For a long time I’ve been struggling to articulate why muteness as a literary device bothers me so much. Disability as metaphor is always problematic: using blindness and deafness as proxies for ignorance slights the cognitive capacities of actual, non-fictional people who are blind and deaf; physical disability as grotesqueness, as a symbol of moral, spiritual, and intellectual deficit or a signifier of horror and dread, casts physical perfection as the default for sympathetic characters and as an unattainable prerequisite for full humanity. But what is it about muteness that makes it such an appealing device? Where do writers get the idea that not speaking, for any of a variety of reasons, equates simply to a vocal tract unable to produce sound? And why does it make me so excessively cranky?

It was Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife that finally put this thing into perspective for me. The titular character is actually deaf also; but she’s not just a “deaf-mute” (Obreht’s term) in the classic, minimally offensive sense that she doesn’t use spoken language. Rather, she’s described repeatedly as “silent,” and, when beaten, she doesn’t “cry out in fear or pain” (p 211 of my paperback edition).

Let’s take a quick detour into the reality of this. Deafness is a condition that affects the ear or auditory nerve; essentially, it’s a limitation on auditory input. Deafness may co-occur with abnormalities of the vocal tract or with other, e.g. neurological, conditions that make speech difficult; but in most cases (I’ve seen the figure 60%) deafness does not co-occur with any other disability.

Generally people who are deaf find it difficult to hear other people speaking. That seems like a pretty obvious, defining element of deafness, but it tends to get lost in a lot of people’s responses to deafness; more on this below. Also, people who are deaf generally find it difficult to produce spoken language. This is not because they cannot make sounds with their vocal tracts. Instead, it’s for two reasons: it’s difficult to learn a language that you have sharply limited access to (i.e., one that you can’t hear well), and it’s difficult to learn to produce the sounds of a language intelligibly when you can’t hear your own voice. As a result of all this, some deaf people use signed languages. If you spend time with people who sign, you’ll notice it’s pretty quiet, because they’re mostly not speaking. Also, deaf people raised in situations of deprivation may lack language, spoken or signed; this may be relevant for Obreht’s character.

So, a “deaf-mute” in Obreht’s sense is a deaf person who doesn’t use spoken language; this is an established sense of “mute.” Yes, we would expect her to be pretty quiet, mostly. But there is no earthly reason to expect that she wouldn’t laugh, or sob, or yell in pain, or vocalize to get someone’s attention. And that’s not even getting into the fact that hearing loss is, medically, a continuum, so a “deaf” person may actually hear and produce spoken language to some extent.

So why does Obreht insist on her character’s total silence?

Because the tiger’s wife is a sympathetic character. That’s why she’s not ugly, and that’s why Obreht can’t tolerate the thought of her grunting unintelligibly. The reality of a deaf person is so distasteful to Obreht that she takes more away from the character in an attempt to shoehorn her into a positive portrayal. But the result is not a human character. She’s nameless, she’s voiceless; she lacks the language that makes us human. Her sexuality is animal, not human: her human husband beats her, but can’t bring himself to have sex with her; as a result, she’s childless, saving Obreht the squeamish necessity of portraying her in an agentive human relationship; and finally her husband is replaced by a more fitting spouse, an actual animal.

As a less-than-human character, the tiger’s wife has an essentially unknowable mind. That’s the true significance of her voicelessness: in the absence of a way to make her mind known, the existence of that mind is called into question. Her humanity is mediated by the characters who interpret it for us, and as a result, only the effect on the mediating character survives. The deafness is irrelevant, because a deaf person’s access to language produces effects only in the mind of the deaf person–a mind that is absent from Obreht’s narrative. What’s relevant is her voicelessness, because that’s what Obreht’s human characters can perceive, and that’s what Obreht chooses to portray. The poignancy of the tiger’s wife never even understanding the circumstances of her marriage, let alone having control over them? Meh, who cares. Her husband’s rage at her for not crying out when beaten, which causes him to continue beating her? Now that’s some interesting human experience, Obreht says. Let’s try to get inside the hearing person’s mind a little more.

Random mute homeless guy in Castle Waiting? Has an unknowable, and possibly diseased, mind. Not deaf–that would foreground his experience; instead, we get, “we don’t really know what his deal is, but who cares.”

The mute girl in Murakami’s The Secret Library? She’s a figment, not a human.

The mute main character in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle? We see lots of his internal life. He also has some kind of mystical understanding of dogs. And he’s not deaf–that would force the people around him to make some sort of realistic accommodation.

All of these stand as barriers to learning, as a society, to include disability in our conception of human experience. Can we start working on that?