Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Queer and unked: Disability, monstrosity, and George Eliot’s “Sympathy”

Christina Lee
Kent, United Kingdom


Artwork of surprised man crouching over baby

Silas finds Eppie. Eliot, George.
The Jenson Society, NY.

In The Mill on the Floss, the intellectual and sensitive Philip Wakem, who has a curved spine from a fall in infancy, is called “a queer fellow, a humpback, and the son of a rogue.”1(II.vi) In the manuscript Philip Wakem is branded “queer and unked.”1(V.v) “Queer” used here means “a state of strangeness and disreputability of character.”2 “Unked” is a Warwickshire dialect term meaning “strange” or “lonely.”3 The coupling of “queer” and “unked” hypermarks Philip’s bodily difference as the only physically disabled person in the St. Ogg’s.

Although disabled characters tend to be “invisible” to readers and critics, they in fact permeate literary history and imagination.4 In the nineteenth-century, disability was not a social or medical problem, but a personal and moral one; it is a misfortune that afflicts individuals.5 In Fictions of Affliction (2004), Martha Stoddard-Holmes writes that disabled characters operated within an “affective economy” where the spectacles of their suffering generate emotional responses.6 In melodrama, deformities are exaggerated for dramatic effects to the extent that they become alien and nonhuman. Physically disabled characters often function as symbols without interior life or props to juxtapose the goodness of able-bodied protagonists.7 Disability as emotional stimulus in nineteenth-century fiction was so popular that it was almost formulaic—“to produce emotional excess: add disability.” The disabled character arouses either pity or fear: the afflicted child is the innocent victim and is to be pitied, the disabled beggar is a vengeful villain and is to be despised.

George Eliot felt such inflation of character to type a “great evil.”8 For Eliot, the impulse to delineate “the line between the virtuous and vicious” in “fictions of affliction” is “an immoral fiction” in itself because it does not “follow the stream of fact and of life.”9 Far from monstrous, Eliot’s disabled characters, who suffer the most from social alienation, are often the most sympathetic towards others. This article reviews George Eliot’s portrayal of Philip Wakem the humpback and Silas Marner the cataleptic weaver, and suggests that in showing disabled characters as feeling and suffering individuals who desire sympathy and acceptance, she subverts cultural stereotypes of disabled people as monsters.

In nineteenth-century discourses, disability does not merely mean impairment (e.g. missing limbs), but “differences of the body”—biological sex, skin color, bodily signs marking ethnic or class identity—variations from “perceived norms of function and configuration.”6 The “norm” is a concept that arose in the nineteenth-century with the emergence of the middle-class and growing interests in statistical analyses of the population.10 Adolphe Quetelet, who developed a statistical model for measuring human variation, organized the distribution of men according to two sets of limits. The “ordinary or natural” limit marks those with “qualities which deviated more or less from the mean”; those outside the ordinary limits constitute the “extraordinary,” “beyond natural,” and “monstrosities.”9 Eliot herself defines “norm” as that “which is the norm or rule for all men”12 (emphasis added). The norm sets the expectations for all of the population to be part of the norm.

When most people meet Philip, they see “simply a humpback.”1(II.i) He is just a “poor deformed creatur’” to be “pitied.”1(II.ii) Philip’s deformity makes him “less than” the average man physically and sexually, since the curved spine not only makes him weaker, but also more emotional and irritable—traits considered feminine and unfit for a man.5 Thus Philip, when measured against the norm, is doubly “queer”: an “anomaly” which breaches the limit of the “ordinary or natural,” and enters into the “extraordinary” and “monstrous.” Philip is reduced to a “creatur,” not even a human being.

