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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

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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

The Patriarchal Reception of Hysteria

17 Aug

In 1853, physician Robert Carter admonished his fellow doctors

“[i]f a patient ….interrupts the speaker, she must be told to keep silence and to listen; and must be told, moreover…in such a manner as to convey the speaker’s full conviction that the command will be immediately obeyed.”[1]

Nineteenth century psychiatrists rejected any linguistic discourse that they considered to be nonsensical, particularly if the speech was female and therefore more prone to irrationality. Consequently, rather than the physician utilising dialogue to discover what the patient’s hysteria attempted to convey, it was instead used as a form of regulation and coercion. This reflected contemporary ideologies of female silence and submission and psychiatric authorities denied the hysteric’s subjectivity by translating their discourse into masculine language. This accordingly ‘silenced the female patient…mak[ing] her the object of techniques of moral management, or of photographic representation and interpretation’[2] However, subjecting a medical, supposedly organic condition to moral instruction destabilised the division between science and ontology, creating an inevitable value-conflict. This in turn threatened the medical establishment’s claim to authority derived from scientific evidence.

For women during the Victorian era the silence that was enforced within the domestic sphere prevented the vocal expression of emotion and resulted in a sense of suffocation. Therefore, one of the primary symptoms of hysteria was the sensation of ‘choking from a ball rising in the throat’[3] as if the ability to speak was being strangled. This was initially observed in the first century AD by Aretaeus who contended that:

the uterus is liable to be suddenly carried upward within the abdominal cavity. Violently compressing the vital organs, it gives rise to “hysterical suffocation”- a choking sensation leading to a fainting fit.[4]

This was later diagnosed by Edward Jorden as Suffocation of the Mother, owing to its association with strangulation and choking which rendered the sufferer ‘[i]n priuation of voice and fpeech[5]. Suffocation of the Mother is exemplified by Braddon’s Lady Audley whose words when she attempted to speak ‘died away inarticulately upon her trembling lips’[6], a ‘choking sensation in her throat seem[ing] to strangle those false and plausible words’[7].

While the masculine order attempted to attribute the phenomenon of Suffocation of the Mother to the strangulating maternal bond, contemporary literature places the blame upon patriarchy itself. Lady Audley’s fear of mental suffocation and of ‘hands clutching at the black ribbon about her throat, as if it had been strangling her’[8] following Sir Michaels’ proposal accompanies the expectation of her identity and independence being subsumed within that of her prospective husband. While Lady Audley experiences suffocation when she awakes screaming in terror from ‘“a dream in which [she] had felt [her] mother’s icy grasp upon [her] throat”’[9] it is the prospect of hereditary hysteria rather than the maternal bond that seems to cause her panic. In Stoker’s Dracula patriarchal responsibility for female suffocation is rendered more explicit through the violent metaphor of vampirism. Constraining and wounding of the throat is a prevalent image throughout the novel, most striking when the masculine figure of Count Dracula feeds from the blood of Lucy Westenra. Contrastingly, the hysterical woman occupies the opposite position, being herself ‘“a vampire who sucks the blood of the healthy people [, the medical practioners,] around her”’[10]. This occurs within Stoker’s text when Lucy Westenra requires repeated transfusions, causing the male donors to experience their ‘own life blood drawn away into the veins of the woman’[11].

While the masculine order may remove the possibility of meaningful feminine speech it cannot expel, only repress, transgressive female emotion that is instead psychosomatically released via hysteria. In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility upon receiving Willoughby’s letter Marianne Dashwood ‘almost screamed with agony’[12], yet the social prohibitions against female vocalisation and the pressure of public conformity force her to resist articulation. Marianne is conditioned to conceal her passion whose expression would challenge both patriarchal power and contemporary gender conceptions of feminine passivity and masculine agency. However, in spite of such repression the transgressive emotion remains:

[t]he more her protestations of grief must be concealed and contained by an enforced Silence of public propriety and passivity, the more eloquently violent does that Silence become.[13]

Instead of utilising vocal expression, Marianne articulates through the transgressive ‘violence’ of hysteria during which she ‘raves incoherently’[14] and in doing so discovers a form of release that she had previously been denied.

Such psychosomatic communication compelled the hegemonic order ‘to decipher its signs’[15] in an attempt to convert non-verbal communication into a patriarchally intelligible form. By the nineteenth century responsibility for such interpretation had become the province of the medical establishment since ‘[h]ysteria need[ed] a doctor or theorist, an authority figure who can give it a compelling name and narrative’[16]. Therefore, by diagnosing the hysteric according to medical discourse, her incomprehensible behaviour was translated into the language of the masculine domain. As patriarch of the Brontë household, Reverend Patrick was preoccupied:

with the threat of nervous disease and insanity. Mind and body were subject to minute scrutiny and medical intervention. Patrick threw his whole weight of patriarchal endorsement behind the authority of the medical world.[17]

While her father translated physical female behaviour into masculine written language, Charlotte Brontë created characters that acted to the contrary. The masculine language with which Catherine Earnshaw carves her name into the window ledge becomes a hysterical manifestation when the ‘white letters’[18] assume a physical form ‘start[ing] from the dark, as vivid as spectres’[19]. In spite of masculine control and regulation, female communication assumes the form of psychosomatic, hysterical expression that resists fixed interpretation.

In order to control the fluid, amorphous quality of hysteria and its disordered expression, psychiatrists such as Jean-Martin Charcot attempted to isolate it ‘as a pure nosological object[20] using the rigid rules of masculine, symbolic language. In his clinic in the Paris hospital La Salpêtrière that Victor Hugo describes as ‘part woman’s prison and part mad-house’[21], Charcot endeavoured to render hysteria coherent to male thought. By organising and identifying each hysterical symptom Charcot composed a list of distinct ‘grammatical components’ analogous to those forming the sentences of masculine language. Thus a catalogue, a microcosmic reflection of the entire medical, epistemological project, was compiled which interpreted physical symptoms according to masculine perception. This tableau categorised:

secretions of all kinds, saliva, drool, foam, sweat, “milky secretions,” tears, and urine, “blood sweats”: and finally what was called “vaginal or uterine hypersecretion”[22].

Similarly, Le Brun interpreted female bodily language according to a phallocentric perspective by translating hysterical behaviour into an alphabet, ‘count[ing] them only up to twenty-four’[23], ‘perhaps terrified of this in fact transfinite mathematics, the mathematics of symptoms that he had lighted upon.’[24]

However, with the advent of psychoanalytic discourse, a fundamental problem with such a taxonomical approach became apparent as, owing to the mimetic propensity of nervous disorders, ‘identical signs in two different bodies do not have the same meaning’[25]. Thus, owing to its ‘flowing, fluctuating …[b]lurring[26] multiplicity of meanings that varied according to the individual, hysterical discourse resisted categorisation. Such resistance posed a problem since medical authorities only accepted communication that could be ordered according to symbolic masculine language. However, by endeavouring to universalise the individuality of hysterical discourse the subjective meaning became lost. Thus psychosomatic hysterical communication continued to defy medical intelligibility since it could not be categorised within the terms of the dominant discourse.

