigan's "Alice" (1988), a deaf, epileptic girl who, after being abandoned by her father, manages to educate herself and overcome the abuse of her youth

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