Tag Archives: Degeneration

Madness and Hysteria in the Late 19th Century

I said some time ago that I would post some of my academic essays on my website. Please feel free to quote from any of my essays, but do remember to reference them accordingly. Also, please bare in mind that the point of view in the following essay is, like all critical analysis, subjective, meaning it is neither right nor wrong.

black and white picture of a crying child

Photo by Lucas Pezeta on Pexels.com

The number of female lunatics in Victorian asylums outnumbered males toward the end of the Nineteenth century. According to Showalter, ‘the rise of the Victorian madwoman may have been linked to the rise of the psychiatric profession, with its attitudes toward women and its monopoly by men.’ [1] Psychiatrists suspected that female madness was a result of biological problems due to the ‘instability of their reproductive systems [which] interfered with sexual, emotional, and rational control,’ (Showalter, p.55). The subservient female in the late Victorian period was therefore, incapacitated due her male dominated society. Moreover, a woman’s ‘longing for independence [was] socially unacceptable at every phase of the female life-cycle,’ (Showalter, p.132). As a result, the oppression of women within the standardised role of femininity not only maintained patriarchal dominance but reinforced it. This paper will discuss the way that madness and hysteria was represented from both a male and female author’s perspective in late Victorian literature.

Written in 1897 Bram Stoker’s Dracula has a multiple first-person point of view consisting of letters, diary entries, memos, and newspaper articles. This allows Stoker to present a comparative representation of hysteria in both masculine and feminine form. The character of Jonathan Harker experiences a ‘violent brain fever’ [2] because of his imprisonment in Dracula’s castle:

Whilst I live on here there is but one thing to hope for: that I may not go mad, if, indeed, I be not mad already […] feeling as though my brain were unhinged or as if the shock had come which must end its undoing (Dracula, p.32).

Harker’s breakdown is a response to his experience of the supernatural. Stoker portrays the characters madness as a form of post-traumatic stress rather than cowardice. This does not undermine Harker’s masculinity but rather reinforces it due to his intelligence and his bravery. In his journals, for example ‘When […] the conviction had come over me that I was helpless I sat quietly – as quietly as I have ever done anything in my life – and began to think over what was best to be done,’ (Dracula, p.24). The em-dashes in this quotation represent pauses that create a feeling of calm steady contemplation. Stoker was reacting to late Victorian fears of masculine decline, for example ‘In the fin de siècle […] men’s identities were destabilized by the appearance of the assertive new woman.’ Whilst Harker’s masculinity falls into decline due to his breakdown and his temporary removal as a narrator, it is reinforced when his supernatural experiences […] are

verified by a third party, masculinisation and writing; [therefore] Harker can be sure that he was not simply hallucinating [and] he can be confident of his manhood. [4]

Stoker’s assertion of masculinity in Harker re-established the male superiority in the late Victorian period. The author justified Harker’s madness as a temporary reaction toward the supernatural, therefore acceptable. Nordau suggested that madness was a symptom of modern times and quoted that, ‘We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria.’ [5] For Stoker, hysteria is a female illness, he demonstrates this by comparing the character of Harker to his partner Mina Murray.  Mina is an intelligent woman who works hard as a schoolmistress in order to ‘be […] useful to Jonathan,’ (Dracula, p.46), which is a typical representation of the late Victorian woman with ‘her innate qualities of mind [which] complement rather [than] equal [her man],’ (Showalter, p.123). Furthermore, the character appears to be more masculine than her partner Harker and is described as having a ‘man’s brain […] and a woman’s heart, (Dracula, p.195). Mina is, therefore, a threat to the masculine patriarchy of the Victorian period. Although her intellectual skills and courage become invaluable in the investigation of Dracula’s whereabouts, it is suggested by the psychiatrist Dr Seward that, ‘Mrs Harker is better out of it […] it is no place for a woman, and if she […] remain[s] in touch with the affair, it would in time infallibly [wreck] her, (Dracula, p.213). Dr Seward’s suggestion corresponds to Victorian psychiatric thought

that women were more vulnerable to insanity than men because the instability of their reproductive system interfered with their sexual, emotional and rational control, (Showalter, p.55).

Stoker uses this theory of female vulnerability not only demonstrate that women are the weaker sex but also to destabilise the new woman’s desire for feminine independence. For example, when Mina is dismissed from the group, she records her feelings in her journal, ‘And now I am crying like a silly fool,’ (Dracula, p.213). This demonstration of emotional weakness in addition to Mina’s ‘strangely sad and low spirit,’ (Dracula, p.213) are signs of what was known as neurasthenia, ‘a more prestigious and attractive form of female nervousness than hysteria’, (Showalter, p.134). It is therefore unsurprising that Mina should fall victim to Dracula.

