The Visible Part of the Brain…

Last week I was at the National Conference for the PCA/ACA (Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association) in Washington, DC.  I took a break from presenting on my favorite topics of plagiarism and copyright to talk about science fiction, and presented on the hand-loss trope in science fiction.  I had the help of many of my Facebook (and real) friends in compiling a list of instances where a character in fiction loses his/her hand or arm, and there is a ton.  The list is up online here, and if anyone thinks of more examples, please help me out and add them to this Google Doc.  I initially had some help from TV Tropes, but my compiled list is more useful to me–narrow because it excludes leg amputations, and expanded into including examples from print literature.  I’m sure there are more examples to find, so, yes, by all means add to this document.

My basic thesis was that losing a hand in a science fiction story means something different than in other genres.  In most genres, losing a hand means that you’ve lost a piece of your identity; you’ve become compromised.  It’s the fairytale principle: what’s on the outside reflects what’s inside.  The ugly stepmother is the bad guy, and the beautiful daughter is good.

Guess which one is the villain?

Losing a hand accompanies a spiritual loss, and I had some philosophy stuff to support this, saying that the hand is a representation of the mind, making it a particular kind of loss of sanity, or other thinky things.  Heidegger claims, “All the work of the hand is rooted in thinking” and he is big on the hand being uniquely human, what separates us from animals and all that (381).  Now, I didn’t do a paper on leg loss, but that seems to indicate a different sort of loss of will and manhood.  Ahab’s wooden leg seems to speak to an irony involving travel and the chase…though his sanity is also certainly in question…more research on this needed.

But back to hands, the hand often indicates the state of the human owner, like when a person dies on camera, but we don’t see their hands, just a hand going limp and dropping an object, like in this scene from Citizen Kane right after he whispers “Rosebud.”


Whispers “rosebud” and then drops the snow globe.

Similarly, losing one’s hand can indicate, accompany, or foreshadow death—like Grendel’s arm getting ripped off, or the kids in Titus Andronicus.  But if the character survives, there’s usually some big transformation in character…and usually in a negative direction involving sanity and personhood.  The character is really unhinged when he/she (but usually a “he”) replaces his hand with another object.  We know Rand in Wheel of Time is losing his marbles when his hand is fried off.  Captain Hook is a bit obsessively unhinged, and Wormtail isn’t a nice guy.

Threatening? Inhuman? Cyborg?

There are plenty of examples of weird and terrible villains that are missing a hand or arm.  However, sci fi seems to have quite a few heroes without a hand as well.  I’m thinking of the Doctor (Doctor Who–tenth doctor in The Christmas Invasion), Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), the J. T. Maston (Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon).   If losing a hand=losing humanity/sanity, why are these good guys immune?


Luke has a rough day in Empire Strikes Back, but he comes out of it pretty ok.


In my presentation, my answer was that scifi has a love/hate relationship with the cyborg, or the being who replaces human parts with technology, and this technology replacements show that the human mind is not necessarily physical and biological. Sci fi says that the fairytale trope of what’s pretty and whole on the outside isn’t necessarily so on the inside.  Now, that’s not to say that villains in sci fi aren’t ever ugly or disfigured.  Vader is so maimed that he has to breathe through a suit and these cyborg elements definitely seem to point to a loss of humanity, and there are plenty of examples of technology-gone-wrong in sci fi taking over and destroying humanity and such.  So, I ended on a bit of an ambiguous note—that I think scifi is pushing the envelope, leading the way to a statement about humanity and the cyborg, and also about what the mind is, but that this is in flux.

Now that I’ve gotten home and I added more to the list, I’m not entirely sure about my conclusion.  Perhaps the trends in sci fi merely reflect the fact that sci fi is a newer genre: that newer texts are more accepting of hero amputees, and more suspicious of physical “wholeness” representing spiritual wholeness. This leads smack into disability studies, which I know practically nothing about, so I’m stopping here for a bit.  If I were to explore these ideas in the future, questions to consider are:

  1. Is Sci-fi notably different than other genres when it comes to hand amputation?
  2. What are the specific ways in which hand amputation is different from leg amputation?
  3. Are grow-back cases different from prosthetics?

I only just touched on the answers to these questions, so I am very not confident in the possibilities I put forth.  The audience at the PCA seemed to like my presentation, however, and the questions they asked led me to contemplate more on these questions; they also gave me a bunch more examples.

So, let me put it to you, gentle reader: what do you think?  What does the loss of a hand in a fictional character represent to you?


Ash From Evil Dead 2: How do I look?



2 thoughts on “The Visible Part of the Brain…

  1. I think in Sci-fi, the difference is what replaces the hand. Most of the characters on your list seem to have replaced their hand with something that aids or epitomizes their goals and modus of living, intentionally or not. In the same way that losing a hand can represent loss of humanity, replacing it with something else can represent transcending humanity. They leave behind their mortal concerns to become an avatar of what they represent and what they seek to achieve. The last example there, Ash, becomes a living weapon against the Deadites. Sure, he has notably snapped since the first movie. But one might think that his altered mind state could be a necessary mental transformation that accompanies his transmogrification into an anti-undead weapon.
    There is something admirable about someone who gives up their whole identity in order to weed out weakness and embody the ideal incarnation of their principles. That transhuman state of mind and will, symbolized and triggered by the physical transformation, allows the character to do what needs to be done at the expense of his own human happiness. What makes the hero, as opposed to the villain, is that their humanity is sacrificed to PROTECT humanity; to do what needs to be done so that others do not need to make the same sacrifice. The villains seem more to make their transformation for their own inhuman desires or goals, usually at the expense of all humanity, sometimes even forcing their own sacrifices onto others.
    Long live the new flesh!

    • Jim–Great point. I agree with you that whatever replaces the hand has symbolic value for what the character comes to represent. This fits right in with the hand as the mind of the character. Interestingly, the hand also sometimes comes to more literally represent the identity of the character through he/her name: Captain Hook, Dr. Claw, Clamps (from Futurama: he didn’t really lose his hands from a human body, but even so).

      But I think there’s another layer to it–replacing the self with technology has become more acceptable in sci-fi as opposed to other genres. Becoming transhuman (great word) and embracing the role of protector/sacrifice is a good thing in sci-fi, where it seems alien, emasculating, or immoral in earlier fiction.

      You helped me out here by making some connections I need to “flesh out” –Thanks!

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