Apr 5, 2007

Diagnosing Mr. Darcy

According to a new critical study, the hero of Pride and Prejudice had Asperger's syndrome.
Jane Austen is apparently not alone in unwittingly describing autism in her novels. Characters as diverse as the monster from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Sherlock Holmes have been placed on the autistic spectrum. Does this help us understand the books better? I'm afraid not - having a neat medical tick box in which to place a character and understand them detracts from, rather than adds to, what the story is trying to tell us. The most obvious example of this is Herman Melville's Bartleby. The pallid scrivener's eccentric behaviour in Melville's eponymous novella has given rise to critical speculation - most recently in a 2004 MLA paper - that the character is an "autistic presence". You can see why Bartleby's strange, persistent behaviour and refusals - "I would prefer not to" - suggests autism. And yet, at the risk of sounding heartless, it matters not one jot to the story if Bartleby is or is not autistic. Bartleby, as much as his strangeness and remoteness engages us, is just a cipher in this story. As the title itself tells us Bartleby the Scrivener is not the story of a man but A Story of Wall Street. This is a story about a society that alienates as much as it is a story about an individual who is alienated.

Actually, I thought Bartleby had OCD.

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