Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 37, Issue 4, pp 587–600 | Cite as

Curing “Moral Disability”: Brain Trauma and Self-Control in Victorian Science and Fiction

  • Brandy L. SchillaceEmail author
Original Paper


While, historically, the disabled body has appeared in literature as “monstrous,” burgeoning psychological theories of the Victorian period predicated an unusual shift. In a culture of sexual anxiety and fears of devolution and moral decay, the physically disabled and “weak” are portrayed as strangely free from moral corruption. Unlike the cultural link between deviance and disability witnessed in the medical literature and eugenic approach to generation, authors of narrative fiction—particularly Charles Dickens, but Wilkie Collins, Charlotte Yonge, and others as well—portray disabled characters as “purified,” and trauma itself as potentially sanitizing. This present paper argues that such constructions were made possible by developments in the treatment of insanity. “Curing ‘Moral Disability’: Brain Trauma and Self-Control in Victorian Fiction,” examines the concept of trauma-as-cure. Throughout the Victorian period, case studies on brain trauma appeared in widely circulated journals like the Lancet, concurrently with burgeoning theories about psychological disturbance and “moral insanity.” While not widely practiced until the early twentieth century, attempts at surgical “cures” aroused curiosity and speculation—the traumatic event that could free sufferers from deviance. This work provides a unique perspective on representations of disability as cure in the nineteenth century as a means of giving voice to the marginalized, disabled, and disempowered.


Eugenics Disability Moral insanity Monomania Charles Dickens Trauma Cure 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyCase Western Reserve UniversityClevelandUSA

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