Owing to the impossibility of containing hysteria within masculine language, physicians attempted to limit the possible range of psychosomatic behaviour by placing the body to complete rest. While the rest cure developed by S. Weir Mitchell in 1872 was originally intended to treat soldiers suffering from battle fatigue[27], it was latterly applied to hysterics to prevent psychosomatic communication, consisting of ‘complete rest, seclusion, and excessive feeding’[28]. Under the rest cure ‘the Victorian woman regressed physically and emotionally…she was put to bed and taught complete submission, even her arms and legs were moved for her’[29]. This is exemplified by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper of which Ann Lane writes:

[the r]igidly enforced confinement and absolute passivity…contributed strongly to the madness in her short story, [that] needed to be discarded, as Gilman herself had discarded them, if women were to achieve sanity and strength.[30]

Gilman explores the potential consequence of denying women their own language as during the rest cure they are told ‘how to express her thoughts’[31] and her protagonist is ‘absolutely forbidden to “work” until [she is] well again’[32], thus prohibited from expressing her mental affliction even through the medium of masculine written discourse. Gilman’s narrator states that her husband has diagnosed her condition as ‘only nervousness’[33] as she laments the fact that he ‘does not know how much [she] really suffer[s]’ [34]. Owing to the strict regime of the rest cure the narrator is unable to convey the true nature of her suffering:

he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do? If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?[35]

Rather than allowing the narrator agency over her own physical movement, the rest cure grants expressive control of her body to her husband who, as both her spouse and physician, is doubly her patriarch.

However, as Gilman’s narrative portrays, it is only the outward expression of hysteria that is contained while the emotional frustration increases during confinement. Following her hysterical fit in the red-room, Jane Eyre is compelled to rest and is fed treats by Bessie who tempts her with ‘a tart on a certain brightly painted china plate’[36]. Yet Jane rejects the rest cure claiming that she ‘could not eat the tart’[37], her hysteria instead increasing to assume the form of vocal protest when she verbally attacks Mrs Reed. Since during the period of immobility the hysteric is denied any opportunity for psychosomatic expression of mental affliction, once permission is finally granted movement results in an increasingly intense hysterical outburst.

The failure both of cataloguing and restricting mobility indicated that another approach was required, thus, between 1895 and 1900 Sigmund Freud attempted to limit hysteria’s transgressive potential by means of psychoanalysis. Through utilising the medium of narrative rather than quantification the psychoanalyst was able to contain hysteria within patriarchal symbols and archetypes. Freud defined the condition as a ‘somatic representation of a repressed bisexual conflict’[38] that led to hysterical behaviour when the masculine and feminine competed for dominance within the individual, expounding his theory using myths and symbols. However, while psychoanalysis encompassed hysteria within masculine discourse the subjective nature of the technique emphasised the problem of deducing ‘internal’ states from ‘external’ behaviours. Since the medical establishment derived its authority from contemporary scientific discourse, the subjective nature of psychoanalysis and its quasi-mystical use of mythology consequently destabilised this epistemological basis.

Therefore, in spite of the various attempts at containment and re-inscription deployed by the medical establishment to limit hysterical communication, the condition resisted masculine restraint. Since patriarchy refused to validate or explore hysteria as a form of ontological, psychosomatic communication, it remained a permanent challenge to the Victorian medical project. Owing to its fluid and idiosyncratic nature hysteria denied both patriarchy’s claim to the Cartesian binary and to predict ‘internal’ states from ‘external’ phenomena. Thus:

[t]he diagnosis of moral insanity was not a straightforward affair of decoding outer signs, but rested crucially on the observers interpretation and assessment of the relationship between outward behaviour and inner motivation.[39]

Rather than resting upon the ‘certainties’ of epistemological data, conceptions of hysteria were merely nominal. Women accordingly became trapped within psychological discourse, which, as Irigaray states, reveals only the truth of masculine power and women’s position within such a model:

[p]sychoanalytic discourse on female sexuality is the discourse of truth. A discourse that tells the truth about the logic of truth: namely that the feminine occurs only within models and laws devised by male subjects[40].

Therefore, while the physician provided women with an unconscious, it is the unconscious of the patriarchal power structure: as Christine Von Braun states, the physicians ‘came to project their historically specific imaginations of what the feminine body should be onto their patients.’[41] The hysteric was thus devised by the psychiatrist as a physical body rather than a thinking being. Consequently, woman remained unknowable as, rather than endeavouring to understand her, the physician and psychoanalyst instead inscribed their own discourse upon her, and in doing so undermined the certainty of the patriarchal medical establishment.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] R.B. Carter, Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria (London: John Churchill, 1853), p.43 in, E. Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press, 2004), p.154

[2] E. Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press, 2004), p.154

[3] A.T. Schofield, A.T., Nerves in Disorder: A Plea for Rational Treatment (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903), p.96

[4] A.R.G. Owen, Hysteria, Hypnosis and Healing: The Work of J.-M. Charcot (New York: Garrett Publications, 1971), p.58

[5] E. Jorden, ‘A Briefe Discourse of a Disease called the Suffocation of the Moether’, in M. MacDonald, ed., Witchcraft and Hysteria in Elizabethan London: Edward Jorden and the Mary Glover Case (London: Routledge, 1991), p.16

[6] M.E. Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), I, chapter 12

[7] ibid, I, chapter 12

[8] Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, I, chapter 1

[9] ibid, II, chapter 3

[10] S. Weir Mitchell, Fat and Blood: An Essay on the Treatment of Certain Forms of Neurasthenia and Hysteria, 4th edn, (Philadelphia, 1885), p.49 in, 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.153

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

[12] J. Austen, Sense and Sensibility in, The Complete Novels of Jane Austen (London: The Penguin Group, 1996), chapter 29

[13] A. Leighton, ‘Sense and Silences, Reading Jane Austen Again’, in, J. Todd, ed., Jane Austen: New Perspectives: Women and Literature, 3 vols (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983), p.135, italics mine

[14] ibid, p.135

[15] S. Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.39

[16] Showalter, Hystories, p.11

[17] Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology, p.11

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

[19] ibid, I, chapter 3

[20] G. Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, trans. by A. Hartz (London: The MIT Press, 2004), p.19

[21] V. Hugo, Les Misérables (London: Penguin Books, 1982), p.388

[22] P. Briquet, Traité clinique et thérapeutique de l’hystérie (Paris: Ballière, 1859), pp.479-89, in G. Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, trans. by A. Hartz (London: The MIT Press, 2004), p.272

[23] G. Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, trans. by A. Hartz (London: The MIT Press, 2004), p.37

[24] ibid, p.37

[25]Logan, Nerves and Narratives, p.22

[26] L. Irigaray, This Sex which is Not One, trans. by C. Porter (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), p.152

[27] J. Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria and the Effects of Sibling Relations on the Human Condition (London: The Penguin Group, 2000), p.247

[28] ibid, p.247

[29] ibid, p.252

[30] A.J. Lane, ed., The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader (London: University Press of Virginia, 1999), p.xxiv

[31] Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas, p.252

[32] C. P. Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in, D.S. Davies, ed., Short Stories from the Nineteenth Century (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2000), p.193

[33] ibid, p.194

[34] Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, p.194

[35] Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, p.193

[36] C. Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin Books, 1996), I, chapter 3

[37] ibid, I, chapter 3

[38] S. Freud, ‘Hysterical Phantasies and Their Relation to Bisexuality’ in, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, 24 vols, ed. by James Strachey and others (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1959) in, C. Kahane, Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman 1850-1915 (London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1995), p.xi

[39] Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology, p.49

[40] Irigaray, This Sex which is Not One, p.86

[41] C. Von Braun, Nicht loh (Frankfurt am Main: Verlang Neue Kritik, 1985) in, E. Bronfen, The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), p.115 at

Hysteria in the Victorian Novel

17 Aug

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes that the hysteric reveals herself through her body’s uncontrollability, expressing her ambivalent position within patriarchal society:

the woman denies responsibility [for her body]; in sobs, vomiting, convulsions. It escapes her control, it betrays her; it is her most intimate verity, but it is a shameful verity that she keeps hidden. And yet it is also her glorious double; she is dazzled in beholding it in the mirror; it is promised happiness, work of art, living statue; she shapes it, adorns it, puts it on show.[1]

However, Victorian hegemony refused to acknowledge any positive aspect of the condition, instead emphasising only its shameful connotations. This bias originated from the dominant ontology of Cartesian dualism, which posited a mind/body division that gendered the intellect as masculine and bodily urges as feminine. Hysteria was thus regarded as the feminine escaping masculine control. As will be argued, since the masculine ‘universal signifying order’[2] of symbolic language posited ontological possibilities, the hegemonic order was thus able to exclude alternative forms of female being. Central to such a strategy was the medical profession’s enforcement of a Cartesian theory in which the distinct mind and body were gendered in order to maintain the notion of hysteria as a feminine source of shame. However, the psychosomatic nature of hysterical symptoms destabilised masculine Cartesian dualism and thus threatened one of the foundations upon which the hegemonic order rested.

