Coffins – Glass and Otherwise

12 Nov

Nineteenth century literature presents the glass coffin as a prison within which sleeping women are frequently mistaken for dead or vice versa. Since the sleeping woman’s corpse-like quality is often eroticised within narratives, the glass coffin becomes a prominent symbol of necrophilic desire.

This desire is notoriously portrayed in the Grimm Bothers’ tale of ‘Little Snow White.’ Following the death of Snow White the dwarves ‘“could not bury her in the dark ground,” and they had a transparent coffin of glass made, so that she could be seen from all sides’.[1] The prince falls in love with Snow White while voyeuristically observing her beautiful corpse. In this case, the body is preserved, displaying no signs of emaciation or decay. The Grimm’s tale ‘The Glass Coffin’ provides a further illustration in which a tailor comes across a glass chest containing a ‘maiden of the greatest beauty’.[2] The coffin reveals a female body that is ideologically as fragile as the glass within which it is encapsulated.

Image

In the Grimm fairy tales, male characters derive pleasure from looking upon passive figures of sleeping women, including Briar Rose who ‘lay in a deep sleep’[3] and Snow White who ‘lay a long, long time in the coffin, and…did not change, but looked as if she were asleep’.[4] Conflating sleep and death, critics have remarked that

[a] maiden’s bed…was supposed to be her “bridal bed”—and a virgin was therefore thought to be immersed in a perpetual sleep of innocence until her chosen knight came along and awakened her with a kiss into the useful state of matrimonial service.[5]

Briar Rose and Snow White both enter the state of sleep/death as virginal maidens, yet are awakened by princes to whom they will surrender their virginity. Those who do not rise from the grave remain virginal, violated only by death itself.

Since death appropriates a maiden’s purity, this is subsequently reclaimed by masculine characters through acts of necrophilia. In tales of the Brothers Grimm, the princes who gaze upon ostensibly dead female bodies experience such desire. The prince who wakens Briar Rose sees her lying asleep and she was ‘so beautiful that he could not turn his eyes away; and he stooped down and gave her a kiss.’[6]

Image

Likewise, Snow White’s prince comes across her coffin and states ‘“[l]et me have it as a gift, for I cannot live without seeing Snow White. I will honour and prize her as my dearest possession.”’[7] Briar Rose and Snow White are attractive to their masculine rescuers because their deathly appearance renders them passive, beautiful mannequins susceptible to appropriation. Weak and vulnerable, the lifeless female form automatically posits the male body as its sexually dominant opposite.

Necrophilic desire is also portrayed in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff longs to share Catherine Linton’s burial place, to transform their grave into a marriage bed. Speaking of Catherine as sleeping rather than dead, Heathcliff expresses his desire, stating that if Catherine’s body appears ‘“motionless, it is sleep”’[8] and dreams that he is ‘“sleeping the last sleep, by that sleeper, with [his] heart stopped, and [his] cheek frozen against hers”’.[9] In an attempt to attain physical contact with Catherine’s corpse, Heathcliff breaks open her coffin:

“I got a spade from the toolhouse, and began to delve with all my might – it scraped the coffin; I fell to work with my hands; the wood commenced cracking about the screws…“If I can only get this off;” I muttered, “I wish they may shovel in the earth over us both!”[10]

The unearthing of dead women occurred not only within works of fiction, but was a nineteenth century reality. Like Heathcliff, Dante Gabriel Rossetti exhumed his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, in order to retrieve a journal of his poems that had been placed into her coffin six years earlier. Although Rossetti was not present, one who did attend ‘explained how when the coffin was opened, Lizzie’s face was still as beautiful as ever’.[11]Elizabeth’s corpse was preserved, and still desirable, when the poems were retrieved from her hair. The fetishisation of non-decomposing body parts such as hair is evident in the myths that surrounded the exhumation:

[l]egend has it that Siddal’s famous luxuriant red hair, repeatedly painted by Rossetti, had continued to grow after death and spilled out of her coffin when opened.[12]

The hair of the cadaver is referred to in ‘The Premature Burial’, within which Victorine’s dead body was paid a visit by a suitor ‘with the romantic purpose of disinterring the corpse, and possessing himself of its luxuriant tresses.’[13] Like Heathcliff and Rossetti, the lover ‘unearths the coffin, [and] opens it’,[14] yet he and Rossetti both desire to retrieve an item from the coffin by which to remember their deceased lover. In contrast, Heathcliff’s pain is so great that he longs for Catherine’s corpse itself and dreams of lying alongside her dead body and ‘“dissolving with her”’.[15]


[1] Grimm, ‘Little Snow White’, p.220

[2] Grimm, ‘The Glass Coffin’, in Complete Fairy Tales (London: Routledge, 2006), p.595

[3] Grimm, ‘Little Briar Rose’, p.204

[4] Grimm, ‘Little Snow White’, p.220

[5] Dijsktra, Idols of Perversity, p.61

[6] Brothers Grimm, ‘Little Briar Rose’, in Complete Fairy Tales (London: Routledge, 2006), p.206

[7] Brothers Grimm, ‘Little Snow White’, in Complete Fairy Tales (London: Routledge, 2006), pp.220-1

[8] ibid,pp.286-7

[9] E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights (London: Penguin, 2000),p.286

[10] ibid,pp.286-7

[11] J. Marsh, The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal (London: Quartet Books, 1989), pp.3-4

[13] Poe, ‘The Premature Burial’, p.292

[14] ibid, p.292

[15] Brontë, ibid,p.286

Edgar Allan Poe and Premature Burial

8 Nov

During the nineteenth century, there was widespread anxiety concerning the inability to distinguish between life and death. As a result of these fears, The London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial was founded in 1896.[1]

The society took measures to prevent live burials such as attaching strings ‘to the fingers of the corpses…[which were] attached to bells’[2] and placing bodies in ‘waiting rooms’ to ensure that they were dead, a certainty only when the body exhibited signs of decomposition.

Conditions that confused the states of animation and death included catalepsy, trance and deep sleep. Catalepsy is defined as ‘an “exaggerated lethargy”…during which time no medical test could detect the vital spark.’[3] This condition is portrayed by Edgar Allan Poe in ‘The Premature Burial’ (1844), wherein Mademoiselle Victorine who ‘had been buried alive’ is subsequently ‘aroused by the caresses of her lover from the lethargy which had been mistaken for death.’[4]

In Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, Lady Madeline is enclosed alive within her coffin, the narrator relating

[w]e have put her living in the tomb!…I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin.[1]

Upon breaking free from her coffin, Lady Madeline stands enshrouded with ‘blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame.’[2] Madeline’s bloody exertions and subsequent escape from her tomb incite horror since, rather than remaining a passive corpse, the Lady forcefully resists incarceration.


[1] E.A. Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, in Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: Everyman, 1993), pp.137-55, p.154

[2] Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, pp.137-55, p.155

[3] Behlmer,Grave Doubts’, p. 206

[4] E.A. Poe, ‘The Premature Burial’, in Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: Everyman, 1993), pp.290-303, p.292


[1] G.K. Behlmer,Grave Doubts: Victorian Medicine, Moral Panic, and the Signs of Death’, Journal of British Studies, 42 (2003) <http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:lion&rft_id=xri:lion:ft:abell:R03565047:0> [accessed 16th May, 2008], p.206

[2] J. Stevens Curl, The Victorian Celebration of Death (London: David and Charles, 1972), p.177

Trance and Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix

6 Nov

In the nineteenth century the state of trance posed a challenge to scientific logic by lending the appearance of death to a living body. Prior to the Victorian period, trances occurred as part of ‘Britain’s…tradition of prophetic preaching’,[1] wherein ‘[p]ious men, women, and children might lapse into multiple-day comas so deathlike that their funerals were ordered.’[2]

Trance as a spiritual occurrence is illustrated in nineteenth century works of art, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (c.1864-70), painted as a memorial following the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal.

The painting’s depiction of a bird placing a poppy into the hands of the trance-like Beatrice ‘is a symbol of sleep and death and a reminder of Lizzie’s death from an overdose of laudanum’.[3] Hoping that the diagnosis was incorrect, Rossetti fantasised that Elizabeth was merely in a laudanum-induced reverie, stating that ‘the picture was “not at all intended to represent Death…but to render it under the resemblance of a trance”’.[4]


[1] Behlmer,Grave Doubts’, p. 206

[2] ibid, p. 206

[3] L. Tickner, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Tate, 2003), pp.53-4

[4] Tickner, p.52, quoting D.G. Rossetti to Mrs Cowper-Temple, 26 March 1871, in E.W. Fredeman, (ed.) The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti , 9 vols., (Cambridge: n.pub., 2002-6), vol. 5, p.43

Submission and the Queering of Gender in Pauline Réage’s Story of O

10 Oct

In her preface to A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory Nikki Sullivan addresses the difficulty of defining the term ‘queer’ as it ‘has historically been used in a number of different ways’.[1] One interpretation is that it denotes a deviation from a cultural norm. Within a patriarchal society gender is a binary vision of dominant masculinity and a submissive femininity that serves to provide a passive medium upon which the male subject can exercise his desires. Female emancipation can therefore be perceived as queer since perversion within male dominated society has ‘long been associated with women taking power’[2]. Owing to the emergence of feminism the contemporary gender balance has become increasingly equitable and, following their history of subjugation, women have now become enfranchised. To a modern readership female sexual submission is therefore queer owing to its embodiment and re-enactment of anachronistic patterns of gender relation. Consequently, Pauline Réage’s 1954 erotic classic Story of O can be termed queer owing to its depiction of regressive sexual practices of male domination and female submission: as Jeffreys notes, ‘S/M as a form of self-abuse [can be read]…as both the internalisation and the perpetuation of patriarchal violence.’[3]  However, it will be argued that whilst portraying sexual relationships which superficially depict male domination of a female object and ‘Other’, the novel proposes that a woman’s ostensible submission can in fact be a powerful form of resistance.

