Episode 42 – “The Eye of the Beholder”

The notoriety of this story in The Twilight Zone corpus is surely due to the way it hits us over the head with the truth expressed in the episode’s title.  But that truth is easily misunderstood, and the power of the fable may be missed, if it is taken as the claim that judgments of beauty and deformity are subjective. If we were merely confronted with the difference of our own, individual aesthetic judgment from that of someone else, the powerful punch from “No change” would not have the force that it does.

Repulsion from  difference, and the witnessing of that repulsion by the one who is different, is described by the patient in room 307, Miss Janet Tyler. Beauty, Hume says, “is nothing but a form that produces pleasure” (Treatise, Deformity produces pain. Note that ugliness is deformity, that is, failure to conform to the the structural features which produce pleasure. But deformity doesn’t just fail to produce pleasure. It produces pain, the sort of pain Janet Tyler describes, when she recalls the childhood memory of another child screaming when she looked at her.

Even the childhood repulsion to “deformity” is an acquired point of view, a learned stance based on what is taken to be the norm, or standard, by which deviation from the norm is judged and felt.  While the child should not be blamed for a visceral pained reaction to another person, we should try to assess the moral status of the society in which such reactions are learned.

A child responds to deformity or ugliness by screaming. How do adults respond? In the world Miss Tyler inhabits, society is committed to trying to make her “normal,” through plastic surgery. The alternative is segregation into “a ghetto designed for freaks.” In Miss Tyler’s world, the state quick literally “makes ugliness a crime.” Living with difference isn’t tolerated. If surgical “correction” doesn’t work, segregation is the only option. This isn’t a state that is just intolerant of difference, it is a state that celebrates “glorious conformity,” and disallows deformity. Miss Tyler will be banished to the north, to live among her kind.

Is acceptance of difference impossible? Miss Tyler’s doctor’s expression of sympathy is heretical. It will not be tolerated. What’s clearly needed is a state that not only tolerates but embraces difference, a state in which beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.

Further Reading: 

Hume, David; (Norton, David Fate; Norton, Mary J., eds.), 2007, A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford University Press. Book 2, Part 1, Section 8.


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