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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