This nineteenth century Cartesian interpretation of hysteria is portrayed by Charlotte Brontë through Lucy Snowe’s internalisation of patriarchal ideology. By accepting the theory of a division between ‘Spirit and Substance’[3] Lucy is indoctrinated to perceive them as ‘divorced mates…[which] were hard to re-unite: they greeted each other, not in an embrace, but a racking sort of struggle.’[4] Lucy has therefore internalised the separation between mind and body that was established to promote values of masculine rationality over feminine, bodily drives.

Such internalisation, however, while suppressing hysterical expression and ostensibly leaving masculine society undisturbed, merely contains rather than removes the hysterical threat. When confronted with emotional stress Lucy Snowe separates her ‘masculine’ rational faculties from her ‘female’ emotional chora:

Feeling and I turned Reason out of doors, drew against her bar and bolt…Reason would leap in, vigorous and revengeful.[5]

However, such a division results in only a temporary controlling of ‘Feeling’ as Lucy’s emotional angst still remains beneath her ostensibly calm exterior, becoming vicariously expressed. Her wish that Polly ‘would utter some hysterical cry, so that [she] might get relief and be at ease’[6] is granted when Polly does drop ‘on her knees at a chair with a cry’[7] and Lucy is suffused with calm. Such relief, however, is only temporary, and while Lucy exhibits no hysterical behaviour and therefore poses no threat to the fabric of masculine society, the transgressive potential remains.

While such a mind/ body division allows Lucy Snowe to resist hysterical expression and thus pose no challenge to the masculine order, the psychosomatic nature of hysteria destabilises the Cartesian binary that attempts to control it:

[t]he body of a woman …is a “hysterical” body, in the sense that there is, so to speak, no distance between the psychic life and its physiological realization[8].

Through reintegrating the mind and body into a single ontological, psychosomatic verity, hysteria undermines the masculine Cartesian project that provided a justification for the subjugation of women. Rather than utilising the symbolic, verbal, masculine language of reason, hysteria instead expresses itself via the pre-symbolic chora of the body to articulate female experience within patriarchal society. This is exemplified in Bronfen’s description of Bertha Mason:

[her] preternatural laugh, her eccentric murmurs, her threatening “snarling, snatching sound”, in fact recall Kristeva’s concept of the “semiotic chora”. For her husband she is all that lies below acceptable femininity, the feminine body as dangerous Other to man[9].

Despite destabilising the founding binary of the masculine order through its psychosomatic symptoms, hysteria was inadvertently encouraged by the patriarchal empiricist focus of medicalisation. While the physician recognised an increasing variety of physical symptoms they were less inclined to accept the veracity of purely mental phenomena owing to the difficulty of their measurement, quantification and authentication. Consequently, this created a culture in which women suffering from mental anxiety were forced to invent or disproportionately emphasise physical symptoms in order for their distress to be acknowledged. This is portrayed in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice wherein Mrs Bennet calls attention to the physical aspects of her emotional discomfort in order for her turmoil to be validated:

“I am frightened out of my wits; and have such tremblings, such flutterings, all over me, such spasms in my side, and pains in my head, and such beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day.”[10]

Such intertwining of the mental and physical was a source of concern for the patriarchal order, as is depicted in contemporary newspaper articles, one reader of the Times noting:

the “tendency of women to morally warp when nervously ill,” and of the terrible physical havoc which the pangs of a disappointed love may work[11].Therefore, while hysterics were encouraged to express their ontological angst in the form of physical symptoms, the hegemonic order was increasingly preoccupied with hysteria’s destabilisation of the empiricist, medical organisation through the transformation of the purely physical into the psychosomatic.

However, the destabilisation of the mind/body binary also impacts upon the hysteric as rather than externally expelling drives using masculine signifying discourse, psychological states are expressed through the medium of the body. As Kristeva noted, language is a defensive construction which provides a means of channelling urges, in particular the death drive, outwith the body:

[language] protects the body from the attack of drives by making it a place…in which the body can signify itself through positions…language, in the service of the death drive, is a pocket of narcissism towards which this drive may be directed[12].

Therefore, hysterical communication that undermines Cartesian dualism by expressing mental affliction through the medium of the body potentially results in self-destructive behaviour:

the daughter who succumbed to hysteria typically turned her rage against herself in a kind of masochistic biting of her own tongue instead of using it aggressively against the other and silently mimed in her body the script that had entrapped her.[13]

As both subject and object, the body of the hysteric becomes the site of signification and is thus damaged by the violent communicative urges that result from coercion.

For patriarchal society the ultimate form of hysterical psychosomatic expression was menstruation and the challenge that it posed to the hegemonic order. The existence of menstruation provided patriarchy with an excuse for increased stricture, which in turn increased female need for transgressive hysterical expression, further undermining masculine control. The self-perpetuating nature of such a cycle is illustrated in Jane Eyre wherein a convulsive, hysterical fit of ‘wild struggling…is aggravated by attempts at restraint’[14]. For Jane, coercion and the threat of being ‘“tied down”’[15] promotes a hysterical reaction and ‘a species of fit’. The pervasive and nightmarish red of the room that is the site of Jane’s first hysterical experience prefigures her explosion of passion when ‘something spoke out of [her] over which [she] had no control.’[16] Since she tells Bessie that she will ‘“never leave Gateshead till [she is] a woman”’[17], Jane’s sudden departure from her aunt’s house shortly after her outburst indicates the commencement of menstruation, supporting Laycock’s argument that the ‘first appearance of this secretion is almost always accompanied by symptoms of hysteria”’[18]. Like insanity, menstruation ‘was seen as a physiological marker of social disruption’[19] and since it existed beyond masculine control was linked with both the chora and hysteria, characterised as an ‘[i]nner excess and uncontrollable flow [which] gives rise to outward symptoms of disorder’[20].

This association of hysteria with menstruation and the female reproductive system is additionally represented in masculine attitudes to pregnancy and childbirth and their potential destabilisation of the Cartesian binary. According to Fielding Blandford:

[w]omen become insane during pregnancy, after parturition, during lactation; at the age when the catamenia [menses] first appear and when they disappear….The sympathetic connection existing between the brain and the uterus is plainly seen by the most causal observer.[21]

The admission of a connection between the physical process of childbirth and the nebulous mental phenomena of hysteria, in particular during ‘the six week puerperal period [that] marked the time within which insanity of child-birth could develop’[22] created further dissonance within the founding myth of the hegemonic order. As the protagonist of Lady Audley’s Secret states, she suffered from puerperal mania after ‘“[her] baby was born, and the crisis which had been fatal to [her] mother arose for [her].”’[23] While the novel hints at hereditary, organic origins for the condition, the confusion of precepts which were caused by the psychosomatic nature of hysteria is illustrated by the fact that ‘[p]uerperal insanity was broadly depicted as a category of moral, usually temporary, insanity’[24] and hence partially a mental phenomena rather than a purely physical form of pathology.

