Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Literature
Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Literature
During the nineteenth century, the psychological disorder of hysteria became a major focus of cultural and medical study, and also increased in incidence both in Europe and the United States. Starting with Hippocrates's explanation of the disease as a wandering uterus, hysteria was considered a "female malady" and linked to the feminine, irrational, emotional, and sexually unrestrained. However, the social, economic, and political upheavals of the nineteenth century complicated conventional gender norms and brought discussion of hysteria out of a purely medical discourse and into a larger cultural one.
The evolution of hysteria from a medical curiosity to the focus of artistic and moral examination turned on an etiological shift—from looking for biological causes within female anatomy, to studying the emotional and social aspects of femininity. Hysteria seemed to simultaneously disrupt and reaffirm gender stereotypes, for it questioned the validity of the traditional dichotomies of passivity and activity, silence and speech, and weakness and strength. Among the varied and elusive symptoms of hysteria, aphonia—loss of speech—and blindness were prominent manifestations; the hysteric was deprived of the ability to directly articulate her experience, or to represent the world around her. The complex relation between the mute narrative that the hysteric enacted and the artistic imagination became a central issue for many writers. For them the illness and muteness of hysterics was not merely a void, but an insistent demand for attention and interpretation.
In examining the phenomenon of hysteria, nineteenth-century literary figures such as Gustave Flaubert, Honoré de Balzac, Henry James, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and William Wordsworth suggested a deeper relation between creativity and illness. These authors brought into question the identification of hysteria with female anatomy and gestured towards a more universal crisis of consciousness which erupts from the repression of desire. The linking of hysteria with reproductive disorders found its parallels in the connection between male hysteria, the disruption of the literary imagination, and the dramatic enactment of internal conflict. Through their use of hysterical characters, authors both alluded to and contributed to the cultural understanding of hysteria, focusing attention upon personal dynamics and articulation, and downplaying the role of physiological etiology.
Some novels, including Henry James's The Bostonians (1886) and Florence Nightingale's Cassandra (1852), associate hysteria either explicitly or implicitly with the new feminist movement of the nineteenth century. Works such as The Diary of Alice James (1894) portray the hysteric as a liminal figure, as one who is victimized by her illness but who also gains power from it. In contrast, Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857) and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) link hysteria to the repression of sexuality and thus reinscribe the identification of femininity in terms of reproduction and desire.
The literary appropriation of hysteria confronted gender stereotypes in a variety of ways. Some authors reinforced the association of women with maternal impulses (either repressed or fulfilled), while others responded to the cultural unrest of their time by questioning the validity of assumptions about gender traits. Hysteria became the disease of the imagination, the disease that silenced the voice but enacted the self-articulation of the feminine (and, more rarely, masculine) subject.
Honoré de Balzac
Cousine Bette (novel) 1847
Jane Eyre (novel) 1847
Villette (novel) 1853
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"Christabel" (poem) 1816
Daniel Deronda (novel) 1876
Madame Bovary (novel) 1857
"Fragment of a Case of Hysteria" (case study) 1905
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"The Yellow Wallpaper" (short story) 1892
Hedda Gabler (drama) 1890
The Diary of Alice James (diary) 1894
The Bostonians (novel) 1886
The Turn of the Screw (novella) 1897
Cassandra (novel) 1852...
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The History Of Hysteria
Claire Kahane (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: "History/Hysteria: A Glance Backward," in Passions of the Voice: Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman, 1850-1915, The John Hopkins University Press, 1995, pp. 1-13.
[In the excerpt that follows, Kahane contends that the second half of the nineteenth century was dominated by cultural, political, and economic upheaval, accompanied by a conservative reaction to this upheaval; this tension between radical change and static order, Kahane maintains, is reflected in the structure of the internal conflict expressed in hysteria.]
Wherever the hysteric goes, she brings war with her.
—Moustapha Safouan, "In Praise of Hysteria"
Change is the matter both of history and of narrative, but as historians have remarked, England in the second half of the nineteenth century seemed to experience its mutability with extraordinary intensity. The sense of cultural transformation that dominated both event and discourse in the Victorian era has been repeatedly chronicled; within one generation a technological revolution perhaps unparalleled until our own fin-de-siècle computer age gave rise to material transformations that radically altered the boundaries of the geosocial landscape. The rapid expansion of industrial capitalism and its promotion of shifts of...
