Abstract: Hysteria is deemed as a woman’s malady. For centuries, it was believed to be a condition of woman’s illness in which the uterus was thought to be wandering. The attitude of society to madness in woman has a long history of male cruelty and woman’s humiliation. Both historians and psychologists have recorded an overrepresentation of women among the mentally ill in western countries. Till late in the nineteenth century, hysteria was associated with nervous disorders in women. It was Sigmund Freud who redefined it as “psychic” rather than a neurological disease with sexual disturbance in its aetiology. He traced its cause in the unconscious. With this discovery, curative efforts began to include listening to the histories of these women who were made to talk out their past. Some of the best expression of many women writers who have been victims of madness, has been stimulated by their condition. Some of the writers, especially those who were spokeswomen of women’s liberation, who did not suffer from any mental illness, have made mentally deranged women the central characters of their works. This article highlights some such literary representations.
Keywords: deranged women, mental illness, hysteria, societal attitude, feminist perspective
There is something every woman wears around her neck on a thin chain of fear – an amulet of madness. For each of us, there exists somewhere a moment of insult so intense that she will reach up and rip the amulet off, even if the chain tears at the flesh of her neck. (Clifford. T. Morgan, Introduction to Psychology, 1986).
Hysteria is deemed as a woman’s malady. The source word of “hysteria” is the Greek term hysteros which means womb. For centuries, it was believed to be a condition of woman’s illness in which the uterus was thought to be wandering. There is a mutuality of stigma attached to women and hysteria. Just as hysteria is established as a woman’s disease, a woman’s proneness to hysteria is also an accepted fact. The attitude of society to madness in woman has a long history of male cruelty and woman’s humiliation. As one traces the cultural history of madness, an association of woman’s responsibility / wrongs to her state of madness is also detected. A woman’s mental disorder is invariably loaded with guilt.
Both historians and psychologists have recorded an overrepresentation of women among the mentally ill in western countries. Tradition and superstitions have stood in the way of getting a credible and realistic statistics relating to the occurrence of madness among women in India. Evenas early as in the seventeenth century it has been reported that in England the number of cases of mental disorder among women was twice that of men; the public lunatic asylums were occupied by majority of women patients in the nineteenth century. Till late in the nineteenth century hysteria was associated with nervous disorders in women. It was Sigmund Freud who redefined it as “psychic” rather than a neurological disease with sexual disturbance in its aetiology. He traced its root cause in the unconscious. This discovery brought about a great change in the treatment of women patients. Curative efforts in the area began to include listening to the histories of these women who were made to talk out their past. Thus voices of the mentally deranged women turned out to be a precious repertoire of clues to the oppression of women, their needs and sufferings.
Many women writers have been victims of madness. Perhaps it is more truthful to say that some of their best expression emerged, stimulated by their condition of madness. It is significant to note that even those writers, particularly the spokeswomen of women’s liberation, who did not suffer from any mental illness were aware of the fatal impact of some negative social conditions and societal responses on the woman’s psyche. Some of them have made mentally deranged women the central characters of their works. For instance, Mary Wollstonecraft, the earliest feminist thinker, writer and author of the first feminist political treatise – A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) – wrote Maria or The Wrongs of Woman (1797) to expose the misery of a woman driven to madness by the cruel experiences in her domestic life. Of course it is more a didactic treatise for consciousness rising than a novel. Maria is presented as an emblematic figure of the woman destroyed by patriarchy. She was not really mad when thrown into the mad house by her abusive husband in order to steal her wealth and pursue his sexual escapades. To Maria, “the mansion of despair” in which she was dumped was a symbol of all the man-made institutions, including marriage, family, motherhood and the legal system that confine women in the lunatic asylum and drive them to madness. As Maria lives in the madhouse listening to the crying and singing of the other inmates, she realizes that she is slipping into insanity. In her helpless state she can only ask, “Was not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?” (Wollstonecraft, 27)
Many novels written by nineteenth century women writers have mentally deranged women placed in the crucial sites of the texts. The brilliantly researched treatise, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar presents the feminist underpinnings of these characters. They are the symbolic representations of their female authors’ rage against the oppressiveness of patriarchy. The imaging of these distraught figures is the woman writer’s strategy of enacting her “raging desires to escape male houses and male texts.” (Gubar& Gilbert 1979, 85).