The psychosomatic nature of puerperal insanity also weakened other patriarchal principles, undermining theories of the inherent qualities of motherhood, domesticity and the urge to nurture. Since women were masculinity’s Other, destabilisation of femininity against which the patriarchal order defined itself accordingly undermined the certainty of hegemonic form. Therefore, ‘[c]ases of puerperal insanity seemed to violate all of Victorian culture’s most deeply cherished ideals of feminine propriety and maternal love…[and] their deviance covered a wide spectrum from eccentricity to infanticide.’[25] By associating infanticide with various forms of hysterical, post-natal mania, the hegemonic order created a culture in which it was believed that during the throws of hysteria ‘the mother became “forgetful of her child”, or expressed murderous intent toward the infant’[26].

This perceived connection between infanticide and puerperal hysteria is explored in Eliot’s Adam Bede wherein Hetty Sorrel is imprisoned ‘“[f]or a great crime – the murder of her child”’[27], claiming that she ‘“seemed to hate it – it was like a heavy weight hanging round [her] neck”’[28]. Bram Stoker’s Dracula also portrays infanticide in a reversed maternal image wherein rather than an infant feeding from its mother’s breast milk, Jonathon Harker hears ‘a gasp and a low wail, as of a half-smothered child’[29] as female vampires consume an infant’s blood. Therefore, contrary to the nurturing female body of Victorian ideology the hysteric is non-productive, devouring blood instead of producing milk. The vampires are the anti-mothers of patriarchal propaganda, consuming baby’s blood in order to feed themselves rather than supplying milk to nourish the child as the living dead feed on the newly born.

Therefore, this connection between puerperal mania and inverted motherhood provided the hegemonic order with a means of projecting hysteria upon its Other. As Sally Shuttleworth notes, during the Victorian era:

theories of mental degeneration and inherited brain disease came to the fore. In the post-Darwinian period, Henry Maudsley and others emphasised the inherited qualities of brain disease.[30]

Accordingly, responsibility for the hereditary transmission and existence of hysteria was displaced onto transgressive women. As it was believed that ‘insanity descends more often from the mother than the father, and from the mother to the daughters more often than to the sons’[31], rather than being the product of a failure in medical intelligibility hysteria was instead blamed upon female frailty.

The hereditable character of hysteria is portrayed by the eponymous protagonist of Lady Audley’s Secret who states that ‘“the only inheritance I had to expect from my mother was–insanity!”’[32]. However, through its depiction of Lady Audley the novel also reveals the fundamentally unscientific nature of contemporary views concerning hysterical heredity. For the protagonist, her mother’s hysteria provides both an excuse and a justification for socially transgressive, homicidal behaviour:

“[t]he hereditary taint…was in my blood…at this time I became subject to fits of violence and despair. At this time I think my mind first lost its balance, and for the first time I crossed that invisible line which separates reason from madness.”[33]

The novel therefore fails to indicate whether Lady Audley becomes hysterical because of a heredity over which she has no control, or that she makes little attempt to control her actions since masculine assumptions of hysterical inheritance provide an excuse for her behaviour. There is therefore an inherent subtext to Lady Audley’s hysterical communication with which the prejudiced hegemonic order is unable to engage. Similarly, Bertha Mason Rochester also supposedly suffers from the taint of hereditary insanity:

“[m]y bride’s mother I had never seen: I understood she was dead. The honey-moon over, I learned my mistake; she was only mad, and shut up in a lunatic asylum.”[34]

Mr Rochester’s altered behaviour towards his bride is owing to this revelation. It is only after the marriage that ‘“the doctors now discovered that [his] wife was mad – her excesses had prematurely developed the germs of insanity”’[35]. As is the case with Lady Audley, the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling and any other possible meaning that could be conveyed by hysterical communication is accordingly ignored. For the masculine order such self-perpetuation served to maintain the prejudice that underlay the assumptions of such theorists as Henry Maudsley. The fact that a correlation between hysteria and heredity could not prove direction or cause, or disprove the existence of wider social factors, was therefore disregard.

Accordingly, while the masculine order was aware of hysteria, there was no attempt to understand its meaning and hysterical language was interpreted in a manner that ensured maintenance of patriarchal dominance. By promoting a gendered Cartesian binary and diagnosing hysteria as a hereditary transmission, the hegemonic order attempted to control the condition and use its existence to justify masculine superiority and the need for medicalisation. However, due to the amorphous nature of hysteria and the psychosomatic quality of its symptoms, the condition undermined the masculine precepts of control. In doing so, hysteria not only challenged the fundamental binary of gender itself but also questioned the conceptions of inherent masculinity, femininity and the entire epistemological project of Victorian society.

 

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] S. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, ed. by H.M. Parshley (London: Pan Books, 1988), p.630

[2] J. Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, in T. Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader: Julia Kristeva (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.113

[3] C. Brontë, Villette (London: Penguin Books, 2004), chapter 16

[4] ibid, chapter 16

[5] ibid, chapter 23

[6] ibid, chapter 2

[7] Brontë, Villette, chapter 3

[8] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p.356

[9] E. Bronfen, Over her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), p.221

[10] J. Austen, Pride and Prejudice in, The Complete Novels of Jane Austen (London: The Penguin Group, 1996), chapter 47

[11] Letter on Militant Hysteria – The Times, March 28, 1912 in, Sir A.E. Wright, The Unexpurgated Case Against Women Suffrage (London: Constable and Company, 1913), appendix, p.77

[12] Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, p.103

[13] C. Kahane, Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman 1850-1915 (London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1995), p.37

[14] F.M.R. Walshe, Diseases of the Nervous System, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: E. & S. Livingstone, 1941), p.106

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

[16] ibid, I, chapter 4

[17] ibid, I, chapter 3

[18] T. Laycock, An Essay on Hysteria, (Philadelphia: Haswell Barrrington Haswell, 1840), p.69 in, S. Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.78

[19] ibid, p78

[20] ibid, p.78

[21] G. Fielding Blandford, Insanity and its Treatment (Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1871), p.69 in, E. Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press, 2004), pp.56-7

[22] H. Morland, ‘At Home with Puerperal Mania: the Domestic Treatment of the Insanity of Childbirth in the Nineteenth Century’ in, P. Bartlett and D. Wright, eds, Outside the Walls of the Asylum: The History of Care In the Community 1750-2000 (London: The Athlone Press, 1999), p.50

[23] M.E. Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), III, chapter 3

[24] I. Loudon, ‘Puerperal Insanity in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 81 (1988), pp.76-9 in, H. Morland, ‘At Home with Puerperal Mania: the Domestic Treatment of the Insanity of Childbirth in the Nineteenth Century’ in, P. Bartlett and D. Wright, eds, Outside the Walls of the Asylum: The History of Care In the Community 1750-2000 (London: The Athlone Press, 1999), p.48

[25] E. Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press, 2004), p.58

[26] Morland, ‘At Home with Puerperal Mania’, p.48

[27] G. Eliot, Adam Bede (London: The Penguin Group, 1985), chapter 39

[28] ibid, chapter 45

[29] B. Stoker, Dracula (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p.53

[30] Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology, pp.34-5

[31] H. Maudsley, The Physiology and Pathology of the Mind (London: Macmillan, 1867), p.216