Through the establishment of a sadomasochistic subculture Pauline Réage’s male characters attempt to maintain the traditional gender binary, ensuring that the ‘dominant’ patriarchal agency remains unchallenged by the submissive ‘Other’. Through the enforcement of a strict disciplinary programme the men of Roissy attempt to eliminate the threat to their autonomy posed by female emancipation. Within the confines of the estate women exist only to serve the needs of a masculine agent and, due to their complete submission, the consummation of male desire is seemingly non-contingent:

he wanted her, right away, to unlock her knees and unfold her arms…she wasn’t opening her legs wide enough. The word open and the expression open your legs, when uttered by a lover would acquire in her mind such overtones of restiveness and of force that she never heard them without a kind of inward prostration, of sacred submission, as if they had emanated from a god, not from him.[4]

However, the project of Roissy extends beyond its walls, attempting to create an alternative masculinist culture within conventional society, as is evident in the manner of O’s dress following her departure:

[w]hat her lover wanted of her was simple: that she be constantly and immediately accessible…every obstacle had to be eliminated, and by her carriage and manner, in the first place, and in the second place by the clothing she wore, she would, as it were, signify her accessibility to those who knew what these signs implied.[5]

While the exact specification of dress is left to O’s discretion, the principle behind every aspect of her attire remains the unconditional fulfilment of masculine desire:

[a]s for her clothing, it was up to her to choose it and, if need be, to devise a costume which would render unnecessary that half-undressing he had submitted her to in the car while taking her to Roissy[6].

Gone were ‘all the slips she had whose upper part covered her breasts, all her blouses and dresses which didn’t open in front, any of her skirts which were too narrow to be raised instantly, with a single motion.’[7]

By reducing O to the status of a passive object with which to satisfy desire, sexual intercourse is transformed into an act of autoeroticism rather than a union between two volitional subjects. The men at Roissy enforce degradation upon O by branding, piercing and utilising her as a collection of orifices for the impersonal fulfilment of their desires. Consequently, O is no longer viewed as a single, integrated being who possesses free will but as a broken physical topography of discrete sections and surfaces. However, by deriving pleasure from sexual situations within which she is placed, rather than from a particular torturer, O mirrors the male usage of her physical form. While O’s torturers attempt to render her desires irrelevant, it is the enjoyment derived from her suffering that enables her to affirm each subsequent form of slavery to which she is subjected. Rather than forcing O to endure for their sexual gratification, the male characters instead become providers of the pleasure in pain that is the focus of O’s desire. O’s torture is therefore emancipating owing to her autoerotic enjoyment of her punishment, during which he who holds the whip is a mere facilitator of her pain.

Such irrelevance is exemplified by the anonymity and inter-changeability of the torturers. They are rendered arbitrary as ‘“[a]ll four had taken her and she had not been able to distinguish [René] from amongst the rest”’[8]. For the male subjects who attempt to form a stable identity through their domination of O, and accordingly through the coercion of her recognition, O’s indifference to the specificity of her torturer consequently poses a challenge to their autonomy:

[t]he effect we have on something or someone is a way of confirming our reality. If our acts have no effect on the other, or if the other refuses to recognize our act, we feel ourselves to be powerless.[9]

In this way, the master requires recognition from, and is therefore dependent upon, his slave as ‘[n]o subject can really extricate herself or himself from dependency on other subjects, from her or his need for recognition…she or he seeks autonomy by dominating the other person’[10]. The men who attempt to compel O’s recognition are destroyed, which concurs with Sartre’s formulation of Hegel’s master/slave dynamic as being a ‘deficiently actualized’[11] form of inter-subjectivity that is unable to engender true recognition…[and] the paradigm therefore becomes ultimately ‘self-subverting’[12].

Accordingly, O’s masochistic delight emphasises the failure of the masculine project of Roissy, which, while ostensibly striving for the physical satisfaction of male sexual desire, is in fact attempting to achieve a deeper form of intersubjective recognition. Because the sadist ‘requires evidence of others’ misery in order to feel pleasure in his own fortune, and is dependent on others for his status as master’[13], he is consequently lacking in autonomy. This causes a paradox in which the master becomes the slave owing to his dependence upon the person over whom he has domination. The slave consequently becomes the master:

[t]hough the sadist may consider himself or herself the cause of the masochist’s abject surrender, it is the masochist alone who determines the precise moment of complete submission.[14]

The sadist’s endeavour to appropriate another’s freedom fails when his victim chooses to be an object, as is demonstrated in O’s decision to be taken to Roissy and therein enslaved. Since she perceives herself from a subjective point of view and consequently is unable to be wholly objectified, O is ‘in Sartrean terms, a body and a consciousness in an independent situation’[15] which poses a threat to the male characters. Accordingly, when he takes her to Sir Stephen, René states ‘“[r]epeat it after me: “I belong to both of you, I will be what both of you want me to be”’.[16] While O is able to affirm that she will occupy the desired role of object, it is precisely owing to this consent, to this act of volition, that she will never provide the form of recognition which is required.

Accordingly, while O appears to have internalised patriarchal gender inequalities in justifying her submission through heterosexual love, by queering masochism the novel demonstrates that O’s submission subverts such a conception. When ‘devotion becomes masochistic, love becomes perverse’[17] and therefore ‘O’s idealistic attachment to René becomes displaced onto an erotic attachment to the performance of submission…rendering the persons who administer punishment increasingly peripheral.’[18] This is symptomatic of perceiving sadomasochism as a ‘deviation from the “normal” sexual aim that is heterosexual coitus and / or reproduction’[19], thereby creating ‘a sort of polymorphous perversity’[20] which enables the rethinking of ‘pleasure and / or sexuality in terms of one’s preference for “certain acts, certain zones and sensations.”’[21] Rather than yielding because she loves René, O instead chooses to submit because she derives pleasure from the pain. Krafft-Ebig’s study Psychopathia Sexualis describes how in masochism ‘“the individual affected, in sexual feelings and thought, is controlled by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to the will of a person of the opposite sex; and of being treated by this person as by a master, humiliated and abused.”’[22] As the novel depicts, O is not drawn to one particular master but rather to the idea of mastery, as is captured in the repeated changes of the individual who administers punishment. The fallacy of O’s justification for submission through heterosexual love is accordingly highlighted, while the interchangeability of masculine torturers demonstrates the power that a submissive holds over their master.

This seeming inconsistency between the locus of ostensible and actual power is most evident in the fact that Sir Stephen requires O’s consent. Like René, Sir Stephen requests of O that she obeys his every command, rendering the fulfilment of his desire contingent upon O’s choice. Sir Stephen therefore becomes dependent upon O as the ‘Other’ whose acquiescence enables him to performatively define the boundaries of his subjectivity. However, it is the absence of contingency towards which Sir Stephen and the project of Roissy aspire, and by depending upon the consent of O and the other submissives they are unable to achieve complete autonomy from the ‘Other’. This accords with Butler’s paraphrasing of Beauvoir that ‘[t]he radical dependency of the masculine subject on the female “Other” suddenly exposes his autonomy as illusory’[23]. The apotheosis is reached when Sir Stephen realises his love for O, exposing to himself the illusory nature of his autonomy. The moment that Sir Stephen is unable to deny O’s subjectivity, or his dependence upon her, he discards her rather than admit his contingency.

Unlike Sir Stephen, whose subjectivity is undermined by the contingency of his desires, O is affirmed by her intersubjective need for another. This is captured through the image of the vaginal ‘O’ which envelopes the ‘Other’, as opposed to the closed circles of patriarchy which resist intrusion, symbolising the taboo of the heterosexual male sphincter. Accordingly, Roissy is described as a ‘closed circle’[24] and O’s identity as a slave is symbolised by the ‘ring of iron and gold she wore on her left hand’[25] and the similar ring which pierces her labia, denoting coercive masculine ownership and the trapping or penetration of the female form. However, unlike women within conventional society whose genitalia denies them Sartrean subjecthood[26], O, through her submission, is able to convert the supposed void at the heart of her sex into a masochistic affirmation of her unique subjectivity. In being penetrated, and in using that penetration to formulate a submissive, performative identity, which includes and integrates the ‘Other’, O is able to achieve a stable and affirmative intersubjectivity. Therefore, while her very name, O, denotes emptiness, it also signifies pleasure and orgasm and through this, the possibility of achieving a performative identity for both herself and for the ‘Other’ who enters the void space. Unlike Sir Stephen, by admitting that there is an absence within her that only an ‘Other’ can fill, O is able to transcend desire into intersubjectivity[27], achieving the stable, fulfilling identity which the men of Roissy never acquire.

Therefore, rather than simply excluding the feminine, the male characters attempt to reconcile the contradiction of appropriating O’s submissive subjectivity while maintaining the closed circle of phallocentric discourse that refuses to recognise the possibility of female agency. This stands in contrast to the two main strands of feminist thought regarding the place of woman within patriarchal society, in which subjectivity is granted to the male and denied to the female, as Judith Butler summarises in Gender Trouble:

[for Beauvoir] women are the negative of men, the lack against which masculine identity differentiates itself; for Irigaray, that particular dialectic constitutes a system that excludes an entirely different economy of signification.[28]

Yet O’s achievement of a stable, integrated subjectivity through her performative submission – which is unavailable to the novel’s male characters – stands in contrast to both traditions. Unlike Beauvoir’s theorising of woman as negative and lack, and Irigaray’s positing of the closed, phallocentric signifying economy, it is precisely O’s presence, her intersubjective agency, which men attempt, and fail, to appropriate through the master/slave paradigm. Rather than absence or exclusion, for the men of Roissy, feminine flesh and submission is the constitutive material of their world, the point and purpose of their discussion, and the defining quality of a Domme’s performative identity. O’s very existence denies the closed phallocentric signifying economy, disproving the idea that personal identity is a product of masculine discourse.