Phyllis Chesler the psychologist has analysed the liberational urge of the women confined to the mental institutions in America, who according to her are failed yet heroic rebels against the inhibitive forces of conventional femininity (Chester 1972,31). Their condition, as Chester views it, is a punishment for being “‘ female’ as well as desiring or daring not to be” (66). During the 1970’s and 1980’s feminist discussions on the nature and significance of women’s hysteria highlighted Dora, one of Freud’s most famous female case studies of hysteria. For the French feminists, like Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, Dora is a threshold figure for women’s liberation. Cixous considered Dora as the core example of the protesting force of women, and a resistant heroine. Considering the socio-cultural conditions and patriarchal values that prevailed in nineteenth century Europe, it is legitimate to see women’s hysteria as an unconscious form of feminist rebellion. Women writers’ attempts to write stories, centralising the mentally deranged women are also paradigmatic of the same urge for rebellion stimulated by the suppressed and silenced condition of these victims of an unkind society. Hysterical outbursts become a survival strategy for these mad protagonists, as much as the narration of them for the woman writer is a venting of her anger and hatred towards the male victimizer, held back for years. Autobiographies, diaries, letters and drawings of many women unveil a hidden world of female impetus for self revelation and an explosive disclosure of the tragic imposition of male power on their body and mind. These self revelatory discourses are iconoclastic since they have shattered the image of women represented in male narratives or in women’s texts that internalized male perspectives. Femininity underwent a radical reimaging in these discourses in defiance of the existing neat, complacent reflections of women as described mockingly by Virginia Woolf: “Women have served all these years as looking glasses, possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man twice its natural size” ( Woolf, 1929, 35).
The relationship between creativity or artistic talent in women and a proneness to hysteria has now come to be accepted as a psychological reality, though with a criminal \ patriarchal distortion of the woman’s responsibility for losing her mind. Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are icons of female creativity who suffered mental breakdown as a penalty for the actualization of their talents. All these writers have written powerfully about their experiences of hysterical self diagnosis. Often their writing is a spitting out of their woes, worries and unconscious hatred, at the end of their tether. They expel their deepest anxieties and fears temporarily empowered by the broken psyche, snatching a writerly sanction for such an explosive act, positioning themselves on the slippery wall between the unconscious and the conscious, the sane and the insane.
When the female author’s hysteria merges with that of her characters, a different genre of writing emerges that has licensed itself for a disclosure of “private and taboo subjects”–their experiences of mental collapse, suicide attempts and living under surveillance. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) suffered from severe spells of depression and attempted suicide many times. Her “Lady Lazarus” screams in triumph over her own attempted suicide in blasphemous contempt of all hegemonies including religious faith, paternity, marriage and masculinity. The poetic persona of this poem claims unabashedly:
Is an art, like everything else,
I do it exceptionally well.
She challenges all authorities in a spasm of assertiveness :
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air
(Norton Anthology of American Literature, 2566 – 7)
Doris Lessing, the British novelist has placed the author and the protagonist in a psychic bonding in The Golden Notebook. Here writing becomes a dismembering of the self and a therapeutic exercise in self discovery. The most famous discourse in this category of “metahysterical writing”, if I may call it so, is the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by the American feminist activist and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). She suffered all her life with extended periods of depression and the story emerged as a critique of the standard “rest cure” that she was forced to take like many women with psychic disorders in her times. They were kept in isolation and compulsive inactivity in a house where others moved about in freedom and perpetual guard over her. The protagonist of the story is the author herself. She explained the motivation for writing the story in her article “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wall Paper” (1913), which was published in her journal The Forerunner. Rest cure was prescribed for neurasthenic invalid women who willfully denied themselves any appetites or pleasures of the senses. It was a treatment styled in conformity to the Victorian image of the ideal woman as “the angel in the house” and whose paradigm was the wasting beauty lying in a semifainted state in a dark room at the back of the house. The rest cure was an attempt to redeem her into the world of light and the senses, maintaining the patriarchal / arbitrary notions relating to the domestic space as the ideal and proper site for woman’s living. The insensitivity and male bias in the prescription of “cure” and “rest” for woman was never questioned in the entire treatment system which was monopolised by male doctors. The narrator – protagonist of “The Yellow Wall Paper” is made to stay in a room on the upper storey of an isolated house at the strict instructions of her husband and brother who are doctors. She is told that she is staying in a nursery, but it is soon made clear to the reader that it is a room used to lock up the insane. The windows are barred, the bed is bolted down. She hates the yellow wallpaper of the room that she sees all the hours of the day. Its colour is repelling and revolting to her. Her disgust at its sight works on her nerves and imagination making her see weird sub patterns of