By Megan Snopik
*Before you read this article, please know that several sensitive and potentially triggering topics will be mentioned, including suicide, self-harm, and sexual violence.
What do Bertha Mason, Edna Pontellier, Esther Greenwood, and Britney Spears all have in common? Only one of them has a 14-times platinum single, but all of them have been said to be crazy. While it’s the tabloids for Britney, the rest of these women represent varying depictions of female insanity. Throughout literature, female insanity has been present and a reason to write off the feminine psyche when it steps out of its presupposed place. The narratives of (some of) these women, however, challenge this stigma and treat women not as an issue needing to be controlled, but as a woman who sees society differently. While they are contained by the page, what can make them so scary to society to medicate, incriminate, institutionalize, and even exterminate them? What if the female “hysteric” in these novels is just as sane as the rest of us?
The history of female institutionalization is certainly not a bright one, as the fictional stories discussed below often transcended the page into a lived (and violent) reality for many women. Ranging as far back as the ancient Greeks, who thought that the uterus traveled around the body to cause illness, hysteria has been defined as “everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable in women,” a definition made possible by men’s historic dominance in medicine. Hysteria has been used as a synonym for “over-emotional” or “deranged,” with symptoms ranging from depression to sexual desire. Oftentimes, women diagnosed with hysteria were of perfect health, but husbands, doctors, and society deemed any deviation from the norm as hysterical. As recent as 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders still listed hysteria as a disease experienced by women.
Because hysteria functioned as a catch-all for any issues women experienced, many conditions (both physical and mental) were never properly treated. Many of the fictional women I discuss in this article did have actual mental health issues; however, their social status as women prevented their health from being taken seriously, often making their conditions worse or creating new issues entirely. In the following examples of literature, women writers cataloging female madness reveal important truths about women’s mental health journeys, from the 1800s to today.
“But I MUST say what I feel and think in some way — it is such a relief! But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief.”
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
It is impossible to speak of female hysteria without a discussion of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story in which a female protagonist who recently gave birth is treated by her husband (a physician), brother (a second physician), and sister-in-law for a “slight hysterical tendency” by confining her to bed and medicating her hourly. As time goes on, she begins to see a woman in the wallpaper covering the walls of her room. In her isolation, she becomes more and more entranced with this woman and the fact that she is trapped, and eventually she locks herself in the room to help the woman escape her wallpaper prison. Finally, her husband returns to find her crawling around the room, and the reader discovers that the narrator has become one with the legacy of the “trapped woman” in the wallpaper and rebels against the desires and aesthetics of her husband, and society.
The obvious commentary on men’s wishes to cure “hysteria” through confinement and sedation, and in the author’s case, institutionalization, was inspired by a tried-and-true practice of many doctors at the time. In this narrative, Perkins defined an early feminist movement against the medical maltreatment of women in the 19th century, as her husband and his sister drive the narrator to actual madness in the process of her so-called treatment. Perkins herself experienced similar treatment for her “postpartum psychosis” as prescribed by her doctor and her husband, saying that she wrote the story to change their minds about the practice (and succeeded!).
Today, postpartum psychosis would more likely be called postpartum depression, a condition (according to the CDC) that 1 in 8 pregnant women experience. While an actual treatment for depression for women can be much easier to find today, the stigma that Perkins worked to dismantle against women’s treatment still exists.
“What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.”
Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Before the perfectly chaste Jane Eyre came to Mr. Rochester as a governess, he already had a wife stocked in his attic. Bertha Mason, the blueprint for the “madwoman in the attic” trope, perfectly modeled the depiction of female insanity in literature. As she sets fire to the Rochester mansion, crashes a wedding, and stabs Rochester’s brother, I think we can all see a little of ourselves in her. As a goody two-shoes, Jane continually describes Bertha Mason as not just mad, but evil, even going so far as to call her a German vampire (kinda sexy!),Rochester justifies the confinement of his wife because of her “congenial madness.” As if being locked up in a room for ten years with a drunken nurse would make one MORE sane.
Beyond the implications of Bertha Mason’s imprisonment also lie the racialized histories surrounding her. According to Rochester, when he courted her in Jamaica—as per his father’s wishes—her race was overshadowed by her beauty relative to the rest of the town. He later learns that her mother was sent to an asylum and that she had an intellectually challenged younger brother as well. Whether this was actually the case, or just what Rochester told Jane so that she would forgive him the injustice of imprisoning his first wife in his attic, the reader never learns. What is clear is that Brontë uses a fear of Bertha—and her foreignness—to justify her treatment, seen in quotes as she calls her “the most gross, impure, depraved,” and actively depriving her of her humanity.
In recent times, Bertha’s character has been better understood as a victim of racial prejudice and marital abuse and has been reclaimed in narratives such as Wide Sargasso Sea, which prequels Jane Eyre from Bertha’s perspective. Written by Dominica-born British author Jean Rhys in 1966, the novel takes an anti-colonial feminist position and examines the ways in which patriarchy and coloniality displace women.
Despite the racialized femininity of Jane Eyre, Bertha’s story can expose the dark underbelly of idealized protagonists like Jane and Rochester. Just as “The Yellow Wallpaper” established the conditions for the “hysteric” white woman, Jane Eyre reveals the extent to which even Perkins was privileged in her madness.