[32] Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, II, chapter 3

[33] ibid, II, chapter 3

[34] Brontë, Jane Eyre, III, chapter 1

[35] ibid, III, chapter 1

The History of Hysteria

16 Aug

Hysteria has long resisted classification within patriarchal discourse. As Georges Didi-Huberman states, it is ‘a great paradoxical blow dealt to medical intelligibility’[1], appearing to have no singular physiological locus and ‘persistently def[ying] any concept of a seat, any notion of monomania (local madness)’[2]. The qualitative instability of the condition is described in George Cheyne’s The English Malady in which he writes that ‘the disease maintains its unity only in an abstract manner’[3]. Therefore, without an established pathology hysteria is susceptible to interpretation. It has been described as:

“a manifestation of everything from divine poetic inspiration and satanic possession to female unreason, radical degeneration and unconscious psychosexual conflict…a physical disease, a mental disorder, a spiritual malady, a behavioural maladjustment, a sociological communication, and as no illness at all”.[4]

Delimiting the prejudices which inform hysteria’s construction within a particular historical context reveals an underlying tendency in patriarchal representations of the condition. Despite historical variation, interpretations of hysteria persistently return to a hegemonic obsession with what is lacking in male physiology, the womb. This unknown, alien space became characterised as a site of dangerous yet fascinating energies which remained permanently beyond masculine understanding. Fearing what they lacked, patriarchal society utilised medicalisation to control the unknown womb that ‘retained a secret in its possession’[5]. Through its association with the womb, hysterical behaviour was gendered explicitly female and was constructed as an ontological expression of the feminine subject.

The perpetual masculine interest with connotations of hysteria and the womb is verified by the Oxford English Dictionary which states that the word originated from the Greek ‘-, meaning belonging to the womb’[6]. Hysteria was first recorded in ‘two Egyptian medical papyri dating from about 1900 and 1500 B.C.’[7] yet in spite of this earlier reference it is the Greek medical authority Hippocrates who is credited with theorising that the condition arose from the uterus. Since in ‘Hippocratic gynaecology all diseases are hysterical because the uterus is regarded as the source of all women’s diseases’[8], hysteria was perceived as an inherent component of female existence.

By defining the female sex according to their capacity for reproduction, the hegemonic order reduced a woman from the status of subject to a wandering womb, ‘“a living creature within them with a desire for child-bearing”’[9]. This created the possibility that in the absence of conception, the womb would become ‘“vexed and aggrieved”’[10] and would consequently begin ‘“wandering throughout the body and blocking the channels of the breath, [and] by forbidding respiration [bring] the sufferer to extreme distress”’[11]. The amorphous quality of the condition meant that any ‘“disease of an unknown nature and hidden origin [which] appears in a woman in such a manner that its cause escapes us…[is] blame[d on] the mad influence of the uterus”’[12].

The establishment of this medical precedent reinforced the hysterical woman’s social status as being analogous to the position of her wandering womb, which had no definitive situation within the body. Deviation from the established mores was therefore dismissed as the hysterical product of reproductive deficiency. Even Greek theorists such as Plato, who rejected the notion of the womb’s motility, associated the condition with uterine incapacity, being ‘a moving psychological force which arises from the womb: sexual desire perverted by frustration.’[13]

In accordance with Plato, Christianity posited sexual deviation as central to the theory of hysteria. It was conceived that:

a supernatural manifestation of evil and an externalised and personalised agency, the demon[,] took the place of the womb in wandering about the female body[14].

According to this conjecture, responsibility for hysterical behaviour was attributed to the masculine devil, rather than to the female Other. The condition which was previously beyond the limits of the masculine order became integrated within contemporary patriarchal myths of a paternal figure and His masculine adversary. Consistent with contemporary theory:

mental illness became coterminous with spirit possession – the devil tricking humans by taking over the imagination rather than the body – and hysteria came to be understood as the illness par excellence of the soul.[15]

However, with the growing preference for the scientific rather than the mystical, theoretical speculation was increasingly rooted in physiological causes. During the seventeenth century Edward Jordan suggested that vapours arising from a disturbed uterus produced symptoms resulting from ‘the brain’s sympathetic involvement with the disturbed womb’[16]. This resulted ‘in hallucinations, impairment of intelligence, or mental alienation.’[17] By the following century the theory was established to the extent that for refined women:

having the vapours became synonymous with hysteria, so that although the basic source of the vapours was the brain, it was often argued that these emanated secondarily from the womb.[18]

Rather than suffering from demonic possession, the eighteenth century hysteric was the victim of a disordered nervous system, inextricably linked to gynaecological causes. The socio-economic stratification of the period resulted in hysteria being limited ‘to a certain part of the population, those well-born and idle, of delicate nervous constitution’[19], particularly affecting those suffering from sexual and social frustration.

By the nineteenth century, however, conceptions of ‘hysteria and femininity could be called coterminous precisely because both were constructed to represent emotional validity, exquisite sensitivity, emotional exhaustion’[20]. Hysteria became increasingly ambiguous due to changes in the masculine ideology of the female. In the Victorian era ‘the charm of femininity was, when forced to excess, indeed hysteria’[21] and there emerged a newly eroticised, sexual dimension to the hysterical figure, mirroring ambiguities in Victorian moral strictures. To the masculine subject such weakness was desirable in order to validate the male position, whilst also allowing the erotic potential resulting from masculine domination and inequalities of power.

The Victorian period also marked the beginning of a further profound change in the construction of hysteria as it was in this century that ‘[t]he modern medical history of hysterical epidemics beg[an] with Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) and his clinic in the Paris hospital La Salpêtrière’[22]. It was Charcot who stated that hysteria did not result from sexual frustration and was not limited to women. This subversion of over three thousand years of phallocentric discourse was expounded upon by Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer who attributed hysteria to emotional trauma. Rather than being victims of their own wombs or of demonic possession ‘[h]ysterical patients were expressing fantasies based on their unconscious Oedipal desires.’[23] Through Freud’s treatment of female, hysterical patients, he came to define the condition as the ‘unconscious refusal to accept a single and defined subject position in the oedipal structuration of desire and identity’[24]. This resulted in ‘bodily symptoms, two sexual identities – masculine and feminine – which contended with each other for dominance.’[25] According to Freud, hysterics:

displace that site of conflict upward, playing out their sexualised contestation of identity in a more ambiguous register of the body, [and t]hus, hysteria is frequently marked by disturbances of voice, vision, hearing, and even breathing…[as h]ysteria records a conflict…a confusion between body and language.[26]

The language to which Freud refers is that of subject and object, what Julia Kristeva terms the ‘universal signifying order’[27]. While psychoanalysis has explored hysteria from a linguistic perspective, it has only done so within the confines of masculine discourse and the prevailing medicalised, patriarchal lexicon. Therefore, while the hegemonic order accepts the existence of a hysterical language rooted in the body, it is only willing to do so according to a limited interpretation which remains within patriarchal control, the province of the medical establishment. Hysterical language is thus perceived as physiological and psychological, expressing conflicts within the patriarchal order such as Oedipal or Electral urges, rather than as an attempt to communicate a fundamental aspect of female existence.