Stoker represents an eroticised representation of madness from the perspective of Mina when she first encounters Dracula. Mina uses highly sexualised language in her journal such as, ‘my feet and my hands […] were weighted [and] leaden lethargy seemed to chain my limbs,’ (Dracula, p.215). This language has connotations of sadomasochism, a term used to denote both dominance and submission. In the case of Mina, Dracula is dominating her. Whilst being aware of these emotions she recalls them at a subconscious level as she ‘must be careful of such dreams, for they would unseat one’s reason if there was too much of them,’ (Dracula, p.215). Whilst Mina’s first-person narrative makes her recollections unreliable, her sexual undertones are carefully documented. Stoker is demonstrating Freudian psychoanalytic theory of female madness:

For Freud, hysteria had to do with disavowed sexuality, primarily female sexuality, in the context of the Oedipus complex and its derivatives (unconscious incestuous wishes and penis envy). [6]

Although Mina’s desires are presented as subliminal, Stoker illustrates how women are susceptible to madness due to their sexual repression. Consciously the character shows visible signs of madness as Dr Seward diarises, ‘Mrs Harker […] had drawn her breath and with it had given a scream so wild, so ear piercing,’ (Dracula, p.235). Furthermore, he stated that ‘Her eyes were mad with terror’, (Dracula, p.235). Seward’s analysis of Mina is typical of the male psychiatrist of the Victorian period.

Feminine weakness and madness are also explored in the character of Lucy Westenra. Lucy is Dracula’s first conquest in England. Whilst her symptoms appear to Mina as signs of madness, such as shortness of breath, loss of appetite and lethargy, Dr Seward suggests that ‘there is not any functional disturbance or any malady that I know of’, (Dracula, p.92). Whilst Lucy displays hysterical symptoms, Val Helsing and his colleagues are powerless to help her. After four blood transfusions from four different men, Lucy’s deterioration continues. These transfusions represent masculine power over the female whose unconscious form renders her submissive. However, the men’s control over Lucy is in vain and therefore they attempt to ward off Dracula by giving Lucy a wreath of garlic to wear around her neck while she sleeps. She describes this in her diary as ‘lying like Ophelia in a play, with ‘virgin crants and maiden strewments,’ (Dracula, p.110). According to Showalter, ‘Ophelia was a compelling figure for many Victorian […] doctors seeking to represent the madwoman’, (Showalter, p.90). Madness in Lucy prior to her death is represented as weakness, however, as a vampire ‘The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness,’ (Dracula, p.175). Lucy is not only sexualised but also powerful and dangerous. Stoker is demonstrating the negative effects of powerful women in the character of Lucy who is found to have taken several children to feed upon. Lucy’s vampirism defies woman’s nature and is therefore, presented as madness.

The Darwinian theory of madness suggests that, ‘mental disorder might be passed on to the next female generation, [however] these theories were convenient ramifications of existing social relations between the sexes,’ (Showalter, p.123). It is for this reason that the vampire Lucy is destroyed whilst Mina, still in her human form is protected. Stoker opposes the new woman who attempted to redefine gender roles and ‘overcome masculine supremacy’, [7] thus by comparing Harker’s madness to the character of Mina Murray, Stoker reinforces the traditional societal views of masculine power.

Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper written in 1892 is a semi-autobiographical short story narrated in first person. This allows an intimate perspective of the character’s thoughts and feelings through her writing. Gilman demonstrates the ineffective use of the rest cure that the narrator is prescribed by her husband, who is also her physician, as a treatment for her nervous disposition. The portrayal of the rest cure in the narrative is similar to the Silas Weir Mitchell rest cure of ‘entire rest […] excessive feeding […] confin[ment] to bed,’ and being ‘forbidden to […] read, write or do any intellectual work,’ (Showalter, p.138). Neurasthenia according to Dr. Margaret Cleaves is a result of ‘women’s ambitions for intellectual, social, and financial success, ambitions that could not be accommodated within the structures of late-nineteenth-century society,’ (Showalter, p.136). The narrator admits that her intention was to conform to the role of the stereotypical Victorian wife, and she writes that, ‘I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already.’ [8] The word ‘comparative’ suggests that she is atypical to societal expectations of the wife. In addition, the word ‘already’ suggests that the couple are newly married. Nervousness, therefore, derives from the narrator’s inability to conform to the role of the typical Victorian wife. She explains ‘Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able – to dress and entertain, and order things,’ (TYW, p.34). Furthermore, she struggles to cope with motherhood, ‘It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. […] And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous’, (TYW, p.34). The narrator’s neurasthenia is represented as post-natal depression that is clarified by the italicised ‘cannot’. Moreover, according to Victorian psychiatrists, ‘after childbirth a woman’s mind was abnormally weak, her constitution depleted, and her control over her behaviour diminished,’ (Showalter, p.58-59). Whilst the narrator is fully aware of her depressive state, her husband refuses to believe it:

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? (TYW, p.31).