Therefore, by asserting a queer sense of pleasure in submission, O achieves a performative identity which queers both feminist and patriarchal conventions of the possibility of female subjectivity. O’s acceptance of the void within her transforms desire into intersubjectivity and therefore she is able to reconcile the need for, and mediation of, the ‘Other’. This places her beyond the reach and understanding of conventional society, and accordingly she is unashamed when she is put on a leash and publicly displayed, leading guests to question whether she is human or instead ‘a thing of stone or wax’[29]. Owing to her queerness, O is ‘a creature of some other world’[30] in the sense that she transcends conventional gender boundaries, defeating both patriarchal and feminist strictures, and refusing to satisfy male desire, or to facilitate the achievement of the masculine conception of autonomy. By denying the absence within themselves, the male tormenters become the ‘O’, the nothingness, the void, vaginal space that is utilised in the sexual performance by which O constructs her identity. Unlike the failed existential project of Roissy, with its attempted enforcement of the Sartrean paradigm of subject/signifier object/signified[31], O achieves an authentic, and therefore queer, existence through the achievement of joy and transcendence in pain. The self-awareness and actualisation that she realises in masochism at Roissy allows O to define herself through her name, which, in enclosing a void space, and therefore allowing penetration, is thereby rendered complete and autonomous. Consequently, O is the ‘Other’, the illegible nothing who fails to accord with normative heterosexual or feminist definitions and as such forms a site of re-inscription of gender binaries. The terror that such emancipation would pose, both to masculinist and feminist orders, is symbolised in the novel’s alternative ending:

There existed another ending to the story of O. Seeing herself about to be left by Sir Stephen, she preferred to die. To which he gave his consent.[32]

It is human nature to destroy that which is feared, and to fear what is not understood, the queer and the transgressive.


[1] N. Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003) Preface v

[2] G. J. Rubinson, ‘On the Beach and Elsewhere’: Angela Carter’s Moral Pornography and the Critique of Gender Archetypes’ from C.L. Carlson, R.L. Mazzola and S.M. Bernado (eds.), Gender Reconstructions: Pornography and Perversions in Literature and Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2002) p.131

[3] Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, p.158

[4] P. Réage, Story of O (London: Transworld Publishers, 1972) pp.76-7

[5] ibid, p.77

[6] ibid, p.78

[7] Réage, Story of O, p.78

[8] ibid, p.19

[9] J. Benjamin, ‘The Bonds of Love: Rational Violence and Erotic Domination’, p.151

[10] ibid, p.150

[11] R. Williams, Hegel’s Ethics of Recognition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) p.10

[12] ibid, p.10

[13] C.J. Dean, The Self and its Pleasures: Bataille, Lacan, and the History of the Decentred Subject (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992) p.176

[14] D.R. Koukal, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature Vol. 34 (2001) pp.111-26 Retrieved from LION at 16:14 15/03/07 http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk/searchFulltext.do?id=R01607276&divLevel=0&queryId=../session/1173888875-62&trailId=110B6BBF249&area=abell&forward=critref-ft

[15] Koukal, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature

[16] Réage, Story of O, p.101

[17] J.K. Noyes, The Mastery of Submission: Inventions of Masochism (Cornell University Press, 1997) American Council of Learned Societies History E-Book Project Retrieved at 13:45 14/03/2007 http://ets.umdl.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=acls;;idno=heb02148, p.43

[18] ibid, p.44

[19] Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, p.151

[20] ibid, p.151

[21] Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, p.156

[22] Noyes, The Mastery of Submission: Inventions of Masochism, p.6, quotation from R von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis: A Medico-Forensic Study (New York: Pioneer, 1994) p.131

[23] J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1999) Preface pp.xxvii-i

[24] Réage, Story of O, p.103

[25] ibid, p.163

[26] Butler, Gender Trouble, pp.xxvii-xxviii

[27] Williams, Ethics of Recognition, pp.49-50

[28] Butler, Gender Trouble, p.14

[29] Réage, Story of O, p.261

[30] ibid, p.261

[31] Butler, Gender Trouble, pp.xxvii-xxviii

[32] Réage, Story of O, p.262

Women’s Suffrage: The Shut Mouth and Forced Ingestion

26 Aug

On the 5th of July 1909, female self-starvation became politicised as WSPU member Marion Wallace Dunlop initiated a hunger strike within Holloway Goal. Suffragettes famously embarked upon this strike in order to protest their confinement and punishment for public acts of physical insubordination that included breaking windows and chaining themselves to railings. Their rejection of food was a reaction to the government’s refusal to grant them the status of political prisoners. Rather than taking notice of and meeting the hunger strikers’ demands, however, the authorities responded with forcible-feeding.

The late Victorian contest for control of the female body reaches its apogee in the battle for woman’s suffrage. The female mouth, in this instance, which has been open in protest and then closed in resistance, becomes a site that embodies the sexual and political violence always present but often hidden in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century discourse on women’s ‘aberrant’ eating behaviours.

The hunger strikes that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century were not isolated incidents but were a product of the Victorian debate surrounding female eating habits. Women’s dietary requirements were monitored throughout the 1800s when there was much discussion upon the subject of what was appropriate for a woman to participate in or consume. According to newspaper articles and etiquette guides, women ought to eat less than men, while certain foods were considered altogether unsuitable. These restrictions that were placed upon the female body possessed a moral dimension since appetite was connected with sexuality. Woman’s hunger and consumption were therefore subject to constant regulation.

When the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded in 1903, its members endeavoured to gain recognition as subjective individuals, rather than submit to being defined in terms of their physiological form. One of the aims of the WSPU was to alter the perception that women were closely connected with their bodies. Ironically, this was achieved by starving the very object by which they were defined. Since it was problematic to classify women using bodies that were severely diminished by hunger strike, self-starvation contested the relationship between women and their physical form. The suffragettes used this bodily presence / absence to obtain a political and public existence.

Suffragettes campaigned for sexual equality and to alter patriarchal perceptions of women. Bodies were central to this agenda, Lucy Bland arguing that the suffrage movement aimed to achieve ‘the eradication of women’s experience of sexual objectification, sexual violence, and lack of bodily autonomy’. Medico-legal structures justified denying women admission to ‘masculine’ social and political spheres by pointing to the female body’s natural physical weakness in comparison to its masculine counterpart and arguing that a woman’s energy should be preserved for conceiving and bearing children.

The nineteenth century woman was defined in terms of her use as a reproductive entity. The productive capabilities of the female body and its social and political application are articulated by Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, within which he argues that the ‘political investment of the body is bound up, in with its economic use; it is largely as a force of production that the body is invested with relations of power and domination’. Perceived as objects that produce, rather than subjects who consume, a power dynamic was established in which women were reduced to their physical form and thus denied a political and legal existence. Foucault asserts, however, that this subjection was necessary in order to maintain women’s situation as productive beings: its constitution as labour power is possible only if it is caught up in a system of subjection…the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body.

Prior to the suffrage movement, women who were restricted by their role as producers protested this situation by engaging in self-starvation which suspended the body’s ability for production. The refusal to eat functioned as a female protest tactic throughout the nineteenth century and reached its climax in the hunger strikes of 1909. Women’s bodies that had been exploited for their reproductive capacities were reclaimed by the suffragettes, who, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, aimed to achieve emancipation from domestic life, taking their campaign to extreme measures using militant protest.

Jane Marcus develops the concept of rejecting these traditional female roles that were connected with the body, arguing that ‘[w]hen woman, quintessential nurturer, refuses to eat, she cannot nurture the nation.’ In a ‘symbolic refusal of motherhood’, the suffragettes refused to be defined in terms of the body and its capacity for bearing and nurturing children. In doing so, they challenged woman’s social responsibility of caring for the family, which in turn served as a microcosm of the state. Rejecting their maternal position within the familial sphere through self-starvation was therefore also a threat to the future of society as a whole.

Prior to the nineteenth century, bodies were publicly exploited to exemplify unlawful behaviour. Punishment was a universal spectacle that focussed upon the body with frequent executions and branding of criminals. However, during the 1800s, ‘the great spectacle of physical punishment disappeared; the tortured body was avoided; the theatrical representation of pain was excluded from punishment.’ The suffragettes revived the spectacular element of punishment by bringing the suffering body back into the public view through inflicting the self-punishment of hunger strike. This in turn initiated further physical ‘punishment’ through force-feeding which, owing to its widespread report in contemporary literature and illustrations, enabled the suffering body to once more assume centre stage. The suffragette in her solitary cell thus became the protagonist of her own theatrical production that was viewed by thousands.

Foucault, on the other hand, argues that following the close of the eighteenth century, bodies became unimportant in terms of punishment and were only touched in order ‘to reach something other than the body itself.’ The body was thought of as an instrument or intermediary: if one intervenes upon it to imprison it, or to make it work, it is in order to deprive the individual of a liberty that is regarded both as a right and as property. The suffragettes, however, demonstrated that the imprisoned body did not merely serve as an intermediary, but was itself a symbol of woman’s experience, damaged and starved by political inequalities. Assuming the role of their own torturers, these women inflicted punishment upon themselves in order to illustrate the injurious potential of being denied access to the public sphere. The suffragettes were thereby able to expose the extent of their political and social reduction through the spectacle of their bruised and emaciated bodies.

