Women and disability: Before and after feminism

A story with a title as straight-forward and prominent as “Dingle the Fool” should be decidedly easy to discern and understand. However in my opinion when Elizabeth Jolley wrote her short story it wasn’t so much about Dingle and his disability, but more so about women and their role as caretaker of the disabled before the feminist movement and after. Where as one sister projects the image of women before suffrage and the old fashioned ways, the other is the embodiment of the ‘new’, modern woman. Dingle, the disabled brother, fits into the middle because not only does the role of the woman change but also her responsibilities to her family and herself. She wrote this short story in 1971, and while the feminist movement was working to enable women in all areas of the workforce she stayed a bit old-fashioned in her ways. In a way I believe Jolley has unintentionally (or intentionally, I’m not sure) projected herself as Deirdre, the ‘new’, modern woman as Joanna, and Dingle provides to encompass not just the disabled but the idea of the family as a whole.

Jolley has experience dealing with disabled people for not only was she a nurse in her younger years during the war, but her own husband (whom she met as a nurse) became an invalid in their later years together. “As he has got older, his illness has caught up again with him. He’s an invalid now.”(Willbanks, 1991). She had a strong sense of family obligation just as Deirdre did. Deirdre, the elder sister, stayed committed to the promise she made her mother that she would ‘Always look after Dingle’(Milech, 1997) and one of her main concerns with moving was how Dingle would adapt to it. “And of course the house with the big tangled garden was the only world Dingle could have…How would Dingle be on a new housing estate where no one knew or understood him?” (Milech, 1997). People used to Dingle knew of his odd tendency to try and ‘share’ his happiness, which he believed was within the confines of his tennis ball. They go by the lines of the social/cultural model and ‘accept’ Dingle’s happiness because it is their way of understanding him; they put him on the level of a child.  Deirdre herself was old fashioned in a way as “Joanna had a little pram but Deirdre carried her son, his dark fuzzy head nestled against the creamy skin of her plump neck” (Milech, 1997). Jolley herself stated “I can’t do any writing until I’ve got my house things in order and I know what I’m going to cook for dinner” (Willbanks, 1991). For this she said the feminists didn’t care much for her:

 ‘A woman once said to me, “Why ever are you making Horlicks for your son?” She was visiting in the evening And I had said, “Excuse me, I must go make my son Ovaltine,” that’s what it was, not Horlicks, and she said, “Couldn’t he make it himself?” He was fifteen. I said, “Yes, he can, but I like to take it in to him.” That was my feeling for my boy.’ (Willbanks, 1991).

She accommodated her schedule around her family even though she did work.

Though the story is told in third person, I get a good impression of the characters by how they act and what they say. Joanna, the younger sister, came across as though she didn’t really care for Dingle, at least not in the way Deirdre does. She was the one who pushed to get a new house, to sell the land because she had an obsession with attaining an electric kitchen. “Joanna longed for a modern house on one of the estates. She had magazines full of glossy pictures and often sat looking at them.” (Milech, 1997). As stated, “Freddy and Joanna had more money” so in essence they were the ones who could make the real decisions about finances. Joanna could afford a ‘pram’- a one-piece outfit for infants, designed as cold weather outerwear- for her daughter to wear, Freddy was able to keep his job while Spiro was unsteady with work, Joanna was pretty and young. In being the younger I believe Joanna cannot be entirely blamed for coming across as so spoiled. She had a future planned out for herself, she wanted bigger, better things and was most likely accustomed to getting what she wanted. Throughout the whole story it appears that Joanna herself has limited communication with Dingle. Deirdre is the one who constantly thinks of him, is the one who comforts him and at the end, she is the first and only one to mention him as they try to get out of the house as it burns down.

Dingle being disabled isn’t so much something to address any kind of illness or call to attention any kind of cognitive impairment, but I believe this was the best way Jolley could fit the idea of commitment to family with the growing change of women’s roles. The men were already out of the home for the most part and unconcerned with Dingle, so it was up to the women, his sisters, to care for him. But as the times change, so do the responsibilities and expectations of the household. If Dingle had been normal, selling the house might not have been such a big deal. He could have gone off and found his own love and lived his life separately from his sisters with his share of the land. However, since he is disabled he relies on them being there to care for him. Though this is not to the extent they need to be with him all the time. As the medical/charity model explains, he is expected to show some type of ability to take care of himself and ‘live with’ his disability which, for the most part, he has. Joanna wants to move to a bigger house, become more industrialized and independent of her family. Dingle is not on the top of her list of priorities. Deirdre is the one who weighs the pros and cons and thinks always of Dingle in the midst of everything that happens. She wants to be there to take care of him, even though at one point she wishes him dead to ease the burden of his life, but she soon regrets the thought. Deirdre is the one who would stay home and take care of the family, take care of Dingle, but the future of women is Joanna, who wants to go out and create a better life for herself.

 In essence neither woman is wrong in what they want, as Spiro says “It is the wanting that matters,” (Milech,1997) but in the end, Joanna’s strong sense of wanting has broken the family; Dingle is put in an institution where he knows no one, and there’s not even grass outside his window. Deirdre herself isn’t free from blame either as she realizes, she made Dingle give up everything; his home, his ‘world’, where he was safe, his happiness. Because by seeing her sad, thinking he could share his happiness he cuts his tennis ball in half and realizes that there is no happiness.

Works Cited

 Willbanks, Will. Australian Voices: Writers and Their Work. Austin. U of Texas P. 1991. Print.

Milech, Barbara. “Dingle the Fool: by Elizabeth Jolley.” Fellow Passengers: Collected Stories. Melbourne: Penguin, 1997. 16 pp. Litmed.med.nyu.edu. Web. 27 Jan. 2000.

One thought on “Women and disability: Before and after feminism

  1. Skylar, this is a very interesting perspective on the triangle of relationships in “Dingle the Fool”. I agree that these two women do seem to be representative of two opposing ideologies and your assertion that these ideologies are from the feminist movements of the 1970’s appears to be very grounded in the text. I might argue however that Jolley is not depicting these two ideologies as equally as you have suggested. Joanna’s depiction as the seductress of her brother in law ,as well as her lack of interest in Dingle, seems to suggest a decline in morality. Joanna’s main concern in this short story seems to be to have fun. All of her decisions about the new house are guided by her desire to enjoy herself and do what she wants to do, this is why she has such a seeming diregard for her brother. It is not that she hates her brother but that she is simply too self absorbed.

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