Philip’s deformity (Latin. de- forma: un-shape)13 makes him unattractive and “everyone disliked looking at him.” 1(II.iii) Other people’s gaze makes him painfully self-conscious and more than his curved spine, it is the sense of being pitied and being thought of as a deformed object that disables him the most. Instead of drawing individuals into emotional affinity, pity can foster estrangement and contempt, widening the emotional distance between people. Repulsed by his hump, Tom Tulliver views Philip with distrust, influenced by his father’s opinions of Lawyer Wakem. Tom believes that Philip’s deformity “had some relation to the lawyer’s rascality” and sees it as a God-given retribution for the father’s sins inflicted on the son. Drawing on the tradition of disability as moral signifier, Philip’s physical stature is taken as a literal signification of his moral stature. Tom sees Philip’s disability before his person as Philip’s actual body is conflated with the metaphorical body of the villainous Richard III-type “humpback.”

In Silas Marner, the eponymous miserly and poor-sighted weaver is said to have a “queer face” and with “general queerness.”14(I.x) Silas is cataleptic and suffers fits during which he becomes immobilized and insensible in a trance-like state. Unlike Philip, whose disability is constantly on display, Silas’ disability is sporadic. The unpredictability and unknowability of Silas’ condition make him “queer” and attract suspicion. The sight of his body with stiff limbs and “eyes [. . .] set like a dead man’s” is likened to his soul leaving his body.14(I.i) Just as Tom judges Philip’s hump to be a mark of sin, Silas’ fits are seen as “visitation[s] of Satan.” Silas’ unexplained spells of “undead” states and knowledge of herbs arouse fear in the villagers, who accuse him of stealing money from the deacon. He is then abandoned by his fiancée and forced to leave his home village. Yet far from divine punishment or Satanic possession, George Eliot suggests, Philip’s and Silas’ monstrosities are human inventions. Philip’s peevishness and irritability are the result of society’s condescending pity and coldness. Formerly an affable and religious man, it was the betrayal of his friends and fiancée that made Silas bitter and disillusioned. Philip and Silas are not monsters because they are disabled: cultural misconceptions of disability have constructed “queer” bodies as pitiful and threatening, and it is society’s contemptuous intolerance towards bodily differences that have made their bodies monstrous.

What Philip and Silas need are not pity nor fear but sympathy. Ellen Argyros defines Eliot’s sense of sympathy as

[. . .] a kind of imaginative transportation beyond the boundaries of the self and its most egoistic claims to a recognition of the differences between self and other, ending finally with an identification between self and other that leads one to take action on behalf of that other.15

The rhetoric of affliction disempowers disabled individuals as pity robs them of dignity and agency. Sympathy however, “levels” individuals onto the same emotional plane regardless of physical or biological differences “and effectively collapses the distinction between itself and egotism.”16 Eliot’s idea of active sympathy is necessarily cooperative: sympathy (Greek syn: together, pathos: suffering).17 It is not conferred from one person to another but shared, since “sympathy with suffering is itself suffering.”18 After Silas is robbed, he finds the abandoned infant Eppie and decides to adopt her. When asked why, Silas replies that it is because “it’s a lone thing and I’m a lone thing.”14(I.xiii) Seeing his own loneliness reflected in Eppie, Silas is moved to action to alleviate their mutual suffering. Whereas Tom reacts to Philip’s deformity with disgust, Maggie Tulliver responds with kindness. Maggie sympathizes with Philip as a fellow sufferer of society’s unjust treatment. Like her creator, Maggie’s unwomanly intelligence makes her “queer” and something monstrous, “a conceited minx.”1(II.i) It is her experience of suffering the scolding of society that makes her keenly sensitive to the suffering of others. Maggie the “queer little girl” cares for Philip the “queer” humpback, for the same reason that Silas the “lone thing” adopts Eppie the “lone thing”—they feel emotional affinity with people who are also suffering.

For Eliot, sympathy is the key to the ideal human society. True communities can only be built when its members extend sympathies to those who are different to them and recognize the common suffering in all beings.19 Maggie sees beyond Philip’s hump and admires him for his individual personality. Her non-judgmental friendship rebuilds Philip’s self-esteem and brings him out of solipsism. When her family is ruined and shunned by respectable society, Philip maintains their friendship and secretly brings her books, encouraging her to continue her intellectual pursuits. Eppie similarly transforms Silas’ life and attitude. Her playfulness drives Silas physically out of the seclusion of his cottage and into the town. The townspeople, witnessing his devotion to the child, offer him help and he gradually reintegrates back into the community. Through loving and caring for another in distress, Philip and Silas learn to sympathize and finally enter into fellowship with others.

