112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Freakish Bodies: Poe's "Hop-Frog" and the Spectacle of Difference and Disability

Amanda Kong, University of California, Davis

Critics have ignored the key element of disability in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog,” choosing instead to focus on representations of race and American economics. Reading the tale as a version of the American freak show, “Hop-Frog” operates as an interpellation of able-bodies even as it desires to overturn dominant ideology.


Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog” title character enacts an ingenious revenge plot as “both a dwarf and a cripple” in the fiery death scene of a cruel tyrant and his advisors (Poe, Poetry, Tales, and Collected Essays, p. 899). Historically, this tale has been read as both racist and anti-slavery, drawing upon Poe’s inflated biography to support these claims. Recent efforts to integrate Poe into the literary canon have made the case that “Hop-Frog” blends together popular fictional genres of the early 19th century and topical political rhetoric to create what might qualify as an example of Keats’ negative capability. These readings argue that the story uses sensationalist, Gothic, and what critic Terence Whalen calls an “average racism” in order to disguise a tale about the author enslaved by economic pressures—what Poe saw as a result of the changing landscape of America as political and economic forces joined during the boom of the magazine industry (Whalen, Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses, p. 30). However as critics, including Whalen, have explored ambivalences in this Poe tale, linking them to anxieties and trends in the 19th century context, the extreme descriptions of physical bodies and disabilities have been overlooked.

By investigating how the body is constructed and represented in “Hop-Frog,” a key set of 19th century cultural conventions is revealed, including the intersection of race, animality, and disability. The overt racialized elements that critics have problematized are inextricably tied to 19th century America’s treatment of disability, exemplified by the rise of traveling freak shows. Utilizing research by William M. Etter in 19th century physicality and Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s investigation of the freak show in her book Extraordinary Bodies, I demonstrate that “Hop-Frog” operates as a scripted freak show, emphasizing the importance of spectacle in the interpellation of American citizens. Through this lens, “Hop-Frog’s” ambiguities exemplify an attempt to resist dominant ideology and a helpless succumbing to it—and make plain the persistent ableism in its critical reception.