Theses Doctoral

Animal Abilities: Disability, Species Difference, and American Literary Experimentation

Bowen, Elizabeth

Disability and animality have frequently been conjoined in American literature as the limit cases of cognition, language, and narrative. In modern and contemporary fiction, this intersection is not just thematic, but also an opportunity for formal experimentation. My dissertation considers a century-spanning group of authors that includes William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and contemporary disabled writers and artists such as Jillian Weise, Kathy High, and Sharona Franklin. It uses a combination of close reading, historical research, and theoretical analysis to argue that some of the last century’s most influential literary experiments have built upon aesthetic modes associated with both disability and animality. For instance, in The Sound and the Fury, Benjy Compson’s famously associative narration is driven as much by canine-identified sensory tendencies of smell and touch as it is by human cognitive difference, and the folkloric interludes central to Their Eyes Were Watching God are catalyzed by the work-debilitated body of a mule. Few scholars have recognized the extent to which disability and animality are entangled as aesthetic categories, because each field has typically disavowed the other: disability studies makes “full humanity” a goal while assuming the inferiority of nonhumans, and animal studies often elevates nonhuman species by emphasizing their intelligence and physical abilities. My project bridges this impasse by showing how disability and animality come together to push language and literature in new directions, revealing an unrecognized literary tradition in which narratorial capacity, ethical consideration, and even access to the text do not depend on supposedly human-defining abilities like spoken language and written literacy.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Adams, Rachel E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 19, 2020