Deaf Characters in Literature
The inclusion of deaf and hard of hearing characters in literature has steadily increased in the past three centuries. In the beginning, however, these were usually not fully fleshed out characters, but simply literary devices. As the time passed the Deaf community began to grow and develop, this is then reflected in literary works of the time, especially the nineteenth century. Just in the last few decades deaf and hard of hearing characters are being created in the new medium of graphic novels. D/deaf authors themselves have also begun illustrious careers as novelists, scriptwriters and poets in recent years and now can give a Deaf voice to d/Deaf characters.
In the early eighteen hundreds Victor Hugo wrote the book The Hunchback of Notre-Dame which centered on the story of Quasimodo. Quasimodo is a horrid hunchback with a large wart that covers one of his eyes, he is also deaf. His deafness was caused by his job as the bell-ringer of the church of Notre-Dame. In the novel Quasimodo is a barely audible monster and considered an ugly blotch on the beautiful face of Paris. Hugo does not then use his deafness as a building block of Quasimodo’s character but as a tragic outcome as his captivity in the Notre-Dame tower. His deafness therefore is used to further isolate the character and make him seem more pitiable although throughout the book he becomes less pitied by the reader and more condemned as his actions quickly become uncomforting.
Another example of a deaf character in nineteenth century literature is Elizabeth in Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Elizabeth is the daughter of one of the major characters, a slave named Jim. Elizabeth becomes deaf due to a bout with Scarlet Fever. Although she is not a major character she is a much more believable and honest character than Hugo’s Quasimodo, but she is also used more as a literary device then a fully developed character. Elizabeth is used to be a beacon of innocence this is in complete contrast to the crazed Quasimodo.
Innocence and alienation were not the only symbols deaf characters once represented. The Great White Whale, or Moby-Dick, the gigantic antagonist of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is not often at the forefront of collections of d/Deaf characters in literature, but he should not be forgotten. Moby-Dick is used to represent a figure that is seen as unknowable and is used to both allure and horrify. So, in this instance the deaf character is used to convey wonder and abstraction, something that the other characters in the novel will never be able to know and understand. This is a powerful literal device that has fallen out of favor since the upsurge of signed languages because for many at the time most hearing people never communicated with deaf people. This is possible because at the time of writing schools for the deaf and hard of hearing were only beginning to sprout up across the United States. It is at this time that the Deaf culture began to take form and develop.
With the visibility of deaf and hard of hearing individuals the Deaf culture was beginning to be seen in literary works. The largest influx of these works happened in the mid-nineteen hundreds. It was at this time that the publishing of literary works became more accessible to a wider range of people due to the booming economy of the United States at the time. This also brought forward a plethora of authors of different backgrounds with varying ideas.
One of the most well known novels featuring a Deaf character as the main protagonist is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published in 1940 and focuses on a Deaf man named John Singer. Singer lives in a mill town in Georgia and the novel focuses on his interactions with four acquaintances. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been adapted for both the screen and stage, has been ranked high on several top 100 American novels lists and in 2004 was a selection for Oprah’s Book Club. This is all because the novel as seen as one of the first works to give a voice to those who have been rejected, forgotten, vilified, and oppressed. It elevated the deaf and hard of hearing to an equal standing with the hearing populace. With this runaway best seller the Deaf community was given a face.
The twentieth century was also the birth of an incredible literary phenomenon that captured the d/Deaf in a whole different light, the comic book. The graphic novel surged in popularity during the 30’s and 40’s. The appeal to many was that the graphic novel, much like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, gave a face to those who before were ignored. It was also very popular in the youth culture at the time; this allowed the children and young adults of that generation to be exposed to the concept of d/Deaf people long before they were reading lengthy novels, if they are not exposed in their everyday lives.
These graphic novels allowed for a growing acceptance of d/Deaf people from the youths because often the d/Deaf were portrayed as heroes. There are many examples of d/Deaf characters in popular comic books. Some of the most notable include Professor Cuthbert Calculus from The Adventures of Tintin, Echo (Maya Lopez) a Native American with “photographic reflexes” is a Marvel Comics super heroine, and even Benjamin Richard Parker who in the Marvel Universe is the song of Mary-Jane and Peter Parker. There are several other minor characters throughout the comic books of the current and last century who show different facets of the human condition, although sometimes through extraordinary situations and means.
Literary works by d/Deaf authors themselves have soared since the nineteenth century especially in, though not limited to, the field of poetry. One of the most significant early Deaf poets was Laura Redden Searing. Searing, who was born in 1839, used the pseudonym Howard Glyndon in order to publish her early works as it was very difficult for women to be published at that time. Searing’s first published book of poems came in 1864 and was titled Idyls of Battle, and Poems of the Rebellion. She went on to write four other works before 1897. Many of her works focused on ASL and Deafness. Another great Deaf poet was Clayton Valli. A distinguished Deaf linguist Valli was the first person to ever earn a doctorate in ASL poetry. Valli was instrumental in elevating ASL poetry to where it is now.
Deaf characters have been the subject of literary works for centuries, though not always as we might expect. From what was once just literary symbols d/Deaf characters have grown into fully explored people within modern works. From Elizabeth to Echo we can see the evolution of d/Deaf characters in literature mirror the changing tide of the Deaf culture. The d/Deaf characters of literary works will continue to change and develop as our own worlds view and understandings of d/Deaf culture do the same.