Stuttering in Fiction

Dysfluencies bookA review of Chris Eagle's book Dysfluencies: On Speech Disorders in Modern Literature 

Ken Kesey’s 1963 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – made into an award-winning movie – is perhaps the best known example featured in a new book titled Dysfluencies. Researcher Chris Eagle’s topic is “the ways in which disorders of speech and language are understood by modern writers and represented in modern literature” and discusses works of fiction and poetry that depict characters with stuttering, aphasia, and Tourette’s syndrome.

Mind or body?

Eagle is interested in how “the portrayal of disordered speech accords with the medical knowledge of the time.” Prior to the 19th Century such conditions would be attributed to mechanical failings of the mouth or tongue, or perhaps the will of God. Research by surgeons Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke discovered the role of neurology in speech and language production, and the cause of impairments could be traced to lesions or trauma to certain parts of the brain.  

the “holists” looked at psychological rather than anatomical factors in speech disorders

But the burgeoning field of psychology, pioneered by Sigmund Freud and others, challenged this notion of purely mechanical causes. The psychological realm, they stated, played a significant role. Two schools with conflicting approaches emerged:  the “materialists” who attributed the disorders to brain processing; and the “holists” who looked at psychological factors. The psychological interpretation, and the works of Freud, influenced the depiction of stuttering in most works of fiction for the next century. Throughout the book Eagle quotes speech pathologists to demonstrate how their theories are reflected in works of fiction of the time.

Wilfred Owen

Trauma-induced stuttering

War poet Wilfred Owen had a slight stutter that became amplified when he was sent into prolonged front line combat in the First World War. Hospitalized for shell-shock in 1917, it was Owen’s experience of his speech breakdown that prompted him to start to seriously write poetry. Dysfluency was so prevalent among distressed soldiers that there was a name for it: “war stammering.”

In Owen’s work, stuttering became a metaphor for the indescribable horrors he witnessed in the trenches, a breakdown of language in the face of death and destruction that could not be understood by those who had not lived it. He died on the battlefield just months before the war ended.

Ken Kesey

Freud's Oedipal theories

The stutterer in One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest, Billy, is a patient in a psychiatric institution. For Eagle he is the epitome of the weak, ineffectual post-war male. Murphy, the gregarious con who opts for the mental ward to get out of going to prison, fills the role of Billy’s absent father figure, and contrasts with the atrocious maternal figure of Nurse Ratched. The Freudian idea that stuttering is exacerbated by domineering women is apparent here.

Eagle also looks at novels by Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Robert Graves and the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. In these examples stuttering can be seen as a metaphor for social alienation, Oedipal desires, weak character and sexual repression, and culminate in acts of violence.

In Roth's novel, stuttering is a way of resisting social norms

Stuttering as a metaphor for political voice

Violence, in fact, is even more of an issue in the novels featuring female protagonists who stutter. Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral introduces Merry, a precocious and politically involved girl who challenges her parents and objects to the Vietnam War. Her confrontational personality prompts her friend to call her “the angriest girl in America.” In contrast to the earlier depictions of men who stutter she is not silenced or made weak by her stuttering – in fact, it is a way of “resisting social norms” and integral to her personality. She ends up planting bombs as part of her protest, prompting her uncle to say “Since she was a kid, every word she spoke was a bomb.” Along a similar vein, Australian Gail Jones’ novel Sorry features a female character who stutters who becomes involved in the rights of the disenfranchised Aboriginal population, and kills her own father when she finds him raping their maid.

American Pastoral

Gender and stuttering

Eagle draws a distinction between the male and female experience of stuttering as they are depicted in these works of literature. For both genders stuttering is seen as undermining traditional social expectations, where men are expected to be authoritative and women to be demure.  Men experience dysfluency internally, a “trope of self-repression”, whereas women find themselves externally repressed by society.

Stigmas and stereotypes

Chris Eagle addresses the “predominantly metaphorical purpose behind most literary representations of disordered speech,” and the way these metaphors can be stigmatizing and uphold stereotypes. Likewise speech disorders can also be “glorified” as a way to “disrupt language” and reveal it’s fundamentally imperfect nature. In the book’s rather heavy conclusion, contemporary linguistic concepts and literary theories regarding dysfluency are introduced.

Chris Eagle is a mysterious character… other than his place of teaching and the titles of his two previous texts, there is no online information about him. If he is not a person who stutters himself he is certainly empathetic to what he calls “the lived experience of speech pathology,” and his book Dysfluencies is an excellent read for those interested in the topics of disability studies as it pertains to speech disorders, medical approaches to it, modern literature and literary theory.


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