Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.