Consequently, while ‘throughout history, hysteria has served as a form of expression, a body language for people who otherwise might not be able to speak or even to admit what they feel’[28], psychoanalysis has attempted to co-opt such individual expression and reintegrate it within prevailing myths and structures of patriarchal discourse. However, if hysteria is a form of bodily communication it is not the product of the symbolic order but a language associated with the Kristevean chora. As such, hysteria is entrenched in bodily urges that civilised society attempts to constrain. While psychoanalysis may create a narrative in order to delimit hysteria, the chora’s amorphous nature places it beyond the symbolic order where it can never be truly contained. Thus, contrary to traditional belief, hysteria is not a failure to communicate, nor is it an expression of patriarchally conceived psychological phenomena. Instead it is an alternate, transgressive form of communication that attempts to convey ontological traits of female existence. The hegemonic order is both unable and unwilling to acknowledge such a form of expression. As will be discussed, by utilising the body as a site for communication, hysterical women became both subject and object. Accordingly, this undermined the Sartrian foundation of masculine/signifier, feminine/signified upon which the concept of the masculine subject is based.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] G. Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, trans. by A. Hartz (London: The MIT Press, 2004), p.71

[2] ibid, p.74

[3] M. Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. by Richard Howard (London: Routledge, 1997), p.141

[4] E. Bronfen, The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), in M.S. Micale, Approaching Hysteria: Disease and its Interpretations (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995), p.103

[5] Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria, p.74

[7] C. Mazzoni, Saint Hysteria: Neurosis, Mysticism and Gender in European Culture (London: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.7

[8] ibid, p.7

[9] F.M. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, (New York, 1937), p.357 in, M.J. Adair, ‘Plato’s view of the “Wandering Uterus”’, in The Classical Journal, 91.2 (1995), pp.153-63 <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0009-8353%28199512%2F199601%2991%3A2%3C153%3APVOT%27U%3E2.0.CO%3B2-%23> [accessed 11th May 2007]

[10] ibid, p.357

[11] ibid, p.357

[12] T. Willis, Opera Omnia (Lyons, 1681), II, p.242 in, M. Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. by R. Howard (London: Routledge, 1997), pp.137-8

[13] Adair, ‘Plato’s view of the “Wandering Uterus”’, p.357

[14] Mazzoni, Saint Hysteria, p.8

[15] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, p.106

[16] ibid, p.108

[17] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, p.108

[18] J. Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria and the Effects of Sibling Relations on the Human Condition (London: The Penguin Group, 2000), p.11

[19] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, p.111

[20] ibid, p.115

[21] Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas, p.12

[22] E. Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (London, Picador, 1997), p.30

[23] ibid, p.40

[24] S. Freud, ‘Hysterical Phantasies and Their Relation to Bisexuality’ in, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, 24 vols, trans. by James Strachey and others (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1959) in, C. Kahane, Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman 1850-1915 (London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1995), p.xi

[25] ibid, p.xi

[26] ibid, p.xi

[27] J. Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, in T. Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader: Julia Kristeva (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.113

[28] Showalter, Hystories, p.7

Charlotte Brontë: Spirit and Substance

16 Aug

In The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell writes that on the four mile journey from Keighley to Haworth ‘[t]he soil in the valley…is rich; but, as the road begins to ascend, the vegetation becomes poorer; it does not flourish, it merely exists’[1]. The land that surrounded the Brontës was sparse and produced little vegetation, merely crops of ‘pale, hungry-looking grey-green oats.’[2] At Haworth parsonage the flower-border underneath the windows was so infertile that ‘only the most hardy plants could be made to grow there’[3], while in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley Mr Moore’s garden soil offers ‘scanty brown stalks’[4] near his porch ‘and likewise beneath the windows – stalks budless and flowerless’[5].Charlotte’s physical and mental landscapes were therefore hostile, infertile and unproductive.

The fortunes of the Brontë family reflected the harshness of their environment since hereditary and congenital afflictions suppressed the appetite and caused wasting of the flesh. Charlotte’s mother Maria suffered from delicate health following the birth of her last child, Anne in which ‘[h]er constitution was enfeebled, and her frame wasted daily’[6]. The Brontë children were also fragile and susceptible to disease. Charlotte’s sister Maria is described as ‘delicate and small in appearance’[7], as is Anne who became ‘“very much emaciated…her arms…no thicker than a little child’s”’[8], a description also applicable to Emily who was buried in ‘the narrowest adult coffin the local carpenter had ever made.’ [9]

Such emaciation and physical frailty within the Brontë household were further accentuated through their unconventional attitude towards the family meal, a cornerstone of Victorian domestic life and an embodiment of middle-class affluence and health. However:

[o]wing to some illness of the digestive organs, Mr Brontë was obliged to be very careful about his diet; and, in order to avoid temptation, and possibly to have the quiet necessity for digestion, he had begun, before his wife’s death, to take his dinner alone, – a habit which he always retained.[10]

In Elizabeth Branwell’s later years, she too ‘took most of her meals, in her bed-room.’[11] Eating was therefore antisocial and the procuring and consuming of food was accomplished in secrecy, as portrayed in Jane Eyre. Jane’s procurement of a meal for Adèle and herself from the kitchen during a dinner party at Thornfield is covertly undertaken: ‘issuing from my asylum with precaution, I sought a back-stairs which conducted directly to the kitchen.’[12] After securing ‘a cold chicken, a roll of bread, some tarts, a plate or two and a knife and fork’[13] she ‘made a hasty retreat.’[14] Rather than the wholesome meals of the archetypical middle-class Victorian family, the novels of Charlotte Brontë portray scenes of concealed, shameful eating that are underscored by the constant threat of subdued appetite and emaciation.

Deprived of conventional meal times and the solace and community which they could afford, Charlotte attempted to bestow moral aspects upon her mental and physical capacities. By utilising the Cartesian division of a superior mind and inferior body, Charlotte valorised the intellectually rich but physically deprived household at Howarth parsonage, within which despite the fact that ‘“there was plenty and even waste”’, [15] Mr Brontë ‘“thought that children should be brought up simply and hardily: so they had nothing but potatoes for their dinner.”[16] Such a sentiment is voiced by Villette’s protagonist Lucy Snowe who articulates a distinction between ‘Spirit and Substance’[17], a concept portrayed in Plato’s Phaedo which condemns ‘pleasures concerned with the service of the body’[18], instead claiming that the soul ‘disdains the body, flees from it and seeks to be by itself’[19]. Plato’s pronouncement that death causes ‘the separation of the soul from the body’[20] is echoed in Shirley wherein Brontë depicts the soul’s flight and departure from the physical form. Caroline Helstone asserts that following death, the inferior body merely ‘falls, decays’[21] while the superior soul:

wings its long flight upward, folds its wings on the brink of the sea of fire and glass, and gazing down through the burning clearness, finds the sovereign Father, the mediating Son, the Creator spirit[22].

Bodily inferiority is further propounded in The Professor as William Crimsworth is too concerned with emotional and intellectual affairs to consider such ‘coarse cares as those of eating and drinking’[23].

Mental and spiritual phenomena are thus depicted as more profound sources of sustenance. According to Plato, it is only possible to attain knowledge via the soul’s disassociation from the body since ‘the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth and wisdom’[24]. In order to ‘escape the contamination of the body’s folly’[25], Brontë’s heroines ensure that the soul does not become ‘infected with [the body’s] nature’[26]. In Jane Eyre Helen Burns speaks of the human physical form as the residence of sin hindering the spirit: when ‘“corruptible bodies”’[27] are discarded ‘“debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain”’[28].

