Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Talia Schaffer

Committee Members

Caroline Reitz

Wayne Koestenbaum

Karen Bourrier

Subject Categories

History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies | Literature in English, British Isles | Women's Studies


disability, queer, Victorian, narratology, gender, sexuality


This dissertation theorizes a new mode of reading, narrative side-stepping, that reveals how disabled characters provide a unique opportunity for non-normative narratives. In insisting on the narratological innovations that disability affords, I revise both Lennard Davis’s notion that the novel form valorizes normalcy and David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s theory of narrative prosthesis, which claims that disability is a crutch, and that disabled characters are merely metaphors and/or plot devices. I move beyond these theories to focus instead on the more complicated ways that authors represented disability and used disabled characters to critique societal and narrative norms. I think about the novel beyond the confines of narratological normalcy, exploring how it can accommodate, instead of exclude, disabled characters and plots. Far from being a limiting narratological feature, disability actually enables experimental narrative forms. To explore side-stepping, I focus on female characters with mobility impairments in Victorian novels and theorize the concept of (im)mobility, which encompasses an entire spectrum of movements, including limping, hopping, skipping, dancing, and skating, as well as digestive, cellular, microbial, non-human, and plant movement. By taking these disabled characters, their plots, and their narrative side-steps seriously, we can observe that the novel form often contains multiple possible worlds, some of which allow for disabled lives to flourish.

Female characters with mobility impairments in Victorian novels have often been read as static and stereotypical: excessively feminine, pious, unmarried, asexual, happily lying still on a sofa. But in fact, Victorian authors more frequently used female characters with mobility impairments to boldly challenge Victorian ideas about disability, gender, sexuality, marriage, cure, and mobility. Specifically, this project will offer readings of Madeline Neroni in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers (1857), Ermine Williams in Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family (1865), Maria Young in Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook (1839), Lucy Yolland in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), Miserrimus Dexter in Collins’s The Law and the Lady (1875), Jenny Wren in Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865), and Geraldine Underwood in Yonge’s The Pillars of the House (1873). Instead of reading these disabled characters as failing to achieve normative narrative markers of progress, we can instead read them as side-stepping them, which allows us to embrace their unexpected—but equally significant—forms of narrative movement. In doing so, I theorize a queer-crip narratology that rejects the structures of normalcy; beyond the narratology of normalcy, there is a new way of reading.

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