Disability in Three Australian Gothic Novels: The Well, Sing Fox to Me and Lilian’s Story


The Gothic lends itself to critical examinations of disabled embodiment, yet this genre has ‘hitherto been largely ignored’ by disability studies scholars (Gregory 291). This essay redresses this omission by exploring disability in three Australian Gothic novels: Elizabeth Jolley's The Well (1986), Sarah Kanake's Sing Fox to Me (2016), and Kate Grenville's Lilian’s Story (1985). On initial glance, The Well and Lilian’s Story conform to the use of disability in the Gothic as a metaphor for social and psychological deviance. However, closer inspection of these novels and Sing Fox to Me demonstrates their resistance to the Gothic’s typical use of disability in phobic ways. Hester’s disability in The Well enables her to transcend the gender prescriptions of her patriarchal Australian community, even if it is initially constructed as a physiological sign of her disturbing possessiveness over Katherine. Against the ‘dramatic and unforgiving natural settings’ of the Tasmanian Gothic (Bullock 72), Sing Fox to Me interweaves Samson’s experience of Down syndrome with perennial themes of the genre including familial haunting and the intersection of past and present. Similar to The Well, Lilian’s Story shows the politically transformative nature of disabled embodiment, wherein the titular character’s fatness and ‘madness’ allow her to achieve self-realisation while defying the gender norms of her time. Ultimately, the three novels suggest that the use of disabled characters in some contemporary Australian Gothic narratives is clearing space for less-stereotypical portrayals of corporeal and psychological variation in this genre.

On initial inspection, the exploration of non-normative corporealities psychological estrangement and social marginality in the Gothic would appear to lend itself naturally to considerations of disabled embodiment and experience. This is partly attributable to the overrepresentation of ‘blind, mad, lame, crippled, and unusually embodied’ characters in classic Western literature (Garland-Thomson 523). Despite this, Martha Stoddard Holmes finds that disability remains ‘undertheorized by literary scholars’ of the Gothic at the same time as its texts are ‘overdetermined by a plethora of representations’. Alan Gregory shares Holmes’ sentiment, arguing that the genre ‘has hitherto been largely neglected’ by disability studies scholars even though ‘monstrous and unusual bodies’ are everywhere in its literature (291). The scarcity of critical disability scholarship on Gothic texts raises concerns about the relationship between fictional representation and reality. With its often ‘uncomfortable conflation of disability with monstrosity’ (Gregory 292), Gothic texts can perpetuate negative stereotypes of non-normative embodiment…

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Published 23 May 2022 in Special Issue: Writing Disability in Australia. Subjects: Gothic, Elizabeth Jolley, Kate Grenville, Disabled characters, Down syndrome.

Cite as: Shek-Noble, Liz. ‘Disability in Three Australian Gothic Novels: The Well, Sing Fox to Me and Lilian’s Story.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.a3d9c712dd.