While Foucault writes that as an instrument, the body ‘is caught up in a system of constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions’, the suffragettes revealed the extent to which their bodies were already constrained. The nineteenth-century woman was bound by patriarchal society, defined in terms of her body and imprisoned within the domestic sphere. Incarceration only served to exaggerate women’s social and political position, while the hunger strike called attention to female minds that were starved of education and employment.

The nineteenth-century female body is inextricably linked to punishment, politics and power. According to Foucault, the body and the ‘power relations’ with which it is invested are always central to punishment since: in our societies, the systems of punishment are to be situated in a certain “political economy” of the body…it is always the body that is at issue – the body and its forces, their utility and their docility, their distribution and their submission.

These power relations are clearly played out in the case of the suffragette hunger strikes and government force-feeding, wherein the struggle to assume control of the female body accords with Foucault’s notion of power. Rather than being distributed throughout society via a ‘top-down’ system originating from a single patriarchal source, ‘power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate’. The suffragettes’ power lay in their decision to embark upon a hunger strike, which in turn provoked medical response to force-feed the starving women. In the power struggle between the prison doctor and the suffragette, the hunger strike left women weak and seemingly more malleable to masculine authority. Yet, the prisoners were able to use this weakness as a form of power. Roberts write that ‘[t]he hunger strike was a species of passive resistance’, a phrase which critic Jane Marcus also uses to describe hunger striking, adding that it was a ‘weapon…used by the obviously weak against the powerful’. The suffragettes were far from weak, however, their very imprisonment suggests that they were in fact regarded as a powerful group since otherwise they would pose no threat and would not require incarceration.

It is particularly significant that the body was used as a tool to gain political status at the end of the nineteenth century, coming shortly after the diagnosis of self-starvation as anorexia nervosa in 1873 and in a century obsessed with the regulation of female bodies and women’s relation to food. W. Vandereycken and Ron Van Deth question whether ‘the self-starvation of anorexic patients perhaps served as an example? Or had anorexia itself been an expression of silent protest within the walls of the Victorian bourgeois home?’ Female self-starvation, both in the form of anorexia nervosa and the suffragette hunger strike, have the same origin. They arise as part of the battle for control of the female body within Victorian society. Suffragette prisoners and women diagnosed as anorexic both used food refusal as a weapon against patriarchal authority. Both wanted to be perceived as volitional beings, rather than the ‘weaker’ sex, defined in terms of the body and governed by its reproductive organs.

Despite the connection between anorexia nervosa and hunger strikes, however, the motives behind anorexic and hysterical self-starvation were regarded as distinct from that of suffragette prisoners. While Gull identified his patients as suffering from ‘mental perversity’ and Lasègue theorised that anorexia was hysterical in origin, suffragettes starved themselves in protest against the government’s refusal to grant them first division status. According to a report published in The British Medical Journal in 1912, this meant that they were ‘in a normal mental condition, which cannot be said of the patients who refuse food in the asylums’ since ‘there is certainly no evidence of “hysteria”’. Whereas suffragettes ceased self-starvation once they reached their political goal, the goal of the anorexic could only be achieved once patriarchy ceased its attempt to control female bodies and women’s lives in general.

Tamar Heller and Patricia Moran maintain that ‘the anorexic—like her discursive and etiological sister, the hysteric—is apparently on a hunger strike against domesticity and the lack of nourishment it provides for women, the kind of hunger for a sphere outside the domestic’. The suffragette hunger strikers campaigned for emancipation from the private sphere for all women, whereas the anorexic’s food refusal was part of an individual battle to gain control of her own body. By refusing to eat, the suffragettes transformed self-starvation from the personal to the political.

Foucault states that ‘in punishment-as-spectacle…it was always ready to invert the shame inflicted on the victim into pity or glory’. This was revived by the hunger strikers since their capacity to maintain their fasting, despite the violent force-feeding, glorified them as strong, determined individuals. Government authorities attempted to prevent this when on the 18th March, 1912 in response to a declaration that forcible-feeding should be stopped, the Home Secretary ‘firmly disagree[d], foreseeing mass suffrage martyrdom.’

With the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, self-starvation was viewed as a shameful illness that must be treated privately in the home or hospital before the patient was able to return to society. From a personal affair acted out within the privacy of the middle-class bourgeois home between the anorexic girl, her family and the attending physician, with the arrival of suffragette hunger strikers self-starvation became a public spectacle.

Unlike in the cases of anorexia nervosa, suffragette hunger striking was not the behaviour of individual women, but a political act in which many came together and starved themselves en masse. While medical practitioners and government officials considered hunger striking to be rebellious or suicidal, in reality its aim was to call attention to the political motive for what were judged as criminal offences.

The government and the medical establishment also held the belief that the hunger strikes were an attempt to reduce prison sentences. One physician, Dr Nesbit, writes that the hunger strikes were carried out as a method of avoiding punishment, describing the behaviour as ‘“a very cheap way of escaping the penalty of the law”’. A report published three years later, however, disagrees, stating that ‘[t]he suffrage prisoners…have never hunger struck to shorten their sentences, but only to obtain equality of prison treatment for prisoners convicted of like offences’.

Since their campaign was political, rather than personal, the imprisoned women only refused food until their demands were met. The true motives for the hunger strike are recounted by suffragettes themselves in fictional and autobiographical writings, such as K. Roberts’ ‘Some Pioneers and a Prison’, published in 1913. In her work, Roberts reveals that since petitions proved useless in gaining first division status, ‘it was determined to make a protest by politely and quietly declining to wear the prison clothes and eat the prison food’. Members of the WSPU protested ‘against second division treatment, among ordinary criminals, being given to a woman who had committed political offences.’ The narrator does not consider her actions to be ‘an offence at all’, but merely a demonstration against the inequality of government law.

Self-starvation was a protest against injustice, not only of women’s treatment in general, but of the way in which the campaign against this injustice was perceived by authority figures. In a report published in 1909, C. Mansell Moullin writes that: they are fighting for a political idea. Even the Government, though it will not treat them as political prisoners, does not venture to deny that. For this they are being treated as common criminals, in a way that men never are, and forcible feeding is resorted to because that is the only way in which the Government can make the continuance of their punishment as common criminals possible. By diagnosing suffragette behaviour as criminal, the government was able to discount women’s appeal for political power.

Similarly, a few decades earlier, physicians had diagnosed women who took control of their own bodies through self-starvation as being of unsound mind and suffering from the ‘disease’ anorexia nervosa. Nineteenth-century patriarchal structures defined what they considered to be undesirable behaviour as criminal, insane or the result of physical illness in order to justify ignoring female subjectivity. Women’s efforts to challenge the status quo through political protest or by attempting to gain ownership of their bodies were discounted by the government, which defined their actions as abnormal or dangerous and requiring imprisonment and medical treatment.

Even though the days of the body as spectacle were over, authority figures continued in their attempt to regulate and normalise the rebellious female body. In the nineteenth century, ‘a whole army of technicians took over from the executioner, the immediate anatomist of pain: warders, doctors, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, educationalists’. Foucault’s argument that the executioner was replaced by the physician suggests that medical examination and treatment of the body is as violating as the pain and suffering caused by a public death.

J.S. Edkins, however, disagrees with this association, instead aiming to elevate the physician. Edkins’ remarks are one example of the opposition raised in the case of treating healthy women, writing that the use of force-feeding is ‘derogatory to the dignity of the medical profession that its members should be called in to treat with force healthy but recalcitrant prisoners.’ There is a suggestion in this of the status of the profession being removed only in degree from that of common executioner or flogging warder. According to this report, the suffragettes ought not be made to suffer the physical ‘punishment’ of force-feeding since this is beneath the dignity of the medical practioner whose job it should be to treat ill patients, rather than to administer violent procedures upon a healthy subject.

Despite this account, however, prison medical authorities did force-feed women, treating them as mere objects to be kept alive, while ignoring their mental state and subjectivity. This is exemplified in C. Lytton’s ‘Prisons and Prisoners’, the narrator of which relates that following her sixth force-feeding: ‘I complained to the doctor that the processes of digestion were absolutely stagnant. I suggested to him that he should leave out one meal, with a view to allowing the natural forces of the body to readjust themselves. The physician’s response symbolises masculine reactions to the suffragette campaign as a whole: ‘[h]e did not answer me, but turned to the head assistant…“Do you understand her? I don’t”’. Rather than treating the narrator as a reasonable being, the doctor finds her words nonsensical and he chooses to ignore her plea.

The suffragette’s perceivably incomprehensible words match her ‘irrational’ actions. The female language of self-starvation is dismissed by patriarchal authority as the ramblings of a lunatic. Some physicians diagnosed self-starvation itself as the symptom of an unbalanced mind, Dr Nesbit stating that: [i]f an otherwise healthy individual refuses food to the injury of her health and danger to her life, she is without doubt to my mind temporarily insane, just as much as a person taking a dose of poison in similar circumstances. Let the idea be what it may—political or otherwise—the mind is unhinged, and the individual must be guarded against herself. Forcible-feeding was thus justified by diagnosing hunger striking as the result of insanity, the subject’s lack of rational thought suggesting that she is incapable of decision making and does not really intend self-harm.

Richard Smith points to the ethical implications involved in allowing the hunger strike to continue: ‘even though he might start his strike in his right mind, sometime before he dies (and usually only very shortly before) he loses his faculties. How then for the next few days can the doctor continue to be sure that the prisoner knows what he is doing and wants to continue? He cannot.’ It may be questioned why women chose a form of protest that deliberately reduced and weakened their bodies, thus confirming patriarchal views that women were too frail to be granted political power. According to Adrienne Munich: they may have been responding, in part, to seductions of a dominant middle-class culture that claimed that women’s bodies, as well as political aspirations, should be small and subject to regulatory control. I add that the suffragettes challenged this masculine version of the ideal woman by using their physical fragility as a power mechanism to make a political statement. By purposefully weakening their bodies, the hunger strikers demonstrated, in an extreme form, the state in which they were kept by those who demanded their restriction to the private sphere. The vote would therefore enable women to exercise their full potential and develop as subjective individuals, rather than being reduced and inhibited by government law.

