Disability is Not Inability: Representation of Disabilities in Poe’s “Hop-Frog”
Upon first reading, Edgar Allen Poe’s “Hop-Frog” appears to be a revenge tale that might leave the reader thinking that the victims of slavery end up as big as monsters as their captors after they exact their revenge and make their escape. According to John Carlos Rowe, Edgar Allan Poe’s “‘Hop-Frog’ tells the story of tyranny, slavery, and revolution” (78). However, through the lens of disability studies, “Hop-Frog” takes on new meaning as it adds another layer of representation to consider when one reads the story. Poe gives his characters with disabilities power and agency, in a way that challenges stereotypes people have about people with disability.
The same applies to the general representation and the notion that the physically handicapped and challenged people have limitations with regards to their movement, capability, have emotional problems and intellectually incapacitated. For example, Hop-Frog goes beyond this representation and the stereotypes to portray the positive attributes of the group and highlights that despite the biological limitations of the character, he strangely and cunningly plans a revenge on the King and the ministers. Therefore, this shows that despite physical or biological limitations, disability is not an inability because it is a socially constructed condition on how society treats and regards disabled and able-abled. Although “Hop-Frog” seems to have a dark, negative ending, the representation of people with disability is positive because the story demonstrates that disability is not inability, and even the topmost tear of society can be toppled by those in society viewed as having inabilities. “Hop-Frog” focuses on disfigured persons, centrally Hop-Frog, and how he takes revolts against the cruelty of his master. Despite being at the center of the story, the audience doesn’t recognize him as a person outside of his disability. Instead, the story conspicuously talks about slave uprising of which people with impairments or disabilities have been taken to play the role of metaphorical devices in literacy discourses by largely disregarding their realities. It is funny how the people at the court – the physically able-bodied – first laugh at Hop-Frog and Trippetta but, ultimately are unable to save the King and The Seven counselors from their horrific end. The people at the court laugh at Hop-Frog as the King says “come, Hop-Frog, lend us your assistance. Characters, my fine fellow; we stand in need of characters-all of us-ha!ha!ha! which the seven chorused in laughter to the serious joke” (Poe 902). Hop-Frog is an object for the court to jest at because of his disability, however their disability is looked over by readers.
The comparison between the two dwarfs – who are objects – and the people at the court (able-bodied) draws much and a lot of relevance with the studies spanning the criticism of disability as a language and a concept used in studies. It is the same with the criticism of disability studies. For instance, Parker notes that “social, personal and political implications underlying disability are expressively elided with the invoking of the physically different body” (367). In this same sense, how the two have been treated in the courtroom showcases the overlooking of deformity and disability underpinning the original category of monstrosity as discourses of ethnicity, race, and sexuality. Therefore, using the two characters, Poe has succeeded in tracing and overturning the inherently accepted conceptions of physical disability. This instance shifts from the model whereby disability is confined to a specific small population to the universalization model: “seeing queerness as something that everyone participates in” (367). How Hop-Frog tricks, chains, and burn the King in revenge shows Poe’s portrayal of disability as not inability and resonates with critical view that disability should not be implicitly viewed from the lens of the physical body but rather the attitude that society has towards queerness, or disability, because the people also have the same abilities as the physically abled bodies.
However, unhealthy stereotypes still pervade in society, which further denies Hop-Frog and Trippetta’s reality, and further objectifies them as the King does in the story. There is no doubt that people have preconceived judgments about people with disabilities. Parker lays the ground for defining stereotypes directed at people with disabilities. In one instance, the approach to understanding this area, or debate, revolves around defining the individuals based on their disabilities. Both in the roles (especially in writing) in “literacy plot and thoughts as it so appears in the literary work” (368 Parker). On the other hand, a different conception of disability regards the construct by reducing the individuals who have disabilities to the inspiration they provide.
Another of the major stereotypes is that people with disabilities are all the same. As Corey and Gerald note that “despite sharing the common concerns, it is a mistake to think of the individuals as all being the same” (200). Therefore, such stereotypes fail to consider diversity within this group. Other stereotypes around the group are that if one is experiencing a physical disability, then it is automatic that he or she is emotionally and mentally disabled. Furthermore, the concerns include taking the population has to have a limited capacity of being normal, entirely dependent on others and since they have their conditions, they “should have modest goals” (Corey and Gerald 200). Finally, “the notions that people with disabilities are perpetual children” (Marini et al. 37). This infantilization of people with disabilities automatically assumes that they cannot function as adults in society even if they are. It is clear that this is a problem attributed the social model of society. Especially undermining the understanding and recognition of the obstacles as well as material pain faced by people with disabilities. In essence, this model fails to recognize that there are the inherent stigmas attributed to queer people in the society which the social model barely incorporates. This is why Poe’s story is so important. It challenges those stigmas and stereotypes.