In the above quotation, Gilman is demonstrating how mental illness was misunderstood in Victorian psychiatry. The narrator’s husband John, to cure his wife, asserts full patriarchal control over her, he ‘hardly lets [her] stir without special direction,’ (TYW, p.32). Oppression causes the narrator to get angry with her husband and he tells her that she will ‘neglect proper self-control,’ (TYW, p.32). Fear of her husband’s dominance causes her to ‘take pains to control [her]self – before him,’ (TYW, p.32). The em-dash in this quotation suggests that the narrator is allowing her self- control to dwindle whilst her husband is out if sight. This retaliation is due to her husband’s ignorance, ‘John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him,’ (TYW, p.33). The italicised ‘reason’ demonstrates the narrator’s frustration in John’s dismissiveness of her nervous disposition.

Female repression due to male dominance in psychiatry is addressed in The Yellow Wallpaper. Not only does John mistreat the narrator’s madness, but her needs and solutions for recovery are ignored. As a writer, she is ‘forbidden to ‘work’ [until she] is well again,’ (TYW, p.31), moreover she suggests that, ‘Personally, I believe that congenial work […] will do me good,’ (TYW, p.31). The depravity of writing as a form of work and mental stimulation causes the narrator to use imagination in the confinement of her room. Allowing herself to lose her self-control, the reader begins to observe the narrator going insane. Whilst allowing the madness to consume her, the narrator begins to hallucinate. Enclosed in a room with bright yellow patterned wallpaper she slowly begins to see a woman behind the pattern, which introduces Gilman’s use of the literary double. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss the narrative double in their book The Madwoman in the Attic.

She is usually the author’s double, an image of her own anxiety and rage. […] fiction written by women conjures up this mad creature so that female authors can come to terms with their own uniquely female feelings of fragmentation, their own keen sense of the discrepancies between what they are and what they are supposed to be. [9]

The above quotation highlights the technique used by many female writers in the Victorian period and can be found most certainly in The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman uses the double to represent what women really are, whilst the narrator is represented as what women are supposed to be. The narrator studies the wallpaper vigorously to discover that in the moonlight the pattern appears to be bars. Furthermore, she continues to discover that ‘By daylight [the woman] is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still, (TYW, p.41). What Gilman sees as the repressed woman. She is a prisoner in her own society, which pacifies her through societal expectation and law. Over time the narrator begins to experience a realisation of her situation and writes, ‘I don’t want to leave now until I have found it out,’ (TYW, p.42). At this point, in the narration, there becomes a transition and the narrator begins to be consumed by the wallpaper. Over time, she becomes the woman behind the bars, ‘I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?’ (TYW, p.46). By surrendering to her madness and metaphorically becoming the woman in the wallpaper, she is free from her husband’s dominance ‘I’ve got out at last […] in spite of you’, (TYW, p.47). For Gilman hysteria is represented as a misunderstood illness that is wrongly treated, causing madness in women who have no voice. Moreover, the author is demonstrating that because women are so repressed, madness can be an escape from it.

To conclude, at the end of the 19th century, hysteria and madness were represented in literature as a predominantly female malady. This was due to the Victorian patriarchal society that repressed women. For Stoker, male madness was represented as reactionary and could be justified, whilst female madness was represented as typical biological feminine problem. Moreover, Stoker demonstrated how the new woman threatened the patriarchy. Gilman however, represented female madness from a woman’s perspective, showing how it was misunderstood and misdiagnosed, leading to further madness. Gilman portrayed how ironically; this could become a woman’s escape from repression.

Bibliography

Chapman, James, and Matthew Hilton, ‘From Sherlock Holmes to James Bond: Masculinity and National Identity in British Popular Fiction’ in Relocating Britishness ed. Stephen Caunce (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004) [3]

Diniejko,Andrzej, ‘The New Woman Fiction’, The Victorian Web, (2011) ≤http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/diniejko1.html [7]

Gilbert, Sandra.M, and Susan Guber, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination (London, Yale University Press, 1979) [9]

Gillman, Charlotte Perkins, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, in Women Who Did: Stories by Men and Women, 1890- 1914 ed. Angelique Richardson (London: Penguin books, 2002) [8]

Nordau, Max, ‘Degeneration’, in Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, C. 1848-1918, ed. Daniel Pick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) [5]

Pedlar, Valerie, ‘The Most Dreadful Visitation’: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006) [4]

Showalter, Elaine, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York: Virago Press, 1987) [1]

Stoker, Bram, Dracula (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993) [2]

Yarom, Nitza, Matrix of Hysteria: Psychoanalysis of the Struggle Between the Sexes as Enacted in the Body (East Sussex: Routledge, 2005) [6]