This was symbolised in suffrage propaganda, which Linda Schlossberg notes, ‘frequently imagines the vote itself to be a kind of sustenance’. Denied a voice, the suffragettes called attention to the fact that their political exclusion was a form of intellectual starvation. Their political non-existence thus became physically expressed through their wasting bodies. Self-starvation was not only a political statement; it was also a method of self-control achieved through refusing physical penetration. The politics of desire are made apparent in the practices of self-starvation and force-feeding. The closed mouth frustrates the opponent’s desire by refusing entry, while simultaneously preventing the subject from satisfying their own hunger or sexual desire. The subject and the object cannot access or satisfy their desire if one of the bodies is impenetrable.

The nineteenth-century woman was able to use refusal in order to gain power by maintaining ownership of her body, rather than surrendering it to her husband, doctor or prison authority. By closing the body and denying entry to external ideas, hunger-striking also served as a symbol of resistance to notions of women as weak, passive and inferior to men.

Conversely, feeding was a metaphor for the forced ingestion of patriarchal concepts of womanhood. The pain caused by forcible-feeding is symbolic of the damage inflicted upon women by these ‘ideals’ of Victorian femininity. Frustrating desire and causing immense suffering, the masochism of hunger-striking is referred to by Lady Constance Lytton as ‘“the weapon of self-hurt”’. Sylvia Pankhurst describes the discomforting experience of hunger strike, speaking of pains in the back, chest and stomach, lack of circulation and palpitations as ‘gradually the feeling of weakness and illness grows.’ Every day, she is able to perceive ‘that one has grown thinner, that the bones are showing out more and more clearly, and that the eyes are grown more hollow.’ Following release from prison, many suffragettes continued to experience problems with digestive functions and suffered from headaches and nervous symptoms.

The sacrifice involved in the suffrage campaign did not only include self-starvation, but even extended to suicide. In June 1912 during a mass force-feeding in Holloway Goal, Emily Wilding Davidson threw herself down a staircase, while the following year she cast herself under the King’s horse and was crushed to death.

These efforts were undermined, however, by the introduction of forcible-feeding. Patriarchal authorities attempted to neutralise the physical effects of the hunger strike, and the protest that it represented, by robbing suffragettes of a weapon that did not conform to masculine discourses of power. In 1909, 36 of the 110 hunger-striking suffragettes were force-fed. Like the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa in 1873, forcible-feeding of hunger striking prisoners was a method of controlling women’s bodies. In the British Medical Journal (1912), the Home Secretary stated that ‘force feeding was instituted by him to keep the suffrage prisoners in health’. He also assured that ‘the practice of forcible feeding is unattended by danger or pain,’ yet both were found to be untrue.

Forcible-feeding was put into practice in order to avoid death, while the process of feeding itself was painful and injurious. Prior to 1974 when the Home Secretary declared that ‘a prison medical officer would not be neglecting his duty if he did not feed a prisoner against his will’, there was considerable debate as to whether forcible-feeding should be carried out.

Some were concerned that allowing a prisoner to starve themselves to death meant that the supervising authority would be held responsible. One physician questioned: whether if a prison doctor provided substantial meals for a prisoner, but never bothered himself whether they were eaten or not, and the prisoner eventually died of starvation, the doctor could be held to be an accessory before the fact to suicide. In response, Mr Burrows stated that: it was a well-known principle of the Common Law that, where one person was in charge of another, who could not help himself or herself, there was an obligation on the person in charge to see that that person was properly fed and had proper attention. It became a concern that if women were left to starve, this would ‘bring the officials into conflict with a large number of prison rules’. The motivation for feeding the women was thus self-interest on the part of the attending physician who did not wish to be charged with manslaughter.

Others believed that it was their medical duty to sustain the prisoners’ lives, Dr Collingwood stating that ‘he feels that the only function of a medical officer as such is to prevent loss of life’. Unlike modern law which acknowledges ‘that a competent prisoner may choose to commit suicide by starvation’, suffragettes were not permitted to starve themselves to death. While in today’s society intervention only occurs when a prisoner is unable to make an informed decision, force-feeding took place on a regular basis in the case of the suffragette hunger strikes. During one case, Leigh v Gladstone, a woman who was forcibly-fed ‘later attempted to sue for trespass’ and was unsuccessful since it was perceived by the court as the doctor’s duty to prevent her death: Lord Alvestone, Lord Chief Justice, directed the jury, saying: “…as a matter of law it was the duty of the prison officials to preserve the health of the prisoners, and a fortiori to preserve their lives…”

Prior to the suffrage campaign, self-starvation was often used as a method of suicide in the Victorian prison. In his account, Philip Priestly records that ‘“[o]bstinate refusal of food, and an attempt to die by starvation were of common occurrence…always to be overcome by forcible feeding.”’ Force-feeding in this case was justified by claiming that it prevented the ‘crime’ of constant food refusal, since to starve oneself to death was regarded as a form of suicide. In one report written a few months following the onset of the hunger strikes, it is stated that self-starvation must be prevented since it is a form of suicide and therefore a criminal action: [i]f prisoners are kept in prison, it is clearly the duty of the authorities to prevent them committing other felonies, and it must not be forgotten that suicide is a felony. Thus, force-feeding was justified in these cases as being carried out in the name of duty and preventing crime.

Some medical authorities, however, were of the opinion that no intervention should be given in the case of hunger strike. Edward Thompson, Surgeon at Tyrone County Hospital, wrote in 1909 that ‘the duties of medical officers of prisons are, or should be, confined entirely to the treatment of sick prisoners’. According to this report, self-starving women should not be treated since their behaviour was not the result of illness. It was argued that the suffragettes should instead be permitted to assert control over their own bodies given that they are ‘political prisoners, and therefore should be allowed to do much as they please.’

In addition to these arguments, Bea Brockman writes that the forcible-feeding of suffragettes was ‘justified on paternalistic grounds…As in all paternalistic judgements, it was felt that the doctor “knows best”. The physicians who carried out the feeding did not ‘know best’ however. According to The British Medical Journal they ‘were acting practically as prison warders, and were putting their medical skill to an improper use by carrying out forcible feeding against the wishes of the patients.’ During the hunger strikes, doctors behaved unprofessionally as controlling authorities. Instead of acting in the best interests of the patient, they removed their autonomy in what equated to physical abuse. The British Medical Journal records that ‘[t]he public trusts in the profession, and has great faith in “medical treatment”’: by force-feeding suffragette prisoners, however, this trust was abused.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault states that ‘there may be a “knowledge” of the body that is not exactly the science of its functioning, and a mastery of its forces that is more than the ability to conquer them’. The medical and legal establishments claimed to possess knowledge of the female body, which in turn was used in the subjection of women. Since, according to Foucault, ‘power and knowledge directly imply one another’, this ‘knowledge’ of women placed men in a position of power over their female patients. Law, medicine and the regulation of women’s bodies are combined in the case of forcible-feeding, J. Price Williams writing that ‘[t]he fact that prison doctors are constables explains how this abuse has arisen, but does not justify it.’

The suffragettes were imprisoned by legal and medical authorities who exploited their power in order to dominate others: [t]he Constable-doctor comes to the aid of the Government with his skill as a doctor, his power as a constable, and, using the term “medical treatment” as a cloak, commits an act which would be an assault if done by any ordinary doctor. Using this ‘cloak’ of authority, the physician was able to control women by diagnosing their bodies as sick and in need of treatment, thereby forcing their submission to patriarchal authority.

Prior to the forcible-feeding of suffragette prisoners, anorexia nervosa and hysteria were treated in a similar fashion. In the nineteenth century treatment of anorexia, the patient was often removed from her family, superintended by nurses and provided with food at regular intervals. In the case of ‘Miss K. R—, aged fourteen’, reported by William Gull in 1888, ‘[a] nurse was obtained from Guy’s, and light food ordered every few hours’. Although Gull himself did not admit to using force-feeding, ‘[p]ublished clinical reports from doctors of lesser status…reveal that force-feeding was not uncommon in cases of anorexia nervosa’. An issue of the Lancet in 1888 states that one patient who ‘went to live in a farmer’s house some miles away, was forced to take “plenty of milk and fresh eggs,” and came home very much improved.’ In the same year, the journal published notes on the case of a nine year old girl who was also forcibly-fed: [s]mall quantities of liquid food were ordered to be given to her frequently; for a few times she voluntarily swallowed it, but on the 7th she became stupid, and everything had to be administered to her forcibly.

Force-feeding anorexic patients was not always successful, however. A report in an 1895 issue of the Lancet described a fatal case of anorexia. The patient refused food so ‘was fed an enemata of peptonised milk, beef tea, and brandy.’ This was carried out for two to three days and ‘[i]n ten days she could take a moderate diet by the mouth, but suffered from diarrhoea. On the thirteenth day after admission she rapidly became worse, the temperature rose to 102°F, and on the fifteenth day she died.’

Forcible-feeding was also performed in lunatic asylums upon women who refused to eat. In the case of hysterical patients, however, feeding was sometimes employed by the physician for their own financial gain and to secure a successful reputation. Joan Jacobs Brumberg states that ‘the medical entrepreneurs who ran the private asylums turned to the same procedures when they faced an intractable patient whose parents were paying handsomely to see her weight increase.’

