Madness has been an important theme in literature from Greek tragedy onwards, but in the 19th and 20th centuries it has been particularly associated with women.
The reason for women writers’ interest in madness has often been immediate and personal. Indeed it is disturbing to note how many women writers suffered from mental illness. Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte, Sylvia Plath are only few of those who have written about psychological breakdown from first hand experience.
It is necessary to know something about the history of women’s ‘madness’ and about the label most commonly associated with it in the 19th century – hysteria. The word ‘hysteria’ derives from the Greek word for ‘womb’. Early medical writers believed that the uterus could move around the body, giving rise to physical and mental disturbance. Even when anatomy disproved this theory, doctors continued to believe that the womb exerted a powerful indirect influence on the mind. They represented the female body as being highly vulnerable to physical and psychological derangement because of the delicacy of the female reproductive system.
• Hysteria was first and foremost a young women’s disease and it was virtually synonymous with femininity. Many doctors recommended marriage as the cure. (Small, 117)
• The work of Jean Martin Charcot, Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer made the link between what was known as ‘hysteria’ and some psychological conditions. (Small, 117)
• While use of the label ‘hysteria’ has dramatically declined, women are suffering more than ever from forms of psychological distress, depression and breakdown, the statistics of women’s mental breakdown are still higher than those of men. (Small, 117)
One result of this ongoing history of representing madness as a ‘female malady’ is that there are more firmly established literary conventions for representing mad women than mad men. In literature, as in medicine, women...