Friday, 9 March 2012

The Madwoman in the Attic - Hysteria as control?

I've been thinking about the representation of women in literature, particularly 19th century novels and short stories (these are the things that occupy my mind when I'm at work (don't tell the boss!)). It has dawned on me that while we find many examples of strong-minded, strong-willed, heroine-type women, these are almost always contrasted with crazy loon-type women! For why?

I give you the following examples:

Elizabeth Bennett is presented as a level-headed woman in Pride and Prejudice. She is the focus of the omniscient narrator and we trust her judgement. She is however, surrounded by hysterical women - her mother, her younger sister Lydia. Do these women reflect the actual underlying craziness inherent in all women? Elizabeth's judgement is, after all, proven to be wrong in the end and she conforms to stere
otype in becoming more mute, subdued, less outspoken. Rewarded with wifedom. Hmm...

Jane Eyre is similarly a very modern woman for her time. Then she falls in love. And all seems to go well until the madwoman in the attic is revealed in the most shocking way. Is Jane being punished for her refusal to conform to the norms of the time? Does the imprisoned woman represent the oppression that was Victorian marriage? Or is Bertha (the madwoman) a double for Jane, a mirror to her own repressed neuroses, fears and hysteria?

The word 'hysteria' crops up here, does it not, and this is significant in understanding the way women in 19th century literature are presented. Or rather, the way they are viewed by society (male society? I don't want to appear overly feminist here, but there is a case to be made, I think, that men wanted to oppre
ss women for their own ends. Yes.), an image which was subverted by brave female authors.

I think I'm right in saying that 'female hysteria' was a medical condition considered by physicians to affect up to one quarter of women in Britain in the 19th century. Men did not suffer this affliction (the name comes from the Greek 'hystera' meaning 'uterus'). The list of symptoms ranged from nervousness and insomnia to irritability and "a tendancy to cause trouble". Again, hmm...

The weirdest thing about this female hysteria is the treatment prescribed by the (male) doctors: pelvic massage resulting in hysterical paroxysm. If you've seen the film The Road To Welville you'll know what this involves...

Can you guess? Google it if you need to.


Done that?


We can move on.

What I'm getting at, in my clumsy way, is that, for women, for centuries, the fear of being diagnosed with hysteria was a way in which they could be controlled by society. Speaking up against oppression, demanding equal rights to men, being an active sexual being rather than a passive seductee (see The Lady of Shalott), was not behaviour condoned by society. It was dangerous to behave in this way. It was easily dealt with by labelling it as 'female hysteria'. Treatment could then commence with the aforementioned pelvic massage (those poor, poor doctors, eh?), hypnosis and drugs.

Sandra Gilbert has published The Madwoman in The Attic: which is brilliant and well worth dipping into.

Now, all this seems to have got rather heavy, which isn't really what I intended. But life can get a bit heavy sometimes can't it? And I think that's fine.


  1. I’ve always found the whole concept of female “hysteria” simply terrifying and exactly for the reason you say. How horrible that your physical or emotional problems could be used as a means of controlling you!

    Makes me shiver just thinking about it!

  2. I know! I'm penning a piece on The Yellow Wallpaper at the mo which deals with the issue further - hopefully up by the end of the week.