It may startle some, but people in a few countries still banish cleft lip and palate kids to back rooms due to beliefs, like those espoused in the Old Testament, that clefts have been touched by Satan and made imperfect and impure.
Even in more recent times, great writers have promulgated backward beliefs regarding deformities. Shakespeare’s ruthless protagonist in Richard III, for example, convinced audiences for centuries that Satan had touched deformed people.
A while ago I came across a piece called The Deformed Hero that nicely describes the plight of the deformed. I’ve tried to discover the author, but the link is dead. (Help me out if you know so I can give proper credit.)
“Society has always placed a high premium on physical beauty. The plight of the ‘ugly’, ‘deformed’ and ‘unusual’ therefore has a poignancy which as fascinated writers and audiences alike. It is not the objective ugliness which has concerned them, however, so much as the individual’s agonizing awareness of his own deformity.
What elevates the misfortunes of the few to a universal symbol is the all-too-common equation of ‘ugly’ with ‘unlovable’. The hero who feels himself to be hideous strikes a chord in people who never have to suffer as manifest a symbol of their isolation as a hunch back, a scarred face or a ridiculously large nose.
The idea that deformity places the victim beyond the reach of human affection is often strongest in the victim himself. It makes for powerful metaphor. There are few more striking images of alienation than the transformation of Gregor Samsa into a hideous insect in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis; few more vivid expressions of Man’s rage at his own imperfections than the brutal murder of Baron Frankenstein by his own misbegotten Monster.
Many of the most resonant uses of the ugly/unlovable theme relate specifically to the love of women—both its absence and its redeeming power. Shakespeare’s Richard III shares with Rostand’s Cyrano (and the real life ‘elephant man’, John Merrick) the truly disabling sense of rejection from birth, with even his mother being repulsed by his ugliness.
Meanwhile, the old tales of Beauty and the Beast and the Frog Prince are clear testaments to the power of one woman’s love to lift the ‘curse’ of ugliness. But in Cyrano’s unrequited (or seemingly unrequited) passion for Roxane, which parallels that of another ‘deformed hero’ of French literature—the Hunchback of Notre Dame—yet another manifestation of the power of love is apparent. This time it is the love given, not the love received, which offers redemption. The ugliness is not ‘cured’ but endured, and that with a nobility and courageous self-sacrifice which makes the outward imperfection essentially an irrelevance when compared with the ‘elegance within.'”
Soon: amazing recent discoveries about Richard III.