yellow designs and a woman creeping about behind the paper trying to free herself. It is a hallucinatory representation of the protagonist’s own entrapped condition. The story is packed with the protagonist’s resentment to the forces/man that asserted the curative potential of this room and every item in it. But she cannot bring herself to oppose their “rational” and “practical” sense. Her husband John who is a “physician of high standing” does not believe that she is sick. She can only ask herself in despair: “And what can one do” (Gilman, 644). When such a loving and learned person assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing wrong with her but “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency what is one to do”? (644). She is put on a diet of phosphates, tonics and air and is strictly forbidden to “work” (write) until she is well again. But she manages to write this story which is the inevitable reaction to the enforced separation from what she really loves to do i.e. writing. Wanting to move out into the air, but confined to a huge immovable bed, longing for cheer, variety and sunshine but enclosed in a cheerless state of inactivity and boredom, and perpetually confronting the dull yellow paper designs, she starts losing her mind while her husband compliments her insensitively for her improvement. As she advances in her mental breakdown, she compromises with the “yellow smell” and accepts the presence of the woman behind the paper. Finally she tears off all the yellow paper and locks herself up after throwing the key out. She starts creeping inside the room in place of the woman whom she thinks she has let go. As her husband finds his way into the room, she has lost her distinction between the room she hated living in and the outside world.
A very crucial issue “The Yellow Wall Paper” raises is regarding the attitude of the male (doctor) towards mental disorder in women. The protagonist’s husband has not bothered to look into the subtleties of the illness that has caught his wife. His statement, “I am glad, your case is not serious” (646) only reminds her how “dreadfully depressing” her “nervous troubles” are: “John does not know how much I really suffer” (646). He has made a clinical study of her illness and is satisfied that there is no “reason” to suffer. He views his wife’s malady only as one of a wide group of disorders, and makes insensible generalizations about her condition. He prescribes “rest cure” which is not the suitable treatment for a person of her temperament. He is not sensitive to the specific nature of her illness and calls it “a slight hysterical tendency” (644). In a footnote to the edition of the story used for this paper, it is pointed out that at the time the story was written, hysteria was a term used loosely to describe a wide variety of symptoms thought to be particularly prevalent among women. Depression, anxiety, excitability and vague somatic complaints were all treated as “hysteria” by the male doctors. Even today the sexist aspect in “the psychiatric – classification of abnormality” continues to serve as a destructive “vehicle of social control” on woman. (Figueira-Mc Donough& Rosemary Sarri, 1987, 348). Male professionals in the field of mental health have established the norms and symptoms of sanity with a heavy dose of sexist bias. The appropriate characteristics of sane men and women are patriarchally stereotyped and any deviance from these features is made an excuse for placing the stigma of the “mad woman” on the female. The socially approved traits of normalcy stand in the way of the identification and treatment of the real troubles of women.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a classic example of hysteria as female protest and the hysterical writer as feminist rebel. The story has many significant elements that anticipate the connection between madness and woman’s narratives that our present age has structured for the feminist cause: the emotional surrender of the “decent woman of propriety” while her rational faculties revolt; her self imposed patience in a state of helplessness; the effort to accept the unacceptable just because it is given by the male authority; the tragic gap between what the woman wants and the man decides what she wants; the breaking of the mental sinews in the effort to sustain more than can be borne; and the final bitter, vengeful rejection of all that surrounded her self, both on the inside and the outside. This is the inevitable course that the female mind takes in all the later hysterical “stories” and texts by women. Edna the narrator protagonist of the Canadian novel, Dancing in the Dark by Joan Barfoot, who scribbles her life story in fragments of notebooks, while confined in the lunatic asylum after killing her treacherous husband with a tomato knife; Dimple the romantic Bengali wife in Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Wife who stabbed her husband in the neurotic aftermath of the terrible disillusionment that their emigrant life in America overwhelmed her; the apparently docile housewife, who kills her husband in a fit of fantasy and hallucination in the Malayalam short story “The Sword of the Princess” by Manasi – the list of this genre of narratives of hysterical women cuts across the boundaries of language, time, culture and space. The Malayalam short story “Incomplete Stops” (Apurnaviramangal) by Ashita is one which addresses the disastrous impact of an insensitive treatment system on the female mind that has just restored its sanity, yet remaining in a nascent state. The story evokes definite overtones of the mental hospital at Oolampara, which speaks for the shockingly inadequate provisions for rehabilitation of the “cured insane” in Indian conditions. Annamma the protagonist has not recovered her sanity completely even after long years of confinement. But the authorities cannot keep her in the asylum any more because it is over-crowded. Discharged as cured from the lunatic asylum, but not wanted by anyone whom she vaguely remembers to have loved her before her mental breakdown, Annamma walks along the street and loses her mind again , as the lusty looks and bawdy touch of the policeman unsettle her delicate nerves.