In some cases, the threat of force-feeding was sufficient to encourage a hysterical woman to cease her starvation. J.A. Campbell, Superintendent of the Garlands Asylum in Carlisle, writes in The British Medical Journal (1878): [c]onsiderable numbers of girls in the hysteric state, who had refused food at home, when they were brought here, and the means and manner of giving it were explained to them, have at once given in and taken their food. I always make a point of taking such patients to see another fed with the pump. In order to discourage them from taking up the practice of self-starvation, asylum doctors ensured that new patients observed other women being forcibly-fed.

While this was often a successful method of prevention in the case of hysterical women, the threat of punishment failed to deter the suffragettes from their political hunger strike. The self-punishment of starvation and subsequent physically punishing practice of force-feeding was welcomed by the suffragettes because it drew attention to their campaign. Unlike hysterical and anorexic patients, members of the WSPU did not give in when faced with force-feeding but instead suffered for their cause. By utilising forcible-feeding, patriarchal authorities refused to acknowledge the political dimension of the suffragette starvation.

As in the case of anorexia nervosa, the prison doctor judged that treatment had been successful and the patient ‘normalised’ when her body no longer displayed signs of emaciation. Only the symptoms of the hunger strikes were treated, revealing that patriarchal perspectives upon women and their bodies underwent little alteration during the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In the struggle against political exclusion, the suffragettes’ bodies were bruised and battered in their arrest, and subsequently imprisoned, starved and force-fed. Yet, the authorities only saw emaciated bodies that could die under their supervision.

The process of force-feeding is graphically described in contemporary journals and works of fiction. In ‘Forcible Feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’ published in 1912, the authors disclose that ‘[t]he feeding cup method is frequently forcibly administered solely by the wardresses, without the supervision of a qualified medical practioner.’ The procedure was often carried out by women in which the wardresses became the agents of the patriarchs, carrying out their work. Women’s bodies were held down and restrained by other women’s bodies, the very bodies that the suffragettes fought to liberate. The force-feeding was violent and brutal, a power struggle of physical strength that symbolised the suffragettes’ political and social battle: [d]uring the struggle before the feeding, prisoners were held down by force, flung on the floor, tied to chairs and iron bedsteads. As might be expected, severe bruises were thus inflicted. The prisoner’s arms that were ‘held firmly, so that she could not move’ represent the restraints placed upon women by early twentieth-century society, while the bruises are visible marks of their suffering, both mental and physical.

It was not only the act of force-feeding itself that was injurious, there were many side effects. A report in the British Medical Journal states that ‘[i]n most cases local frontal headache, earache, and trigeminal neuralgia supervened, besides severe gastric pain, which lasted throughout the forcible feeding, preventing sleep.’ Choking, vomiting, palpitation, faintness, and cold temperature were common, while in one case, food was accidentally injected into the lung.

In accounts of forcible-feeding, the mouth is often the focal point of the procedure, Agnes Savill and Victor Horsley recording that ‘[w]hen the oesophageal tube was employed the mouth was wrenched open by pulling the head back by the hair over the edge of a chair, forcing down the chin, and inserting the gag between the teeth.’ During the feeding ‘the lips, inside of the cheeks, and gums were frequently bruised, sometimes bleeding and sore to touch for days after.’ The mouth becomes stopped up with food in order to prevent speech, its bleeding a symbol of how the female voice was damaged by those who did not heed its words and instead demanded its silence. The injured mouth not only represents the wounded voice, its closure also suggests a refusal to be penetrated. If this is the case, as critics such as Jane Marcus have noted, ‘[t]he depictions of forcible feeding on several suffragette representations may be clearly read as rape scenes.’ The brutality of rape is depicted during the feeding, as the mouth was forced open ‘by sawing the edge of the cup along the gums’, while ‘[t]he nasal mucus membrane was frequently lacerated’ and the process left the ‘throat…swollen and sore’. The throat became the vaginal passageway which was torn and injured during the force-feeding, pointing to the sexual abuse that women’s bodies suffered at the hands of men.

The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century female body was used for sexual purposes and to bear children, both of which caused internal physical harm. Despite the critics who define this procedure as rape, however, I would argue that to do so marginalises self-starvation as an act of political agency. The suffragettes could choose whether or not to eat and were aware of the consequences of not doing so. Suffragettes permitted themselves to be violated as since they could have discontinued the hunger-strike at any point, force-feeding could have been prevented.

The fact that the self-starvation was sustained is an indication of women’s power in which they compelled prison doctors to create suffragette martyrdom through repeated force-feeding. To simply view the procedure as rape fails to account for this element of choice and instead subscribes to the conventional power dynamic which the suffragettes intended to resist.

Often, however, forcible-feeding failed to increase the prisoner’s weight and health. A report in The British Medical Journal states that: ‘[h]owever successful it may have proved in patients suffering from other diseases, the experience of the last year or two seems to prove pretty conclusively that it fails very frequently, if not always, in the case of the suffragist hunger strikers’. The phrase ‘other diseases’ suggests that the suffragettes’ self-starvation was regarded as an illness that ought to be pathologised, treated and thereby controlled. This echoes the diagnosis of self-starvation as anorexia nervosa in 1873.

Stating that self-starvation is a physical condition, a ‘disease’, the report later claims that it is a mental decision capable of affecting physicality: ‘[i]t seems quite possible that digestion, absorption, and assimilation may all be more or less inhibited by an effort of the will’. According to this, suffragettes were able to volitionally hinder digestive processes, suggesting that self-starvation was controlled by the subject. This contradicts the article’s earlier classification of self-starvation as a disease.

Despite these assertions, the hunger-striking could not be ‘cured’ since it was not an illness, nor did women have control over their digestive functions. Suffragette food refusal was politically motivated and this behaviour was repeated until their demands were met. This article reduces the political to the physical in stating that it is otherwise.

The female body as an object to be fought over is symbolically portrayed by what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act. Introduced on March 25th 1913, the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Bill was ‘[a]imed specifically at the suffragettes, the law enabled the government to release a hunger-striking prisoner and reincarcerate her after she recovered’. Suffragettes were released from prison, to return when their health was restored. Once back in prison, however, the hunger strike would resume, this cycle of imprisonment and release driven solely by the body. In 1912, it was stated in the House of Commons that: of 102 cases of prisoners who joined in the hunger strike we have investigated, forty-six were released long before the termination of their sentences, because their health had been so rapidly reduced as to alarm the medical officers. The language of the act posits women as mice, victims pursued by the government. Women become prey, consumable objects to be caught, toyed with and finally gobbled up by patriarchal authorities, a process which Sylvia Pankhurst found to grow ‘[i]ncreasingly wearying and painful’.

On October 21st 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst delivered a speech in New York entitled ‘Why We Are Militant’, during which she referred to the suffrage campaign and subsequent imprisonment as a ‘battle’. The battle for control of the female body at the outset of the twentieth century came to involve the diametrically opposed behaviours of female hunger striking and masculine forcible-feeding. Speaking of the ‘joy of battle and the exultation of victory, Emmeline Pankhurst expressed the enjoyment of fighting to reclaim women’s minds and bodies. Suffragettes used their bodies to fight for their minds, they were ‘women fighting for a great idea’. Their cause was social, aiming ‘for betterment of the human race’, even though the methods that they chose to achieve it were considered anti-social and rebellious. The betterment of the human race was achieved ‘through the emancipation and uplifting of women.’ The battle for control of the female body was injurious to the bodies of those who fought, yet it was in order to secure a better life, for the minds and bodies of the women who were to follow: [t]he battle cost the lives of a few, and the health of most of those who went through it: but it has secured slightly better conditions and a different status for political prisoners in the future. It is a thing that we can always be proud that even—even after forcible feeding was permitted, or, rather, ordered by the Home Secretary—not one of our women gave in. The suffragettes who engaged in the hunger strikes of 1909 did not act in vain because in 1928, women over twenty one were granted the vote.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

Some Concluding Thoughts on Hysteria

18 Aug

During the nineteenth century, women’s language was restricted to the universal signifying order, which, while providing a basis for masculine subjecthood, was unable to fulfil women’s ontological requirements. Female use of masculine language merely reinforced the hegemonic order and led to further internalisation of its precepts. While the female hysteric was part of the masculine economy, she was powerless, confined to the domestic sphere wherein having no access to her own language she was precluded from the possibility of subjecthood. For women the only method of acquiring subjectivity was to utilise non-symbolic, bodily forms of communication. The psychosomatic nature of such expression challenged the epistemological basis of patriarchy founded upon Cartesian dualism and binary notions of gender. Confronted with such a contestation to its fundamental principles, patriarchal society posited the hysteric as Other which provided a justification for controlling female expression. Since only mutually intelligible utterances become comprehensible intercourse, the patriarchal refusal to accept transgressive female expression as a language resulted in the diagnosis of hysteria.

Such an ability to define permissible forms of linguistic communication became the central coercive device of the ‘closed masculine signifying economy’ [1], fundamental to which was the Kristevean mirror stage that ensured a subject/object division. By designating themselves as active individuals within such a binary, patriarchal subjects remained in control of masculine exchange. However, the frequent inability of the Victorian female character to recognise her reflection destabilised the subject/object binary established in the mirror stage. This thereby prevented the occurrence of the thetic phase by inhibiting delimitation of the fundamental components of masculine communication, self and Other. The hysteric therefore transgressed masculine society by existing beyond conceptions of subject and object, thereby invalidating the inherent power differential between those who are posited and those who posit.