Within such a conception bodily affliction is a means of achieving divine fulfilment. The promise of heavenly comfort following a life of physical suffering was advocated by Charlotte’s mother who said that ‘[i]f the children of the poor were famished and cold…[they must] turn the mind to the world to come’[29]. Mr Brocklehurst expounds upon this in asserting that he must ‘“punish [Jane’s] body to save her soul”’[30], thereby promoting physical suffering in order to turn the mind to heaven[31]. He thus reprimands Miss Temple for providing food for her famished pupils:

“when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge into these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!”[32]

Likewise, Reverend William Carus Wilson, the establisher of Cowan Bridge School which was attended by Charlotte and her sisters claimed that ‘the children were to be trained up to regard higher things than dainty pampering of the appetite’[33]. The lower things to which he refers are matters of the flesh, equated with sexuality by Mr Brocklehurst who states that by depriving the girls of food he will fulfil his mission ‘“to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh”’[34]. In a manner similar to Charlotte’s father who ‘wished to make his children hardy, and indifferent to the pleasure of eating and dress,’[35] Mr Brocklehurst commands his pupils to disdain the corporeal and the material so as ‘“not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying”’.[36]

Charlotte Brontë therefore emphasises the moral quality of physical endurance and suffering since the immortal soul is deemed to be of more importance than the mortal body. In Shirley, Brontë writes that pain should be embraced for the purposes of moral development. Therefore, Caroline Helstone should welcome the wound which symbolises her grief:

[s]how no consternation; close your fingers firmly upon the gift; let it sting through your palm. Never mind; in time, after your hand and arm have swelled and quivered long with torture, the squeezed scorpion will die, and you will have learned the great lesson how to endure without a sob.[37]

Brontë urges those who are disappointed in love to endure their pain in order to learn stoicism. Thus, starvation is also a lesson in self-control as Brontë ‘repeatedly favours suffering over the easy pleasures of appetite and sexuality.’[38] Charlotte herself renounced bodily desire in favour of the soul as Gaskell states that ‘[i]t was inevitable that ‘the intensity of her feeling should wear out her physical health.’[39] Described as slender yet passionate, Charlotte Brontë was unfashionably ‘thin and expressive’[40], sacrificing her flesh to feed her fervent spirit. When George Henry Lewes met Charlotte in 1850 he described her as ‘“a little, plain, provincial, sickly-looking old maid”, yet on the strength of the novels, Marian Evans saw more: “What passion, what fire in her!”’[41]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] E. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (London: The Penguin Group, 1985), p.55

[2] ibid, p.55

[3] ibid, p.55

[4] C. Brontë, Charlotte, Shirley (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993), p.58

[5] ibid, p.58

[6] Patrick Brontë to the Rev. John Buckworth, Near K., Yorkshire, November 27th., 1821, from M. Spark, The Brontë Letters (London: Macmillan, 1966), p.34

[7] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.84

[8] ibid, p.370

[9] L. Gordon, Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life (London: Vintage, 1995), p.186

[10] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.91

[11] ibid, p.98

[12] Jane Eyre (London: The Penguin Group, 1996), p.190

[13] ibid, p.190

[14] ibid, p.190

[15] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.87

[16] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.87

[17] Villette (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984), p.185

[18] Plato, Phaedo, in Five Dialogues, trans. by G.M.A. Grube, 2nd edn (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2002), p.101

[19] ibid, p.102

[20] ibid, p.101

[21] Brontë, Shirley, p.172

[22] ibid, p.172

[23] C. Brontë, The Professor (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994), p.180

[24] Plato, Phaedo, p.103

[25] Plato, Phaedo, p.104

[26] ibid, p.103

[27] Jane Eyre, p.69

[28] ibid, p.69

[29] Gordon, Charlotte Brontë, p.18

[30] Jane Eyre, p.78

[31] In Villette Lucy describes Catholicism which hindered spiritual growth owing to the obtainability of confession and indulgences. The Catholic ‘CHURCH strove to bring up her children, robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning. “Eat, drink, and live!” she says. “Look after your bodies; leave your souls to me. I hold their cure – guide their course: I guarantee their final fate.”’

[32] Jane Eyre, p.75

[33] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.103

[34] Jane Eyre, p.76

[35] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.88

[36] Jane Eyre, p.74

[37] Brontë, Shirley, pp.100-1

[38] A. Krugovoy Silver, Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.82

[39] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.210

[40] Lyndall, Charlotte Brontë, p.219

[41] To Mrs Bray (15th Feb., 5th and 12th Mar. 1853), in Haight, ed., The George Eliot Letters, ii, 87, 91, 92, from Gordon, Charlotte Brontë, p.255

The Binging Purging Alice in Wonderland

15 Aug

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland portrays a girl whose over indulgent eating and subsequent purging causes her body to dramatically fluctuate in size.  Alice initially encounters food upon falling down a rabbit hole, a symbolic vaginal passageway that conveys her deep into the realm of fantasy and represents a growing awareness of her sexuality. Alice passes bookshelves that, instead of tedious books contain desirable food: ‘[s]he took down a jar…as she passed: it was labelled “ORANGE MARMALADE”, but to her great disappointment it was empty’.[6] Alice longs for the marmalade because it is sweet and indulgent.

Alice’s voracious appetite has the potential to destabilise social relationships when she frightens others by expressing a desire to consume them:

once she had really frightened her old nurse by shouting suddenly in her ear, “Nurse! Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyena, and you’re a bone!”[14]

When Alicegrows taller a pigeon refuses to believe her protestations that she is ‘“a little girl”’[15] and will not predate upon her unhatched eggs:

“I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you have never tasted an egg!” “I have tasted eggs, certainly,” said Alice, who was a very truthful child; “but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know.”[16]

In Wonderland however, Alice also becomes a potential consumable, worrying that she will become a bone to ‘[a]n enormous puppy’[17] and ‘was terribly frightened all the time at the thought that it might be hungry, in which case it would be very likely to eat her up’.[18]Alice relishes being a predator, but not the prey.

Upon consuming food or drink, Alicealters in size, often excessively and not always to her advantage. Contrary to normal experience wherein growth is the consequence of dining, Aliceoften shrinks when she eats. After swallowing the contents of a bottle ‘with the words “DRINK ME” beautifully printed on it in large letters’[19] she becomes ‘only ten inches high’.[20] Transforming in size from small to large and back again represents Alice’s sexual initiation and subsequent withdrawal. Alice’s changes in size are motivated by her desire to escape from places such as the White Rabbit’s house wherein she no longer fits, or to enter smaller places, such as ‘“that lovely garden”’.[21] SinceAlice must ‘“grow to [her] right size again”’ and traverse a locked door in order to gain access to the garden, her entrance therein symbolises sexual maturity.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are located within the protagonist’s imagination, therefore her dramatic physical alterations are psychological possibilities of bodily distortion. In one instance Alice discovers a cake and

ate a little bit, and said anxiously to herself, “Which way? Which way?” holding her hand on the top of her head to feel which way it was growing, and she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size.[22]

Carroll argues that physical size is usually maintained ‘when one eats cake’,[23] yet conversely, those experiencing anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa would state that the body becomes significantly larger and distorted following consumption, especially of fattening delicacies such as cake. Unlike the anorexic or bulimic, Alice is unafraid of drinking or eating, even if she is not sure of the potential consequences. In the White Rabbit’s house she notices a second bottle:

[t]here was no label this time with the words “DRINK ME”, but nevertheless she uncorked it and put it to her lips. “I know something interesting is sure to happen,” she said to herself, “whenever I eat or drink anything; so I’ll just see what this bottle does.”[24]

Alice’s wish to grow larger by drinking its contents is the opposite of anorexic thinking, in which the aim is to become as small as possible. Having not considered the consequences prior to swallowing the liquid, Alicesubsequently regrets her excessive drinking when it has too much of the desired effect: ‘I do wish I hadn’t drunk quite so much!” Alas! it was too late to wish that!’[25] Shortly afterwards, the White Rabbit throws pebbles in order to drive the giantAlice out of his house, yet ‘the pebbles were all turning into little cakes’.[26]Alice hopes that food will be the means of cure and restore her to her usual size:

“If I eat one of these cakes,” she thought, “it’s sure to make some change in my size; and, as it can’t possibly make me larger, it must make me smaller, I suppose.”[27]