In a letter to Charles Bray, George Eliot writes that “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”20 Humanity is not measured by the shape of one’s spine but a person’s ability to enter into fellow feeling with another.18 In showing how disabled characters suffer and are “made strange” by social prejudices and stereotypes, Eliot’s novels teach readers to sympathize with those who are different and expose the “fiction” of “affliction”: disability is not a God-given affliction or personal tragedy, but a social problem inflicted upon disabled people. Though physically and statistically anomalous, disabled people feel and suffer like the rest of the “normal” population—they are not monsters but simply human beings who want to be accepted and respected.


End notes

  1. Eliot, G. The Mill on the Floss. London: Penguin, 1979.
  2. OED Online. “Queer” adj. 1a. Strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/156236?rskey=iaTqql&result=2&isAdvanced=false. Accessed Jan 25, 2017.
  3. OED Online. “Unked” adj. 1. Unknown, strange, lonely, dismal. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/214866?redirectedFrom=unked. Accessed Jan 25, 2017.
  4. Other disabled characters in George Eliot’s novels include the blind Bardo de’ Bardi and the deaf Monna Lisa in Romola, the intellectually disabled Jacob Faux in Brother Jacob, and Bartle Massey the lame schoolmaster in Adam Bede.
  5. Bourrier, K. Orthopaedic Disability and the Nineteenth-century Novel. Nineteenth Century Contexts: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 2014; 36(1):1-17.
  6. Stoddard-Holmes, M. Fictions of Affliction: physical disability in Victorian culture. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 2004.
  7. Russell, E. Reading Embodied Citizenship: Disability, Narrative, and the Body Politic. New Jersey; London: Rutgers University Press, 2011.
  8. Eliot, G. Natural History of German Life. In: Pinney, T, ed.Essays of George Eliot. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963: 266-299.
  9. Eliot, G. The Morality of Wilhelm Meister. In: Pinney, T, ed. Essays of George Eliot. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963: 143-7.
  10. Davis, L. Enforcing Normalcy: disability, deafness, and the body. London: Verso, 1995.
  11. Quetelet, A. Treatise on Man and the Development of His Faculties. Edinburgh: W & R Chambers, 1842.
  12. OED Online. “Norm” n. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/128266?rskey=QG168F&result=1&isAdvanced=false. Accessed Jan 25, 2017.
  13. OED Online. “Deform.” http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/48971?. Aaccessed Jan 25, 2017.
  14. Eliot, G. Silas Marner. London: Macmillan, 1909.
  15. Argyros, E. Without any check of proud reserve: sympathy and its limits in George Eliot’s novels. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.
  16. Albrecht, T. Sympathy and Telepathy: The Problem of Ethics in George Eliot’s ‘The Lifted Veil’, ELH, 2006, 73(2): 437-463.
  17. OED Online. “Sympathy.” http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/196271?rskey=ubsY9J&result=1&isAdvanced=false. Accessed Jan 25, 2017.
  18. Feuerbach, L., Eliot, G. The Essence of Christianity. New York: Harper, 1957.
  19. Cottom, D. Social Figures: George Eliot, Social History and Literary Representation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
  20. Dated July 1859. Haight, G. George Eliot Letters. London: Oxford University Press, 1954.



CHRISTINA LEE, BA, MA, graduated from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 2015 with a First in English Language and Literature. She then studied MA English 1850 to Present at King’s College London and graduated with Distinction in 2016. During her MA she developed an interest in the relationship between literature and medicine. Her dissertation was on the representation of disabled children in literature. She is currently applying for a PhD in Medical Humanities.


Winter 2017 |  Sections  |  Books & Reviews

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