The destabilising effect of such transgression was compounded by limitations in medical diagnostic ability which further undermined the Cartesian binary that was utilised by patriarchal society as a form of containment. Owing to the difficulty of observing and validating psychological phenomena, medical practioners accordingly preferenced easily quantifiable physical symptoms. Therefore, in spite of the attempt by the medical establishment to contain hysteria by promoting Cartesian dualism, the focus upon physical symptoms rather than emotional states created the potential for a further destabilisation of masculine control. This was due to the physician inadvertently promoting psychosomatic expression by encouraging women to disproportionately emphasise or invent physical components of psychological afflictions in order to receive treatment. The resulting proliferation of hysteria and irruption of the female chora therefore destabilised the masculine symbolic order.

Such contamination of symbolic masculine society with the urges of the ‘feminine’ body reintroduced the certainty of death to patriarchal society which existed in part to defend the masculine psyche from the realisation of the inevitability of mortality. This resulted from the exposure of women’s bodies to the damaging potential of the Kristevean death drive which the defensive construction of masculine symbolic language[2] attempted to resist. Accordingly, in Wuthering Heights Hindley Earnshaw’s wife Frances ‘began describing with hysterical emotion the effect it produced on her to see black…she felt so afraid of dying’[3]. Such hysterical transgression of masculine symbolic language and reintroduction of the death drive is also portrayed by Lucy Westenra who begins to resemble ‘a corpse after a prolonged illness’[4] and Catherine Earnshaw whose ‘cheeks, at once blanched and livid, assumed the aspect of death.’[5]

Fear of the chora and its transgressive potential is also apparent in masculine responses to menstrual blood which, being ‘a physiological marker of social disruption’[6], was a fundamental form of hysterical expression. Edgar Linton notes that Catherine ‘“has blood on her lips”’[7], a symbol of menstruation and an embodiment of Edgar’s concern of the Other’s uncontrollability. Therefore, rather than occurring via vocalisation which can be silenced, hysteria is communicated through the labial lips of the sexualised female body. Accordingly, as Baudrillard states, since ‘[o]nly the wounded body exists symbolically’[8], hysteria does not employ the schism of masculine language but communicates via the female wound in the hegemonic order ‘that would never heal’[9]. Similarly, pregnancy and childbirth, which also involve the release of transgressive female fluids, further destabilise the patriarchal order. Pregnant women in particular were perceived as threatening owing to their susceptibility to puerperal insanity which, by potentially leading to infanticide, subverted ideological notions of femininity and the nineteenth century family.

For the masculine order the female propensity towards transgressive hysterical physicality provided an excuse for denying women subjectivity. However, since ‘[h]ysteria is associated with women’s exclusion from the sphere of representation’[10] such prohibition became essentially self-fulfilling, promoting the very transgression that it endeavoured to prevent. This is depicted in Jane Eyre when Mrs Reed responds to Jane’s ‘wild, involuntary cry’[11] with an admonition that ‘“until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent.”’[12] As the novel’s plot reveals, restraint serves only to promote a more violent reaction. One such manifestation was the hysterical symptom of choking which was diagnosed by Jorden as Suffocation of the Mother since the capacity for expression was literally asphyxiated.

Female expression was also smothered by psychiatry through a masculine-conceived unconscious that disregarded a hysterical ontology which was unintelligible to the hegemonic order. Rather than attempting to engage with a potentially challenging alternative viewpoint, psychoanalysis instead imprisoned the female by re-inscribing hysteria according to masculine conceptions. As a result, nineteenth century representations of hysteria are ambiguous:

[o]n the one hand, representing woman as an inherently unstable female body authorizes ceaseless medical monitoring and control. But on the other hand, this representation of woman as always requiring control produces her as always already exceeding the control that medicine can excise.[13]

Therefore, by exceeded psychiatric containment hysteria challenged the very possibility of the medical epistemological project:

the language of hysteria forces its investigator to realise he cannot define or identify his subject, and thus it demarcates the limitations of the system of representation that it seeks to classify[14].

Accordingly, as patriarchy found hysterical language incomprehensible its very unintelligibility threatened the stability of the masculine order which attempted to contain it since hysteria emphasised hegemonic limitations.

Such destabilisation and mutual unintelligibility drew attention to semiotic female expression and symbolic masculine discourse as non-unified languages which can exist in isolation. As Julia Kristeva argues, hysterical and non-hysterical languages are both semiotic and symbolic:

[b]ecause the subject is always both semiotic and symbolic, no signifying system he produces can be either “exclusively semiotic or “exclusively” symbolic. And is instead necessarily marked by an indebtedness to both.[15]

Hysterical and masculine languages are thus only differentiated by their ratio of semiotic to symbolic content. Since hysteria is primarily expressed psychosomatically its focus upon the body marks it as predominantly semiotic, whereas medicalisation is symbolic because it externally represents physicality in the form of written and verbal symbols which render the body absent.

When either hysteria or medicalisation is viewed in isolation a disjunction occurs which causes loss of meaning. During psychosomatic communication the hysterical expression of semiotic drives and urges through the body results in a gap between the hysteric and the masculine receiver through which the semiotic drives of the hysteric cannot negotiate. It is in this space between subject and object, between signifier and signified that the meaning of hysteria becomes lost. Just as Virginia Woolf argued that ‘a room of her own’[16] was necessary for writing purely female literature, so too is segregation from masculine society necessary for the hysteric to create a purely female language. However, in doing so the female subject becomes trapped within a room of her own, wherein without a means of directing drives away from her body she is eventually consumed by her hysteria and unable to transmit meaning beyond her own physicality. Ultimately, the nineteenth-century novel portrays ‘women’s carceral condition as her fundamental and final truth’[17] since the critique that the hysteric poses of the masculine system becomes eliminated and re-inscribed when the woman is locked away, shut out of discourse behind Gilman’s suffocating and silencing yellow wallpaper where ‘nobody [can] climb through that pattern – it strangles so.’[18]

Instead, it is only by interrogating both masculine and feminine conceptions and ontological theories of hysteria that a meaningful appreciation of the condition can be attained. Neither language alone is able to adequately communicate female experience within the Victorian era therefore understanding can only be reached through examining their interaction. By doing so it is possible to synthesise a new language which is both male and female, symbolic and semiotic, and thus intelligible in a manner that neither hysteria or medicalisation can be in isolation.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1999), p.14

[2] J. Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, in T. Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader: Julia Kristeva (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.103

[3] E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights (London: Penguin Books, 1995), I, chapter 6

[4] B. Stoker, Dracula (London: Penguin Books, 1994), chapter 10

[5] Brontë, Wuthering Heights, I, chapter 11

[6] S. Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p78

[7] Brontë, Wuthering Heights, I, chapter 11

[8] J. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation – The Body in Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism, trans. by S. Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), p.114

[9] A. Carter, The Passion of New Eve (London: Virago Press, 2000), p.52

[10] M. Jacobus, Reading Women: Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.29 in, P.M. Logan, Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century British Prose (Califonia: University of California Press, 1997), p.9

[11] C. Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin Books, 1996), I, chapter 2

[12] ibid, I, chapter 1

[13] C. Gallagher and T. Laqueur, eds., The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century (London: University of California Press, 1987), p.147

[14] E. Bronfen, The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), p.102

[15] Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, p.93

[16] V. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: The Penguin Group, 1945), chapter 1

[17] Gallagher, The Making of the Modern Body, p.122

[18] C.P. Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in, D.S. Davies, ed., Short Stories from the Nineteenth Century (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2000), p.204

The Hysterical Female Subject

18 Aug

The nineteenth century female experience was one of domestic confinement in which the fathers of Victorian paterfamilias exerted sovereignty over their wives and daughters. As ‘[t]he ideal woman was willing to be dependent on men and submissive to them’[1] praise was awarded to those who ‘subordinated themselves totally to the wishes of the master of the household’[2]. Women were therefore encouraged to act in accordance with these conventions of femininity through a process of positive reinforcement to which obedience was fundamental. In this manner the symbolic patriarchal family organised and constrained the female chora, validating only certain forms of expression. Such constraint limited the range of possible, non-symbolic articulation: as Ilza Veith notes, ‘the hysterical symptoms “were modified by the prevailing concept of the feminine ideal”’ [3]. Thus:

in the nineteenth century women were expected to be delicate and vulnerable both physically and emotionally, and this construction of femininity was reflected in the disposition to hysteria[4].

Accordingly, there was a similarity between contemporary ideological notions of the female and that of the hysteric which required extensive policing through medicalisation. Since hysteria was such an amorphous concept, and so closely linked to contemporary ideologies of femininity, the difference between the two became a matter of patriarchal judgement, resting upon the opinion of the physician. For the hegemonic order this ensured that society remained monolithic since ‘social conformity…became an index of sanity’[5] and it was through non-conformity that insanity was adjudged. Thus, via medicalisation and enforced submission patriarchy was able to coerce and govern the forms of socially-sanctioned expression that were available to women. However, through an exploration of the hysteric and the female vampire it will be demonstrated how such certainties of control betray an underlying anxiety concerning the fragility of masculine binaries.

While the Victorian ideology for women of a high socio-economic status was one of domestic felicity, contemporary literature contrastingly depicts the nightmarish lives of house-bound women in which hysteria is a constant spectre. In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Lucy Snowe endures mental suffocation during her service to Miss Marchmont, an elderly woman confined by rheumatism to ‘[t]wo hot, close rooms’[6]. Within such stifling residence Lucy states that ‘[a]ll within [her] became narrowed to [her] lot.’[7] Similarly, Lucy flees the Pensionnat de Demoiselles in order to relieve her claustrophobia that is manifested in the house-roof pressing upon her, as ‘crushing as the slab of a tomb’[8]. Likewise, when Emily Brontë’s Catherine Earnshaw is confined by illness to Thrushcross Grange, she suffers from such an intense feeling of captivity that she begs Nelly to ‘“[o]pen the window again wide”’[9] in a desperate attempt to escape onto the vast space of the moor.

