Culture, Disability and Connie Willis's Doomsday Book

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Culture, Disability and Connie Willis's Doomsday Book

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Connie Willis's Doomsday Book presents fear in the forms of bubonic plague and influenza as a study of culture in Oxford during 1348 and 2054 respectively. A traveling historian's accidental journey into 1348's outbreak of bubonic plague is juxtaposed with a sudden epidemic of a foreign, deadly strain of influenza in her present time of 2054. As the people in these two time periods struggle through death and disease, the question of culture is brought sharply into focus by the similarities and differences in their conduct. This juxtaposition is not necessarily a simple contrast of cultures however. Instead of a parallel, viewing the cultures as a progression from the Oxford of 1348 to 2054 allows us much further insight into how culture actually exists.

The culture of 2054 can be seen in two equally acceptable ways in relation to that of 1348: as an entirely separate culture or an advanced evolution of it. Doomsday Book therefore can either be a comparison of two cultures that are both disabling and enabling in contrastable ways or a progression of a culture towards on that is more enabling. Initially, the cultures of 1348 and 2054 seem different enough from one another to be entirely separate.

However, history has shown us that a culture's past affects existing aspects as well as its development into its current manifestation. Westernized America's religious Puritan founding still has holds on our values today, our emphasis on god in the pledge of allegiance just one of many examples. As times and people have changed, this religious culture has also developed into an attempt to separate the church and state. While the past affects the present, cultures are also ever shifting and evolving, which accounts for what seem like huge differences between 1348 and 2054.

In terms of Doomsday Book, the progression to 2054 shows improvement in some areas, either a gradual or sudden enabling of people, while in others very little enabling at all. When Kivrin journeyed to the 1300s, she is more than aware of the precautions she must take as a woman and take care not to appear different enough to arouse suspicion. Women in the 1300s were attributed disability by culture in all sorts of areas. These disabilities were manifested into strict submissive roles as well as being thought of as lesser than men. Kivrin had to constantly remind herself to stare at the ground when speaking to others. When the plague arrived, the town adjacent to Skendgate rapidly fell to chaos. Dunworthy and Colin found people stoned to death by fearful townspeople who were eager to lay blame on anyone different and therefore was disabled. In the culture of the 1300s, it was easy to persecute those who were different as demonstrated by Lady Imeyne.

As the culture progressed from 1348 to 2054, women's rights were fought for and won. Kivrin's position of great responsibility and risk as a traveling historian is evidence of that. Young women in 1348 would never be the pioneers exploring completely new areas alone. Despite the obvious enabling of women in 2054 though, people who were perceived as different appeared to have gained little ground. The stoning of foreigners as scapegoats for the bubonic plague finds its parallel in Badri, whom protestors deemed as foreign and an immigrant regardless of his third generation status.

From this evidence, it may seem that it is inherent to culture to fear those who are different from the norm. Further examination of how the plague was dealt with at Skendgate though proves that if people (Father Roche and Kivrin) were willing to take a stand and strive for respect for those who do not fit norms, then the attitudes of a culture can progress and change. Father Roche and Kivrin's efforts drastically changed the devastation the village faced and while people still died, they died in peace instead of the hysteria that other villages faced. This change did not carry through to the Oxford of 2054 yet it is a promising indication that cultures can be affected in the same way.

The general disabling aspect of most cultures is a lack of respect and consideration for people and their differences. In 1348, it was a lack of respect for people of lower classes and women. Father Roche was not respected by Lady Imeyne because he was poor and received little formal education although he was more courageous than most people in Skendgate in times of crisis. Her judgment was shared by others in that culture, a disabling aspect of the 1300s. In 2054, the disabling areas of culture were fought against yielded a marked increase in respect and consideration though in some areas that was little improvement. It is clear that while 2054 is an improved evolution, it is not perfect. However, the improvement and progression itself provides optimistic evidence that maybe culture isn't always disabling. Further evolution may prove that a culture is possible in which there are no disabling aspects. However, the progression/improvements from 1348 to 2054 were not easy and did not just occur naturally with time. They were only made possible through hard work and learning from mistakes. In order to keep this progress going, we must continue striving to get culture "less wrong."

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