Finding Oneself Vs. Losing Others: Ableism In Literary Discussion

By: Shayna Herszage  |  September 30, 2020

By Shayna Herszage

Since beginning my time at Yeshiva University, I have taken several courses that rely on classic literature for discussion. Over the semesters, one strange common thread has woven through them all at least once: the urge to diagnose literary characters.

The diagnoses given to classic fictional characters vary. Some of the diagnoses I have heard in class discussions include dissociative identity disorder (which some may know as multiple personality disorder), schizophrenia, and autism spectrum disorder. 

For example, in discussions of the often-assigned book “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, my classmates in past semesters have frequently ventured to diagnose Victor Frankenstein with autism spectrum disorder, particularly due to his detachment from other people and his way of describing, in chapter 1, his childhood friend, Elizabeth, such as describing his love for her as being like the love he would have for “a favorite animal.”

Diagnosis of fictional characters never sat well with me, but it was not until about a year ago that I realized why. More often than not, the literary discussions I have witnessed that featured diagnoses have been focused on characters that are morally gray at best, but most likely the villains of their stories — the likes of Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll (or, if you will, Mr. Hyde) from “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The fact that the villains, not the heroes, are the characters being diagnosed with disorders and disabilities begs a difficult question: what is the intention behind the diagnosis?

Often, we read because we want to see ourselves in the story. But what if a character is someone we do not want to see ourselves in? What if the character is strange, or morally gray, or different from how we wish to see ourselves? 

When such characters appear, many try to distance ourselves any way we can to protect self image. One way to distance the reader from the character is diagnosis — deciding the character has a specific disorder that can be interpreted as influencing their difference. But this seemingly harmless defense can become one that promotes ableism and stigmatization. The rampant diagnosing by neurotypical readers of literary villains or oddballs with disorders, particularly by those who lack the credentials to diagnose at all, acts against the many efforts today against stigma and ableism, such as Active Minds for mental illness and Autistic Self Advocacy Network for autism spectrum disorder. 

This is a problem for two main reasons. Firstly, reducing a character to their unofficial diagnosis may easily translate to reducing neurodivergent people to their diagnoses in real-life interactions. In diagnosing a character, a neurotypical person may view the character as little more than a disorder. With the character unofficially diagnosed with a disability or disorder, neurotypical readers may allow themselves to view the character as so different that they could not possibly find common ground. They often refrain, consciously or unconsciously, from finding the similarities that may be present  — the goals, the emotions, the likes and dislikes — because this newly diagnosed character is somehow defined by, and set apart from others by, the disorder. In doing so, the character loses their humanity — they are no longer a character or a person, only a diagnosis.

Additionally, the characters receiving said diagnoses from neurotypical readers are seldom the lovable protagonists who every reader roots for. Instead, the Victor Frankensteins and the Jekylls/Hydes receive the diagnoses. This pattern demonizes neurodivergent individuals beyond the limits of literature. When meeting someone with dissociative identity disorder for the first time, for example, a reader who previously diagnosed Jekyll/Hyde as such may see this new person, recall the evil rampages in the novel, and immediately label this person as inherently dangerous. However, this is incorrect for two reasons: Jekyll/Hyde does not have dissociative identity disorder in the novel (not only because it is not stated in the novel, but also because the splitting is clearly stated as being induced by Jekyll — and people with dissociative identity disorder do not change form, as Jekyll/Hyde did, when their alters take over their consciousness), and people with dissociative identity disorder are not inherently dangerous  — much less inherently evil as Hyde is intended to be. When strange or villainous characters are diagnosed with disorders, the stigma against the disorder in real life only grows.

Meanwhile, it is worth mentioning that neurodivergent readers may also feel an urge to diagnose a character, but with very different intentions. As previously said, readers often wish to see themselves in stories and characters. If a reader is neurodivergent and they see their neurodivergence in a character, the intentions are not backed by stigma and ableism, but by a sense of connection to a character. The same way neurotypical readers (or, for that matter, neurodivergent readers as well) may see other parts of themselves in a character, neurodivergent readers may see their neurodivergence in a character. Because that is what neurodivergence is  — a part of a person. Not one to be ignored as if it does not exist, but not one that obliterates all other qualities.

As this semester continues, and as future class discussions take place, I encourage neurotypical readers to consider their intentions when they wish to diagnose a character with a disorder. And to neurodivergent readers: continue finding yourself in literature, and remember that you are the protagonist of your story.