Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



In this dissertation, I argue for a renewed approach to realist texts that rely on conventional perspective and minor characters in their representation of intellectually disabled characters. While disability studies' concepts like narrative prosthesis and the normate have done essential work in arguing for the need for disability's representation from the perspective of the disabled, these ideologies have also negatively influenced the critical reception of texts that do not respond to this need in an immediate or obvious way. By offering new readings of novels with disabled characters whose representations have been frequently questioned, my aim is to complicate the critical bias that assumes the realist text will always negatively represent the disabled. Through new intepretations of several canonical texts—Willa Cather's My Ántonia, Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge, Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener," and Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent—I argue that certain realist authors represent disability through a complex and dialectical form of mimesis, what I theorize as the making of aesthetic nervousness. Rendering nervous the textual elements of perspective, characterization, and embodiment, the authors in this study remap the encounter between nondisabled and disabled, normal and abnormal experience, not by unfairly privileging the normate, but instead by developing transformative potential within it. Through their representations of disability, these realist texts reveal how the encounter with disability may involve an aesthetic nervousness that alters the formal conventions of the text, gesturing toward the need for them to be remade in such a way that considers how to integrate and represent the other. Redefining the determined experience of the normate as one that is more fluid and indeterminate, my readings of the realist text recast the nervousness of the nondisabled subject as a consciousness of a newly-formed ethic, one that demands witnessing the aesthetics of disability and consequently reimagining (and remaking) the conditions of narrative that ignore, misinterpret, or silence the disabled voice.



Committee Chair

Kronick, Joseph



Available for download on Tuesday, July 29, 2025