Like the bulimic, Alice binges upon drink, then regrets and repeats the eating cycle by consuming cakes directly afterwards. In Alice’s case, however, the second bout of consumption cancels out the first, thus Alice purges by eating more. She does not purge in the usual sense of ridding herself of food, but rather counters her eating with more eating. In addition, Alice exhibits symptoms of compulsive food consumption as, unable to solve a problem or being in a difficult situation, she turns to food to help her: ‘“I suppose I ought to eat or drink something or other; but the great question is, what?”’[28] In order to fill the void wherein she should act or speak, Alice consumes food and drink: upon being unable to converse with the nonsensical March Hare, Alice ‘helped herself to some tea and bread-and-butter’.[29]

When the Caterpillar asks ‘“[a]re you content now?”’[30] Alice replies ‘“[w]ell, I should like to be a little larger, sir, if you wouldn’t mind…three inches is such a wretched height to be.”’[31] Despite Alice’s constant dissatisfaction regarding her body size, her frustration is of a practical nature. Since Alice is dreaming, a process that involves her mind rather than her physical form, it is ironic that her body becomes a hindrance. In Wonderland, Alice’s body assumes the form of her mental perception and is therefore able to transgress natural law and alter in size. Changing size through eating has a confusing effect upon Alice to the extent that she loses sense of her identity and states ‘“I’m not myself”,[32] ‘“being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”’[33] Alice lacks a constant to which can be measured since she is beyond the patriarchal world of rules and structure, a world which is liberating, yet also frightening: ‘“[h]ow puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be from one minute to another!”’[34]

Nevertheless, Alice is able to control her body size by eating two sides of a mushroom that produce opposite effects:

she set to work very carefully, nibbling first at one and then at the other, and growing sometimes taller and sometimes shorter, until she had succeeded in bringing herself down to her usual height.[35]

This self-control is comforting, yet even though Alice has the ability to change her own physical dimensions, she cannot alter her environment or the other Wonderland characters. After struggling to regain her usual stature, Alice’s surroundings become smaller, compelling her to once again reduce in size. There was

a little house…about four feet high…she began nibbling at the right-hand bit again, and did not venture to go near the house till she had brought herself down to nine inches high.[36]

Even though it appears as though Alice possesses self-control, it is her environment that regulates her behaviour and physical form.

Alice’s bodily alterations prefigure her transformation to a woman as the sexual female body is naturally in a state of flux, changing considerably during pregnancy and menstruation. While Humpty Dumpty’s ‘“name means that shape”’ he is, Alice ‘“might be any shape, almost.”’[37] It is impossible to ascertain Alice’s form from her name alone, reflecting its indefiniteness. As a female, Alice is constantly changing and fluid. By depicting Alice’s body as susceptible to transformation, Carroll demonstrates that women cannot be positioned or contained. During change, the female body produces substances; menstrual blood, milk, amniotic fluid. Alice’s ‘pool of tears’[38] that are secreted when she is nine feet high becomes dangerous when, upon shrinking, she fears she will be ‘“drowned”’.[39] The female body constantly produces fluids, processes that are perceived as threatening to masculine society because they cannot be contained. While seminal fluid is directed towards the woman’s body, female fluids are not focussed upon an Other. Even though women are uncontainable by masculine society, they are self-contained and auto-erotic: this type of woman does not give, she only consumes.

In Carroll’s novels not only does Alice devour various forms of food and drink, she frequently threatens to consume things that never pass her lips, most notably, eggs. The bird that fears Alice may be a serpent who will eat her eggs places Alice in the masculine position of the serpent Satan. Rather than producing eggs and nurturing young, Alice constantly threatens to consume them, thereby rejecting her role as the mother and grown woman that she has not yet become. Yet Alice maintains that she will not eat the pigeon’s eggs because she doesn’t ‘“like them raw”’[40] and is reluctant to buy an egg from a shop as ‘“[t]hey mightn’t be at all nice, you know.”’[41] When Alice does eventually purchase an egg she is prevented from physically claiming it as ‘“[t]he egg seems to get further away the more [she] walk[s] towards it.”’[42]

Following these numerous unusual and confusing experiences, Alice ‘found herself safe in a thick wood.’[43] Despite her impression of safety, however, the thick wood suggests danger, complexity and adulthood. The forest is recurrently threatening in tales by the Brothers Grimm: Hänsel and Gretel lose themselves in a thick wood wherein they are almost eaten by a witch. Their mother states that she ‘“will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest”’,[44] to which her husband replies ‘“how can I bear to leave my children alone in the forest?—the wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces.”’[45] The children are not threatened by animals, however, but by

a wicked witch, who lay in wait for children, and had only built the little house of bread in order to entice them there. When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked and ate it.[46]

The witch predatorily gazes upon the sleeping and vulnerable children, observing that their ‘plump and rosy cheeks’[47] will ‘“be a dainty mouthful!”’[48] Designating the domestic role to Gretel, the witch tells her to ‘“cook something good for [her] brother”’ as he is ‘“to be made fat. When he is fat, I will eat him.”’[49] In this tale, putting on weight is associated with death and being devoured. The witch keeps Gretel alive to cook the food that will feed her brother until he is a favourable size to be eaten: in this case, the girl is saved by the traditional female, domestic role.

In contrast, Alice is not accomplished as a Wonderland domestic. When serving cake Alice is frustrated that while she has ‘“cut off several slices already…they will always join on again”’[50] and when carving a leg of mutton she ‘looked at it rather anxiously, as she had never had to carve one before.’[51]  Lacking the security of conventional, female accomplishments, Alice finally loses control and her surroundings descend into ever deeper confusion. Alice experiences extraordinary visions of food and dismembered body parts as the two are associated in a whirling, fragmented scene of distortion and grotesque subversion. The White Queen’s ‘broad good-natured face’ appears in the soup-tureen, cheerfully presenting itself as a consumable ‘before she disappeared into the soup.’[52] Having experienced anarchic excess in the realm of food and the body,Alice loses mental and physical control and upsets the whole dining table:

“I can’t stand this any longer!” she cried, as she seized the tablecloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates, dishes, guests, and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor.[53]

At the height of food consumption and the chaos of her own imagination, Alice reawakens into the conventional, stable patriarchal world.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.37

[2] F. Nightingale, ‘Cassandra’, in Self and Society in the Victorian Novel (St. Andrews:University ofSt. Andrews Press, 2004), p.13

[3] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.62

[4] Nightingale, ‘Cassandra’, p.9

[5] ibid, p.18

[6] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.38

[7] Brontë, Villette, p.27

[8] Rossetti, Goblin Market, l.115

[9] ibid, l.235

[10] Rossetti, Goblin Market, ll.108-9

[11] J. Grimm and W. Grimm, Hänsel and Gretel, in Complete Fairy Tales (London: Routledge, 2002), p.69

[12] ibid, p.69

[13] ibid, p.69

[14] L. Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2001), p.159

[15] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.77

[16] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.77

[17] ibid, p.66

[18] ibid, p.66

[19] ibid, pp.41-2

[20] ibid, p.42

[21] ibid, p.66

[22] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.43

[23] ibid, p.43

[24] ibid, p.60

[25] ibid, p.60

[26] ibid, p.65

[27] ibid, p.65

[28] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.68

[29] ibid, p.96

[30] ibid, p.75

[31] ibid, p.75

[32] ibid, p.70

[33] ibid, p.70

[34] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.78

[35] ibid, p.90

[36] ibid, p.78

[37] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, p.219

[38] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, pp.48-9

[39] ibid, p.49

[40] ibid, p.78

[41] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, pp.216-17

[42] ibid, p.217

[43] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.66

[44] Grimm, Hänsel and Gretel, p.66

[45] ibid, p.66

[46] ibid, p.70

[47] ibid, p.71

[48] ibid, p.71

[49] ibid, p.71

[50] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, p.239

[51] ibid, p.268

[52] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, p.271

[53] ibid, p.272