When confined indoors women had little contact with the language of masculine society and were consequently denied the intersubjectivity of social interaction. Even within the home itself women were refused vicarious access to patriarchal discourse, exemplified through Jane Eyre who is forbidden to read her cousin’s books. John Reed warns ‘“I’ll teach you to rummage the book-shelves: for they are mine”’[10] before making Jane the target of his possessive anger when he throws a volume across the drawing room. John thereby demonstrates that he is part of a masculine order that sanctions his exclusive ownership and use of such literature. Rather than engaging Jane in reasoned discussion, John instead uses physical violence and the infliction of pain in order to convey his ownership: ‘the volume was flung, it hit me’[11]. Likewise, Emily Brontë signifies how patriarchal discourse restrains and denies the feminised semiotic in Wuthering Heights. When confronted with Catherine Earnshaw’s ghost Mr Lockwood prevents her from entering the shattered window pane by ‘pil[ing] the books up in a pyramid against it’[12], creating a wall of masculine, symbolic language through which the female chora cannot penetrate.

This exclusion of women from linguistic discourse during the Victorian era ‘brought the nervous body and its protean complaints into being’[13] exemplified in the increasing female propensity to hysterical expression. As Elisabeth Bronfen notes, such proclivity is owing to the fact that ‘hysteria exists only insofar as it results from a given network of medical, supernatural, religious, and aesthetic discourses’[14]. However, the corollary is also true – just as the condition is shaped by medical discourse, so too is the nature of that discourse shaped by its Other – the hysterical woman who resists classification. With the growing prominence and canonisation of medical opinion during the nineteenth century, the physician’s increasing preoccupation with, and diagnosis of, hysteria was due to the threat that the condition posed to medical intelligibility. This in turn challenged the masculine, empiricist rationality which underpinned scientific certainty used to justify the entire patriarchal order. Since the hysteric ‘suffered from the lack of a public voice to articulate their economic and sexual oppression’[15], their symptoms ‘seemed like bodily metaphors for [their] silence’[16]. Hysterical women therefore posed a permanent challenge to the epistemological foundation of the Victorian medical project and the values of the society that it reflected.

Through this non-verbal, bodily protest the hysteric’s challenge to medical and epistemological certainties created a dissonance within masculine hegemony whose effect seemed far louder than any linguistic complaint: as Hélène Cixous writes, ‘“[t]he great hysterics have the last speech, they are aphoric”’[17]. While Luce Irigaray states that masculine language excludes the feminine by positing woman as ‘both the subject and the Other…of a closed phallogocentric signifying economy that achieves its totalising goal through the exclusion of the feminine’[18], language cannot exclude that which is not spoken.  It is therefore precisely through being designated Other that the hysteric gains power. By utilising a form of communication that is beyond the masculine definition of language their form of expression cannot be excluded.

However, while patriarchy is unable to prevent such a form of communication, the challenge that it poses to the prevailing order serves as a justification for masculine control. As Cixous writes, ‘the hysteric “makes-believe” the father, plays the father, “makes-believe” the master[19] in the sense that she occupies the role of the Other which they strive to control. Therefore, women in general, and the hysteric in particular, construct masculine society in positing themselves as the negative image, the terrifying, nebulous chaos against which patriarchy is self-defined: ‘without the hysteric there’s no father…without the hysteric, no master, no analyst, no analysis!’[20]

This self-definition is achieved through the utilisation of a patriarchal language which also functions as a means of controlling the female Other within a closed masculine signifying economy. [21] Inherent in forms of communication is the automatic positing of subject and object: if self and Other are absent, the entire universe becomes a single undifferentiated entity. It is owing to the distinction between self and Other that communication becomes necessary. For Kristeva, the awareness of such a separation is termed the ‘thetic phase’[22], occurring at the mirror stage during which the subject acknowledges their distinction from surrounding objects and their desire to communicate with the separate object world. However, within such a form of communication one party is active in its ability to posit, while the other remains passive and classifiable. Therefore, control of communication is vital to the masculine order as power lies in the ability to resist categorisation and to position the female as Other. Since the subject becomes an active agent with the ability to place the Other participant within the submissive, signified position, patriarchy is able to maintain its hegemony by controlling language and ensuring that it remains the subject with the authority to posit and resist being posited.

However, in a parody of Kristeva’s mirror phase, the characters of nineteenth century literature frequently fail to recognise their own reflection, thereby rejecting the mirror phase of thetic communication and circumventing masculine control of language. When gazing in the looking-glass in the red-room at Gateshead Jane Eyre speaks of a ‘strange little figure there gazing at me’[23] and on her wedding day at Thornfield sees ‘a robed and veiled figure, so unlike [her] usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger.’[24] Charlotte Brontë herself described her own nervousness ‘as a “horrid phantom”’[25], akin to the reflected ghost that Jane says ‘has the effect of a real spirit’[26], and to the ‘“face”’ [27] that Catherine Earnshaw perceives in the black press at Thrushcross Grange. These phantom reflections are the characters’ Other, part of, yet unrecognisable to, the subject.

For characters unable to recognise their own reflection, expression cannot be thetic according to Kristevean theory as self and Other cannot be delimited without the mirror stage. Accordingly, in creating an idiosyncratic language the hysteric becomes both subject and object, producing and receiving her own communication. Consequently, the hysteric’s entire discourse becomes self-contained, directed towards her seemingly alien mirror image which functions as her Other. Hysterical language therefore becomes infinitely reflective, causing the abyss and hollow realm of Lucy’s ‘hollow-eyed vision’[28] and Jane’s vision in the red-room mirror whose depths are involuntarily explored by her ‘fascinated glance’ [29].

Since Kristeva theorised that the symbolic ‘is a social effect of the relation to the other’[30], hysterical discourse transcends social order due to its pre-symbolic nature. The hysterical woman is therefore independent and does not require an Other in order to define her identity. Yet this poses a problem as a language that is reflected back upon the subject is only intelligible to the self. Consequently, hysterical discourse cannot be a form of universal communication, instead creating a prison within which the female subject becomes confined.

This relationship between hysteria and mirror image is also explored through the figure of the female vampire who, casting no reflection, has no Other either in masculine society or through her own likeness. Therefore, when Jane Eyre sees Bertha’s ‘“visage and features quite distinctly in the dark oblong glass”’ her face is described as ‘“fearful and ghastly”’[31], reminding Jane ‘“[o]f the foul German spectre – the Vampyre”’[32], a creature who casts no reflection, merely staring into a void, unable to ‘Other’ herself. The vampire’s absence of reflection therefore destabilised patriarchal binaries as for characters such as Lucy Westenra there is neither self nor Other, masculine nor feminine, and consequently both hysterical and symbolic communication are impossible.

Therefore, patriarchy attempted to prevent female transgression through the medium of masculine language and the maintenance of linguistic control, central to which was the enshrining of medical opinion and the authority of the physician. However, through physical expression and a rejection of the thetic phase fundamental to masculine symbolic language the hysteric was able to destabilise the subject/object binary and the medical opinion by which it was supported. This challenged Victorian ideological conceptions of feminine passivity that complimented masculine assertiveness, thereby reflecting the certainty of patriarchal power back upon the masculine subject. Such fear of the ‘unfeminine’ woman reaches its apotheosis in the figure of the female vampire who, rather than mirroring the masculine gaze, denies the masculine subject the possibility of seeing a reflection of his own power and effect through the female Other. In doing so, the hysteric, and in particular the female vampire, emphasises ‘[t]he radical dependency of the masculine subject on the female “Other”’ and thereby ‘exposes his autonomy as illusory.’[33] In casting no reflection, the vampire draws attention to the irrelevance of the gaze, not only by challenging masculine authority but also showing its absence.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] D. Gorham, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal, (London: Croom Helm, 1982), p.4

[2] A.S. Wohl, ed., The Victorian Family, Structures and Stresses (London: Croom Helm, 1978), p.63

[3] I. Veith, Hysteria: The History of a Disease (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), p.209 in, E. Bronfen, The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), p.225

[4] ibid, p.209

[5] S. Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.35

[6] C. Brontë, Villette (London: Penguin Books, 2004), chapter 4

[7] ibid, chapter 4

[8] ibid, chapter 15

[9] E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights (London: Penguin Books, 1995), chapter 12

[10] C. Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin Books, 1996), I, chapter 1

[11] ibid, I, chapter 1

[12] Brontë, Wuthering Heights, I, chapter 3

[13] P.M. Logan, Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century British Prose (Califonia: University of California Press, 1997), p.2

[14] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, p.102

[15] E. Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (London, Picador, 1997), p.55

[16] ibid, p.55

[17] ‘Castration or Deception?’ in, Signs 7 (1981), pp.36-55 in, P.M. Logan, Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century British Prose (Califonia; University of California Press, 1997), p.9

[18] J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity ­(London: Routledge, 1999), p.14

[19] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, preface

[20] ibid, preface

[21] Butler, Gender Trouble, p.14

[22] J. Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, in T. Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader: Julia Kristeva (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.98

[23] Brontë, Jane Eyre, I, chapter 2

[24] ibid, II, chapter 11

[25] T.J. Wise and J.A. Symington, The Bronte’s: Their Lives, Friendships and Correspondence, 4 vols (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1933), III, p.8 to Ellen Nussey, 14th July 1849 in, S. Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.31

[26] Brontë, Jane Eyre, I, chapter 2

[27] Brontë, Wuthering Heights, I, chapter 12

[28] Brontë, Villette, chapter 4

[29] Brontë, Jane Eyre, I, chapter 2

[30] Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, pp.96-7

[31] Brontë, Jane Eyre, I, chapter 25

[32] Brontë, Jane Eyre, I, chapter 25

[33] Butler, Gender Trouble, pp.xxvii-xxviii

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 26 other followers