Despite the inherently evident stereotypes against people with disabilities, Poe uses Hop-Frog and Trippetta to highlight how the stereotypes are misinformed. He demonstrates the ability of individuals to overcome and challenge the preconceived negative judgments directed at the group. For one, the action of revenging themselves on the King highlights that the negative stereotypes that the individuals with disabilities are inherently “physically dependent on other people” (Corey and Gerald 200) is incorrect. Specifically, despite the minute physical body, Hop-Frog transcends into greater achievement, realization, and existence than the body could have allowed. The Ministers and the King had discounted Hop-Frog and Trippetta because of their physical bodies. In the same sense, with the conception that the two will not be able to transcendence to greater heights, they believed that they had no chance to do so. Conversely, Hop-Frog has been specifically used as a symbolism whereby Poe uses this motif to reinforce the characters strengthens and actions to represent that their disabilities prove to give ability to topple their captors. In this regard, it challenges the perceived notion that people with disabilities are unique in the manner they depend on other people physically and cannot transcendence to greater realization as compared to the normal people. These are what Parker refer as “social construct of disability” (367) which defines disability from the universalization model.
Hop-Frog and Trippetta challenges these social constructs. Hop-Frog is a dwarf, the kind who moves with an “interjectional gait and something between a leap and a wiggle” (Poe 900) of which he underwent or afforded the movement through serious pain and difficulty. Furthermore, the arms are defined as powerful and represented as compensating for the body as he ‘resembled a squirrel or a small monkey, more than a frog” (Poe 900). The King refutes his existence and occasionally underestimates him as a triplicate treasure which he usually laughs at. The events that unfold in the story show Hop-Frog proving everyone wrong that people with disabilities are not physically unable. For example, having been underrated on the ability to withstand wine, he eventually overcomes this limitation and gets ready to formulate a plan to take revenge for Trippeta, who had been assaulted by the King. In this case, it is a portrayal that challenges the usual notion that people with disability are incapable. It challenges a society that was programmed into believing that those with physical disabilities or limitations do not have the power to influence or change their situations. Also, it has been a case of debunking the stereotypical assertions regarding the people with disabilities as perpetual children, having an emotional and physical disability or limitations at the same time. How Hop-Frog challenges this norm is evident from the way in which the King was underscored the intellectual ability of Hop-Frog as he patiently said “having you nothing to suggest?” (Poe 902). It also challenges the notion that people with disabilities have emotional and intellectual limitations as Hop-Frog plans despite his physical limitation as a dwarf and successfully chains the entire team and torches them to death.
In summary, the short story Hop-Frog highlights how Poe gives his characters with disabilities power, in a way that contests stereotypes people have about people with disability. The same applies to the general representation and the notion that the physically handicapped and challenged people have limitations with regards to their movement, capability, have emotional problems and intellectually incapacitated. For example, Hop-Frog goes beyond this representation and the stereotypes to portray the positive attributes of the group and highlights that despite the biological limitations of the character, he strangely and cunningly plans a revenge on the King and the Ministers. Hence, this shows that despite physical or biological limitations, disability is not an inability because it is a socially constructed condition on how society treats and regards disabled and able-abled. Although “Hop-Frog” seems to have a dark, negative ending, the representation of people with disability is positive because the story demonstrates that disability is not inability, and even the topmost tear of society can be toppled by those in society viewed as having inabilities.
Corey, Marianne Schneider, and Gerald Corey. Becoming a helper. Cengage Learning, 2015.
Marini, Irmo, Noreen M. Glover-Graf, and Michael Jay Millington. Psychosocial aspects of disability: Insider perspectives and strategies for counselors. Springer Publishing Company, 2011.
Parker, Robert D. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies.New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Poe, Allen Edgar. Edgar Allen Poe’s Poetry and Tales. The Library of America. 1984. 899-908.Rowe, John Carlos. “Edgar Allan Poe’s Imperial Fantasy and the American Frontier.” Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race (2001): 75-105.
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