(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

An English professor at Princeton University, Elaine Showalter’s earlier studies of nineteenth century epidemics of female hysteria, THE FEMALE MALADY (1985) and SEXUAL ANARCHY (1990), are background for this provocative analysis of what she labels contemporary epidemics of hysteria. By this Showalter means that phenomena like chronic fatigue syndrome and Gulf War syndrome are not diseases carried by viruses but hysteria epidemics spread by the media and other cultural forces. Similarly, reported satanic ritual abuse and recovered memories of child abuse are not actual happenings but hysteria epidemics.

Showalter first describes past hysteria epidemics like witch hunting in Salem, Massachusetts, and the epidemic of female hysteria illness in the late nineteenth century in both England and America. She asserts that these hysteria epidemics affected women primarily, in most cases as projections of culturally repressed sexuality and guilt. She adds that literary critics aided in the hysteria phenomena, for when literary critics combine psychoanalytic, narrative, feminist, and medical notions, their readings of literary works support a climate of hysteria. She warns contemporary feminists that in their sincere wish to help women overcome oppression, they too easily accept mental phenomena as reality.

Finally, Showalter presents a chapter on each recent hysteria epidemic. She argues that media stories, simplistic diagnosis, suggestive psychotherapy, and inadequate research have caused these hysterias to reach epidemic stage.

Showalter combines first person and formal scholar voices to speak her theory and conclusions. Her message would be clearer if she chose between these two styles, either putting the scholarship into her own words more often, or adding more information on the research from which she cites just bits and pieces.

Showalter sees American culture well, however. Blaming problems on unseen forces is not a new phenomena, but recognizing such behavior is important.