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The Gender Of Hysteria
Jan Goldstein (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "The Uses of Male Hysteria: Medical and Literary Discourse in Nineteenth-Century France," in Representations, Vol. 34, Spring, 1991, pp. 134-65.
[In the excerpt that follows, Goldstein argues that during the nineteenth century the phenomenon of male hysteria was developed through opposing interpretations: the medical community used it to reinscribe conventional gender definitions, while writers subverted such norms by associating hysteria with the desire for androgyny.]
In the winter of 1867, Gustave Flaubert wrote to his good friend George Sand that he continued "to fiddle with" (tripoter) his current novel while living in complete solitude in the country. He passed entire weeks, he said, without exchanging a word with another human being and could perhaps best be compared to an anchorite whose "nights are black as ink" and who was "surrounded by a silence like that of the desert." In such an environment, he went on,
the sensibility becomes inordinately exalted. I experience flutterings of the heart for no reason at all—an understandable thing, moreover, in an old hysteric like me. For I maintain that men can be hysterics just like women, and that I am one. .. . I have recognized all my symptoms: the ball [rising in the throat], the [sensation of the] nail in the back of the...
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Hysteria And Women's Narratives
Mary Cappello (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Alice James: Neither Dead nor Recovered," in American Imago, Vol. 45, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 127-62.
[In the excerpt that follows, Cappello analyzes the relationship between femininity and self articulation within the context of hysterical illness, using Alice James's Diary as an example.]
I. Illness and Femininity; Hysteria and Writing
As I listen to the work of particular women who have achieved voice in twentieth century English-speaking culture, Plath, Sexton, and Woolf, for example, I am led to the question of whether a woman can do the new things with words that her self-expression calls for without getting ill or being perceived as ill; and, further, if she can make the necessary aesthetic gesture that compels her toward a new position in the community, in language, and stay alive. It is a general question for now, but it grows, for me, out of the particular phenomenon of hysteria as recorded in case studies and diaries of the nineteenth century.
Hysteria, the elusive playing out of often untranslatable signifiers on the female body, stands (or, more often, lies, writhing or numb) as a representation of what a woman could or couldn't, would or wouldn't, say. Hysteria is an outcome of the simultaneous compulsion toward and deflection of the position of object in a culture's...
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Hysteria In Nineteenth-Century Poetry
Karen Swann (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "'Christabel': The Wandering Mother and the Enigma of Form," in Studies in Romantcism, Vol. 23, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 533-53.
[In the following excerpt, Swann asserts that in "Christabel" Coleridge explores the complex and multifaceted relations between hysteria—as a socially disruptive moment—and the Law—as masculine, rational control through social conventionality.]
The first questions Christabel asks Geraldine refer to identity and origins: "who art thou?" and "how camest thou here?" Geraldine's response is oblique; in effect she replies, "I am like you, and my story is like your own":
My sire is of a noble line,
And my name is Geraldine:
Five warriors seized me yestermorn,
Me, even me, a maid forlorn: . . .
They spurred amain, their steeds were white:
And once we crossed the shade of night.
As sure as Heaven shall rescue me,
I have no thought what men they be;
Nor do I know how long it is
(For I have lain entranced I wis)
Since one, the tallest of the five,
Took me from the palfrey's back,
A weary woman, scarce alive. . . .
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Auerbach, Nina. "Magi and Maidens: The Romance of the Victorian Freud." Critical Inquiry 8, No. 2 (Winter 1981): 281-300.
Discusses the role of mythology in the discourse on hysteria and considers the claim that such mythologies can be utilized to affirm female authority.
Brady, Kristin. "Textual Hysteria: Hardy's Narrator on Women." In The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy, edited by Margaret R. Higonnet, pp. 87-106. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Examines the evolution of Hardy's rendering of female characters in the context of Victorian tensions about femininity and sexuality.
Cummings, Katherine. Telling Tales: The Hysteric's Seduction in Fiction and Theory. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991, 298 p.
Discusses the appropriation of the figure of the hysteric as the object of seduction in Freudian theory and canonical literature.
Diamond, Elin. "Realism and Hysteria: Towards a Feminist Mimesis." Discourse 13, No. 1 (Fall-Winter 1990-91): 59-92.
Contends that realism, as a mimetic and mythologizing form of representation, has typically hysterical characteristics.
Fontana, Ernest. "Virginal Hysteria in...
(The entire section is 574 words.)