Thoughts On Losing Hands In Fiction

What’s this? A post that isn’t a novel update? How . . . novel.

Jenn and I having been going through the Walking Dead on Netflix; first time viewing for her, second time for me until we finish season four. We’re also reading the graphic novels as we finish each season to see how the story is different. I was always spotty on the graphic novels, having read them somewhat out of order and without any completionism before, so I’d forgotten how many things happen on the show that don’t happen in the books.

Spoiler warning for those that haven’t read up through Walking Dead book three of the collection (which I believe is issue #36), as well as several other series (The Dark Tower, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars).

So at the end of the book, Rick has lost his hand and the Governor has lost a hand and . . . well, other bits. Jenn asked me why male characters seem to lose hands so often and this sparked a discussion that ended up being pretty interesting.

Male characters do seem to lose a hand quite often in fiction, don’t they? Off the top of my head, with no particular regard to genre, here’s a list: Rick Grimes and the Governor (comic versions only), Merle Dixon, Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, (in fact, Star Wars could provide a nearly endless supply of these), Captain Hook, Roland Deschain (well, technically, the first two fingers, but same effect), and Jaime Lannister all come to mind without resorting to Google.

I can’t think of any female characters who lose a hand. There are a few instances of female characters with bionic or artificial hands that come to mind, but I can’t think of an instance of a female character who actually loses a hand as part of the story.

Why is this? Buckle up, because I’m about to go full literary nerd. If I was wearing my glasses, this is the moment when I would push them up the bridge of my nose.

I’d also like to note as a brief aside that this should not be read as commentary on actual, real life people who have lost limbs; I speak only about characters that lose limbs as part of the narrative.

Here’s my theory: the loss of a hand plays to the primal male fear of castration, but in a “safe” way.

Male readers, as a general rule, really don’t want to think about castration. We cross our legs, get fidgety and uncomfortable, and just generally handle even its mention poorly. Not to mention, heroes are not allowed to be castrated, because then that hero is no longer a man in the eyes of male readership. Castrated characters are never trusted or portrayed as heroes in typical fiction, even if those characters are genuinely good (Varys comes to mind).

The general public just simply won’t accept it if the hero is castrated. How can the hero “get the girl” if he doesn’t have all his working parts? How can he “be a man” without his manly bits intact?

One could argue that this is the whole point, that bad things should happen to characters and so if castration is the worst possible thing, it should be fair game. But there’s a balancing act to portraying “the worst possible thing.” It needs to be bad enough to have emotional resonance, but not so bad that it causes a reader to abandon the story.

Thus, we have the hand and the loss thereof.

Male characters, especially male heroes, are defined by what they can do with their hands. Even if the character is a wide-eyed idealist (Luke Skywalker) or a hardened survivor (Rick Grimes), their physical abilities are core to their identity as heroes or even just as capable male characters. Jaime Lannister literally defines himself as his sword hand.

Thus, taking away a hand, especially if it is their dominant (usually right) hand, you can approximate the feeling of loss of power and subsequent vulnerability without sending your male readers screaming for the hills.

Heroes can also recover from a lost hand, either by use of a prosthesis or by learning to use the remaining limb more effectively. Thus the loss is a setback, but one that can be worked into the heroic journey and overcome.

More interesting is the fact that there are so few examples of female characters losing their hands. Certainly, it’s just as bad for a woman to lose her hand (really, it’s a problem for most people), but it happens so rarely, perhaps because in general, female characters aren’t allowed to get damaged in the same way that males are. Female characters are less likely to get into brutal physical combat, often being kept safely out of harm’s way by specializing as archers, mages, or other long-range options.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Should authors and film makers chop off more lady hands?

One thought on “Thoughts On Losing Hands In Fiction”

  1. I don’t know if I necessarily buy the whole castration bit, but I think that you’re right on with the idea that hands represents the character’s abilities and function. If our hands are the way that we manipulate and act on the world around us, then our hands are a primary tool to assert agency on the story.

    I think “Agency” is the reason why the loss of hands is such a popular trope, and I also believe it explains why this happens in stories to male characters more often than female. Male characters are more often major actors in the story, and are defined by their ability to control their own fates and the fates of those around them.

    Female characters, on the other hand, are more likely to be objects in the story. They derive their value from their personal traits (like being attractive), their identity (like being royalty), or their inherent value to another character (like being someone’s love interest or family).

    Essentially, male characters derive their value from what they can do, while female characters derive it from who they are. And while losing your hands may diminish what you can do, it doesn’t change your identity. I think this is the fundamental reason why we don’t see female characters losing hands, it isn’t relevant to what gives the character value. It doesn’t make us question if they will continue to be able to fulfill their role in the story.

    Should more female characters start losing hands? I think it would follow naturally if there were more female characters defined by their agency within the story.

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