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Monday, 23 April 2012

Blindness in Fiction (1): Star Gazing

Novels featuring blind protagonists are surprisingly rare. Of course there are countless blind characters in fiction but they tend to be minor figures like the blind man in Amelie. They are not of interest for their own sake but only for what their blindness tells us about plot, meaning or other characters. This is in part because blindness is always on the verge of becoming metaphorical. It is also because the blind are always subject to the intrusive gaze of the seeing other. Sighted writers and readers are used to staring at blind characters. The blind beggar in Flaubert's Madame Bovary is such an example. He is not a character of any substance in his own right. Instead he is a hideous caricature who functions both to undermine Emma's romantic dreams and to emphasise Homais's blend of self-satisfaction and condescension.

I am finding it difficult to find novels where a character's blindness is treated as an incidental detail rather than as their novelistic raison d'etre. But recently I came across a novel which looks at blindness in a completely different way.

Star Gazing by Linda Gillard is a love story featuring blind protagonist Marianne. The novel's narrative perspective is shared between Marianne, her (sighted) sister and the (sighted) third-person narrator. The beauty of this novel lies in the fact that Marianne is allowed to talk about her blindness in a wonderfully frank and matter-of-fact way. She is not afraid to confront the reader with their own misconceptions about blindness from the first pages of the novel. Unlike the vast majority of descriptions of blind people (either real or fictional), Marianne is not depicted as a tragic or courageous figure. She does not elicit pity or sorrow. She is sharp, articulate, inventive and slightly cantankerous.  Her life is just as full as a sighted person's. Her descriptions of how she navigates outside are particularly striking. The attention she pays to the smells and sounds she encounters on her walks through Edinburgh inspired me to pay much closer attention to non-visual clues as I walk (or run) around Oxford. Marianne's accounts of the world, like Cheryl Krueger's magnificent Parisian smellscape, shows us that sight is not necessary in order to interact with the world.

There are some problems with this book. Marianne's stubborn refusal to use her white cane in some situations suggests she is not yet proud of her blindness. Indeed the fact that she worries that her unborn child will inherit her condition suggests that on some level she has internalised the widely held believe that blindness is a tragedy.

But despite this, Star Gazing manages to present blindness as an exciting, even enriching state. Anyone faced with sight loss, or curious about what life without sight is like, should read this book.

With thanks to literatea for telling me about this book.


  1. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of my novel. (I'm the author.) I'd like to take issue with your interpretation of Marianne's feelings about her blindness.

    She explains on p.20 why she doesn't always use her cane: "One of the reasons I don’t use my cane as much as I should is because I don’t like to advertise to the world that I’m blind. I’m vulnerable enough on the streets as a woman without letting criminals and perverts of all denominations know that I’m easy prey." (She lives in Edinburgh and later on in the book her sister is mugged in the street.)

    Nor does Marianne believe at any level that blindness is a tragedy. On the contray, she says, "Blindness is just a series of practical problems for which one eventually finds a solution. I don’t consider myself handicapped, except by others’ views of me." (p.38)

    As for fearing her baby will be blind, she knows this is extremely unlikely and explains why to Keir. (p.257) He would have to be a carrier for LCA - a 1 in 200 chance.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments Linda. It is a pleasure to (virtually) meet you.
      I can completely understand Marianne's desire not to appear vulnerable. Until very recently I resisted using a white cane for precisely these same reasons. But after a number of incidents not unlike the one with which the book opens, I started using a cane and it has been a complete revelation to me. Even in some distinctly dodgy areas of Paris I have felt much, much safer with my cane than without. Rather than making me feel vulnerable, it has made me feel much more protected. See my blog post 'White Cane Magic' for more on this. I love the fact that Marianne approaches blindness as a series of practical problems and I think the book is a wonderful demonstration of how it is society's labelling which is the problem.
      The question of Marianne's unborn baby is more complicated. My eye condition, coloboma, can also be passed on and so I have spent a lot of time thinking about the ethics behind this. Can you imagine Marianne ever wishing that her baby was born with her condition? That for me would be an indication that she is able to completely embrace her blindness and see it as a positive thing which gives her access to things which sighted people do not have. I have been working very hard lately to celebrate my own low vision. Neither of my children has inherited my condition but I like to think that I would not be upset if they had.
      If you have read the rest of my blog you will know that I am beginning a research project on representations of blindness in literature. This started as nineteenth-century French literature but it is expanding to embrace contemporary fiction as well. I would love to have a dialogue with you about this. I am very interested in the ways in which the non visual is depicted in literature, especially by a sighted writer for a sighted audience. Please do let me know if you'd like to continue this dialogue.

  2. I would love to enter into dialogue with you about this, Hannah, as the whole subject of disability interests me. (I grew up with a physically disabled father.) When I was researching STAR GAZING I found it difficult to find anything written by the congenitally blind so I used memoirs written by those who'd lost their sight, which wasn't the same at all. But I did find John M Hull's non-fiction books fascinating, wonderfully written and full of insight. (He lost his sight gradually.)

    I don't think Marianne would have been sorry if her baby had inherited her condition (although as a mother surely one always worries about job prospects?) but she didn't think it was going to happen. I think she would have been very concerned on Keir's behalf - she didn't even want to tell him about the baby for fear of being a burden - but of course she underestimated him. (Throughout the book, the reader has a better understanding of what's really going on than Marianne does! Marianne is more disabled by fear of loss than blindness.)

    You might be interested to know that when I set out to write this book I was approaching it from a "disabled" point of view, by which I mean, I saw the book as an experiment in limitation. I was going to reduce (I thought) the palette of colours I could paint with. I would be testing the reader's patience by removing (largely) the visual element from the story.

    As I wrote, I realised I could not have been more wrong. What Marianne's blindness did for me was open up a new and richer world and I realised how very limited my writing had been hitherto, with its almost exclusive focus on the visual. By the time I'd finished the book, I felt my writing had been enriched & changed permanently. (I can show you a piece of writing from a subsequent novel UNTYING THE KNOT which is like it is because of the "blind" writing I did in SG.)

    I didn't know if readers would feel the same way, but I soon discovered they did. They feel the book allows them to experience a new and richer sensory world. They realise the truth of Keir's words: "It's not you with the limited perception, Marianne. Folk who can see just don't seem to *look*."

    I would love to pursue our dialogue, but I'm about to go into hospital for major surgery. I will eventually get back to you if you email me at: info AT lindagillard DOT co DOT uk.