“Despondency had come upon her in the wakeful night, and had never lifted. There was no one thing in the world that she desired.”
Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
In this 1899 American novel, housewife Edna Pontellier struggles with her unorthodox thoughts of femininity and motherhood in a society that just wishes she would conform. While vacationing with her children, she engages in an affair with the younger Robert Lebrun, who disappears from her life abruptly. Devastated by his departure, Edna never fully returns to New Orleans’s society or her motherhood duties. Her children are sent to her mother-in-law’s and she separates entirely from her husband. While Mr. Pontellier seeks medical help for her to no avail, she continues to wish for her freedom, sexually as well as spatially. Ultimately, as Robert leaves her too, she wades into the Gulf of Mexico at her vacation resort and drowns herself.
This depiction of madness is definitely divorced (ha-ha—get it?) from the Victorian and subsequent depictions of femininity. Told from the point of view of the presumed “crazy woman” the reader quite intimately follows the psyche of a woman at odds with society. Even when she kills herself, the novel makes a powerful statement on the effect of society’s rigid expectations on women. As Edna awakens to the possibilities of an unrestrained femininity, society cannibalizes her freedom to the point where the world itself closes off to her, prompting her death.
While Edna’s illness cannot be accurately ascertained by the English major behind this screen, her symptoms most closely align with those of depression. Her withdrawal from family, friends, and then society, and her suicide point to her depressed mental state. These symptoms were not recognized in her society and so the only treatment she received was that of a pariah for her neglect of social conventions. Her specific depiction of madness perfectly encapsulates the treatment women received for deviating from “normal,” especially in their sexual desires.
The Awakening poses very specific questions about why women follow social scripts, and what happens when they stray. As Edna’s embodiment of freedom forces her out of society, her institutionalization looks different from the prior cases discussed. Without a support system at all, she simply decides the world cannot contain the life she wants to live as it becomes a prison in its own right.
“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”
Edith Greenwood in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar is one novel crucially important to understanding the effect of society on women’s mental health. Often thought to be a semi-autobiographical novel, the main character Edith descends throughout the novel into her mental illness and describes her treatment at psychiatric hospitals and doctors in 1950s America. Edith feels at odds with the other women in the novel, who are ready for marriage and childbirth. As her sexual trauma and lack of a father couple with the stress of losing an academic writing opportunity, she finds herself deep in a depressive episode, all coming to a head with her attempted suicide (mirroring Plath’s real-life first attempt). She is then sent to asylums and mental hospitals to receive treatments still used today—like electroshock therapy—to treat, as contemporary critics say, her depression and bipolar depression.
The struggles Edith faces—often at the hands of male doctors and even her own female doctor—to gain her freedom and sanity from the institutions mar the novel with brutal honesty. In the end, her anxieties of childbirth abate with the use of the 50’s version of birth control (the diaphragm), and she enters the interview which can gain her release from the treatment center.
Edith’s case is a tough one for many reasons; however, this case is important for its depiction of mental healthcare’s inaccessibility to unmarried women in that time. Without the money and sponsorship of men, it’s very rare for the male-dominated medical field at the time to yield any sort of positive results for women. Thus, the trauma Edith experiences, through sexual violence and the loss of her father, was not recognized by society. For Plath, even in the publication of this novel, the fellowship which sponsored the writing of the novel withdrew funding upon reading the manuscript, saying it was “disappointing, juvenile and overwrought.” A few weeks after the publication, Plath committed suicide herself, leaving many to speculate on its autobiographical nature.
For Plath and Edith, their imperfect femininity prevented their interactions with society. Like the case of Bertha and The Yellow Wallpaper, their lives then become dictated by male doctors and anyone but themselves. While the ending of The Bell Jar suggests a positive path for Edith, Plath’s death presents a nonfictional reality of the consequences of inadequacy in women’s health treatments.
All these cases have been through the lens of women authors, all speculating the bounds and conventions of society and their effect on the female psyche over the last two hundred years. Current depictions of hysteria persist in our social narratives today, and we need not look further than the case of Britney Spears to see this. Her young commercial success, hypersexualization, and relentless stalking by the media led to her being deemed clinically unwell in the eyes of the law. The issue lays not in her mental health, but in the taking away of her personal power due to it. Calling back to the earlier definition of hysteria of “unmanageable” women, Britney fits the bill to a T, and her form of confinement comes in the form of her father’s conservatorship, allowing him to control every facet of her life.
Thus, the legacy of the female “crazies” in literature and real life shows the progress society has made and has yet to make in accepting femininity in all its forms. Not only must the general public be made aware of mental health resources and the effects of gendered medical treatments, but systemic change in the medical field and increased legal protections must be advocated for. As the continued insistence to play into a normative version of womanhood, whether that be through marriage, childbirth, sexuality, or any other stereotypical notions, women-identified folks must stand together in solidarity. To address societal norms of femininity in the words of Britney Spears, “Don’t you know that you’re toxic?”
For further information about medical advocacy for women, see the below sites:
A list of female doctors currently acting towards equitable healthcare.
The leading organization in mental health awareness for black women and girls.
The National Women’s Law Center resources for Gender discrimination in healthcare.
The National Women’s Law Center Health Care and Reproductive rights policy tracker.