Elaine Showalter the feminist critic, in her well researched treatise on woman and madness, The Female Malady, examines the polemical value of these narratives of hysteria as paradigmatic texts for critics and historians looking at the relation between sex roles, madness, creativity and recovery. Women’s experiences of madness, its treatment and their rehabilitation continue to be a realm of neglect and insensitive patriarchal predications. The physical presence of the woman in the realm of treatment or rehabilitation (as the social worker on the committee that decides to discharge Annamma in Ashita’s story) does not suffice to acquire the right remedial response to this female malady. Showalter begins her book referring to the incident of the unchaining of the lunatics at the madhouses of Bicetre and Salpetrier in Paris during the French Revolution at the initiative of Dr. Philippe Pinel who headed these institutions. Rober-Fleurry who immortalized this historical act of liberation in his painting with the caption “Pinel Freeing the Insane”, gave a provokingly sexist ambience in his representation. Mad women, young and old, are shown in a state of grief. Some of them are shrieking hysterically, while a lovely woman stands in the middle, her hair and dress in disarray. The only sane people are three men including Dr. Pinel who watches the lady’s exposed bosom with “ambiguous interest” as another man takes the chain off from her waist. Showalter calls our attention to the contrastive positioning of the sane male and the mad female in the picture, the former condescending to free the humbled latter. This nineteenth century French picture and Showalter’s feminist analysis of it reminded me of Ashita’s story of our own times. Let me conclude this paper quoting the last lines of her story:
|As Annamma follows him [the policeman] obediently, dragging her feet laboriously, remembering the chains not yet removed from her mind, and as the street lights begin to glow abruptly with a merciless and bawdy smile, my dear reader, how shall I put a full stop to this story? (“ Incomplete Stops”, 73).|
Ashita. “Incomplete Stops” Inner Spaces: New Writing by Women from Kerala. ed. K.M. George, Jancy James et al. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1993.
Barfoot, Joan. Dancing in the Dark. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1982.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imaginations. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Norton Anthology of American Literature ed. Baym, Nina, Ronald Gottesman et. al. Vol.2. New York: W.W. Norton, 1985.
Figueira- Mc Donough, Josefina & Rosemary Sarrieds The Trapped Women: Catch 22 in Deviance & Control.
New Delhi: Sage, 1987.
Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester. Freuds’ Women London: Virago Press, 1993.
Mukherjee, Bharati. Wife. New Delhi: Penguin, 1975. Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady : Women, Madness
and English Culture, 1830-1980 New York: Penguin, 1985.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. Maria or The Wrongs of Woman. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975
JANCY JAMES. Is Professor, Institute of English and Director, Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Kerala. She is also the member of the Kendra Sahithya Akademi and is on its advisory board of English. Her doctoral dissertation was on Memory as a Theme and Technique in Modern American Drama. Though theatre remains her first love, Jancy James has moved on to other areas of literature- including Indian Literature, Translation and Women’s Studies. She won the Post Doctoral Commonwealth Fellowship and was for a time at the University of Warwick, U.K. She was also the recipient of the ShastriIndo Canadian Institute and was based for a time at the University of Toronto. She has published about 15 books and more than a 100 research articles and has presented many papers on national and international seminars. Jancy James is a familiar face to T.V. viewers for she handles a fortnightly book review feature of a popular Malayalam T.V. channel.